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What is Ayurveda

Origin and Definition

Ayurveda, or Ayurvedic Medicine is a classical traditional medical system originated in India.

The origin of Ayurveda can be attributed to the ancient sages of India who, by observation and reflection of the laws of nature around them, laid down some fundamental rules of longevity and happy life.

 Ayurveda belongs to the ancient Indian tradition of the Vedas meaning – knowledge or scientia in Latin. The Vedas are comprised of four major books that deal with various aspects of life namely, Rig Veda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharveda. Notwithstanding, there are references of more than 60 recipes described in the Rig Veda, the oldest of the four Vedas, written about 6000 years ago, almost all scholars agree that Ayurveda is an Upa-Veda -subsidiary – of the Atharva Veda – the latest of the four Vedas. written about the 1200-900 BCE.

Ayurveda was first described by Agnivesha, in his book Agnivesh Tantra, which was later refined by Rishi Charaka in Charaka Samhita, the form in which it is handed down to us today, and subsequently by Sushruta (Sushruta Samhita) and Bagbhata (Ashtanga Hridayam).

Etymology of Ayurveda is the Sandhi (combination) of Ayuh (life or life Span) + Veda (scientia or science, knowledge, understanding). It may be worth noting that prior to 17th century scientia or science was closely associated with philosophy and was used interchangeably.

In understanding Ayurveda (life-science) its philosophical aspect cannot be ignored.

Ayurveda is part of the Samkhya Philosophy

Samkhya is one of the 6 principal schools of Indian philosophy attributed to Rishi Kapila:

  • Samkhya philosophy offers a framework for all levels of manifestation, from the subtlest to the grossest.
  • It is of dualistic nature, where the opposites create the “tension” to bring equilibrium of existence.
  • Samkhya comes from samyag akhyate, which literally means that which explains the whole. It is enumerationist philosophy, nothing remains the same – ever changing and dynamic.
  • Samkhya deals with Purusha (consciousness), and Prakriti (matter), Buddhi or Mahat (intelligence), Ahamkara (I-am-ness).
  • Samkyha distinguishes between the Purusha, the fixed and unchangeable and the Prakriti, the ever-changing and dynamic.
  • Purusha is the Transcendental Self or Pure Consciousness, beyond any words or explanation, it is eternal.
  • Prakriti is the first cause of the universe, it is the manifestation we perceive and experience in the form of matter or substance.

Samkhya explains the following:

  • Mind (manas) or Buddhi (the faculty of discrimination),
  • Three gunas or “qualities” or “attributes”:
    • Sattva – fineness, lightness, illumination, and joy.
    • Rajas – activity, excitation and pain.
    • Tamas – coarseness, heaviness, obstruction, inertia and sloth.
  • Cognitive and Active senses (the indriyas)
  • Gyanendriyas and Karmendriyas through which we experience the manifest world
  • Ignorance is the misunderstanding of temporal as permanent.
  • As we live in this dualistic world we cannot experience the “joy” without “suffering”, yet to live in suffering defeats the purpose of life.
  • Moksha (Liberation) is the ultimate aim, when we break the bondage of material manifestation, which is the cause of all suffering.
  • Samkhya and Yoga are the two parallel paths of “Liberation”:
    • Samkhya is the path of pure understanding and
    • Yoga is the path of Dhyana (Meditation)

When the ancient Indian sages observed and pondered on this temporal and terrestrial human existence they came to the understanding that “the end is the ultimate aim of the beginning” –  that is, we come to realise the meaning that the dynamic aspect of life is eternally changing.

Concept of Shakti “Energy” in Ayurveda:

  • Shakti is the primordial cosmic energy that represents the dynamic forces that move through the entire universe in the most balanced form, without any margin for error.
  • In the manifested form when it goes out of balance there are forces or methods that can bring it into balance for the continuation of the “dynamism”.

Life is a bundle of “energies”: subtle and non-tangible.

These energies – the bio-energies – are symbolised according to their characteristics in Ayurveda in terms of Dosha:

Vata (Air): Light, moveable and changeable. It controls the functions of the brain, the nervous system, the circulatory system, the digestive system, defecation, urination, sudation etc., in fact, wherever there is movement. Though extremely dynamic it is also the most subtle of all energies. It combines the elements of Air and Space.

Pitta (Fire): It is the energy of conversion, every fraction of a moment the conversion of one matter into another is taking place, and it is the energy that causes the alchemical processes in the universe. It mediates between Vata and Kapha.

Kapha (Water): It is the energy of stability, opposite to movement. It combines the elements of Earth and Water.

There is a wonderful symbiosis between Water and Earth.

Water and Earth in interaction with Fire are responsible for generation of life.

Kapha is the energy of cohesion.

Panchamahabuta: The primary manifestation of these “energies” is in the Paramanu stage (sub-atomic level) and the next, Anu (atom) where the formation of matter begins. Now the Panchamahabhuta or Panchtattva (The Five Great Elements) known as Kshiti (Earth), Jala (Water), Gagana (Akasha or Ether), Pawaka (Fire) and Samira (Air), start to interact to shape Tattva or Padarth (matter). Among these Panchamahabhuta Gagan is the most subtle and Kshiti the densest. Thus the individual, in the widest sense, is born. The matter we perceive through our senses is the combination and permutation of these Panchamahabhuta. According to the Indian concept, they enumerate 84 Lakhs (8.4 million species) including human existence. Hence the individual is the “Microcosm” of the “Macrocosm”.

Universal Nature of Ayurveda

Ayurveda is based on the principles of universal laws of:

  • Movement – Vata
  • Transformation and Action – Pitta
  • Stability and Cohesion – Kapha

It can be applied at anytime and anywhere, and is not limited by time and space.

Although Ayurveda originated in India it breaks the barrier of all geographical, racial or cultural limitations.

It is a system that aims at providing physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing for all who follow its principles.

The state of imbalance in the flow of these bio-energies, due to a myriad of reasons, is the state of “dis-ease”. By the understanding of the laws of nature, Ayurveda can go to the root cause of the disequilibrium in the Panchabhautik state of being and bring equilibrium through yogic practices, natural substances, lifestyle, food intake and physical exercise etc.

Aims of Ayurveda:

  • Primary Aim of Ayurveda is to “Maintain the Health of the Healthy”
  • Secondary is to “Relieve the Diseased from Ailments”

Ayurveda is a system of medicine that:

  • Applies knowledge about health and disease
  • Treats the Individual as a whole: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual
  • Aims at promoting and enhancing health rather than focusing on diseases.

However, it does not neglect the ailments that may occur in one’s life time and gives recommendations on how to prevent disease and give relief from ailments.

There are eight specialised branches known as Ashtanga Ayurveda:

  1. Kaya Chikitsa – Internal Medicine
  2. Shalya Tantra – General Surgery
  3. Shalakya Tantra – Eye, Head and E.N.T.(Ear, Nose and Throat)
  4. Agadha Tantra – Toxicology
  5. Kaumara Bhritya or Bala Tantra: Paediatrics (incl. prenatal, postnatal baby care and gynaecology).
  6. BhutaVidya : Psychiatry
  7. Rasayana: Rejuvenation Therapy
  8. Vajikarana: Sexology and Aphrodisiacs

The ultimate aim of Ayurveda is:

sarve bhavantu sukhinaha, sarve santu niramayaaha;

sarve bhadraani pashyantu, maa kashchit dukhabhaak bhavet.

May all be happy, May all be free from disabilities;

May all look to the good of others, May none suffer from sorrow.”