Laurie Eddie

(Investigator 135, 2010 May)

Ayurveda is the world's most ancient and complete science of natural medicine. It provides a wealth of knowledge and time tested therapies to promote health in both mind and body. [1]

Ayurvedic medicine, or Ayurveda, is an ancient Indian approach to the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease. The name comes from the Sanskrit words, Ayus = life; and Veda = knowledge; now generally translated as meaning, "the knowledge, or science, of life." Its origins are uncertain, it is claimed to have originated some 5,000 years ago, when a group of the wisest Brahmin sages met in the Himalayas and combined their knowledge into a single body of medicine; this however is probably just a myth.

It is much more likely that Ayurveda simply evolved from an ongoing body of practical medical experience that had been passed down orally through numerous generations until, eventually, it was written down. One of its earliest books, the Sushruta-samhita, dates to around the 1st century BCE, while the Caraka-samhita, by the physician Charaka, (or Caraka), was probably written during the 1st century A.D. [2]

There is little doubt that Ayurvedic medicine predated, and was for many centuries, far ahead of Western medicine, especially in the area of surgery. This was probably the result of the much earlier development of Indian culture, some 1,500 years before the earliest European settlement in the Hellenic Peninsula. It was a well-established form of traditional medicine and it remained the principal form of medical treatment until modern colonial times when Western medicine arrived in India.

Although Western medicine was far superior to Ayurvedic, there were problems in implementing modern medicine into India. The principal problems were a shortage of doctors trained in Western medicine, and a great deal of suspicion about "foreign medicine" by the Indians. For these reasons Ayurvedic medicine has remained the principal form of medical treatment within India, especially amongst the rural population. However, the Indian Medical Council recognizes that some aspects of Ayurvedic are useful and is attempting to integrate parts of the traditional system into the Western style medical syllabus. [3]

Ayurvedic medicine was based upon a combination of empirical treatments whose effectiveness had been noted over many centuries. Unfortunately, like most forms of primitive medicine its underlying principles are based upon a number of erroneous religious and philosophical assumptions. Prior to 800 BCE Indian medicine was influenced by the religious teachings of the Vedas, which contain numerous references to the belief that diseases were caused by evil-spirits or demons. As a result of such beliefs cures were essentially magical spells designed to chase away the evil-spirits and demons causing the illness.

Although Ayurvedic had many sensible forms of treatment, because it was heavily influenced by the primitive mind¬set it inherited many of the common superstitious ideas. Thus, it was believed that treatment of the patient could be influenced by such things as the clothing of the person sent to fetch the physician, or the nature and condition of the vehicle sent to transport the physician. Of particular importance was whether or not the physician encountered any person on their way to the home of the patient. Certain individuals, women, men with physical disorders, or certain animals were deemed to present negative omens, which could interfere with the subsequent treatment of the patient.

There were other erroneous notions; like most ancient medical theories Ayurvedic was based upon primitive ideas about the composition of the cosmos. It taught that the Earth, and all that it contained, was created out of five basic elemental forces, (Pancha Mahabhutas), air (Vayu), fire (Agm), water (Apa) earth (Prithvl), and, Akasha (space). [4]

These five elements were considered to be much more than simply physical elements, they were believed to contain a transcendental component. Thus, fire was not simply a form of energy producing heat and light, but it also, ...burns away the cloak of ignorance (avidya) and allows the Truth to shine with brilliance. Fire removes doubt from the mother-substance of human heart and replaces it with joy. [5]

Since humans were also believed to be a mixture of these elements, it was believed that the amount of each element present in their composition, was the major factor in determining their basic physical and mental composition. Since each element has specific characteristics, it was assumed that the varied natures of humans were the result of the particular interaction of these elements within that individual. Ayurveda combined their five elemental forces into three dyadic doshas: -
1.    Vata Dosha comprising Space and Air. This controls our energies and our ability to move;
2.    Pitta Dosha comprising Fire and Water. This gives us warmth, perception and the body's ability to convert substances inside our bodies.; and
3.    Kapha Dosha, comprising Water and Earth. This creates the substances that comprise our physical body, all its secretions, and creates solidness, strength and structural organization.

At conception, each individual was imbued with a mixture of these three forces; usually with one particular dosha dominating to produce specific forms of physical and mental development, (prakriti). Humans were completely at the mercy of whatever tridosha they inherited. Prakriti was also influenced by such factors as the condition of the doshas within the parents at the moment of conception; the parent's mental state and intentions at the time of conception, as well as such things as the mother's diet" her activities during pregnancy, the condition of the uterus, as well as physical and mental familial traits.

There are a number of other important differences between Ayurvedic and scientifically based medicine.

Ayurveda mentions only seven types of body tissue, while Western medicine identifies twenty-five types, divided into four sub¬groupings. Furthermore while scientific medicine teaches that tissue is formed from cells that are genetically predisposed to become a particular type of tissue, Ayurvedic proposes a complex hierarchy of tissue generation, each form of tissue having its own form of agni, (fire), which converts it into a higher, more complex form of tissue. At the basis of this system of conversion is the food we eat. When food is ingested it is broken down by the action of gastric secretion until it reaches the small intestines as chyme, (acidic partly digested food). At this time, through the action of ahara rasagni this chyme is converted into the simplest and most basic form of tissue, blood plasma. As the process continues the plasma changes into blood cells, to muscle tissue, to fat, to bone, to bone marrow and nervous tissue, until finally it reaches its ultimate form as reproductive tissue. Independently of this process semen is believed to be produced from all parts of the body and not from any individual part or organ.

This theory poses several serious problems; (a) how are the various forms of tissue able to survive in the acidic environment of the small intestine; and (b) how does the newly formed tissue passes from the intestines into the body? No explanation is provided.

At the basis of Ayurveda is a concept that is common to many alternative forms of medicine, the idea that throughout the body are numerous invisible channels, in Ayurvedic they are called srotas. Ayurvedic proposes there are sixteen srotas which not only carry food and air into the body, and remove the wastes, but also that some of these channels are the means by which intelligence flows throughout the body, and there is even one that channels the flow of thoughts through the mind.

Finally, there is the agni, the thirteen forms of "digestive fire" — the eternal flame that animates our body and our mind, and converts food into the basic building blocks of life. This force must be kept healthy and balanced, for if it fails to operate at its full potential our digestion operates poorly, and we become susceptible to infections and disease, especially to ama, a toxin that forms in improperly digested food, leading to widespread disease in the body.

So how valid is Ayurvedic Medicine? One of the claims made about Ayurvedic medicine is that since it is based upon a vast collection of empirical knowledge gathered over a vast period of time it must be efficacious! However things are not necessarily better because they are older. For instance, the Egyptians had many remedies that involved mixing various herbs in one's own urine and crocodile dung. This was an ancient remedy, handed down through a large collection of medical knowledge gathered over some four thousand years. In addition it was 100% natural. So why don't we use this medicine today? Obviously, we do not use it, because medical science has progressed; not only has it shown that such medications were totally useless, but modern medicine has developed treatments that are far more effective. So medicines that are old and tested are not necessarily better.

The fact is that, like Ayurveda, Western medicine also went through a long pre-scientific stage of development, but unlike the other systems, it evolved! Unlike other forms of medicine it started to apply proper scientific principles and when that happened it became obvious that many of the old ideas were simply superstitious nonsense, with no genuine medical foundation. So modern medicine kept the things that worked and discarded those that did not work. This is something that Ayurvedic never did; it remains in its original pre-scientific stage, and while Western scientific medicine advances into the 21st century with incredible new scientific vistas, Ayurvedic medicine remains fixed in the teachings of the 5th century BCE.

Unfortunately, despite its severe limitations traditional Ayurvedic medicine is now being promoted as a viable form of alternative medicine. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi recently introduced it into the Western World as Maharishi Ayur-Veda, claiming that,
Centuries of neglect led to the decline of Ayurveda until 1980 when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation gathered the foremost living exponents of Auurveda to enliven this age-old knowledge in its completeness and original purity. [6]

Despite these fanciful claims the "new" system appears to be the same primitive material; with absolutely no relevance to modern scientific principles of medicine it is being foisted onto a gullible public.

Similarly, another well known exponent of Ayurvedic, Deepak Chopra, also claims to have developed a combination of Ayurvedic medicine, Western medicine, and popular New Age ideas, combined into a package of complex linguistics, designed to baffle and amaze the average patient. Basic to his system are mysterious forms of energy, which he calls prana or chi, (the Chinese term for cosmic energy). Chopra asserts that we all contain this special form of energy, plus a large amount of "cosmic awareness" that is part of this energy; this "knowledge" being downloaded from a "cosmic source". The key to our individual development is the way that we use this awareness. He speaks of "quantum healing" to explain the ability of the mind to heal by utilizing a process to balance the "quantum mechanical body" — the idea that all illnesses will succumb to the application of mental power.

According to Chopra it is our perception of the external world that influences our very being and creates our perception of "reality. Using this scenario everything is an illusion, there is no reality except what we believe, and so everything, including illness and aging are illusions of our own making. Since they are illusions of the mind they can be controlled by our consciousness, so that not only can we slow down our aging process and achieve a state of perfect health, but theoretically we should be able to live eternally.

Like most New Age practitioners Chopra twists genuine scientific principals to fit within his particular weird and wonderful framework. To be fair however, one must always judge upon results.

In an appearance on the "Phil Donahue" show, Chopra placed great importance upon a single testimonial by Marian Thompson praising his treatment, used along with chemotherapy, to treat metastatic breast cancer. However, despite this Ms. Thompson later died of her disease.

There is no doubt that the objectives of Ayurvedic medicine are most commendable. It places a great deal of emphasis upon the ability to be at complete peace with one's self and the world, for each person to establish a balanced sense of mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. The problem is that despite these worthy objectives, by retaining its primitive ideas Ayurvedic is no better than those forms of medicine that were practiced by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. Ayurvedic medicine evolved in a primitive, pre-scientific world, and it has not progressed beyond that antiquated level; for that reason alone it has little relevance to the modern practice of medicine.


[1]     New Light on Ancient Wisdom, www.maharishLcom/; p. 1

[2]     The History of Medicine and Surgery. Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 23, p. 886.
[3]     Ibid. p. 887.
[4]     New Light on Ancient Wisdom, op. cit. p. 1.
[5]     The Basic Principles of Ayurveda. The National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine (NIAM); p. 1
[6]     New Light on Ancient Wisdom, op. cit. p. 1.