Open any lifestyle magazine in India and at least one of the advertisements will boast of the benefits of an Ayurvedic oil massage and spa. Long vacations to Kerala centered on an Ayurvedic treatment and therapy is quite in vogue these days. Soaps, creams, and beauty products claiming Ayurvedic benefits are clamouring for attention. Before we go ahead and indulge ourselves in what may sound like a magic therapy, it is well worth stepping back and trying to understand what Ayurveda really is.
What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is an ancient tradition of holistic healing that was formulated by its practitioners in India nearly 5000 years ago. This makes Ayurveda one of the oldest forms of holistic healing practiced in the world.
The name Ayurveda is believed to mean “Science of Life” (Ayur = life, Veda = knowledge or science). Unlike contemporary medicine, Ayurveda does not prescribe a predefined medicine or diet to combat a particular ailment. Instead, Ayurveda analyses each individual and his/her constitution.
Basics of Ayurveda
Ayurveda recognises that the human body is made up of the five elements – space, air, fire, water, and earth. There are three energy forms or doshas – Vata dosha (space and air), Pitta dosha (fire and water), and Kapha dosha (water and earth). These control the constituent elements and their interactions. Each individual inherits a very specific mix of the doshas. This mix is unique to the individual and this makes each person and his or her ailments different. The traditional Ayurvedic healer/practitioner will typically take his/her time to study the patient and prescribe uniquely formulated medication, diet, and lifestyle changes. There are over 300,000 formulations that are used as medicines in Ayurveda – each is a complex concoction that requires extensive knowledge of human physiology, the effects of herbs and plants, and the process of concocting medicines.
Origins of Ayurveda
Ayurveda is considered to be an Upaveda or an auxiliary veda. It is believed that the earliest healers who laid down the basic principles and guidelines of this science were influenced by the Atharva Veda, parts of which describe diseases and treatment methods.
The healing techniques that form part of Ayurveda are believed to have been handed down from Brahma to the sage Dhanvantri who passed it down to be preserved in the oral tradition. One of the earliest texts of Ayurveda is believed to have been written by the renowned sage Agnivesa many centuries ago. This text (now lost to mankind) was later refined by Charaka between 100 CE and 200 CE. Along with the Harita Samhita and the Susruta Samhita, the Charaka Samhita forms the basis of Ayurvedic treatments and medicine preparation. These texts also elaborately describe surgical procedures that were once part of the Ayurvedic treatment system.
Is Ayurveda a Hindu Practice?
Like Yoga, Ayurveda too has, in recent times, been associated with religious healing practices. This is very far removed from the truth. Ayurveda is an ancient system of holistic healing that banks chiefly on herbal medication. Ayurveda (pronounced aye-yur-way-da) like Yoga was developed by the mystics and Yogis of ancient India in an effort to remove lifestyle and chronic ailments from the lives of men and women and to restore a sense of balance that is lost with the onset of any disease. The Ayurvedic treatments suggested by practitioners come from intimate observation of the effects of herbs and plant extracts on the human body rather than from Hindu religious beliefs.
A Word of Caution
Ayurveda is undoubtedly one of the best studied and well-formulated systems of healing which aims to bring complete mental and physical harmony in any individual. There is, however, much caution that needs to be exercised in choosing an Ayurvedic practitioner and finding the right treatment. Most of the cosmetic products that flood the markets these days are far from being herbal preparations, despite bearing the name of Ayurveda. Do read the labels to ascertain the ingredients of any product you use. The absence of quality control is one of the leading charges against Ayurvvedic formulations.
Much quackery is also being practiced in the name of this science. Unlike modern medicines, Ayurvedic healing techniques have traditionally been passed down from father to son, making it all the more difficult to identify good and effective healers. These days, however, there are numerous GoI recognized Ayurvedic colleges and hospitals which have made it easy to spot genuine practitioners.