In Ayurveda, the term agni is used to describe the quintessence of digestion and metabolism. Agni, in Sanskrit literally translates as fire; it is the component within the body that is responsible for the subtle transformative processes associated with digestion, all the way through to the functions of cellular metabolism.
Digestive enzymes are the raison de etre of life, complexion, strength, health, enthusiasm, plumpness, energy, semen, and metabolism, and life force. Extinction of this function leads to death and its proper maintenance helps a person to live a long life, and its impairment gives rise to disease. Therefore digestion is considered to be the root or most important sustaining factor of living beings.
(Ca. Chikitsa. 15, 3:4)
The concept of agni is not however limited to its role in digestion and metabolism it also refers to the subtle transformational mechanisms within the mind as well as functions associated with our sense organs such as touch, taste, smell, vision, and hearing.
Throughout the day we are constantly absorbing, digesting, and assimilating information through our sensory faculties. These neurological pathways also require the intelligence of agni to process information in a similar way to our digestive and metabolic pathways.
There are numerous varieties of agni located throughout the body that are classified by their specific function, however the agni located in the digestive system known as jatharagni is considered to be most important.
Continuity of consciousness, colour, strength, health, enthusiasm, plumpness, complexion, ojas (vital essence, tejas (heat), other varieties of agni and prana life force are made possible by jatharagni. Extinction of jatharagni leads to death its proper maintenance helps a person live a long life, and its impairment give rise to disease. Therefore jatharagni is considered to be the most important sustaining factor of living beings. (
(Ca. Chikitsa. 15. 3:4))
It is the cause of nourishment for the entire body by extracting the nutrients we ingest from food substances. These nutrients are broken down into molecules that can be then absorbed and distributed throughout the body and metabolized to form healthy vital tissues.
In modern science, jatharagni relates to the enzymatic component found throughout the digestive system. When food enters the oral cavity the salivary glands release enzymes known as lingual lipase, amylase and lysozyme. These enzymes aid in the initial digestion of fats, carbohydrates and provide non-specific protection against bacteria and viruses.
When the food reaches the stomach an enzyme known as pepsin is released to aid in the breakdown of protein along with gastric lipase that aids in the further breakdown of fats. Once the partially digested food substances are released into the small intestine, they are then exposed to a wide range of enzymes secreted by the pancreas and the intestinal walls, completing the breakdown of food elements into absorbable nutrients and waste products. This western scientific understanding reflects the function of jatharagni.
The quality and strength of jatharagni determine the quality of nutritional elements that cross the intestinal wall eventually making their way into the body’s channels of circulation.
Thereafter, by virtue of their respective seven categories agni’s associated with the cellular metabolism of plasma, blood, muscle, fat, bone, marrow and reproductive tissue the sustainers of the body undergo a metabolic transformation in two different ways, viz, the transformation of tissue elements and transformation of waste products. (
(Ca. Chikitsa. 15. 15))
If Jatharagni is functioning at optimal capacity, the agni’s responsible for cellular metabolism, sensory perception, and inherent cognitive and perceptual faculties of the mind are effectively able to carry out their tasks.
This reasoning in ayurvedic health care is why, when treating specific diseases; it is essential to correct digestive function regardless of the nature of the condition. If the digestive function is impaired food and medicine will not be as effective in reaching their targeted site.
No doubt, food provides nourishment to the tissues and support the foundations for ojas - vital essence, strength, and complexion, but, in effect, it is the agni that plays a vital role in this connection because tissue elements like plasma, blood, etc., cannot even originate from undigested food particles.
(Ca. Chikitsa 15. 5))
For this very reason, ayurveda primarily considers the strength of the individual and their digestive capacity before considering a suitable nutritional or treatment program.These days we are often distracted by cleverly marketed food supplements, latest eating trends, and superfoods. Some of these programs and substances may be effective and have the potential to promote health however if jatharagni is not functioning normally, more often than not these potentially expensive health alternatives become nothing more than an extravagantly decorated bowel motion.