What Is Ayurveda?
Written by Varadaan Lipman | 11 July 2010
The term Ayurveda can be translated directly as "the science of life". It has sacred meaning, sharing its Vedic origins with Buddhism, and therefore should always be capitalized. The original and intended purposes of Ayurveda are life extension and enlightenment.
In Ayurveda, life is defined as the functional integration of mind, body and spirit, with this triad first being described and detailed thousands of years ago. Ayurveda originates from the Atharva Veda, and thus qualifies as the oldest recorded medical system on the planet. Fascinatingly, Ayurvedic philosophy and the context of philosophy recorded in the Upanishads have stood the test of time, and remain completely relevant today for all dimensions of human activity, and are still considered a highest authority on key topics for perhaps a billion people. It seems most serious inquirers into the nature of reality will eventually find their way to Vedic Science, the ground from which Buddhism sprang into being, and with which modern Quantum Mechanics finds remarkable agreement.
In Ayurvedic theory, the three doshas of Vata, Pitta and Kapha, are how the five elements manifest in the body. The five elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space compose all material reality and therefore are at the basis of Ayurvedic treatment on this material and in subtle form, the psychological realms. The five elements are composed of 20 gunas (qualities), which are arranged in 10 axes of opposing pairs. Each of the three doshas has five subtypes, which can be organized with correlation to the five elements. There are three maha gunas which operate with particular relevance to the nature of mind. Incidentally, mind and body are, in Ayurveda, considered to be functionally integrated, and it is understood that mental toxins, which may be the seed of disease, can be extracted from the body as physical substance. Digestion is central to Ayurveda and is a primary focus, since metabolism is critical to create, maintain and restore health. A main cleansing process in Ayurveda is Pancha Karma, which translates as five therapeutic actions, and relates to a means for removing elemental level imbalances from the body, especially deep tissues and organs.
Ayurveda specifically prefers not to name a disease, and instead offers a discussion of states of imbalance and how to correct them. However, the Western version of Ayurvedic medicine, which should be distinguished from the more superficial "spa" Ayurveda, can be applied with specific power and efficacy as a complementary medicine to Western medical science. In fact, the techniques of Western medicine fit within the body of Ayurvedic theory---the eight branches of Western medicine likely came to the Greeks as a result of Ayurvedic medical conferences in Tibet.
Perhaps the oldest record of complex surgical procedures was written and practiced by the legendary Indian physician Sushruta of 2500 years ago, who made important contributions to plastic surgery and cataract surgery. Acupuncture too may have originated in India.
Today there are perhaps four main branches of Ayurveda: 1) the South Indian version, as practiced in Kerala which emphasizes fresh quality herbal oils and massage with them; 2) the North Indian version, which includes alchemical techniques and highly potentized medicines; 3) the medicine of Tibet, which integrates indigenous shamanic practices, Buddhist philosophy and Chinese medicine into a foundation of Ayurvedic theory; and 4) the constellation of Ayurveda that has now rooted into Western culture, and when truly qualifying as a medical science, may be largely informed by training more based in the North Indian philosophies, but is in fact taking on its own form as it integrates with the Western ways, especially Western medicine.
The highly potent herbs of Ayurveda have become very popular throughout the world; and many are now being studied intensely by Western science, which is finding remarkable results, even when one substance is studied alone without the synergistic effects of herbal combinations and the comprehensive treatment modalities that tradition suggests. Additionally, Ayurveda has partnering sister sciences, two being the sciences of Jyotish astrology and of Yoga, since Ayurveda specifically considers the full human lifespan and employs meditation, Yogic physical postures and breathing practices for healing. Spiritual practice and meditation are of special importance in Ayurveda, particularly when working on imbalances with emotional causes, as well as difficult or chronic conditions.