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Healing from the Source-1: an overview of the ancient Ayurvedic approach

  ------ © Dr. Satya Prakash Choudhary

Three kinds of suffering

Man has always sought to keep himself free from suffering. According to Samkhya, Vaisesika and Nyaya philosophies living beings are subject to three kinds of suffering. The first two kinds of suffering are from external conditions while the third kind of suffering arises from internal causes within the mind-body complex.

•  Adhibhauthika or environmental (arising from environmental factors around us such as those arising through the influence of animals, microorganisms, other humans etc)

•  Adhidaivika or providential (arising from extra-human or providential factors such as earthquakes, storms, volcanic eruptions, droughts etc)

•  Adhyathmika or constitutional (arising from intrinsic factors or from one's own mind-body complex)

In fact Susruta the ancient Ayurvedic surgeon even classifies diseases on the above threefold basis (Susruta Samhita : I. 24.4) .


Ayurveda and the Darsanas

Ayurveda or ancient Indian medicine is not just limited to studying illnesses and their treatment. Neither does it stop with studying the causes and end of physical and mental pain only. Its purview includes extra-human and existential causes of suffering much like the ancient philosophies of India . Ayurveda extends the concept of health to include the happiness of senses, mind as an essential condition for good health.

The desire or will to live, the desire to be happy and the instinct to perpetuate oneself through progeny, are among the main natural instincts of all men. The instinctual pursuit of happiness has two aspects to it- firstly preventing unhappiness/suffering and secondly alleviating suffering/unhappiness that is already there. The darsanas (philosophies) of India sought to study the phenomenon of human suffering among other important and interrelated topics. Whilst the darsanas elucidate the ideal vision of life, they are often accused of being speculative at many places. However intellectually brilliant, how does one pin one's faith in all the speculations and theories debated by the various philosophies? Where is the practical proof for the darsanas ? It is here that the pratyaksa sastras or experiential/practical systems of knowledge complement the philosophies.

Ayurveda, Yoga and Jyotisha are the three pratyaksa sastras that enable us to experience the truths expounded by the darsanas or philosophies. Yoga enables one to experience the ideas/concepts expounded by Samkhya. Jyotisha illustrates Karma siddhantha or the theory of Karma . The practice of Ayurveda practically illustrates the truths expounded by all the six systems of philosophies ( shaddarsanas ) though it illustrates some concepts like ‘Agni-Someeyam', ‘Tridoshas' , and ‘Panchabhutas' more clearly. This is why it has always been held that one should have performed great merits in previous lives to be lucky enough to attain a good knowledge of any of these three practical and experiential systems. Each of these sastras helps us in attaining various goals of life (the four purusharthas ) apart from giving proof of the concepts expounded by the darsanas . No wonder Ayurveda, Yoga and Jyotisha are all referred to as ‘pratyaksa sastras' .

The ancient Ayurvedic physician Caraka defines Ayurveda as “the science through the help of which one can obtain knowledge about the wholesome and harmful types of life ( hita and ahita ayus ), happy and miserable types of life, things which are beneficial and harmful for such types of life, the span of life as well as the very nature of life” ( Caraka Samhita: Sutra 1. 42). Thus Ayurveda can enable us to live a healthy, virtuous, wholesome and purposeful life of happiness. It gives us guidelines for maintenance and promotion of health as well as prevention and treatment of diseases. However unlike modern medicine Ayurveda doesn't content itself with the goal of good health. The purpose of attainment of good health is not the ultimate goal of Ayurveda . As Caraka affirms health is the supreme foundation of dharma, artha, kama and moksha - the four purusharthas or goals of life. Maintaining good health is essential to achieve the four purusharthas. Moreover Ayurveda shares with the darsanas the common aim of “dukhanivrtti” or elimination of suffering. The similarity between Ayurveda and the darsanas doesn't merely end with the common goal of elimination of suffering. Even the approach to pain or suffering ( vedana ) is similar to that of the darsanas . Caraka holds that yoga and moksha eliminate suffering absolutely and finally ( Caraka Samhita : IV. 1. 137), thus revealing Ayurveda 's approach to the concept of pain/suffering as one that is closely allied with the Samkhyan approach. Yoga takes Ayurveda' s association with the shad darsanas furthermore to an intensely practical and functional level with the concepts of ‘Agni-Someeyam' and ‘ Prajnaparadha' . I have elaborated ‘Agni- Someeyam' more thoroughly in a separate series of articles. Here I will elaborate Ayurveda' s holistic ‘mind-body' approach to illness.

The Ayurvedic approach to Health

Whilst Ayurveda is popular for ‘tridosha siddhantha' (theory of the three humours), a less appreciated basic principle of Ayurveda is ‘ Prajnaparadha'. Ayurveda affirms that ‘prajnaparadha' or ‘faulty understanding' is at the root of all illness. In fact it is ‘ignorance' or ‘faulty understanding' that leads to erroneous choices which eventually lead to an imbalance of the three doshas . First let us examine Susruta 's definition of a healthy individual. The Sanskrit word for a healthy individual is ‘svastha' . The literal meaning of ‘ Svastha' is ‘one who is established in oneself' ( Sve + Tishthati : ‘ sve tishtati iti svasthah '). Susruta takes into account four requisites in his definition of ‘svastha' ( Susruta Samhita : I. 15. 41).

•  Samadoshah : Balanced state of the three doshas

•  Sama Agni : Normal or Balanced state of Agni

•  Sama Dhatu Mala Kriya: Normal state of the dhatus and the malas.

•  Prasanna Atma Indriya Manah: Calm and clear state of Consciousness, Senses and Mind .

The above definition sheds light on Ayurveda's truly holistic ‘mind-body' approach to health. Now let us examine its approach to illness.

Click here to read part 2 of this article