Why is it important to understand the Origins of Ayurveda? Krya has been working with ayurvedic herbs and formulations for over 5 years now. Yet in all this time , we have not contemplated any series on Ayurveda or discussed its origins, but we now believe it is high time we did so.
There is a new and renewed interest in Indic traditions and systems over the last few years. Unfortunately, along with this, there is also a sharp rise in dangerous misinformation, half truths and inaccuracy peddled in the name of Ayurveda.
Apart from misinformation, there is also ignorance masked in the form of skepticism. Ayurveda is referred to as a “pseudo science” even by Indians in many fora. Westerners and Western blogs and journals take this one step further: we have seen very snide and distasteful references to Ayurvedic treatments like panchakarma practices without even an attempt to understand or appreciate this ancient Science.
Besides misinformation and ignorance, Ayurveda also battles an obvious and ongoing attempt at cultural appropriation and digestion. This is already at its completion stage in the science of Yoga, which has been almost fully misappropriated .
Many Westerners who have had the good fortune of learning under Indian ayurvedic gurus, have attempted to dilute the teachings of Ayurveda, question the Acharyas’ wisdom and then attempt to backward integrate Ayurveda inappropriately into other faiths and belief systems. They do this by running down the source of Ayurveda, i.e. Sanatana Dharma.
We briefly touched upon a colonial mindset and a certain ruthless attitude to simply conquer and ravage when we discussed Indic attitudes towards fair skin and analysed if our current obsession with fair skin is even natural for our country. The era of colonialism is long gone today : yet we see some remnants of this when we demand repatriation of jewels , sculpture and idols that were taken from India and now are permanently part of Museums abroad.
Such looting and appropriation is not limited to the Indic subcontinent alone. Other native cultures like Polynesia, indigenous Australians and indigenous Americans have also been plundered of their prized artifacts and cultural totems and knowledge. It is reassuring to see voices in support slowly rising to demand restitution and repatriation.
© Gaëtan Deso
Looting, ravaging and plundering is not restricted to physical objects and treasures. And it is apparent that colonialism still survives today.
I say this because this same greed and desire to pillage and plunder is evident in the way Westerners are trying to appropriate Indic sciences like Ayurveda and Yoga. These Sciences are quickly being stripped from their Indic roots, slickly packaged and inappropriately marketed to western Audiences and sadly even Indian audiences.
While this mass marketing is done, hypocrisy continues to be practiced. Menstruation “education” and teaching “progressive ways” is a BIG business in South asian countries including India. Western funded NGOs and MNCs selling toxic disposable sanitary products routinely tell Indigenous cultures that their Menstrual practices are regressive and demonstrate patriarchy.
Therefore it is truly ironical that these Indigenous , supposedly regressive menstrual practices are now being celebrated in different ways in the west as a symbol of sisterhood and protective isolation (which they were originally meant to be), while the Native cultures from where these practices emerged are still shamed today.
For these reasons, we decided to dig our feet firmly in the ground and talk about Ayurveda, an Indian Science that arose from the fundamentals of Sanatana Dharma.
Ayurvedic Science beautifully weaves in intricate, subtle connections between the Mind, Body and Soul and helps us understand how to adopt the diet, lifestyle and holistic practices that help us balance ourselves. This is a Science that sprung from the holy land of Bharata / India, and is integral to our Land.
Ayurveda beautifully uses India’s local herbs, minerals, fauna , and even soil to make efficacious medicines and drugs. The medicines are integrated with spiritual, mental and physical practices that make use of the 5 natural elements, incorporates Indian seasonal changes and takes cognizance of India’s geographical and climatic conditions.
The Ayurvedic texts are extremely scientific, deep rooted and intricate and are frankly beyond the complete comprehension levels of even lifelong students of Ayurveda today. However, where we reach with Ayurveda depends squarely on intent. When our intention is to learn from the Acharyas in order to help ourselves and others reach our full potential in mental, physical and spiritual progress, then we are able to understand this science better and appreciate its subtlety.
We are also able to divorce our Ego from this mix and approach this subject with the humility and intent it deserves. Many things we learn along the way may seem at first alien to our current set of beliefs. But if we empty our cup, we can slowly fill it with the right knowledge that seeks only to empowers us.
The Origin of Ayurveda: The very beginning:
The Origin of Ayurveda is incredibly ancient and we understand this through the shlokas and comments we read in the Ayurvedic Samhitas – compendium of Ayurvedic texts and other Ayurvedic formulary texts we follow today.
Acharya Charaka tells us that “Prajapati / Essence of the divine” gave us the Science of Ayurveda. Acharya Sushruta goes one step further and says that even before creation, Ayurveda existed. All the important Acharyas including Acharya Kashyapa are unanimous about one fact: Ayurveda is “sashwata” / eternal with a beginning that cannot be deciphered or traced.
The journey from the Prajapati to Human beings is also an interesting one, that is carefully recorded by the Acharyas in the Samhitas.
In ancient times (much before Acharya Charaka and Sushruta) there was a great Ayurvedic conclave in the Himalayas organised for important Raja Rishis and Brahma Rishis and other Gotra Rishis (Rishis who are a part of our Lineage / DNA). This Ayurvedic conclave was organised to teach and disseminate the principles of Ayurveda to all these Rishis.
This conference was organised by these Rishis because they grew concerned about how Human beings, Animals and Planst repeatedly fell ill and were unable to achieve their true potential and suffered through these diseases. Hence this conference was organised to discuss and teach the principles of health from Ayurveda to help these Rishis spread this knowledge of health and well being. The Rishis were not only concerned about Human welfare. They were also concerned about the welfare of the soil, the trees, the animals, birds and other sentient inhabitants of the Planet.
Today we study only one part of Ayurveda in great detail: The Study of health systems that are relevant to human beings. However, Mriga Ayurveda (Ayurveda for animals) , Vriksha Ayurveda (Ayurveda for plants and trees) & Krishi Ayurveda (Ayurvedic farming science) are also ancient branches of Ayurveda and we have portions of the texts written by great Rishis like Rishi Parashara on these subjects. These texts give us a wealth of information on improving crop health, seasonal cycles to follow in plantation, herbs and natural fertilizer mixtures made from commonly used Ayurvedic drugs for plant and tree welfare. Many formulations we use in organic farming today like “Pancha kavya” come from these texts on Krishi Ayurevda and Vriksha Ayurveda.
Similarly Mriga Ayurveda is an important part of Ayurvedic Science. Even today, we have a few formulations of Mriga Ayurveda in the Ayurvedic Samhitas. Mriga Ayurveda deals with the identification and classification of Animals, their care and welfare and how to treat diseases that befall them. The treatment of Animals in Ayurveda has to be understood by reading the texts: it is humane, deep , loving and effective.
Ayurveda started to expand in its scope as it reached so many learned Rishis. The principles of Ayurveda were expanded depending upon the patients need. The Rishis adapted Ayurvedic Science to many kinds of terrains and geographies and climates and began teaching and treating various patients. The Rishis also expanded this science to address the problems of people in different kinds of vocations.
Hence in Ayurveda today, we have references to formulations developed to sweeten the voice and cure throat conditions for Singers, orators, and politicians. The care of soldiers and wound healing specifically for them is discussed separately. We also see mentions of different kinds of formulations for goldsmiths, potters, painters, sculptors, appearing in the Ayurvedic texts, just to give a few examples.
We can safely therefore conclude , that the Rishis with their prescient wisdom and application strongly expanded the scope of Ayurveda – this became a large and thriving system in their hands, suitable to treat many kinds of sentient beings and to treat a wide variety of human beings spread across different professions, geographies, age groups etc. Ayurveda is not an exclusive or elitist system : it was truly designed by the Great Acharyas and Rishis for the benefit of all living beings and the environment.
Ayurveda’s deep connection with the Vedas:
The word “Veda” means knowledge, which comes from the root word “Vid”, which means “to know”. The body of knowledge called the Vedas are also known as “Sruti” or “that which has been revealed”. So, when we use the term “Veda” or Vedic knowledge, it refers to revealed knowledge. In another ancient language, Tamizh, the equivalent word for the Veda is “Marai”, which also means secret/hidden, essentially denoting that this knowledge is revealed (to those who deserve it).
So, the next question automatically is – who revealed this knowledge & to whom? The vast body of knowledge collectively called the Vedas were revealed by the divine to deserving seers & sages, called as Rishis, who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of intense sadhana & tapas, in order to receive true knowledge. Therefore, each of the Rishis contributed their body of work to the Srutis, which was then further codified and classified as the four Vedas – Rik, Yajur, Sama & Atharva.
The body of knowledge called as Ayurveda today, is derived from the fourth Veda, i.e. Atharva Veda and is technically known as Upa-veda or applied knowledge. There are totally four Upa-vedas, derived from the four Vedas respectively, of which Ayurveda is one Upa-Veda. The other Upa-Vedas are Dhanur Veda (the Science of weaponry), Gandharva shastra (Music and dance derived from the Vedas like Sama Veda), and Artha Shastra (the Science of Business and Commerce – not the text written by Chanakya which was a later compilation) . Despite Ayurveda’s direct connection with Atharva Veda, there is a lot to connect this Science to Rig Veda and other Vedas too. The Oushadi Suktam of Rig Veda, for example, describes drugs based on plants and ancient plants.
References of Ayurveda in the Srimad Ramayana and Mahabharatha:
In the Adi Kaavya, Srimad Ramayanaa, there are many references to the extensive practice of Ayurveda at the time period referred to in this text. There are many references to Ayurvedic vaidyas, toxicology , poisons (visha) and their remedies.
The Srimad Ramayana gives descriptions of many Ayurvedic herbs and trees like Arjuna (which we use in the Krya Anti Acne and After sun Range, in Vyoma and the Classic skin range), Kutuja bark (which we use extensively in the Krya anti dandruff hair range), Nimba (Neem leaf – used in Krya’s hair and skin range), Ashoka (used in the Vyoma formulation), etc.
In the description of the Kingdom of Lanka in Srimad Ramayana, many references are given to the use of different types of metals in food storage and cooking (gold, silver) and the preparation of Asavas and Arishtas. During the Yuddha Kanda portion, when Rama and Lakshmana are injured, Hanuman is asked to bring Sanjeevani from the Oushadie Parvata (Mountain of Oushadies / medicinal herbs).
An interesting fact is that Ravana was considered an Ayurveda expert: he is the author of a now lost text called the Ravana Samhita which deals extensively with Kaumaryabhritam / Ayurvedic pediatrics with many formulations to relive jwara (fever) of different types in children.
Similarly Ayurveda is extensively practiced and referred to at the time period of the Mahabharata. Ayurveda tells us that good health comes with Mental balance: and that we should build Mental balance through Sadhana (spiritual practice), Sadachara (doing good / noble deeds), by living a life of control and balance following a moral code (Sadvritta) and by choosing right company (Satsangha). This Ayurvedic reference is beautifully made by sage Naradha, when he meets Yudhistira during the Pandavas Vanvaas. Sage Naradha asks Yudhistira is he is well AND if he is following the principles of Sadvritta, Sadhana, sadachara and Satsangha – his question leaves us in no doubt that health is implicitly connected to the proper following of these 4 precepts.
In addition, He says to Yudhishtira that Health is also dependent on good Ahara Niyama and in following a life of balance. We can see echoes of this throughout the works of Acharyas in Sanatana Dharma. Acharyas in Dwaita, Advaita and Vishishtadvaita all point out to Ahara Niyama, Sadvritta, Sadhana, Sadachara and Satsangha giving us a life of health and harmony. In Vishitadwaita, Acharyas like Swamy Ramanyujacharya and Swamy Desikan have written extensively on Sattvic Ahara as the best way to attaining good health.
Besides these, the Mahabharata contains many references to Ayurvedic chikitsa like Shalya tantra (surgery), Visha chikitsa (toxicology and poison treatment), Garbhini paricharya (how a pregnant Women should conduct herself for proper growth and development of fetus), causative factors and triggers for Diseases, psychosomatic illnesses and how unrestrained mental states can trigger them, etc.
The Bhagavad Gita has many references to ayurvedic practices. Lord Krishna talks extensively about the science of Yoga, controlling one’s mental desires to prevent psychosomatic illnesses, and extensively on Ahara and its influence both on sattva guna (mental state of balance) . Lord Krishna discusses several aspects of Ahara like the demerits of eating stale and contaminated food both on the body and mind. Ahara and Ahara niyama (principles and practices around food and diet) is a key part of attaining good health.
Ahara niyama is a very important part of Ayurvedic principles. All the Ayurvedic samhitas carry shlokas and sections on this concept. Here, the Acharyas focus on the qualities of food,how to choose food for one’s prakriti, how to cook it, how to store it, what can be stored, what cannot be stored, the correct fruits and vegetables and animals to be consumed in each season, how to prepare water for drinking, etc.
Further facts on the Origin of Ayurveda : references in the Puranas:
About the Puranas:
The Puranas and Vedas are both called निःश्वास ‘(Breath of the Divine) in Indic tradition. The Puranas contain an account of our Indic ancestors, their lives, the principles of the dharma Shastras and detailed accounts of the divine, the way the world was created, the principles and metaphysics behind this world, etc. Apart from this, the Puranas also contain a meticulous description of the Indian Gods and Goddesses, their avatars, and incidents related to each God. The Puranas and Itihasas together give us the capacity to understand the Vedas themselves.
The Puranas and other Kaavyas like the Shrimad Ramayana and the Mahabharata together give us the tools, codes and principles required to traverse the Ocean of Samsara, so their importance cannot be more clearly highlighted.
There are references to the Puranas in the Atharva Veda and in the Upanishads (Chandogya Upanishad) which refer to the Puranas themselves as eternal, a set of universal truths, etc. Although Modern dating says Puranas were composed a short time ago, we can see reference to the Puranas in the Vedas which in Indic systems are considered timeless. Hence, we can conclude the Puranas are as ancient as the Vedas themselves.
References to Ayurvedic medicine in the Puranas
The reference is Ayurveda and the practice of Ayurvedic medicine are extremely high in the Puranas. We have 18 Maha Puranas and 18 Upa-Puranas (sub / smaller Puranas) where this knowledge is available.
We spoke earlier about how the great Ayurvedic conclave of Rishis was instrumental ins spreading the knowledge of Ayurvedic Science. However for the practice of Ayurveda, we also need Ayurvedic chikitsalyas (hospitals) where the vaidya has access to herbs, drugs, metals, oils, ghee and all the things required to make Ayurvedic medicines. Without the building of these centers, it would not have been possible for Ayurveda to grow and flourish well. Also, these hospitals could not be built like Modern hospitals are today on a for-profit motive alone. To truly treat all, they had to be benevolently funded so that even poor and destitute people could avail of these services.
The Puranas specifically record the merits in establishing Ayurveda chikitshalaya and vaidyashalas as a means of “dana” / charitable giving. Establishment of treatment centers is suggested to be done around popular pilgrimage routes and by the wealthy who can afford it. By suggesting this as a route of charity, the Puranas have inspired Dharmic Indians across the ages coming from wealthy families to donate funds towards the establishment of Ayurvedic treatment centres, which were available across Bharata.
Even up to recent times in India, until halfway through the colonial rule, “Chattrams” (pilgrim rest stops) also carried an Ayurvedic chikitshalaya with a physician attached to provide emergency medical treatment or basic first aid. Some of the larger Chattrams acted as quasi destitute homes where people who did not have any family could stay for free and be looked for.
The British records in districts like Kanchipuram describe the extent of service these Ayurvedic treatment centres provided in chattrams. Many Chattrams provided free ayurvedic treatment, provisions and food to abandoned pregnant women. Such patients were allowed to stay until after the baby was born and received clothing, medicines and food for the entire duration of the pregnancy. As Chattrams were attached to temples, the Temples provided food and grains to the travelers and destitutes in the chattrams. The attached Ayurvedic centre provided herbs, drugs and medical care. This was a beautifully symbiotic relationship re-emphasizing the role of Ayurveda within the larger framework of Sanatana Dharma.
Apart from suggesting the establishment of Ayurvedic chikitsalyas as specific form of Dana (charity), the Puranas also give us a wealth of information on Ayurvedic drugs, concepts and practices.
The Skanda Purana, for example, contains many shlokas on “Bala Roga” / Paediatric diseases and their cure, and has many shlokas on how a nursery should be built, what herbs should be a part of the nursery, what direction to build it in, materials to be used, etc.
The Padma Purana carries extensive references to Ayurvedic herbs, and basic principles of Ayurveda. Herbs like Tulasi, Guggul, Amlaki, Durva, and grains like Yava (barley), etc are discussed with their benefits in the Padma Purana. In addition, concepts like how the Pancha mahaboothas give rise to three doshas and how the derangement of doshas causes disease is discussed in Padma Purana. Additionally, the ahara and Dinacharya of the garbhini (pregnant woman), conception and development of the foetus and principles of Dinacharya are all discussed in Padma Purana.
The Vishnu Purana also carries a lot of information on Ayurveda like Dinacharya Ritucharya, and information on ahara, sadvritta (code of ethical and happy living) are all discussed in this text.
The Garuda Purana, which we are advised not to read at home, and to read only in a temple, also carries a lot of information on Ayurveda. It contains information on the path to disease and pathological route for many diseases like Arshiya (piles), Grahani (bowel disease), Prameha (urinary disorders and diabetes), etc.
Through these numerous and extensive references to Ayurvedic science, We can understand how integrated Ayurveda is to the Vedas, Puranas and Sanatana Dharma. It is undeniably a part of Indic spirituality and religion and draws immensely from the Philosophy, moral code and ultimate goal of existence as seen in Sanatana Dharma.
From the Puranas to the Samhitas: The Charaka Samhita
The compendia of Ayurveda are the Samhitas. In the first part of this post, we saw how the Origins of Ayurveda are linked to the very foundations of Sanatana Dharma, the Vedas and the Puranas. As time passed, the specific teachings on medicine, health and well being began branching off as a separate Science with Rishis and schools devoted to teaching this Science to students interested in healing. From this branching off, we learn of Acharyas who devoted themselves to Ayurveda.
The earliest compendium which we still use today in Ayurveda is the Charaka Samhita, variously dated between 3000-5000 years before. In this compendium, Acharya Charaka says that his work is a mere redaction of a larger, earlier work called Agnivesa Tantra. By Acharya Charaka’s time he was able to expand the section on botanical drugs and manufacturing practices and make many of Acharya Agnivesa’s shlokas more precise and concise. Agnivesa Tantra was one of many such Tantras available to Acharya Charaka to work on – but this text was considered the very best Ayurvedic text, so Acharya Charaka worked on this text.
Who was Acharya Agnivesa from whose text Charaka Samhita was compiled?
Acharya Agnivesa was one of the 6 direct disciples of Maharishi Athreya, his Ayurvedic teacher. Maharishi Athreya was one of the orginal participants of the great Ayurvedic conclave. So by this, we can understand that Acharya Agnivesa was from a much more ancient time compared to Acharya Charaka.
The Ayurvedic classes of Maharishi Athreya were held as a dialogue between teacher and student. The questions, doubts and discussions held in these classes were faithfully transcribed by Agnivesa and some of his co-students like Bhela. Each of them came up with an Ayurvedic text based on these teachings, and organised the text into different discussion chapters and sub chapters.
Many of the texts that were written by contemporaries of Acharya Agnivesa are lost to us today. The only surviving text from this period is the Bhela Samhita which is not available completely. But Acharya Agnivesa’s text exists in its modified and redacted form due to Acharya Charaka’s immense work. Since Acharya Charaka made Agnivesa Tantra so easy to understand and concise, this text is now famously referred to Charaka’s Samhita – (Charaka’s compendium!).
The Charaka Samhita, contains 12,000 verses in 120 chapters and covers eight branches of Ayurveda, which are
Kayachikitsa – Internal medicine
Shalakya – ENT medicine
Shalya – Surgery
Vishagarvyrodhikachikitsa – Toxicology
Bhuta Vidya – Psychiatry
Kaumarabhritya- Ob-Gyn & Paediatrics
Rasayana- longevity & rejuvenation
Vajjikarana- Infertility & Reproductive medicine
This incredible text is the most comprehensive work on Ayurveda available today and is the foundational work for Chikitsa (internal medication therapy). The Charaka Samhita is also the foundation of our understanding on all basic Ayurvedic principles of health like Ahara Niyama, Dincharya, Ritucharya, etc.
The Charaka Samhita also has extensive sections on Rasayana therapy, describes the values of Nitya Rasayanas like Milk, covers many ayurvedic formulations for a variety of diseases, ayurvedic manufacturing principles etc. It is a very large, complete and deep Scientific text. Many later texts like Ashtanga Hridayam draw extensively from the foundation set by Charaka Samhita – we can safely say that the entire Science of Ayurveda that is practiced today owes its very existence to the Charaka Samhita.
Acharya Sushruta: The Sushruta Samhita
The other very famous founding father of modern Ayurveda is Acharya Sushruta, who lived atleast 2000-3000 years before us. Acharya Sushruta compiled the Sushruta Samhita, literally meaning, Compendium of Sushruta. The name Sushruta itself means, one who has listened very well, indicating his great knowledge in the Shruti tradition. While Sushruta samhita is also a general textbook of Ayurveda, it is famous for its extra-ordinary depth on the subject of Surgery, which is the primary feature of the text.
The Indian Rhinoplasty technique of plastic surgery, which is still in use today, comes from the exact procedure described by Acharya Sushruta 3000 years ago in the Sushruta Samhita! Acharya Sushruta practiced and perfected plastic surgery and many other kinds of surgical techniques and also designed excellent surgical instruments.
Acharya Sushruta described the various surgical instruments to be used, incisions and cuts to be made, pre-operative procedures, post-operative care, who was fit for surgery, who wasn’t and the use of many plants and animal-based drugs in minimising post-operative infection and complications.
Long long before Joseph Lister described the process of sterilsation and hygiene to be followed in Medical care. Ayurvedic Acharyas followed better procedures of hygiene and sterilsation. It is sad to note that all of us are so awestruck and enthralled by Allopathy today – however modern allopathic surgery before Joseph Lister was described as pure butchery : Many patients preferred to die rather than undergo surgery because infection, gangrene and loss of limb was practically guaranteed in allopathic surgery. Hospitals were routinely infested with rats, and Doctors and Surgeons did not even know that germs were transmitted by contact: hand washing was not practiced. Even in today’s time, Allopathy routinely loses patients to post operative infections: Atul Gawande has written about how hand washing by clinicians , physicians and surgeons can help prevent the transmission of many infections diseases in post operative wards.
Contrast this to the sophistication achieved by Ayurveda even in very ancient times: Ayurvedic Acharyas used boiling, hand sterilization, instrument sterilization and fumigation using anti fungal and anti bacterial herbs to achieve greater rates of recovery. Acharya Sushruta has written extensively about Vector control (rats and insects) and also of anti bacterial and anti fungal measures to be followed in hospitals and recovery wards. They also analysed the direction of the hospital ward, studied wind patterns and climatic changes and built chikitsalyas based on Vastu Shastra to aid the patient’s recovery.
Hospital design and management was a sophisticated science in Ayurveda – much much beyond basic sterilisation and cleanliness.
Acharya Sushruta also famously also detailed the use of leeches / jaluaka, as an operative / surgical aid (this was already a part of Ayurvedic tradition and was simply written down by Acharya Sushruta). This is a very sophisticated procedure which is used in Rakta mochana (blood cleansing) and is a very effective therapy in many Kapha aggravated long term diseases like Psoriasis, eczema and rheumatoid arthritis. Jalauka therapy is very kind and humane on the Jaluka (leeches) also, as a part of the principles of Ayurveda. It is still practiced in some places in Unani mediicne (an offshoot / sister science of Ayurveda).
Part of the long list of Surgical instruments described and designed by Acharya Sushruta
Shalakya tantra (Ayurvedic surgery) is the branch that was strongly influenced by Acharya Sushruta. This is also the branch of Ayurveda which has been the most neglected today. We have very few Shalakya tantra vaidyas in India today and the few that exist have specialised in Netra chikitsa (eye disease). However, there is a slow revival of Jaluaka(leech) based Shalakya tantra which is very encouraging.
Acharya Vagbhatta – Ashtanga Hridayam:
We then come to the 3rd great Ayurvedic text in the Ayurvedic formulary, the Ashtanga Hridayam – or the Heart of the 8 Branches of Ayurveda. This was written by acharya Vagbhatta, who redacted the text written by his grandfather, Acharya Vagbhatta Senior, “Ashtanga Samgraha” – which was in turn a compilation based on Charaka Samhita.
Acharya Vagbhatta’s text is considered extremely easy to read, with excellent Sanskrit shlokas and not as difficult as the earlier texts. The Acharya himself writes in this text that due to a growing reduction in intelligence and focus on the part of the students at his time, he found that most people were not able to properly understand and absorb the wealth of knowledge in the earlier texts. So, he humbly writes that He of “alpa medhya” (limited intelligence), has written this text for others of similar “alpa medhya!”.
Origins of Ayurveda in Kerala: Ashtanga Hridayam is a key text
If Acharya Vagbhatta considers himself as “Alpa Medhya”, I don’t even know what we should call ourselves today! The Ashtanga Hridayam is a fantastic text and is the text of choice for Kerala Ayurveda. The leading teachers of Ayurveda in Kerala are the Ashta Vaidyars of Kerala.
These families come from 18 handpicked Ayurvedic Vaidya families who were said to have brought into Kerala by Lord Parashurama himself to practice medicine and devote themselves to the healing arts and treating people. Over time these 18 families focused on a particular specialisation. In recent times, many of these families have died out – a few no longer practice Ayurveda.
Lord Parashurama himself is said to have bought Ayurveda to Kerala
When the Ashtanga Hridayam was written, it quickly captured the imagination of the Kerala Ashta Vaidya families. They fully adopted this classical text and made it an essential part of Ayurvedic studies in their Gurukul system. The Kerala Ashta Vaidyars families were masters of Sanskrit and Ayurveda and worthy students were put through an immense grind before their teacher pronounced them fit to practice Ayurveda independently.
In this study period, memorization and mastery of the nearly 8000 Sanskrit shlokas of Ashtanga Hridayam was a must. In an interview with Vaidyanathan Namboodiri (from the Ashta Vaidya families), He mentioned that Ashtanga Hridayam had to be “worn around the neck like a garland” and must be “kanthastham” – available readily at a moment’s notice in the throat for immediate recall by a worthy student / Vaidya.
The Gurukul system practiced in Kerala, and perhaps all of India was very different from today’s Macaulay derived, hasty 5.5 years Medical degree. In Malayalam, the Ashta vaidyar families describe this apprenticeship as “5+5+5″ – “Ezhittil Anju, Kaatil Anju, Veetil Anju” (5 years of textual study, then 5 years of study in the forest and then 5 years of apprenticeship at home).
During this apprenticeship stage, the Master would meet patients and take symptoms. When he diagnosed the disease, He would say the first few words of the relevant Shloka from Ashtanga Hridayam – as he finished the student was expected to complete the balance part of the shloka (kanthastham) and demonstrate his skill at the basics, before he could be trusted to be a Vaidya on his own.
These 3 texts I have described, the Charaka Samhita, the Sushruta Samhita and the Ashtanga Hridayam are called the “Brihat Trayee:” – / The Great 3 texts” in Ayurvedic lexicon. These are the great 3 texts all ayurvedic companies, Vaidyas, students peruse. The texts are so vast that it is impossible for anyone to claim they have gained mastery over them. Most people choose one portion of the text to focus their attention on, continuing to be in awe and feeling humbled at the vastness of knowledge contained in these texts.
Ayurveda: unique , complete and holistic perspective on Health
I give you this background to give you the sense of wonder, history and lineage that always envelops me when I contemplate Ayurveda. All modern students, companies, vaidyas are like small squirrels today. We sit on a vast great tree that is Ayurveda built on the roost of truly great Acharyas and nibble on the small fruits we can reach. It is the greatness of this science that even these small minuscule bites we take are so fruitful, useful and have so much value.
The Science of Ayurveda has 2 parts to it – the first part is the prevention of disease in a healthy individual, and the second is how to treat a disease once it occurs. It is no coincidence that prevention of disease appears first in this description, because I would say that this is the true goal of Ayurvedic Science. Unlike modern medicine, this is not a Science designed on patients making hospitals and Doctors rich.
Ayurveda says that Health lies in a state of perfect balance and harmony both inside and with the external elements
The Acharyas tells us that Ayurveda exists to help us achieve our Life goals, to attain spiritual progress, to help society, to discover more about ourselves and to enrich the entire world by our presence. To do all of these, Ayurveda exists to give us the twin boons of “Ayu” (long life) and “Ayush (good health). Ayush encompasses Physical, Mental, Emotional and Spiritual health. It is not just a disease-free body that Acharyas aim for . They also aim for a being who radiates positivity, good energy, good cheer and lives a life of deep meaning, with good values. Only this, according to the Acharyas is “good health”.
To help us achieve this Ayu and Ayush, Ayurveda has a set of Chapters in each text, devoted to maintaining health, harmony and well-being in an individual. These chapters include how we must choose our diet, how we must eat, how we must lead our daily life, what changes to make with each season, how to approach life’s decisions, developing a strong moral code, and the impact of decisions like our career, choice of spouse, friends etc on our health and well-being.
These Shlokas are comprehensive and leave us in no doubt / ambiguity about what to do. So Ayurvedic science is meticulous and detailed – it is not fuzzy and things are not left to our imagination and interpretation. It is this differentiation in the way Ayurveda is from any system of Modern medical science that makes it deeply empowering, all-encompassing and helping us achieve a deep and subtle sense of harmony and well-being if we follow its precepts.
To sum up: the Origins of Ayurveda
In this series on Ayurvedic basics, we intend to write about the key concepts and discusses the basic framework behind Ayurvedic science, and the idea of harmony and well being. In the first post in this series, we looked at the Origins of Ayurveda, understood how deeply it is connected to Sanatana Dharma and Indic philosophy and systems finding extensive mentions in the Vedas and the Puranas.
We also briefly touched upon Western attitudes to Indic sciences which range from plain mockery to outright stealing and re-packaging. Sadly even people of Indian origin have been taken in by this fake skepticism . They fail to see how despite shaming Ayurveda, simultaneously the concepts, drugs and medical systems are taken out , stripped of their origin and repackaged and sold to western audiences for better health and well being. The West has already recognised and understood the power of Indic systems like Ayurveda – westerners regularly take Ayurvedic supplements, leghyams and drugs for their well being. Only we Indians are slow to recognize the treasure we sit amidst and foolishly scoff at them.
We cannot hope to propagate / revive a system if its basics / roots / fundamentals are erased. Similarly, Yoga and Ayurveda cannot survive if their Indian roots are removed and if the inheritors and custodians of these Sciences, we Indians, remain ignorant about the depth and power of these systems.
This series has been written by Krya in an attempt to rekindle pride, curiosity and inspire all its readers to explore Indic Sciences and systems of knowledge like Ayurveda. If you found this post inspiring please share it widely with your community and drop us a few words of encouragement as a comment – it motivates us to write more about these important subjects.
Irrespective of our current set of beliefs or the faith we practice today, these Indic systems belong to us and are a part of our heritage. I repeat: even if we do not follow Sanatana Dharma today, we are still inheritors and custodians of the systems of Sanatana Dharma like Yoga and Ayurveda as people born in Bharata Varsha.
When applied diligently and sincerely, they work excellently for us, and give us a workable and non toxic framework for health and well being. To ensure their continued well being, we MUST protect our Indic systems from misinformation, misappropriation and must strongly resist any attempt to strip them of their Indic roots and divorce them from Sanatana Dharma – only this root nourishes and keeps systems like Yoga and Ayurveda alive .
However to protect something, we must first appreciate and understand it well. Therefore, We appeal to all our readers of this blog to invest more time in understanding and following Indic Scientific systems of Ayurveda.
A Krya Appeal: adopt more Ayurveda into your life
A Science grows only when it is learned well, appreciated and practiced. Ayurveda is an immensely practical Science. Only when you practice it , you can reap the benefits. Only when you reap the benefits can you understand why the acharyas say the things they say. I say this because many of precepts of Ayurveda do not fit in with our Modern life. so it is natural that we may be skeptical about Ayurveda.
But instead of intellectual debate,Ayurveda demands experiential learning. Only when we delve into the system and practice it can we understand it better. So we appeal to you to adopt and practice more Ayurveda in your life.
Take the time to develop a relationship with a good Ayurvedic vaidya as an alternative to your allopathic general practitioner atleast for small health issues. Do your research and switch to ayurvedic external care products for hair , skin and the home which are better for you, non toxic, kinder on the environment and also encourage the spread of Ayurvedic thought and interest. If you are already on the ayurvedic path, Take some time to talk about the wealth that Ayurveda has to offer to your friends, family and children. Educate them about how empowering Ayurveda is , and how it can help you get to the heart of the matter.
Let us not allow another invasion (this time an intellectual invasion) on our watch. Let us not be made to feel ashamed of one of the oldest, most scientific, holistic and utterly selfless systems of medicine like Ayurveda. Let us not be made to feel ashamed of our own roots.
If you have any questions on the above, please write to us. If you would like any help choosing the correct ayurvedic hair, skin or home products please write to us or call us (0-75500-89090).
Krya runs a thriving community dedicated to ayurvedic living and the correct use of Krya’s ayurvedic hair, skin and home care products on facebook – we invite you to join this community if you would like to further explore ayurvedic living.