In my mind, there are two distinct, though connected, ways of understanding Ayurveda. The first way is to look at it in its historical and cultural context and the second is to see its broader universal aspect. I believe both of these are important for truly understanding Ayurveda and in the end they feed and nourish each other.
Understanding the historical and cultural place of Ayurveda allows us to see how it has germinated and flourished in our actual physical world as a distinct school of thought and practice. It is especially important for us Westerners who are approaching Ayurveda to respect that it did not appear in a vacuum. There is a prevalent tendency in the West to appropriate elements of other cultures and divorce them from their origin. This not only prevents us from understanding deeper significances, but it is also a direct insult to cultures that have developed and preserved these traditions. It doesn’t help that often, as is the case with India, they are cultures that have been historically oppressed and manipulated by Western countries. This does not mean we all have to go become Indians or even that we have to wholesale accept all elements of Indian culture, it just means that we have an obligation to come to Ayurveda and other such traditions with an attitude of respect and with a sincere desire to learn and not just project our pre-existing ideas.
With that out of the way, most simply Ayurveda is an ancient Indian medical and healing tradition. It has evolved over thousands of years in India and is considered to be the oldest continually practiced medical system. Ayurveda has informed many other healing disciplines throughout the ages. Elements of Ayurveda show that the system was in conversation with neighboring Chinese medicine, with information likely travelling back and forth between them. Many modern Western medicines have been developed by isolating components from herbs used in Ayurveda. The modern discipline of plastic surgery is even said to have originated from the discovery of a description of a nasal reconstruction surgery in an Ayurvedic text. Though it has different strengths than modern medicine, it is important to note that even on the grounds of straightforward clinical descriptions, Ayurveda was in many places more advanced than Western medicine up until a hundred or so years ago.
But Ayurveda is a fundamentally different kind of medical science than modern medicine. It is, at its base, a qualitative system as opposed to a quantitative system. It relies on a system of principles and concepts, many of which are common to other Indian traditions. These are often very simple ideas which are overlaid one another to produce a vast and quite nuanced network.
The Five Great Elements
The easiest place to start with these is with the concept of the Five Elements: Space, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. It is probably unnecessary, but I want to point out that the Five Elements weren’t some primitive precursor to the periodic table. The Indians (or the Ancients in the West) were not under the impression that all things literally contained Fire or Water. However, they saw certain qualities present in all things and labeled these with common examples which were emblematic of them. In the Indian system, these elements are seen as an evolving manifestation, and so the elements are not even considered precisely separate. Space represents the expanse and potentiality of existence; Air is the beginning of the movement in that expanse; that movement creates friction which makes heat and allows for transformation of state, which is Fire; Water is the downward flow of precipitation which comes from the changed state; and Earth is the solidification of that substance into a stable form. All of these elements are, at least to some extent, in all things. Even the physical “fire” that we know of requires space to exist in, oxygen (Air), has some flow to it (Water), and requires physical fuel and leaves a physical residue of ash (Earth).
Techniques & Application
Perhaps you can already intuit that even though we can say all things are made of all five elements, they do not necessarily have them to the same extent. So, to use our earlier example, even though fire may actually contain all the elements, it is still more “fiery” than a rock. This rock is in turn more “earthy” than a lake. To take this further, a melon is more watery than a peanut and the fire element of a food will be increased if it is cooked.
This forms the basis for the Ayurvedic analysis of everything from foods to people’s individual constitution to the applications of various medicines. It becomes further refined in the system of gunas (qualities), doshas (similar to the often misunderstood Hippocratic concept of humors), and dhatus (the bodily tissues). I’ll go into these in a later blog, but for now suffice it to say that Ayurveda uses these principles to organize a diverse and comprehensive array of possible therapeutic interventions. These include diet and lifestyle, external therapies such as bodywork, and one of the most extensive pharmacologies in the world, employing herbs, minerals, and other substances. India has an incredible abundance of medicinal plants, but the real beauty is that the Ayurvedic method for classifying herbs can be applied to plants anywhere in the world.
Strangely enough, for an understanding of the universal side of Ayurveda it is useful to delve deeper into some specifics. First and foremost, the word “Ayurveda” is a combination of “Ayuh”, the Sanskrit word for Life and “Veda”, which means a system of knowledge. So, Ayurveda is translated as “Knowledge of Life” or even “the Science of Life”. Basically, this means the system is defining itself as being concerned with the workings of “life” in all its forms. This means that it is not just a medical system, but an Ecology. The sutras even define the scope of Ayurveda as being the study of the various things which can promote and preserve life as well as the things which are destructive to life. It is a science of cause and effect, specifically the effect on the life process.
This is, in and of itself, a neutral process, but once causes and their effect on life is known, they can be properly employed. Those causes which are helpful to the promotion of the life we wish to preserve can be utilized and those which are detrimental to it can be avoided or at least mitigated. This process can go quite deep and it transcends any specific context or set of teachings. It is a continuously unfolding and attuning of our awareness towards subtler and subtler connections. Whether or not a person ever even hears the word “Ayurveda”, they can tap into this timeless wisdom with the power of their own awareness and inquiry.
In this sense Ayurveda is not truly a “human-based” medicine, it is an attempt to commune directly with the underlying laws of Nature.
In Indian traditions, these types of attunements are called “Vidyas”, eternal wisdom systems which can be revealed through direct perception to the devoted student. The Vidyas are even personified as Goddesses, so the learning of Ayurveda is not merely studying texts, learning from teachers, or practicing, it is the worship and the development of a relationship with the Ayur-Vidya, the living Goddess of Ayurveda. From this perspective, what is learned through student’s own awareness is being taught directly by the Goddess herself. Of course, in practice, study and guidance are usually necessary for a proper unfolding of this knowledge.
Even as a specific cultural phemomenon, Ayurveda is a constantly evolving system, which is flexible enough to adapt to new knowledge and situations. Within the confluence of history and opportunity, its ancient wisdom is just as relevant and essential today as when its classic works were composed.