The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 29, 2000

Ageless Ayurveda
By R. Vatsyayan

Ayurveda is one of the greatest gifts of sages of ancient India. The word ayurveda is derived from two Sanskrit words: ayu which means life, and veda meaning knowledge or learning. Life, according to ayurveda, is a combination of body, mind, senses and soul. So, it is a science which is not limited to the body only. It includes the mental and spiritual aspects also.

Ayurveda , according to mythological descriptions, was perceived by Brahma. He taught this science to Daksha Prajapati. Daksha communicated it to Ashvini Kumars who imparted this knowledge to Indra. According to Sushrut Samhita, Lord Dhanwantari learnt ayurveda from Indra. Legend has it that during the churning of the ocean, Dhanwantri came forth with a cup of amrit in his hands on the thirteenth lunar day of krishna paksha of the month of Kartik. This day known as Dhan Tryodashi falls just two days before Diwali .

Scholars of ancient literature claim that ayurveda originated around 6000 BC. Initially, ayurveda was taught orally in the guru-shishya tradition. During the Vedic period, ayurveda came to be known as a part of the Vedas as both in the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda there are thousands of hymns dealing with anatomy, physiology and the use of herbs to heal the diseases of mind and body and also to foster longevity. Around 1500 BC, ayurveda was divided into eight specific branches of medicine. It was the time when two distinct schools of practical medicine came on the scene, one of physicians and another of surgeons. Consequently, ayurveda grew into a respected and widely used system of healing in India. People from numerous countries such as China, Tibet, Persia and Egypt came to India to learn the wisdom of ayurveda and carry it to their respective countries.


The three main treatises of ayurveda which still exist today are known as Charak Samhita , Sushrut Samhita and Ashtang Hridya Samhita. It is because of these texts that the knowledge of this ancient system of medicine has survived till this day. Acharya Charak, the compiler of the Charak Samhita, represented the Atreya school of physicians and in his work, apart from discussing anatomy and physiology of a person, he also dealt with other subjects such as etiology, which includes internal and external causes of illness, pathogenesis, symptoms and signs of disease, methodology of diagnosis and its treatment. There are many sections in this book where he has dwelt at length on the moral code of conduct, doctor-patient relationship, medicinal aspect of herbs and diet and also ways of controlling or even reversing the aging process. For the sceptical modern person, who wonders if the ancient wisdom can be believed, one only needs to read Charak’s month by month description of the development of foetus in the womb to see its exact parallels in modern science.

Sushruta belongs to the Dhanwantri school of surgeons. In his work, there is voluminous detail of human anatomy; the bones and joints, nerves, heart, blood vessels and the circulatory system. The great sage-surgeon has written about the method of preservation of human body for dissection and teaching purposes. Sushruta has described not only the surgical instruments in detail but has very meticulously explained the classification and the surgical treatment of abscesses, wounds, fractures, amputation, ano-rectal operations and even basics of plastic surgery.

The third main treatise, Ashtang Hridya, written by Vagbhatta is a concise version of the works of Charak and Sushruta. Much later many other books dealing with specific subjects and branches of medicine were written. Among these, Madhav Nidan dealt with diagnostic science, Bhavprakash Nighantu with plants of medicinal value and Bhaishajjya Ratnavali dealt with pharmacology. But it was mostly the work of Charak, Sushruta and Vagbhatta which got wider acceptance as they made ayurveda a more scientifically verifiable and classifiable system.

Ayurveda sees the living body as a mini universe controlled by the same forces that govern the external world. The universe is comprised of five elements - ether, air, fire, water and earth. As life enters our material body, these elements are practically represented as three doshas or vital catalysts - vata, pitta and kapha. According to ayurveda, health is the state of balance of these doshas and disease results when these catalysts are imbalanced.

While aiming to cure the diseases of the sick people, ayurveda also lays stress to maintain the health of healthy people by helping us to understand the importance of right diet, disciplined daily routine and a balanced lifestyle. As long as we can maintain this balance one remains healthy and when we deviate from this path there is disease, unhappiness and misery. To restore health, we must understand the exact quality and nature of the disease or the imbalance. The body has its own intelligence to create this balance and the physician is only a helper in that process.

The medieval era saw many political and social upheavals in our country. In this turbulent time, Texla and Nalanda, the great Indian seats of learning, were destroyed. Similarly many other gurukulas where ayurveda was taught vanished with their vast treasure of books and knowledge. In the ensuing environment of fear and insecurity, systemic education of ayurveda was replaced by confidential personal experiences which were passed on only to the siblings. Vaidyas started keeping family formulations secret thus creating an aura of mystique around this medical system. It was the time when ayurveda practically started its downhill journey.

It was only during the British rule that ayurveda was exposed to the western world for the first time. Many European scholars were amazed by the rich medical heritage India possessed. During the initial phase of educational reforms in India by the East India Company, a Sanskrit college and an ayurvedic college was started in Calcutta in 1824. But as time passed institutional education in ayurveda was trapped in a state of confusion. As the Britishers belonged to a totally different culture and civilisation, ayurveda lost much of its state patronage. Only a handful of princely states genuinely promoted it by giving financial aid to ayurvedic institutions.

Today, ayurveda is again being looked upon with increasing interest not only in India but in developed countries too. A quarter of century ago, the World Health Organisation laughed at the idea of recognising ayurveda as a science of healing. Now it not only recognises ayurveda, but also has started encouraging its use.

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