Written by Wakefield Matthew Clark
In this article we take a historical glimpse at plants and formulations used in Ayurveda as aphrodisiacs. We also compare traditional use with modern formulations.
The author is not recommending the use of any of the plants mentioned in this article, which is merely a report on research findings. The nature of any reproductive issues and many plants used as aphrodisiacs means that they are best used in consultation with a qualified herbalist.
The South Asian medical tradition of Āyurveda (‘knowledge of life-span’) acknowledges three primary, historical authorities, namely Caraka, Suśruta and Vāgbhaṭa, the ‘great three’ (bṛhat trayī). The earliest formulations of the compendia (saṃhitās) of both Caraka and Suśruta date to the early centuries BCE; these medical texts attained, after additions, their current form in the early centuries CE. Vāgbaṭa’s Aṣṭāṅga Hṛdaya (‘heart of medicine’) largely synthesises the treatments detailed by Caraka and Suśruta and was probably composed around 600 CE. It became one of the most widely referred to medical texts in Asia. Later Āyurvedic authorities built generally on the treatments contained in these texts, which included oleation, fomentation, emesis, purgation and other treatments.
The eight branches of Ayurveda
Āyurvedic treatments (cikitsā) are traditionally organized as eight branches (or lotus petals) of medicine, namely:
- Kāyacikitsā (internal medicine for the body)
- Śalyatantra (surgery)
- Śālākyatantra (ear, nose, throat and cephalic diseases)
- Bālā/Kaumārabhṛtya (children’s’ ailments/paediatrics, obstetrics, gynaecology)
- Agadatantra/Viṣagaravairodhatantra (toxicology)
- Graha/Bhūtavidyā (psychiatry/demonology)
- Rasāyana (rejuvenation)
- Vājīkaraṇa (aphrodisiacs)
The importance of sex in Ayurveda
In Āyurvedic understanding it is generally maintained that a satisfying sex life is important for health; hence an entire branch of treatment (vājīkaraṇa = ‘stallion capabilities/actions’) is concerned with this topic and the use of aphrodisiac plants, animals and minerals to enhance sexual experiences and semen production. This recommendation is primarily based on the general notion in Āyurveda that no natural urge should be suppressed, including those related to urine, faeces, semen, flatus, vomiting, sneezing, eructation, yawning, hunger, thirst, tears, sleep and breathing after exertion. Suppression of these urges is said to lead to health disorders. However, even if accustomed to it, a wise person avoids excessive sexual intercourse.
Aphrodisiac formulas in South Asia
Sood et al. (2005) detail around 800 plants that can have an aphrodisiac effect; and that publication only details plants native to India. Multi-plant aphrodisiac formulas are also produced in Africa, South America and other parts of Asia, particularly in China. The author has explored some of these formulas, which mostly use plants that are different to those used in India, and which are often not native to South Asia; however, non-South-Asian formulas are beyond the scope of this article. Numerous aphrodisiac formulas are also provided in dozens of Āyurvedic and alchemical texts that were composed later than those of Caraka and Suśruta, but this inquiry is restricted to the formulas found in the foundational texts of Āyurveda and in modern use.
Aphrodisiac formulas in Caraka
Caraka (II.II) describes, in a chapter of four sections, around thirty-five aphrodisiac formulas, which contain numerous plants and animal products. These concoctions are variously heated and cooked in ghee and other substances. It may perhaps be surprising to learn how many plants can have an aphrodisiac effect, to varying degrees.
The first formula (II.II.1.24–32) is as follows (all plant ingredients are listed in English in Section 8 below).
śara (roots), ikṣu (roots), kāṇḍekṣu, ikṣuvālikā, śatāvarī, payasyā, vidārī, kaṇṭakāri[kā], jīvantī, jīvaka, medā, virā, ṛṣabhakā, balā, ṛddhi, gokṣuraka, rāsnā, kappikacchū, punaranavā. 120 gms of each of these drugs, mixed with 2.56 kg of new, black gram should be cooked in 10.24 litres of water till a quarter of it remains.
Then a paste of madhuka, drākṣā, phalgu, pippalī, kappikacchū, madhūka, and śatāvarī should be added to it, along with the juice of vidārī, āmalaka and ikṣu, added separately, along with 2.56 kg of ghee and 10.24 litres of milk. This should be cooked until only ghee remains. This should be filtered well and added to with 640 gms powdered sugar, 640 gms of vaṃśalocana, 160 gms of pippalī, 40gms of marica, 20 gms of tvak, 20 gms of elā, and 20 gms of nāgakeśara. 320 gms of honey should be added. Then boluses of 40 gms each should be made from the concoction.
Caraka’s second formula (vv. 33–37) is for an aphrodisiac ghee: 2.56 kg of both newly harvested grains of black gram and seeds of kappicacchū should be boiled together with 160 gms each of jīvaka, ṛṣabhaka, virā, medā, ṛddhi, śatāvarī, madhuka and aśvagandha. Then, 640 gms of ghee, 6.4 litres of cow-milk, and 640 mls of both the juice of vidārī and ikṣu should be added and cooked.
In the second section of Caraka’s chapter on aphrodisiacs, more formulas are described, which contain similar ingredients to those described above. Besides ṣaṣṭika rice, honey, ghee and cow-milk, the first formula provided contains kapikacchū, balā, mugdgaparṇī, jīvantī, jīvaka, ṛddhi, ṛṣabhaka, kākolī, gokṣura, madhuka, śatāvarī, vidārī, drakṣā, kharjūra and vaṃṣalocana as well as various animal products.
The formulas that follow are similar in form, comprising nearly all the same plants noted above. In one of them, the milk of a cow fed on black gram leaves, or sugarcane, or arjuna leaves is said to be aphrodisiac. Another recommends śapharī (fish) rohita (fish) and goat’s meat soup. One formula comprises only śatāvarī, milk, honey, sugar and pippalī (long pepper).
The plants used in the other formulas in this chapter that have not already been mentioned are śṛṅgāṭaka, mṛdvikā, and māṣa.
Suśruta’s aphrodisiac formulas
Suśruta, in his chapter on aphrodisiacs, first details the causes of impotence—such as old age, a congenital condition, forced intercourse, excessive sexual activity, and voluntary continence—and then provides formulas similar in style and content to those of Caraka.
Some of the plants that Suśruta includes in his formulas are also in Caraka’s formulas, while some are not. Like Caraka, Suśruta includes vidārī, āmalaka, gokṣura and ātmaguptā (= kappicaccū)in his formulas. However, Suśruta also includes the sprouts, bark, roots and fruit of the aśvattha (peepal) tree, the seeds of kokilakṣa, and powdered uchchatā.
Complex plant formulas in traditional medicine
Most traditional cultures effective medicinal plants are very often used in combination with other plants. In many traditional remedial formulas not only is the full spectrum of the chemical ingredients of the medicinal plant consumed but additionally the full spectrum of ingredients of other plants. Plant combinations often have a synergetic effect more potent than that derived from a single plant.
The same principle applies to Āyurvedic aphrodisiac formulas. As indicated above, nearly all of the aphrodisiac formulas given by the classical Āyurvedic authorities are multi-plant formulas. Individual plants taken even in large amounts may be much less effective than multiple-plant formulas that may utilize up to around fifty different kinds of plants in small amounts.
The aphrodisiac plants used in traditional Ayurveda
The aphrodisiac effect of plants depends on two main factors, one being a general increase in blood flow (also to the genitals), the other being an effect on libido. Some plants only effect blood flow, some only libido, and some do both. Viagra and Cialis, which are both popular, pharmaceutical, aphrodisiac drugs, use sidenfil, which only increases blood flow and has no effect on libido. Sidenfil can be very dangerous for the heart. Sometimes, because it is so extremely effective, sidenfil is added to aphrodisiac formulas, such as Libidus and other Indian formulas, without it being declared in the list of ingredients. Unfortunately adulterated products are quite common in the supplements world.
All of the plants recommended by Caraka and Suśruta are listed below. Even though featuring in their formulas, some of them are common foods or spices that currently have no psychoactive profile or known aphrodisiac effect. It could be that some of the plants may have properties yet to be discovered, or perhaps they may act synergistically with the other ingredients. Several of the plants have multiple synonyms and are of uncertain botanical classification; so there may possibly be mistakes in the botanical classifications identified below.
Plants with a known (perhaps slight) or greater aphrodisiac effect are marked with an asterisk.
- āmalaka: āṃvlā, Emblica officinalis/Phyllanthus emblica
- *aśvagandha: Withania somnifera
- *aśvattha:peepal tree
- *balā: bījband/khareṭī, country mallow, Sida cordifolia
- drākṣā: grapes, Vitis vinifera
- elā: cardamom, Elettaria cardamomom
- *gokṣuraka: gokhrū/gokṣurā/gokṣura, Tribulus terrestris
- ikṣu (roots): sugar cane
- ikṣuvālika: wild sugar cane/Kans grass, Saccharum spontaneum
- *jīvaka: orchid, Crepidium acuminatum/Malaxis acuminata
- *jīvantī: orchid, Desmotrichum fimbriatum
- *kākolī: Roscoea purpurea
- kāṇḍekṣu: wild sugar cane/Kans grass, Saccharum spontaneum
- *kaṇṭakāri[kā]: yellow-fruit nightshade
- Solanum virginianum/surattense/xanthocarpum
- *kappikacchū: ātmagupta/kauṃc/kevāṃc, cowhage, Mucuna pruriens
- *kokilakṣa: tāl makhānā, fox nut/prickly waterlily, Astercantha longifolia
- kharjūra: dates
- kṣīṛikā: milk, rice and ghee
- *madhuka: mādhūkā/madhukā/madhūka, Mahuā tree, Madhuka longifolia
- marica: black pepper, Piper nigrum
- māṣa: urad, black gram, Phaseolus mungo
- *māṣaparṇī: Teramnus labialis
- medā: mahāmedā, Polygonatum cirrhifolium/verticillatum
- mṛdvikā: grapes, Vitis vinifera
- mugdgaparṇī: Phaseolus trilobos
- *nāgakeśara: Assam ironwood tree, Mesua ferrea
- payasyā: Holostemma rheedianum
- *phalgu: redwood fig tree, Ficus hispida
- pippalī: long pepper, Piper longum
- *punaranavā: Boerhavia diffusa
- *rāsnā: Pluchea lanceolata
- *ṛddhi: Lantanthera edgeworthii or Habenaria intermedia [this plant has sixty-six synonyms in Sanskrit]
- *ṛṣabhaka: Dienia/Malaxis/Microstylis muscifera
- śāli: a kind of rice
- śara (roots): a reed/Baruwa grass, Saccharum sara/bengalense
- *śatāvarī: Asparagus racemosus
- śrāvaṇī: Sphaeranthus indicus
- *śṛṅgāṭaka: Trapa natans/bispinosa
- tvak: cinnamon, Cinnamonum zeylanicum
- *uchchatā: nāgaramustā, Cyperus scariosus
- vaṃśalocana: pith of bamboo, tugākṣiri, Bambusa arundinacea
- *vidārī: kudzu, Hedysarum tuberosum/Pueraria tuberosa
- *virā: [probably] kākolī, Roscoea purpurea [this plant has fifteen synonyms in Sanskrit]
Modern aphrodisiac formulas
If you enter any pharmacy in India you will see in most of them, displayed on shelves and in cupboards, numerous packets and bottles of so-called ‘Āyurvedic’ aphrodisiac formulas, some comprising four or five ingredients, others containing up to around fifty ingredients. These formulas mostly comprise of plant extracts but some include various metals, minerals and shells, which began to feature more significantly in Āyurvedic treatments about 1,000 years ago, as an overlap began between the Āyurvedic branch of rasāyana, which is the science of longevity, and vājīkaraṇa. In rasāyana, shells, minerals and metals are commonly used. There are many dozens of these formulas on the market, which come and go over the years, due to their popularity (or otherwise), and depending on the vagaries of the business world.
Over the course of twelve years, between 2006 and 2018, I purchased around forty different, Āyurvedic, aphrodisiac formulas, in the form of either capsules, powders or pills. Some formulas contained substances, such as opium, which are illegal (another case of adulteration mentioned earlier). There are formulas for both men and women, though more formulas for men are available than for women. In classical Āyurveda, the formulas provided are generally for men, even though many plants would affect women also. I recorded the ingredients of thirty-two products made and distributed throughout India. Bioassays and anecdotal reports revealed that some were not very effective, others were found to be too strong (inducing excessive palpitations and sometimes a significant hangover), and some were highly effective, leaving little or no hangover.
Many factors influence the perceived potency of the products, including not only the usual range of effects of particular plants, but also the constitution of the consumer at the time, the ‘setting’ in which the product is consumed (‘romantic’ or otherwise), the age of the organic ingredients, which degrade in potency over time, and the specific dosage included in a particular formula.
Perusing the ingredients of the thirty-two formulas under consideration, it is evident that all of the plants recommended by Caraka’s and Suśruta are included in modern aphrodisiac formulas. The most frequently mentioned, effective, aphrodisiac plants that are recommended by Caraka and Suśruta, and which are also included in modern formulas are as follows.
- aśvagandha: Withania somnifera
- balā: bījband/khareṭī, country mallow, Sida cordifolia
- gokṣuraka: gokhrū/gokṣurā/gokṣura, Tribulus terrestris
- jīvaka: orchid, Crepidium acuminatum/Malaxis acuminata
- jīvantī: orchid, Desmotrichum fimbriatum
- kākolī: Roscoea purpurea
- kappikacchū: ātmagupta/kauṃc/kevāṃc, cowhage, Mucuna pruriens
- kokilakṣa: tāl makhānā, fox nut/prickly waterlily, Astercantha longifolia
- madhuka: mādhūkā/madhukā/madhūka, Mahuā tree, Madhuka longifolia
- māṣaparṇī: Teramnus labialis
- medā: mahāmedā, Polygonatum cirrhifolium/verticillatum
- nāgakeśara: Assam ironwood tree or cobra safron, Mesua ferrea
- śatāvarī: Asparagus racemosus
- śrāvaṇī: Sphaeranthus indicus
- śṛṅgāṭaka: Trapa natans/bispinosa
- uchchatā: nāgaramustā, Cyperus scariosus
- vidārī: kudzu, Hedysarum tuberosum/Pueraria tuberosa
- virā: [probably] kākolī, Roscoea purpurea [this plant has fifteen synonyms in Sanskrit]
Many modern formulas also include aphrodisiac plants not mentioned by Caraka and Suśruta. Some of the many dozens of plants included in modern aphrodisiac only appear once; others are more frequently included. The most common of these are:
- akarkarā/ākārakarabha (Spanish chamomile, Anacyclus pyrethrum)
- babūl goṇd (thorny acacia tree, Acacia arabica/nilotica/Vachellia nilotica)
- giloy, guḍūcī (Tinospora cordifolia)
- harītaki, black myrobalan tree, Terminalia chebula)
- jāyphal/jatiphal/jāvitrī (nutmeg, Myristica fragrans)
- kuclā/kucilā/kupīlu (strychnine tree, Strychnos nuxvomica)
- lāl mūslī/semal/śālmali/kapok (silk cotton tree, Salmalia/Bombax malibaricum/ceiba)
- safed (white) mūslī (Chlorophytum arundinaceum/borivilianum)
- sālam/sālab miśri (Orchis mascula/latifolia)
- samūdraśoś/samūdra patra/vidhārāv/vṛddhadārū (Hawaiian baby woodrose/elephant creeper, Argyreia speciosa)
Also very commonly included in modern aphrodisiac formulas are various minerals and metals, in particular śilājīt (Asphaltum panjabicum), a kind of tar that exudes from high altitude rocks. Other additives include various shells, metals and bhasms (powders):
- gold, mercury, sulphur in a ratio of 1:8:24 (makardhvaj)
- calcinated iron ash (lauh bhasm)
- calcinated mica ash (abhrak bhasm)
- calcinated silver ash (raupya bhasm)
- calcinated gold powder (svarṇ bhasm)
- calcinated tin powder (vaṅg/baṅg bhasm)
- calcinated copper and iron sulphide (suvarṇāmakśak bhasm)
- calcinated pearl infused in rosewater (mukta piṣṭī)
- tin, lead, zinc: processed in aloe vera juice and turmeric (trivaṅg bhasm)
- gold foil (svarṇ varaq)
- mercury (pārad/pārā)
- yellow sulphur/brimstone (gandhak)
Makardhvaj is used as a traditional medicine in the treatment of sexual dysfunction in the rural population of South Asia and is the most commonly used bhasm in modern Āyurvedic formulas. Now we know that mercury is poisonous, however he medicinal effectiveness of minute particles of gold, one of the main ingredients of makardhvaj,has been explored. Outside the South Asian context, several metals and minerals (phosphorus, zinc, calcium, silicon, sodium, potassium, sulphur, magnesium, manganese, selenium and vanadium) are included as aphrodisiac potentiators in some publications.
The ‘top twelve’ aphrodisiac plants used in modern formulas
From the dozens of ingredients used in modern, Āyurvedic, aphrodisiac formulas, listed below are the ‘top twelve’ plants that most are most commonly included.
- akarkarā/ākārakarabha, Spanish chamomile: Anacyclus pyrethrum
- aśvagandha: Ashwagandha: Withania somnifera
- balā/bījband/khareṭī, country mallow: Sida cordifolia
- giloy/guḍūcī: gilo: Tinospora cordifolia
- jāyphal/jatiphal/jāvitrī, nutmeg: Myristica fragrans
- kappikacchū/ātmagupta/kauṃc/kevāṃc, cowhage: Mucuna pruriens
- kokilakṣa: tāl makhānā, fox nut/prickly waterlily: Astercantha longifolia
- safed (white) mūslī: mushali: Chlorophytum arundinaceum/borivilianum
- sālam/sālab miśri: calamiciri: Orchis mascula/latifolia
- samūdraśoś/samūdra patra/vidhārāv/vṛddhadārū, Hawaiian baby woodrose/elephant creeper: Argyreia speciosa
- śatāvarī: shatavari: Asparagus racemosus
- vidārī: kudzu: vidari: Hedysarum tuberosum/Pueraria tuberosa
From the preceding discussion, it can be seen that there is considerable overlap between the plants recommended by Caraka and Suśruta for aphrodisiac effect, and those most popular in modern formulas. However, it is also evident that most modern formulas use some plants that are not mentioned by the classical Āyurvedic authorities, possibly because they were not aware of those plants, or possibly because those plants were introduced to South Asia after the time of Caraka and Suśruta, around 2,000 years ago.
Some of the plants used in Āyurveda as aphrodisiacs are not recorded in modern aphrodisiac compendia; more research will undoubtedly reveal currently unknown aphrodisiac properties of several plants native to South Asia. As mentioned previously, a combination of plants can be far more effective than the use of an individual plant, even when taken in large amounts. There is still a great deal to learn about the effective chemistry of numerous substances on the human organism.
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