What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda (आयुर्वेद Sanskrit: ayu—life; veda—knowledge of) is a comprehensive system of healing that is more than 5,000 years old and based on a holistic approach rooted in Vedic culture. Its conspicuous use of the word veda, or knowledge, reveals its role in early Hinduism and describes its hallowed place in India.
Basic Concepts and Methodology
Traditonal Āyurveda speaks of eight branches: kāyāchikitsā (internal medicine), shalyachikitsā (surgery including anatomy), shālākyachikitsā (eye, ear, nose, and throat diseases), kaumārabhritya (pediatrics), bhūtavidyā (psychiatry, or demonology), and agada tantra (toxicology), rasāyana (science of rejuvenation), and vājīkarana (the science of fertility).
Apart from learning these, the student of Āyurveda was expected to know ten arts that were indispensable in the preparation and application of his medicines: distillation, operative skills, cooking, horticulture, metallurgy, sugar manufacture, pharmacy, analysis and separation of minerals, compounding of metals, and preparation of alkalis. The teaching of various subjects was done during the instruction of relevant clinical subjects. For example, teaching of anatomy was a part of the teaching of surgery, embryology was a part of training in pediatrics and obstetrics, and the knowledge of physiology and pathology was interwoven in the teaching of all the clinical disciplines.
The vast majority of Ayurvedic therapies are herbal compounds. Some alchemical preparations start to enter the ayurvedic pharmacopieia towards the end of the 1st millennium AD in works such as those of Ugraditya (8th century AD)and Sarngadhara (14th century AD). It also provides therapies for the treatment of various vegetable and animal toxins like scorpion, spider and snake venom. It has a whole science of toxicology called agada-tantra as one of the eight branches of traditional Ayurveda.
The Ayurvedic idea is that the organism adapts to the environment and its food, climate etc. This principle of adaptation is called satyma. Through introducing small amounts of a food or medicine, the organism can adapt to it and learn to resist it.
The Five Qualities
It could be said that the simple essence of ayurveda is knowledge and awareness of the qualities of nature – called gurvadi gunah. By understanding the qualities inherent in the environment, in foodstuffs, in activities, etc., one gains an appreciation of their effects on the individual constitution through the principle of similarities; i.e., that similarities cause increase while dissimilarities cause decrease. Thus hot qualities in the environment or diet will increase hot qualities in the body.
The gurvadi gunah are listed in Vagbhata's Ashtanga Hrdayam as:
- Guru (heavy) – laghu (light)
- Manda (slow) – tikshna (quick, sharp)
- Hima (cold) – ushna (hot)
- Snigdha (unctuous) – ruksha (dry)
- Slakshna (smooth) – khara (rough)
- Sandra (solid) – drava (liquid)
- Mrdu (soft) – kathina (hard)
- Sthira (stable) – cala (mobile)
- Sukshma (subtle) – sthula (gross)
- Vishada (non-slimy) – picchila (slimy)
Since everything in the material world possesses combinations of the 20 qualities, ayurveda postulates that every material process or object can either harm or heal a person by influencing that person's unique original constitution (called prakrti). An ayurvedic practitioner will assess the qualities of a disorder, the patient's unique prakrti, and his/her influencing factors to arrive at a treatment plan. The treatment plan will consist of using herbs, therapies, diet, etc., with opposite qualities so as to assist the patient in re-establishing their prakrti.
The Five Elements
According to the ancient Sankhya theory of cosmology, on which ayurveda is based, the five elements – panchamahabhuta – combine in different proportions to form the material world. Each element possesses different amounts of the above-mentioned gunas; thus each element has its unique qualitative nature. The elements are:
- Akasha – ether or space
- Vayu – air
- Tejas or agni – fire
- Apa or jala – water
- Prthvi – earth
Some authorities state that the early European concept of five elements evolved as a result of contact with ayurveda.
The Three Doshas
In Ayurveda, all bodily processes are believed to be governed by a balance of the three doshas. Whichever dosha appears to dominate a person's behavior and physique is called his constitution type. Each constitution type has particular strengths and susceptibilities.
Vata, composed of air, governs all movement in the mind and body and must be kept in good balance. Too much vata leads to "worries, insomnia, cramps and constipation. Vata controls blood flow, elimination of wastes, breathing and the movement of thoughts across the mind." Vata activates the nervous system, hearing and speech; and expresses as enthusiasm and creativity. Vata also controls the other two principles, Pitta and Kapha, and is usually the first cause of disease. Another word for Vata is Vayu - it is the more traditional Sanskrit word for air.
Those who are classified as Vata tend to have lighter frames, and are either short or tall and thin. Their skin tends to be dry and cold with dark, thin hair. They have dark brown or grey eyes. Movements and speech is quick and sleep is light, interrupted, and fitful. Mentally, they are restless and have lots of ideas. They are creative and imaginative, but are fearful, anxious, and insecure.
Vata doshas' corresponding colors are warm and gentle, such as yellow, ochre, or brown. Amethyst is the stone associated with Vata.
Pitta is composed of fire; it governs "all heat, metabolism and transformation in the mind and body. It controls how we digest food, how we metabolize our sensory perceptions, and how we discriminate between right and wrong." Pitta must be kept in balance, too. "Too much Pitta can lead to anger, criticism, acidity, ulcers, rashes and thinning hair.". A balanced Pitta mind makes one a good leader with a warm personality.
Pitta types are generally average physically. They tend to have fine, soft, red or fair hair (though Pittas have been known to have dark hair.) Eyes tend to be blue, grey, or hazel. Their moods change slowly and they are busy people, usually achieving much in their lives. They are more intellectual and speech is clear, sharp, and precise. They are fiery, angry and judgemental.
The Pitta doshas' corresponding color are cool, calming colors such as blue, green, or purple. Their stone is moonstone.
Kapha is the watery humour. "Kapha cements the elements in the body, providing the material for physical structure. This dosha maintains body resistance....Kapha lubricates the joints; provides moisture to the skin; helps to heal wounds; fills the spaces in the body; gives biological strength, vigor and stability; supports memory retention; gives energy to the heart and lungs and maintains immunity...Kapha is responsible for emotions of attachment, greed and long-standing envy; it is also expressed in tendencies toward calmness, forgiveness and love." Too much Kapha leads to lethargy and weight gain, as well as congestion and allergies.
Kaphas' body types are sturdier and thicker than the other body types. Hair is thick and lustrous and eyes are blue or brown. They have the best strength and endurance and have a slow, steady pace. Mentally they are calm, steady, and stable. They can be greedy and possessive but are caring and not easily irritated.
Kapha governs bright, vibrant colors such as red, pink, and orange. The corresponding stone is Lapis.
Ayurveda Practice in History
At the closing of the initiation, the guru gave a solemn address to the students where the guru directed the students to a life of chastity, honesty, and vegetarianism. The student was to strive with all his being for the health of the sick. He was not to betray patients for his own advantage. He was to dress modestly and avoid strong drink. He was to be collected and self-controlled, measured in speech at all times. He was to constantly improve his knowledge and technical skill. In the home of the patient he was to be courteous and modest, directing all attention to the patient's welfare. He was not to divulge any knowledge about the patient and his family. If the patient was incurable, he was to keep this to himself if it was likely to harm the patient or others.
The normal length of the student's training appears to have been seven years. Before graduation, the student was to pass a test. But the physician was to continue to learn through texts, direct observation (pratyaksha), and through inference (anumāna). In addition, the vaidyas attended meetings where knowledge was exchanged. The doctors were also enjoined to gain knowledge of unusual remedies from hillsmen, herdsmen, and forest-dwellers.
In 2001, archaeologists studying the remains of two men from Mehrgarh, Pakistan, discovered that the people of Indus Valley Civilization, even from the early Harappan periods (circa 3300 BC), had knowledge of medicine and even dentistry. The physical anthropologist that carried out the examinations made the discovery when he was cleaning the teeth of one of the men.
Ayurvedic physicians were traditionally supported by their patients and the communities they worked in, with a minority gaining royal patronage. Under the centralised governments systems established by the Mughals and subsequent British rule in India, many Ayurvedic physicians were paid small stipends by the state. But when the British government in India began to establish hospitals and organised state-wide healthcare institutions, leading eventually to the Indian Medical Service, Ayurveda was not included. In the early 20th century, Ayurvedic physicians began to organise into professional associations and to promote the case for national recognition and funding. This began to become a reality after Indian independence in 1947.Today, Kerala is the state in India which promotes research and practices ayurveda the most. There are many famous Ayurvedic centers ( Vaidya shala) all over Kerala.
Today, Ayurveda is gaining lots of interest in the Western countries. Ayurvedic treatments in the West are primarily massage, and dietary and herbal advice, due to the strong regulations surrounding medical practice in Europe and America. Patients are classified by body types, or prakriti, which are determined by proportions of the three doshas. Illness and disease are considered to be a matter of imbalance in the doshas. Treatment is aimed at restoring harmony or balance to the mind-body system.
In India, Ayurveda is gaining a lot of prominence as an alternative to western medicine. However, the traditional methods of teaching ayurveda - such as undergoing a rigourous study of sanskrit - are being discarded and only diseases and cures are being taught in most Ayurvedic colleges across India. For the next generation of Ayurvedic doctors, this reduces the basic understanding of Ayurveda as a comprehensive system. Also, not being able to comprehend the original Vriddha Trayi in Sanskrit may lead to different interpretations of the ancient texts and possibly to deviations from traditional Ayurveda.
Ayurvedic massage courses and diplomas are given in western countries. In the Indian ayurvedic universities there are degrees or diplomas and there are well recognised qualifications such as Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery and registers such as British Register of Complementary Practitioners.
- The Roots of Ayurveda, Dominik Wujastyk, Penguin, London, New York etc., ISBN 0-140-44824-1
- Ayurveda: Science of Self Healing, Dr. Vasant Lad, Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin ISBN 0-914955-00-4
- Ayurvedic Healing: A Comprehensive Guide, Dr. David Frawley, Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin ISBN 0-914955-97-7
- Ayurveda: Nature's Medicine, Dr. David Frawley and Dr. Subhash Ranade, Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin ISBN 0-914955-95-0
- Ayurveda Encyclopedia, Swami Sadashiva Tirtha, D.Sc., Ayurveda Holistic Center Press, Bayville, New York ISBN 0-9658042-2-4
- Ayurveda: Life, Health, and Longevity, Robert Svoboda, Ayurvedic Press ISBN 1883725097
- Yoga and Ayurveda: Self-Healing and Self-Realization, Dr. David Frawley, Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin ISBN 0-914955-81-0
- The Ayurvedic Cookbook, Amadea Morningstar and Urmila Desai, Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin ISBN 0-914955-06-3
- Ayurveda and Marma Therapy, Dr. David Frawley, Dr. Subhash Ranade, Dr. Avinash Lele, Lotus Press,Twin Lakes, Wisconsin ISBN 0-940985-59-4
- Ayurveda and Panchakarma, Dr. Sunil Joshi, Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin ISBN 0-914955-37-3
- Ayurvedic Guide to Diet and Weight Loss, Dr. Scott Gerson, Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin ISBN 0-910261-29-6
- The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine, Dr. David Frawley and Dr. Vasant Lad, Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, Wisconsin ISBN 0-941524-24-8
- "Ayurveda." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayurveda> Text from this source has been incorporated into the above article under GFDL.