Ayurveda Overview

The word "Ayurveda" is a compound of the word ayus meaning "life" or "life principle", and the word veda, which refers to a system of "knowledge" (based on the root word ‘vid’ i.e. ‘to know’ as interpreted by Sage Caraka) as well as the “steps to attain” a Dhanvantri the god of Ayurvedalong and health life (based on the root word ‘vid’ i.e. ‘to attain’ as interpreted by Sage Susruta). Thus "Ayurveda" roughly translates as the "knowledge of life" or alternatively the ‘practical steps to attain good health and longevity’. Sage Dalhana sums up the various definitions of Ayurveda as: “Ayurveda is the science which encompasses the knowledge about the four components of life, viz. body, senses, mind, and soul. The term ‘Ayurveda’ refers to life and health, not death and disease. Ayurveda is concerned with measures to protect "ayus", which includes healthy living along with therapeutic measures that relate to physical, mental, social and spiritual harmony. Body is the instrument of action for realization of the values of life. The effort is therefore focused on the safety and efficiency of the body, perfecting health, avoiding illness, healing when ill. A guiding principle of Ayurveda is that the mind exerts the deepest influence on the body. A state of balanced awareness in an individual leads to presence of the right attitudes, in turn leading to the right actions, culminating in a higher state of health. Disease is seen to be the result of climatic variations, bacterial attack, nutritional deviance, and stress as well as other forms of emotional imbalance; in short, life(style) as a whole. Optimal health is achieved by cultivating mental, physical, and dietary habits that are conducive to physical and spiritual well-being.

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Primary Concepts And Building Blocks Of Ayurveda

Panchamahabhuta, Tridosha and Sapta Dhatu are foundational constructs of Ayurveda. In addition, concept of Mala , Agni and Srotas add value and strengthen the foundation of these primary concepts.

Ayurveda considers that every living being is made from the combination of Panchamahabhutas , i.e. the 5 basic eternal substances or elements- Solid ( Prthvi), Liquid ( Jala), Energy as heat and light ( Tejas or Agni ), Dynamic energy state of matter ( Vayu ) and the time space entity ( Akasa) and the soul. Similarly, the universe and everything contained within it is made of the Panchamahabhutas and the universal consciousness.

The human body is composed of three fundamental constructs called Doshas (3), Dhatus (7), and Malas (3). The Tridoshas (i.e. 3 doshas- Vata, Pitta, Kapha ) are composed of the panchamahabhutas but one or the other is predominant. Thus, the Vata Dosha has Akasa and Vayu predominating ; the Pitta Dosha has Tejas predominating ; and the Kapha Dosha has Jala and Prthvi predominating. The Saptha Dhatus are the seven basic tissue elements that make up the structure of the human body and include Rasa (Chyle, Lymph, Plasma), Rakta (Haemoglobin fraction in blood), Mamsa (Muscle tissue), Medas (Fat or Adipose tissue), Asthi (Bone-tissue including cartilage), Majja (Bone Marrow), and Sukra (Semen, Sperm, Ovum). The Malas are the waste products of the body. The principal malas include urine, stool, and sweat. The other waste products are fatty secretions of the intestines or skin, ear-wax, mucous of the nose, saliva, beard and body hair, nails of the fingers and toes, tears, etc.

Agni is the primordial digestive fire in the body, tantamount to enymes, that are responsible for the conversion of foods into Doshas, Dhatus, and Malas. Agni thus has a two fold role- help in the digestion (breaking down-catabolic metabolism) and assimilation (synthesis, regeneration and growth-anabolic metabolism) in the body. There are 13 main groups of agnis . Jatharagni (in the GI tract) enables the primary digestive process and breaks down the food. Thereafter the broken down food is broken up into the 5 mahabhutas by the 5 Bhutagnis (mainly in the liver) so that the essential constituents of the ingested food are ready for absorption and assimilation. Thereafter, the 7 Dhatvagnis assimilate and ensure renewal/growth of the 7 dhatus-tissue elements which constitute the human body.

Srotamsi or Srotas represent the channels in the body through which the doshas, dhatus, and malas circulate. The Srotas, 13 in number, include the big channels such as the GI tract as well as micro channels such as the capillaries.

For proper functioning of the body the agni has to function in equilibrium ( Samagni under the influence of the three doshas in equilibrium), and function without weakening ( Mandagni under the influence of Kapha), or not function excessively (Tikshagni under the influence of Pitta) or not function unstably , i.e. agni which oscillates between less and more ( Vishamagni under the influence of Vata). Further the srotas has to remain unobstructed and circulation must proceed in an uninterrupted way, failing which the process of metabolism is affected and Ama or toxins are produced. Usually an organ or tissue that is intrinsically weak or which is similar in mahabhautic composition has a greater tendency to accept the ama or toxin, leading to manifestation of disease in this organ or tissue.

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The Disease Process According To Ayurveda

The human body sustains vitality through a continuous process of disintegration and integration of each and every tissue in the body, coordinated and enabled by the doshas. The word dosha has a two-fold meaning: (i). that which instigates proper function in proper conditions of life, and (ii). that which pollutes the tissues and disturbs the various functions of the various sub-systems of the body. With proper life style (physical, mental, spiritual), the instigation of the doshas ensures health. When lifestyle changes and is improper, the instigation changes- the balance of the system is lost leading to disease. The symptoms of health denote ease, pleasantness- mentally and physically. In disease, as the term itself denotes, the ease is lost and symptoms indicate unpleasantness, pain. Health is the natural state of the mind-body system, and Disease is its unnatural state.

The various kind of tissues, ( dhathus ) are replenished in the course of metabolism. The nutritional part is assimilated; the residue is left for elimination, through various channels of elimination. With faulty diet, lack of exercise etc. the system of metabolism- assimilation and elimination- is upset. If the metabolic waste is not properly eliminated it accumulates in a putrefied form as toxins in the various tissues and organs and channels; the balance of the doshas is upset resulting in disease.

Ayurveda also recognizes the role of external agents that can cause disease in a person with lowered immunity.

The human body has various organs each with particular functions and aspects. But the system as a whole is the holistic effect of all the particular sub-systems properly working. In disease a particular organ or sub-system is out of order and it disturbs cooperative functioning of all the organs and systems. By understanding and interpreting the symptoms expressed by a sub-system you can actually understand the function/condition of the body and the path to curing the disease. Thus Ayurveda enables accurate diagnosis and effective intervention at the dis-ease stage itself and not waiting until the medical condition reaches a mature stage.

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The Ayurveda Treatment Process

The scope of treatments in Ayurveda is two fold: (i). promotion and preservation of health and strength in the healthy, and (ii). the elimination of the disease in the ailing and afflicted, i.e. curative treatment.

The term ‘chikitsa' implies: (i). removal of the causative factors of the disease, and (ii). Restoration of the doshic(dosha-dhatu-mala) equilibrium. The achievement of these twofold aims depends upon effective fulfillment of the role of the four essential limbs of therapy or Chatushpada - (i). the Bhishak/Vaid: or the Physician, (ii). the Dravya- both medicinal drugs as well as food substances, (iii) . the Upasthaataa or the Nurse, and (iv). the Rogi or the Patient

Preservation of good health is made possible by the observance of the regimen of Swasthavritta as represented by Dinacharya (Daily Routine) and Ritucharya (Seasonal Routine) . Further, in the latter half of one's life, the practice of injunctions laid down by Sage Caraka in the chapter on Janapadodhwamsaniya (in the Vimanastana ) as well as the adoption of measures described by him under Rasayana and Vajikarana therapy shall promote vitality, virility, and sustenance of good health.

The first step in the curative Ayurveda treatment process is to correct the ( mitya ahara-vihara) faulty dietary and lifestyle habits. In most cases, by just correcting the life style all other corrections are naturally effected, and based on the natural vitality ( ojas and bala ) of the system health is regained. With a long course of faulty lifestyle and conditions of life, vitality becomes weak necessitating some assistance in the form of medicine. The treatment in Ayurveda is essentially to regain the vital strength; the accumulated waste has to be eliminated to make the tissues ( dhathus ) pure. If the accumulation of toxins is moderate it can be transformed by medicine and easily eliminated in the natural course of the system by milder palliative treatments known as Samana Chikitsa . Samana chikitsa ignites the vital fire, the agni , responsible for digestion and metabolism. A man with good and natural digestive functions and with a correct life style seldom gets diseased, and if on account of omissions and commissions, gets diseased, it can be easily corrected and, cured with simple medication - yukthivyapasraya , the rational application of drugs. If the accumulation of toxins is excessive lifestyle corrections and medication may not suffice and it has to be cleared by evacuative-cleansing treatments- Sam sodhana Chikitsa also commonly known as Panchakarma .

Ayurveda therapeutics also address mental disturbances and management of emotional stress through the process of Satwavajaya . Unvirtuous or ‘sinful'acts lead to a perturbed mind, according to Ayurveda, in turn leading to imbalance in the system. An emotionally disturbed and agitated mind agitates all aspects of the whole system. Without a calm and quiet mind, the intellect will not function properly and inability to discern the bad and the good. Association with good and wise people, reading good books, scriptural texts, practicing methods of controlling the mind, meditation, discrimination, etc. assist in controlling the mind. In that sense Ayurveda is ‘areligious' and one may follow one's chosen faith and religion.

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Ayurveda and Modern Medicine

Ayurveda and modern medicine differ in one basic sense. Modern Medicine is driven by Structure or the ‘Part' and is thus substantially dependent on laboratory tests and diagnostic investigations such as x-ray, scans, etc. in the diagnosis process as well as the basis of medical management. But Ayurveda gives importance to Function or the effect of the ‘Whole' . When every sub-system functions properly, it is health. When there is some difference or difficulty in the function, ill-health is caused . That is why functional behaviour, expressed as symptoms, constitutes the basis of both diagnosis as well as medical management in Ayurveda. Which is why, it is said that modern medicine is disease-centric , while Ayurveda is patient-centric.

There need not be any contradiction between Ayurveda and Modern Medicine. The two systems may truly and effectively complement each other when structural knowledge is judiciously integrated and interpreted in the Ayurveda paradigm of ‘whole person' functional performance.

Contrary to common perception, through the ages, the seers of Ayurveda recognized the need to ensure that Ayurveda was relevant to contemporary needs and developments.

Vagbhata the latest of the acharyas says in his text that he is trying to make the system up to date and suitable to the times ( yuganuroopa ). The practice of Ayurveda being reduced to a system of prescribed and ‘over the counter' medication, akin to Allopathic medicines, is not the answer. The changes are to be only in application, not in principles. Thus, one can apply modern tools, modern insight, and modern knowledge whether it is at the biological, anatomical, physiological, or genetic level, in the context of Ayurveda's foundational principles without any contradiction whatsoever. Further, modern advances in risk management, emergency management, organ transplantation, and surgical interventions of all types can only complete and enhance the value of Ayurveda and in no way detract from it. One may posit that for early to mature stages as well as chronic stages of a disease Ayurveda has excellent answers to the health needs of mankind; while once a person has already reached an acute or emergency health state modern medicine and surgical technique with attendant medical technologies is unparalleled in its effectiveness.

Appropriate integration and collaboration with modern medicine is to the best benefit of humanity and therein lies the future of Ayurveda.

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