We don’t really know how old Ayurveda is, although scholars place its formal origins at around 5-6000 years ago.
According to Vedic mythology, Ayurveda is as old as time itself. It is said that before manifest creation, the gods were weak and unbalanced. They went to Lord Vishnu for help, who told them to churn the Ocean of Consciousness until the Amrit, Nectar of Immortality, appeared and this would rejuvenate them.
The story of what happened has been passed down through the centuries and is the basis for the huge Kumbha Mela festivals held in four Indian cities every twelve years. Because the gods were weak, they had to invite the demons to help with the churning. Many wonderful things came out of the Ocean, which were shared between the gods and demons.
Finally Lord Dhanvantri rose out of the Ocean holding the pot (kumbha) containing the Amrit. Both the gods and demons wanted it but the gods tricked the demons into giving it to them and took it to heaven. The the gods drank the Amrit and regained their strength and immortality. Lord Dhanvantri is considered the Lord of Ayurveda and the Vedas state “Ayurved Amritanam – Ayurveda is for immortality”.
It is said that the knowledge of Ayurveda came from Brahma the Creator, who passed it to Indra the King of the Gods, and on to the great enlightened sages. “When disease cropped up creating impediments in penance, abstinence, study, celibacy, religious observances and life-span of living beings, the holy great sages, out of sympathy for creatures, assembled on one of the auspicious sides of the Himalayas” When these enlightened sages saw the suffering of the world they entrusted six of their most compassionate disciples to bring the knowledge of Ayurveda to the world and to serve all humanity.
In a variation on this myth, Dhanvantri incarnated as a king of Varanasi (India’s most sacred city) and taught medicine to a group of physicians there.
There are four main Vedas, Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva. Ayurveda is an Upaveda or sub-veda of the Atharva Veda. Upa indicates the practical application of the Vedic knowledge. The knowledge was passed down from generation to generation in an oral tradition. It was divided into different specialities which eventually developed into two schools, one of medicine and the other surgery. The knowledge of the school of medicine was refined and expanded by Charaka, presented in the text, Charaka Samhita. This forms the basis of what is practiced as Ayurveda nowadays. Whether Charaka was an individual or a group of teachers we don’t know, some scholars even suggest he was the same person as Patanjali the author of the Yoga Sutras.
Ayurvedic texts describe three elemental doshas, vata pitta and kapha and state that each human possesses a unique combination of these three doshas, which define this person’s temperament and characteristics. It says that each person should modulate their behavior or environment to increase or decrease the doshas to balance and maintain the natural state within their doshic make up.
The main focus of Ayurveda is prevention by treating imbalances before they progress into more serious conditions. Ayurveda emphasizes moderation rather than suppression or over indulgence and attaining vitality by building a healthy metabolic system, maintaining good digestion, eating a pure diet, practicing meditation and yoga asanas and following the natural rhythms and cycles. Ancient Ayurveda texts also taught surgical techniques, including rhinoplasty and the removal of kidney stones. Ayurveda defines perfect health as “a balance between body, mind, spirit, and social wellbeing.”
Around the 6th century BC, Buddhist monks spread Ayurveda to China, Tibet, Korea and Sri Lanka. Despite invasions by Genghis Khan and the Mongols in the thirteenth century, and the conquest of much of India by the Mughals in the sixteenth century, Ayurveda continued as the medicine of choice for the majority of people. However, with their rule of India from 1858 until 1947, the British sought to impose their version of civilization and Ayurveda was relegated to “folk medicine”. As a result, many of the great Ayurvedic texts, teachers, and techniques were silenced. However, Ayurveda survived on the outskirts of society, especially in rural areas where the traditional ways of living were maintained.
Since Indian independence in 1947, Ayurveda has regained its true place as a valid medical science. Ayurvedic medical colleges, hospitals and clinics are found throughout India as an alternative to allopathic medicine. In 1970, the Indian Medical Central Council Act which aimed to standardize qualifications for Ayurveda practitioners and provide accredited institutions for its study and research was passed by the Parliament of India.
More recently teachers and Ayurvedic doctors (vaidyas), led by Baba Hari Das, began bringing the wisdom and practice of Ayurveda to the West. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was instrumental in introducing Ayurveda by establishing treatment centers and creating training programs for western physicians. In those early days, I was working for what was to become Maharishi Ayurveda, setting up treatment centers in the U.S. Maharishi would send Ayurvedic doctors from India to help train us. Most had never been out of India before and had very “traditional” ways of offering Ayurveda. We quickly had to find the balance to provide an approach that would be acceptable in the West.
By the early 1980s, Dr. Vasant Lad, Dr. Robert Svoboda, and Dr. David Frawley were also spreading the teachings of Ayurveda throughout the United States. Through my work at Maharishi Ayurveda, I met and became friends with Dr. Deepak Chopra. The publication of his book “Perfect Health: The Complete Mind/Body Guide”, served to popularize Ayurveda among the general public. We went on to join with Dr. David Simon and the Chopra Center was born. Ayurveda became established in the West as a credible holistic system of medicine.
In 2000 the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) was formed to support education, increase visibility and set standards for western Ayurvedic practitioners.
Although very effective in many cases, allopathic medicine often has unpleasant side effects. Western pharmacology is always looking for the “active ingredient” to patent. Ayurveda says that this is like taking the knowledge but leaving the wisdom. One of the main tenants of Ayurveda is wherever possible to use natural remedies to treat the imbalance without causing new imbalances elsewhere.
Ayurveda also emphasizes the intent of the physician and Charaka states, “If a physician, even though having a profound knowledge, does not enter the heart of the patient with the flame of Love and the Light of knowledge he/she will not be able to treat the disease properly”. However, Ayurveda ultimately recognizes the body’s own inner healing mechanism and, to quote Charaka again, “The successful Ayurvedic practitioner is not the one who heals the most patients but the one who teaches patients to heal themselves”.
As more and more people apply the wisdom of Ayurveda into their lives, we look forward to a day when organized healthcare becomes a distant memory.