Shukra Dhatu: A Closer Look at Reproductive Tissue from the Ayurvedic Perspective

Shukra means bright, pure, and radiant. It can also mean the “essence” of something. In Ayurveda, the term is commonly used to describe both the male semen and the female egg, as they contain the essence of all of the other dhatus (tissues) of the body. Shukra is the seventh and final dhatu in the dhatus formation cycle. A person who has healthy shukra has a brightness of confidence, with eyes and skin that seem to radiate light. A sensitive individual can perceive this light. Others may notice it as luster or may simply feel the strength and confidence of the one who possesses it.

At times, two distinct terms are used to describe the male and female seed. Shukra universally applies to sperm, but can also apply to the entire makeup of semen. Artava is the equivalent term used to mean ovum. However, artava also refers to the menstrual blood, a product of rasa dhatu. Thus, shukra is the best term to describe the factor that nourishes both the male and female reproductive tissues.

In the physical body, shukra dhatu is formed as posaka (unstable) majja dhatu flows through the shukra vaha srota into the shukra dhara kala and is digested by the shukragni. While some texts, such as Charaka, say there is no waste product of the formation of shukra dhatu, others state that the waste product formed is genital waste called smegma. Unlike the other dhatus, there is no unstable form of shukra dhatu to be digested and transformed into another dhatu. Shukra is the end of the line in the dhatu transformation cycle. There is, however, an aspect of shukra dhatu that undergoes a different type of transformation called sublimation. From the sublimation of shukra, ojas is formed, and ojas then becomes a part of every dhatu, providing it with strength and stability. The journey from rasa to ojas is a cycle that takes six days according to vaidya Charaka and one month according to vaidya Sushruta.

The health of shukra is dependent upon the state of shukragni. When the kala housing the agni is vitiated by vata dosha, agni becomes variable, resulting in a low quantity of poorly formed tissue. In men, sperm count may be low and there may be a decrease in motility. In women, the formation of the egg and its response to the hormones that trigger development and ovulation may be compromised. When the kala is vitiated by pitta dosha, quantity is also lowered and the resulting tissue becomes overheated, resulting in possible inflammation in the ovaries and testes and other tissues associated with the shukra vaha srota. When the kala is vitiated by kapha dosha, the quantity of shukra increases but it is of poor quality. While in men sperm count will be normal or increased, motility may be decreased. In women, there may be obstructions to the development of the ovum or its release. This is one cause of ovarian cysts.

In order to produce shukra dhatu, the primary element that must be consumed is water. Water is the primary nourishment of the body and of the dhatus, and shukra is its most refined form. Other dhatus that are predominant in the water element are the rasa and medas dhatus. The rasa dhatu is closest to actual water though rasa, meaning juice, contains many dissolved micronutrients within plasma, lymph and interstitial fluids. Medas dhatu is more refined and stores the energy of water as body fat. Body fat is a semi-solid mix of water and earth. The water of shukra dhatu is the essence of these other waters. Only the most highly nourishing foods contain the essence of water, and only proper digestion liberates it as shukra. Foods that have a high shukra potential are unctuous (slimy) and include milk, meat juice, ghee, and nuts.

Pathology and the Shukta Dhatu

While any dosha can overflow from the mahavaha srota and enter into the shukra dhatu and shukra vaha srota, damage to the dhatu and srota are most commonly caused by vata dosha. A vata-vitiating diet and lifestyle dries out the shukra dhatu and its related fluids, resulting in infertility. The dhatu and srota are also damaged by suppressing sexual desire. Within modern Western society there is much confusion and insecurity surrounding sexual expression. Due to the mind-body relationship, there is little doubt that this affects the health of the related organs.

Psychology and the Shukra Dhatu

On a psychological level, shukra dhatu is related to the ability to sustain creativity. When the dhatu is healthy, there is a natural creative instinct and an ability to see the creative act through to completion. When the dhatu is deficient, there may still be a creative instinct, but the ability to follow it through to completion lessens. Thus, creative endeavors and completion of creative projects is a challenge. This is typical of vata psychology and becomes more of a challenge as vata becomes more and more vitiated. When the dhatu is in excess, it can actually block the creative instinct. However, any creativity that does arise is likely to be slowly and steadily manifested. This is the nature of kapha psychology and becomes greater as kapha becomes vitiated. In the person with a more pitta nature, the heat that enters the dhatu brings passion into their creative pursuits. When it is vitiated, pitta can burn out the creative instinct and the ability to follow through.

Evaluating the Shukra Dhatu

In men, the shukra dhatu can be directly assessed via examination of the ejaculate. The main factors to observe are color, volume, sperm count, and motility. Color and volume can be easily observed with the eye. Count and motility must be observed microscopically.

Observation of the color of the ejaculate reveals various shades of white. A gray shade reveals that vata is predominant within the dhatu. Yellow indicates that pitta is predominant and a pale white color is indicative of kapha. Observation of quantity reveals the largest volume in those with a kapha nature and the lowest in those with a vata nature.

Upon microscopic examination, a low sperm count with low motility indicates a greater likelihood of vata vitiation though this can be found with pitta vitiation as well. A normal sperm count with low motility is more commonly a sign of kapha imbalance.

In women, direct examination of the shukra dhatu requires an examination of the ovaries. This is most commonly performed utilizing diagnostic ultrasound, though other tests may be employed. The health of the shukra dhatu can also be inferred by the regularity of menstrual cycle. An irregular menstrual cycle is indicative of vata dosha vitiation in the shukra dhatu and associated ovulatory disorders. Most disorders of the female reproductive system are due to vata dosha vitiation. Pitta disorders may be revealed through an intense menstrual flow. Kapha disorders may be reveals through a long and mucousy discharge. However, these findings are not specific to the shukra dhatu and indicate only that the doshas have vitiated the artava vaha srota (channel of the female reproductive system).

Proper Treatment of the Shukra Dhatu

Healing the shukra dhatu entails both proper nourishment and the proper management of sexual energy. As most conditions of the shukra dhatu are caused by depletion of the dhatu secondary to vata vitiation, tonification is the most common treatment approach. However, excessive dhatu due to vitiation of kapha dosha requires proper purification.

Diet and the Shukra Dhatu

For the management of depletion due to vata or pitta dosha in the shukra dhatu, a proper diet is one that assures that the foods taken in are nourishing enough to rebuild the shukra dhatu. Sweet tasting foods such as milk, ghee and nuts are among the best for providing this nourishment. While each of these is ideal for vata dosha, care should be taken in the management of pitta dosha, as nuts tend to be warming. Each of these foods, being heavy, must be properly digested; otherwise they will result in ama formation. For the management of kapha in the shukra dhatu, a purifying diet emphasizing the bitter and pungent taste is best.

Herbs and the Shukra Dhatu

In order to tonify the shukra dhatu, a category of herbs called vajikaranas or shukralas are best. Vajikaranas build sexual energy and shukralas build the semen. These terms are often interchangeable and, in the West, they are typically called aphrodisiacs and reproductive tonics respectively. Some of the best reproductive tonics are ashwagandha, vidari kanda, bala, gokshura, shatavari, and wild yam. Shatavari and wild yam are specific for women. Ashwagandha is specific for men. Even still, at times, all of these herbs are used for both men and women. These herbs can be used for depletion caused by either vata or pitta in the shukra dhatu when used in proper combinations. In order to maximize the potency of the medicines, they are best prepared in the form of a medicated ghee and then added to warm whole milk along with spices to assist digestion.

For the management of kapha in the shukra dhatu, purifying herbs include cloves and pippali. These excite sexual energy in the short term and reduce it in the long term. Two other important herbs are kushta and katphala. These have the quality of shukra-shodana (purifiers of the sexual energy and organs) when taken regularly. All of these reduce kapha in the shukra dhatu.

Lifestyle and the Healing of the Shukra Dhatu

When any dosha has vitiated the shukra dhatu, it is important to examine the patient’s lifestyle. Here lie the clues to the cause of the condition, as well as the most important aspects of treatment. Regardless of the dosha at cause, all patients should be encouraged to develop healthy and steady routines. Steady routines are important to all three doshas, as vata dosha is king among them in the cause of all reproductive disorders. In addition, when vata dosha is vitiated, patients should be encouraged to rest more often. When pitta dosha is vitiated, patients should be discouraged from intense or competitive activities and allowed to rest more often. When kapha dosha is vitiated, patients should be encouraged to increase their exercise and activity level.

Proper Management of Sexual Energy

There is a lot of confusion and misconception about what constitutes the proper management of sexual energy. There is no doubt, however, that its proper management is important to one’s well-being. Charaka named brahmacharya as one of the three pillars of life, along with proper diet and rest. Brahmacharya means celibacy, and it is generally agreed that celibacy properly practiced leads to the longest and healthiest life. However, it is also agreed that those who are strong can engage in sexual activity with no negative consequence to their health. Thus, it can be understood that it is not sexual activity that weakens a person but rather a weak person is weakened further by sexual activity. In this person, sexual energy must first be restored. This is the process of vajikarana therapy.

Ayurveda does not place a strong emphasis on morality as a function of sexual expression. Nor does Ayurveda have a preference for a monastic or celibate lifestyle. Rather, the degree to which a person engages in sexual activity is a function of the health of the shukra dhatu and a person’s dharma.

If the dharma of a person lies within the world as a householder—one who gets married and has a family—then sexual expression is a natural and healthy part of a relationship. Two partners who are healthy should engage in sexual activity for the purposes of producing offspring and for the purposes of opening their hearts to each other and the divine. Care should be taken that the sexual activity does not become excessive.

If the dharma of a person lies outside the world as a spiritual monk, then sexual expression is forbidden. This is not an issue of morality, but one of practicality. For the monk, building up one’s shukra is necessary for its transmutation into ojas. High levels of ojas are necessary for performing intense spiritual practices.

The most common question I am asked is how much sex is appropriate for the householder. The answer lies in the state of a person’s shukra. When shukra is abundant and the resulting ojas is strong, and one is involved in a loving relationship, healthy sexual expression brings great joy and intimacy as well as offspring. Excessive sexual expression is that amount in which the signs of low shukra or low ojas become apparent. There is exhaustion, a loss of luster and a lack of creativity or an ability to sustain creative endeavors. Those with low shukra should refrain from sexual activity until the shukra is restored. There is no magic formula for the restoration of shukra. It is always being produced as a part of the digestion of the foods we eat. For restoration to occur, it must be produced faster than it is expelled. Abstinence provides for the quickest restoration.

Those with a kapha nature have the greatest constitutional tendency to be able to sustain sexual energy and can generally have more sex without creating depletion. Those with a vata nature tend to have lower levels of shukra and thus their interest in sex is highly variable and they should be more careful. Those with a pitta nature, having some water in their constitution, have more moderate tendencies though there is much passion within their actions.

In general, the stronger the practices of raja yoga (asana, pranayama, meditation), the less sexual activity a person should engage in, as their practices require high levels of shukra and strong ojas.