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Ayurveda the knowledge of life

The origins of Ayurveda, and for that matter, Indian civilization, are shrouded in mystery. While some scholars have been enthusiastically pushing Ayurveda into remote antiquity, others are vehemently arguing that most of the Ayurvedic literature available today have come into existence only a few centuries before Christ or even after the beginning of the common era. To add more spice to the curry, historians have also opened up a debate on the Vedic and extra Vedic origins of Ayurveda. Some swear that Ayurveda is a product of the Vedic tradition while others scoff at such 'deceptive' notions pointing out that Ayurveda is in fact, anti-Vedic. The most recent and quite a revolutionary proposition is that Ayurveda originated from Buddhism. Anonymity of authors of Ayurvedic literature poses major difficulties in the study of Ayurvedic history. However, there is no doubt that Ayurveda evolved into a codified and systematic form of medicine in the few centuries preceding and succeeding the beginning of the Common Era. Even by the most pessimistic estimates, Ayurveda represents a tradition that is more than two thousand years old.

Origins of Ayurveda

Ayurvedic literature has been decorated with fantastic stories, which ascribe extra human or divine origins to this knowledge system. Few variations are available on the mythological origins of Ayurveda. The most popular mythological story on the origin of Ayurveda is that Lord Brahma who taught it to Prajapati, who in turn passed it to Ashwinis from whom Indra learnt it and transmitted it to the human beings, recollected this knowledge from memory. Serious aspirants of Ayurveda have discovered that such stories are symbolic and when demystified, convey profound insights on the process of knowledge building. Indra, for instance, is known as the thousand eyed and represents a powerful state of consciousness, which is attained by rigorous discipline. Another of Indra's names indicates this, the performer of a hundred sacrifices.

Thus, mythological accounts only indicate that rigorous training is required to experience the knowledge of Ayurveda and they are in no way opposed to open inquiry of truth. The discipline of mind that Ayurveda demands can be aptly termed as tapas. Tapas literally heats up and transforms the mind. It awakens not only the rational but also the intuitive faculty of the mind.

Ayurveda a knowledge system

The objectives of Ayurveda are mainly two, the first being the maintenance of positive health (swasthavritham) and the other treatment of the diseases (aturavrittam).

Ayurveda studies only what exists and ultimately eliminates imaginary and speculative assumptions from its field of enquiry. It provides knowledge of existent phenomena related to the life process in an objective manner. Most important of all, it chalks out an operational scheme to personally verify the knowledge gained about the life process. Finally, it emphasizes experience and verification as the ultimate criteria to validate a knowledge system. This is the classical interpretation of the term Veda that denotes Satta (existence), Jnana (knowledge), Vichara (inquiry) and Labha (attainment). The classical textbooks of Ayurveda declare that true knowledge reveals things as they are and does not distort reality. The sun dispels darkness and reveals the world as it rises on the horizon. Even so the sun of Ayurvedic knowledge reveals to us the nature of life, health and disease. The veracity of this statement has to be verified through a fresh inquiry with an open mind that respects, loves and promotes life. Ayurvedic texts say that one needs both understanding and experience and neither understanding nor experience by itself can lead to complete knowledge.

Human and the Universe

The physical universe is made up of the five great elements or panchamahabhutas, which are symbolically represented by earth (prthvi), water (ap), fire (tejas), air (vayu) and space (akasha). To simplify, they denote space and the solid, liquid, thermal and gaseous states of physical matter and correspond to the five sense perceptions of sound, smell, taste, colour and touch. Everything in the visible universe including the human body is made up of the five elements in various permutations and combinations. Thus, the imbalance in the human body can be corrected by using appropriate substances from the external environment. The human being is visualized as a microcosm representing the larger macrocosm in a miniature form.

The five elements organize dynamically into the three doṣas in the body and govern anabolic and catabolic activities. Vata, Pitta and Kapha are the three doṣas that serve as the functional units of the body. Kapha is a combination of the principles of earth and water and broadly represents anabolism. Pitta is a combination of the principles of water and fire; it represents transformation and catabolism. Vata is a combination of the principles of wind and space; it represents regulation and control.

The fire in the body

Under the influence of the three doṣas and the digestive fire (agni), the food that we eat is transformed into seven structural components (dhatus) of the body: chyle (rasa), blood (rakta), muscle (mamsa), fat (medas), bone (asthi), marrow (majja) and reproductive tissue (shukra). Waste products are excreted in the form of faeces, urine, sweat and other body secretions. When this transformation is completed, there is ojas or innate vitality and immunity that create higher levels of health and well-being. The fire in the human body is considered to be sacred and the process of digestion is compared with a yajna. One must regulate one's diet habits and eat food as a worship of the inner fire. Ayurveda has described the properties of a variety of food substances that includes cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruits, milk and milk products, alcohol, meat and spices. Each individual has to develop a diet regimen on the basis of prakriti or constitution. There are eight factors that has to be considered to make diet wholesome - nature of food, combination, processing, quantity, place, time, rules of eating and the individual. Ayurveda has also developed a special branch of dietetics which deals with the principles of diet in health and disease and different methods of cooking wholesome food.

3 pillars of life

Life promoting factors can be best understood in relation with three basic processes of life. Life is basically an activity, the energy for which is obtained from matter in the external environment. Periods of intense activity are alternated by periods of rest. Fuelling (Ahara— food), Resting (Nidra — sleep) and Activity (Brahmacharya — action to achieve the highest goal) are considered in Ayurveda as the Tristambha or the three supports of life.

Brahmacharya, often translated as celibacy, actually means activity that aims to reach the highest or biggest. The word brahman means big. One can live a healthy and purposeful life if one knows 1) how to eat, 2) how to rest and 3) how to act.

Ayurveda gives elaborate guidelines on food and how to develop good eating habits. It also advises one how to derive the maximum benefit from sleep and organise one's energies for a meaningful life. Finally, Ayurveda tells us that we must differentiate between smaller and higher goals in life. Life becomes purposeless if one does not reach for the highest goal. Activities pertain to body, mind and speech. How to regulate these activities so as to preserve and promote life is the concern of Ayurveda.