Ayurveda: The science of life, ancient yet modern : The Tribune India

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Ayurveda: The science of life, ancient yet modern

Ayurveda, the ancient medical system of Bharata, has a strong metaphysical base and a scientific approach to the wellbeing of humanity in all aspects - physical, mental and spiritual.

Ayurveda: The science of life, ancient yet modern

Dr Satish K Kapoor

Ayurveda, the ancient medical system of Bharata, has a strong metaphysical base and a scientific approach to the wellbeing of humanity in all aspects - physical, mental and spiritual. It deals with the total man and aims both at vyadhi-nivarana,curing ailments, and swasthya-rakshana, maintenance of health. Its atomic theory of substance, triguna-theory of matter, tridosha-theory of temperament, panchabhuta -theory of physics, saptadhatu-theory of body constituents, prana-theory of vital substances, agni-theory of metabolism, etc. give it the hallowed status of a science of life that is applicable universally.

The eight limbs ( ashtanga) of Ayurveda are : shalya chikitsa( major surgery and midwifery), shalakya tantra (otolaryngology and ophthalmology), kaya chikitsa (internal medicine), bhuta vidya (exorcism and psychiatry), kaumarbhritya tantra (pediatrics), agada tantra (toxicology), rasayana tantra( chemistry of long life) and vajikarana tantra (aphrodiasics).

By the sixth century BCE India had made a remarkable progress in the field of medicine and surgery. Agnivesha tantra which was redacted by Charaka (except the last 44 chapters) and the treatise of Vriddha Sushruta on which is based the present version of Sushruta Samhita , were written during this period. Jivaka, personal physician of Gautama the Buddha, who studied medical science for seven years at Taxila university, was a brain surgeon.

Life was primitive in Greece and Rome when Ayurveda was at its apogee, as authenticated by scholars like Henry E Sigerist, D. A. Guthrie and Hirschberg. Greek medicine adopted Indian medicaments and methods. Nearchus ( 360-300 BCE) wrote that while the Greeks do not have a remedy for snake-bite, Indians have. Arrian ( 90-175CE) stated that the Greeks ‘when indisposed contacted their sophists (Brahmins) who, by wonderful and even more than human means, cured whatever would admit of cure.’ Megasthenese, ambassador of Seleukos Nikator at the court of Chandragupta Maurya ( 304-298 BCE), spoke highly of the Indian system of medicine. Emperor Ashoka ( 304-232 CE) sent drugs, herbs and medical help to his Greek contemporaries. While quackery prevailed to some extent in Greece, it was abhorred in India. Medical profession was not regarded as a means of becoming rich but as a way to serve humanity.

The divine character ascribed to Ayurveda by Charaka, Krishna Dvaipayana,Vriddha Vagabhatta and others made it incumbent on vaidya-s to be honest. Sushruta describes physicians as ‘ givers of life on the earth.’ Megasthenes observed that the physicians were highly respected in society and stood next to rishi-s who lived in forests. In An Essay on the Antiquity of Hindoo Medicine ( London,1897), Dr J. P. Boyle argued that Hippocrates, known as the father of medicine, borrowed his ideas from India. ‘It is to the Hindus we owe the first system of medicine.’

The symptoms and treatment of smallpox which are said to have been first explained in Al-Razi’s treatise (10th century CE), were discussed by Charaka and Sushruta much earlier. Vaidya-s knew the benefit of salt-free diet long before the medical researches of Georges- Fernand Widal and Louis Emile Javal. The theory of circulation of blood attributed to Realdo Columbo (1515-1559) is mentioned in Ashtanga Sangraha, a classical Ayurvedic text, thus : sama gudhah snigdhah rohinyah shuddha raktam vahanti - ‘pure blood sustains the body’. The etymology of the word, hridaya, the heart, ( hri = carry away, da = to give and ya = to regulate) further establishes this fact. The 18th century Europeans were surprised to observe that vaidya’s could cure a variety of surgical cases by ointments, plasters, and herbs, and perform rhinoplasty, caesarian and other operations skillfully.

The growing popularity of Ayurveda in today’s world is due to the correlation it establishes between body, mind and spirit. Unlike the modern system of medicine Ayurveda is in complete harmony with nature, and has no major side effects. Instead of providing symptomatic treatment, it tries to eradicate the root of disease by ashta sthana pariksha - the examination of eight things of a patient, namely, pulse, urine, eyes, face, tongue, feces, voice, and skin, as also by herbal and mineral preparations, yoga, yajna, pranayama, fast, massage, oiling, sweating, blood-letting, diet, purgation, olfactory infusions, psychotherapy, mantra-japa, necklaces or amulets of plant-parts, etc.

Ayurvedic drugs are ‘holistic and not reductionist molecules’ that are ‘rejected by the human system as soon as they enter the body and are taken to the liver for destruction’, which itself gets ‘damaged’ in the process.

Vagabhatta held that majority of ailments can be cured by self discipline, and do not require any medicine. He regards prajnapradha, ‘abrogation of wisdom’, as the cause of all diseases. His three-fold advice - hita bhuka, mita bhuka and rita bhuka - to eat according to one’s physical constitution (prakriti), eat in limit, and to eat as per season, continues to be relevant.

Ayurveda emphasises moral and spiritual values for individual and social health. Charaka admonishes: ‘Be truthful, avoid anger, be not attached to liquor and women, follow the path of peace, be good, do good, speak good…’

( Dr Satish K Kapoor, former British Council Scholar, Principal, Lyallpur Khalsa College, and Registrar, DAV University, is a noted historian and spiritualist based in Jalandhar City.)

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