Ayurveda: From Ancient Wisdom to the Leading Edge of Science

By James J. Gormley

Rig Veda fragment

Rig Veda fragment

Thousands of years ago, in India, in a “journey” spanning centuries, the accumulated wisdom of scientific practice and knowledge—including advanced experience in medicine—was distilled into four multi-volume compendia, the Vedas: the Rig Veda (4,500 years ago), Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and the Atharva Veda (3,200 years ago). The Rig Veda (in the form of 1,028 hymns) and the Atharva Veda offered surprisingly detailed information on surgery and herbal remedies, respectively.

The origins of Ayurveda
According to Indian legend, Punarvasu Atreya, who was a vedic wise man and author of the fifth book of Rig Veda, “was the first human being [to whom] the gods taught the art the art of medicine,” recounts Hans Rhyner in Ayurveda: the Gentle Health System (1994).

Rhymer tells us legend further holds that Atreya went to visit Indra, the king of the gods (devtas), and said this to him: “Oh, monarch of the gods, not only do you reign over the heavenly spheres but over all three planetary systems, because that is the way the Creator wanted it. The world of human beings is befallen with illnesses, and they suffer terribly. Show me your compassion and teach me the science of life.”

After Indra was convinced of Atreya’s stunning intellectual abilities, he passed on to him the knowledge of Ayurveda, which literally means: the “science of life.”



The godlike Indra was supposed to have received his own understanding of Ayurveda from two physicians, the divine Ashwini brothers. “The Ashwini brothers had received their knowledge from Daksha, a higher being who had the task of filling the universe with living beings; Daksha had been instructed by his father, Brahma, the first living being of the universe,” explains Rhyner.

Atreya passed along records of what he learned to the following students: Agnivesha, Bhela, Jatukarna, Parasara, Ksirapani and Harita, who each added his own individual commentary. The writings of Agnivesha, the Caraka Samhita, have survived mostly intact, whereas the works of Bhela and Harita now only exist in fragments.

The great classics. The “Great Trilogy,” or Brihat Trayi, of the founding Ayurvedic medical texts are:

  • Caraka Samhita. These eight books are believed to have been written between 400 B.C. and 200 B.C., but are based on an oral tradition going back centuries prior to that (even thousands of years, perhaps); Caraka Samhita is the oldest and most important of the ancient writings on Ayurveda. It establishes the theoretical basis of Ayurvedic Medicine, and concentrates on internal medicine (kayacikitsa).
  • Susruta Samhita. These six books are thought to have been written shortly after Caraka Samhita, by a scholar, Susruta, but, again, are based on an oral tradition passed down over generations. In any case, the Susruta Samhita discusses 76 visual disorders, 51 of which were treated surgically. In addition, the author lists 101 blunt and 20 sharp surgical instruments that are very similar to instruments used today–the human hand is even included as one of the instruments, as well it should.

As Rhyner points out: “Surgical intervention was used in a very restricted sense, and only when other treatments could not promise success.” In addition to describing advanced surgical procedures–including plastic surgery and skin transplants–1,120 illnesses are discussed, including injuries, aging-related conditions, and mental illness. Seven hundred healing plants were included, in addition to 64 mineral-based preparations and 57 animal- source preparations.

The mythological roots of these works are said to originate with Dhanvantari, the incarnation of Vishnu, who is said to have been Susruta’s teacher in this. In fact, every chapter begins with the words: “Vathovaca bhagavan Dhanvantari Susrutaya,” or “As Susruta was taught by the honorable Dhanvantari …”

  • Astanga Hrdayam Samhita or Astanga Samgraha. These six books are said to have been written by Vagbhata, a person who was born in Sindh (now a province in Pakistan) and was taught Ayurvedic Medicine by his father, a Buddhist monk, named Avalokita. It, again, apparently dates back to the period between 400 B.C. and 200 B.C., and concentrates on internal medicine. It includes details on such topics as: pregancy, birth complications, human anatomy, and personal hygiene–a topic that wasn’t included in the curricula of European universities until the late 19th century. This work found its way to Tibet, and from there to China and Japan.

These works explain, for the first time, the eight disciplines of Ayurvedic science:
* Kayacikitsa (internal medicine)
* Balacikitsa or kaumarabhritya (pediatrics)
* Bhutavidya or grahacikitsa (psychiatry)
* Urdhvanga cikitsa or salakya (ear-nose-throat and ophthalmology)
* Salya tantra or Salakya (surgery)
* Agada tantra (toxicology)
* Rasayana (geriatrics)
* Vajikarana (sexology)

Ayurvedic botanicalsAyurvedic Principles
Basic elements. According to a chapter written by Vasant Lad in the book, Essentials of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (1999), an “Ayurvedic principle states that all organic and inorganic substances are made up of the five basic elements: space, air, fire, water, and earth.

Types of energy. In addition to the five basic elements, Ayurveda points to three basic types of energy, called doshas, that are present in every body and every thing, and which also correspond to “body types”–physical and behavioral characteristics, or personality tendencies:
* vata–the energy of movement. Characteristics: unpredictable, thin, cool/dry skin, irregular sleeper, cramps/constipation, moody, arthritic, hyperactive
* pitta–energy of digestion or metabolism. Characteristics: predictable, medium-set, warm/wet skin, regular sleeper, heartburn (ulcers & hemorrhoids), intense, efficient/orderly
* kapha–energy that makes up the body and holds our cells together. Characteristics: relaxed, heavy-set, oily/cool skin, heavy sleeper, allergies, high cholesterol, diabetes, hypertension, underactive thyroid, forgiving and tolerant, procrastinator.

Since each constitutional type is inclined to certain disorders (or imbalances), both we, and our Ayurvedic-trained physicians, should “have a basic understanding of how the inner organizations of vata, pitta and kapha are acting in, and reacting to, the patient’s [our] lifestyle, diet, emotions, job and stress,” adds Lad.

Disorders and stages of disorder (disease). In line with an understanding of constitutional types and the origins of dosha imbalance, specific organs lie at the heart of many disorders. For example, rata disorders can always be traced to the colon, while pitta disorders start in the small intestine, and kapha disorders are always based in the stomach and gastric mucosal secretions.

Stages of disorder. Continuing the concept of dosha imbalances, there are six progressive stages of disorder, or disease, brought on by “uncontrolled aggravating causes: accumulation (easiest to treat/prevent), provocation, spread, deposition, manifestation and differentiation (most difficult to treat/eradicate).

PanchakarmaAyurvedic treatment? Cleansing therapy. The strong health-promoting, purifying and strengthening goals of Ayurvedic herbal and mineral remedies are at the core of this medical science. This is one medicine which desperately wants to help us avoid drugs and “heroic measures” (like surgery).

Part and parcel of this approach includes such modalities as: panchakarma, including: oil massage and sweat therapy, purgatives (including the herbal remedy, Triphala), therapeutic enema, nasal administration of medications, and purification of the blood.

Rejuvenation therapy (rasayana). “After the cleansing process occurs, a program of rejuvenation is recommended, with specific herbs appropriate to the dosha imbalance,” Ladd explains.

Ayurvedic herbs and herbal formulas
Ayurveda’s knowledge, and wisdom, of herbs and minerals goes back thousands of years, including the understanding of herbs commonly used for food–such as turmeric and a variety of peppers, including cayenne.

Ayurveda = a whole-body approach to health

As Vasant Lad so rightly wrote:

“Ayurveda is more than a mere healing system. It is a science and an art of appropriate living which helps us to achieve longevity. It can guide every individual in the proper choice of diet, living habits and exercise to restore balance in the body, mind and consciousness, thus preventing disease from gaining a foothold in the system.”


Gormley, James J. “Ayurvedic Medicine” column passim. Better Nutrition January 1996 (volume 58, number 1) through June 1999 (volume 61, number 6).

Heyn, Birgit. Ayurveda: The Indian Art of Natural Medicine & Life Extension. Rochester, Ver.: Healing Arts Press, 1990.

Lad, Vasant. “Ayurvedic Medicine.” In: Wayne Jonas, M.D., and Jeffrey S. Levin, Ph.D., M.P.H. Essentials of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Philadelphia, Penn.: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1999 (phone: 1-800-638-3030).

Lad, Vasant. “An Introduction to Panchakarma.” Albuquerque, N.M.: The Ayurvedic Institute (phone: 505-291-9698), 1994.

Packard, Candis Cantin. Pocket Guide to Ayurvedic Healing. Freedom, Calif.: The Crossing Press, 1996.

Rege, N.N., et al. “Adaptogenic properties of six rasayana herbs used in Ayurvedic medicine,” Phytotherapy Research 13(4):275-291, 1999.

Rhyner, Hans H. Ayurveda: the Gentle Health System. New York, N.Y.: Sterling Publishing, 1994.

[Note: Adapted from an original article of mine that was published in November 1999]

Gormley, James J
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