Ayurvedic Medicine: A Traditional Knowledge of Life from India that Has Endured the Passage of Time
Ayurveda, known also as Ayurvedic medicine, is an ancient medical system that has its roots in India, and has been considered by many as one of the oldest healthcare systems in the world. In today’s society, Ayurvedic medicine is classified as a traditional, complementary, and/or alternative medicine.
Nevertheless, it is a widely used form of medical care in some parts of the world. In India, for example, it has been estimated that the majority of its population (more than 90%, according to one source) uses Ayurvedic medicine either exclusively, or in conjunction with conventional (Western) medicine.
This medical system is being practiced in varying forms in a number of Southeast Asian countries, and is becoming increasingly popular in some other parts of the world.
Ancient Ayurveda Texts
The word Ayurveda may be translated from Sanskrit as “the science/knowledge of life.” Many Ayurvedic practices predate written records, and were passed down orally from master to student. It has also been said that the earliest written records of Ayurvedic medicine can be found in the sacred historical texts known as the Vedas. The ‘original texts’ of Ayurvedic medicine, however, are thought to be the Charaka Samhita and the Sushruta Samhita, both of which are believed by some to date as far back as the 11th century BC.
Part of a 12th or 13th century copy of the Sushruta Samhita from Nepal. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Public Domain)
Another important text for our current understanding of Ayurvedic medicine is the Ashtangi Hridaya. Together, these three ancient texts are known as the Brhattrayi or ‘Great Triad/Trilogy,’ and it is from them that the basic principles and theories of modern Ayurvedic medicine are derived.
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One of the main principles of Ayurvedic medicine is the classification of patients according to prakriti, or body types/bodily constitution, which has been often compared to the ‘Four Humors’ of the ancient Greeks. Like the physicians of ancient Greece, practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine believe that a person’s body type is determined by the proportion of the three doshas, or bodily energies – Pitta (pitha), Vata (vatha), and Kapha (kaptha). Each of these doshas is believed to be linked to the elements, is in control of certain parts of the body, and is also said to determine a person’s personality.
The Ayurvedic Man, showing an Ayurvedic understanding of human anatomy in Nepalese and Sanskrit writing. (CC BY 4.0)
Pitta, for example, is believed to be linked to fire, and is thought to control the digestive and endocrine systems. People predominated by pitta are said to be intelligent, have a fiery temperament, and are fast-paced.
Vata, on the other hand, is connected with air and movement, and is thought to control bodily movement (including blood circulation and respiration). People who are lively, creative, and original are thought to be predominated by this energy.
Finally, Kapha is said to be associated with earth and water. This energy is thought to govern growth and strength. People predominated by this energy are thought to be calm, strong, and solid in their constitution.
The three doshas and the five elements that are said to create them. (Public Domain)
The Importance of Balancing the Doshas
Another important concept in Ayurvedic medicine is that illnesses and diseases are caused by an imbalance of the doshas. For example, an imbalance of pitta energy is believed to cause problems such as ulcers, inflammation, digestive difficulties, anger, heartburn, and arthritis. An imbalance of the Vata energy is thought to result in joint pain, constipation, dry skin, and anxiety. Among other things, an imbalance of Kapha energy is said to cause obesity, diabetes, sinus problems, insecurity, and issues with the gallbladder.
Therefore, the goal of treatment within the system of Ayurvedic medicine is the re-balancing of these three doshas. This may be achieved by several means, including massage, meditation, herbal medicine, and dietary alterations.
A ghulum (bath attendant) providing a customer with two Ayurvedic procedures – an oil massage (to nourish the nervous system) and hot steam (flushing toxins from the body). (CC BY 4.0)
It should be noted that the goal of many practices prescribed by Ayurvedic medicine, including meditation and massage, is not the curing of diseases, but rather the maintenance of a person’s health. In other words, by balancing the body’s doshas, Ayurvedic medicine is preventative, as it seeks to inhibit diseases from occurring in the first place.
Additionally, certain organic substances prescribed by Ayurvedic practitioners are found by clinical trials to possess qualities that are beneficial to one’s health. Some of these materials are turmeric and frankincense.
The Negative Side of Ayurvedic Medicine
Despite its positive side, Ayurvedic medicine does have some negative aspects as well. A 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for example, reports that almost 21% of Ayurvedic medicines purchased online contained detectable levels of lead, mercury or arsenic, all of which are harmful to health. Another problem with Ayurvedic medicine is that some herbs may have dangerous side effects if taken with other forms of medication, such as those for cancer treatment.
An example of an Ayurvedic pharmacy in Rishikesh, India. (CC BY SA 2.0) Despite its popularity, one of the issues with Ayurvedic medicine is a difficulty in managing quality control of the medicines.
It is necessary for Ayurvedic medicine to be regulated for quality control so that a standard of professionalism may be achieved. Additionally, more research ought to be done on Ayurvedic medicine, in order to make full use of its good practices and avoid those that are detrimental to human health.
Featured image: ‘Ayurvedic Medicine. Man of the Medical caste, masseuse.’ Photo source: CC BY 4.0
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