Ayurveda (Sanskrit: आयुर्वेद, Āyurveda, “life-knowledge”; English pronunciation /ˌaɪ.ərˈveɪdə/), or Ayurveda medicine, is a system of medicine with historical roots in the Indian subcontinent. Globalized and modernized practices derived from Ayurveda traditions are a type of complementary or alternative medicine. In the Western world, Ayurveda therapies and practices (which are manifold) have been integrated in general wellness applications and as well in some cases in medical use.
The main classical Ayurveda texts begin with accounts of the transmission of medical knowledge from the Gods to sages, and then to human physicians. In Sushruta Samhita ([Sushruta’s Compendium]), Sushruta wrote that Dhanvantari, Hindu god of Ayurveda, incarnated himself as a mythical king of Varanasi and taught medicine to a group of physicians, including Sushruta. Ayurveda therapies have varied and evolved over more than two millennia. Therapies are typically based on complex herbal compounds, minerals and metal substances (perhaps under the influence of early Indian alchemy or rasa shastra). Ancient Ayurveda texts also taught surgical techniques, including rhinoplasty, kidney stone extractions, sutures, and the extraction of foreign objects.
Although laboratory experiments suggest it is possible that some substances in Ayurveda might be developed into effective treatments, there is no evidence that any are effective as currently practiced. Ayurveda medicine is considered pseudoscientific. Other researchers consider it a protoscience, or trans-science system instead. Close to 21% of Ayurveda U.S. and Indian-manufactured patent medicines sold through the Internet were found to contain toxic levels of heavy metals, specifically lead, mercury, and arsenic. The public health implications of such metallic contaminants in India are unknown.
Some scholars assert that Ayurveda originated in prehistoric times, and that some of the concepts of Ayurveda have existed from the time of the Indus Valley Civilization or even earlier. Ayurveda developed significantly during the Vedic period and later some of the non-Vedic systems such as Buddhism and Jainism also developed medical concepts and practices that appear in the classical Ayurveda texts. Humoral balance is emphasized, and suppressing natural urges is considered unhealthy and claimed to lead to illness. Ayurveda names three elemental substances, the doshas (called Vata, Pitta and Kapha), and states that a balance of the doshas results in health, while imbalance results in disease. Ayurveda has eight canonical components, which are derived from classical Sanskrit literature. Some of the oldest known Ayurvedic texts include the Sushruta Samhita and Charaka Samhita ([Charaka’s Compendium]), which are written in Sanskrit. Ayurveda practitioners developed various medicinal preparations and surgical procedures by the medieval period.
The earliest classical Sanskrit works on Ayurveda describe medical science as being divided into eight components (Skt. aṅga). This characterization of the physicians’ art as the teaching found in “the medicine that has eight components” (Skt. cikitsāyām aṣṭāṅgāyāṃ चिकित्सायामष्टाङ्गायाम्) is first found in the Sanskrit epic, the Mahābhārata. The components are:
- Kāyacikitsā: general medicine, medicine of the body
- Kaumāra-bhṛtya: the treatment of children, paediatrics
- Śalyatantra: surgical techniques and the extraction of foreign objects
- Śālākyatantra: treatment of ailments affecting ears, eyes, nose, mouth, etc. (“ENT”)
- Bhūtavidyā: pacification of possessing spirits, and the people whose minds are affected by such possession
- Agadatantra: toxicology
- Rasāyanatantra: rejuvenation and tonics for increasing lifespan, intellect and strength
- Vājīkaraṇatantra: aphrodisiacs and treatments for increasing the volume and viability of semen and sexual pleasure.
Principles and terminology
The central theoretical ideas of Ayurveda developed in the mid-first millennium BCE, and show parallels with Sāṅkhya and Vaiśeṣika philosophies and with Buddhism and Jainism. Balance is emphasized, and suppressing natural urges is considered unhealthy and claimed to lead to illness. For example, to suppress sneezing is said to potentially give rise to shoulder pain. However, people are also cautioned to stay within the limits of reasonable balance and measure when following nature’s urges. For example, emphasis is placed on moderation of food intake, sleep, and sexual intercourse.
Ayurveda names seven basic tissues (dhatu), which are plasma (rasa), blood (rakta), muscles (māmsa), fat (meda), bone (asthi), marrow (majja), and semen (shukra). Like the medicine of classical antiquity, Ayurveda has historically divided bodily substances into five classical elements (Sanskrit [maha]panchabhuta, viz. earth, water, fire, air and ether. There are also twenty gunas (qualities or characteristics) which are considered to be inherent in all substances. These are organized in ten pairs of antonyms: heavy/light, cold/hot, unctuous/dry, dull/sharp, stable/mobile, soft/hard, non-slimy/slimy, smooth/coarse, minute/gross, and viscous/liquid.
Ayurveda also names three elemental substances, the doshas (called Vata, Pitta and Kapha), and states that a balance of the doshas results in health, while imbalance results in disease. One Ayurvedic view is that the doshas are balanced when they are equal to each other, while another view is that each human possesses a unique combination of the doshas which define this person’s temperament and characteristics. In either case, it says that each person should modulate their behavior or environment to increase or decrease the doshas and maintain their natural state.
In medieval taxonomies of the Sanskrit knowledge systems, Ayurveda is assigned a place as a subsidiary Veda (upaveda). Some medicinal plant names from the Atharvaveda and other Vedas can be found in subsequent Ayurveda literature. The earliest recorded theoretical statements about the canonical models of disease in Ayurveda occur in the earliest Buddhist Canon.
Ayurvedic doctors regard physical existence, mental existence, and personality as a unit, with each element being able to influence the others.[clarification needed] This is a holistic approach used during diagnosis and therapy, and is a fundamental aspect of Ayurveda. Another part of Ayurvedic treatment says that there are channels (srotas) which transport fluids, and that the channels can be opened up by massage treatment using oils and Swedana (fomentation). Unhealthy channels are thought to cause disease.
Ayurveda has eight ways to diagnose illness, called Nadi (pulse), Mootra (urine), Mala (stool), Jihva (tongue), Shabda (speech), Sparsha (touch), Druk (vision), and Aakruti (appearance). Ayurvedic practitioners approach diagnosis by using the five senses. For example, hearing is used to observe the condition of breathing and speech. The study of the lethal points or marman marma is of special importance.
Treatment and prevention
Two of the eight branches of classical Ayurveda deal with surgery (Śalya-cikitsā and Śālākya-tantra), but contemporary Ayurveda tends to stress attaining vitality by building a healthy metabolic system and maintaining good digestion and excretion. Ayurveda also focuses on exercise, yoga, and meditation. One type of prescription is a Sattvic diet.
Ayurveda follows the concept of Dinacharya, which says that natural cycles (waking, sleeping, working, meditation etc.) are important for health. Hygiene, including regular bathing, cleaning of teeth, skin care, and eye washing, is also a central practice.
Plant-based treatments in Ayurveda may be derived from roots, leaves, fruits, bark, or seeds such as cardamom and cinnamon. In the 19th century, William Dymock and co-authors summarized hundreds of plant-derived medicines along with the uses, microscopic structure, chemical composition, toxicology, prevalent myths and stories, and relation to commerce in British India. Animal products used in Ayurveda include milk, bones, and gallstones. In addition, fats are prescribed both for consumption and for external use. Consumption of minerals, including sulphur, arsenic, lead, copper sulfate and gold, are also prescribed. The addition of minerals to herbal medicine is called rasa shastra.
Ayurveda uses alcoholic beverages called Madya, which are said to adjust the doshas by increasing Pitta and reducing Vatta and Kapha. Madya are classified by the raw material and fermentation process, and the categories include: sugar-based, fruit-based, cereal-based, cereal-based with herbs, fermentated with vinegar, and tonic wines. The intended outcomes can include causing purgation, improving digestion or taste, creating dryness, or loosening joints. Ayurvedic texts describe Madya as non-viscid and fast-acting, and say that it enters and cleans minute pores in the body.
Purified opium is used in eight Ayurvedic preparations and is said to balance the Vata and Kapha doshas and increase the Pitta dosha. It is prescribed for diarrhea and dysentery, for increasing the sexual and muscular ability, and for affecting the brain. The sedative and pain-relieving properties of opium are not considered in Ayurveda. The use of opium is not found in the ancient Ayurvedic texts, and is first mentioned in the Sarngadhara Samhita (1300-1400 CE), a book on pharmacy used in Rajasthan in Western India, as an ingredient of an aphrodisiac to delay male ejaculation. It is possible that opium was brought to India along with or before the Mohammedan conquest. The book Yoga Ratnakara (1700-1800 CE, unknown author), which is popular in Maharashtra, uses opium in a herbal-mineral composition prescribed for diarrhea. In the Bhaisajya Ratnavali, opium and camphor are used for acute gastroenteritis. In this drug, the respiratory depressant action of opium is counteracted by the respiratory stimulant property of Camphor. Later books have included the narcotic property for use as analgesic pain reliever.
Cannabis indica is also absent from the ancient Ayurveda books, and is first mentioned in the Sarngadhara Samhita as a treatment for diarrhea. In the Bhaisajya Ratnavali it is named as an ingredient in an aphrodisiac.
Ayurveda says that both oil and tar can be used to stop bleeding, and that traumatic bleeding can be stopped by four different methods: ligation of the blood vessel, cauterisation by heat, use of preparations to facilitate clotting, and use of preparations to constrict the blood vessels. Oils are also used in a number of ways, including regular consumption, anointing, smearing, head massage, application to affected areas, and oil pulling. Liquids may also be poured on the patient’s forehead, a technique called shirodhara.