Ayurveda: Origin, History, Understanding
Updated: May 14, 2019
Ayurveda is limitless, endless, and has no beginning. This makes it difficult for one to explain the practice thoroughly. Included in this article will be a mix of both history and science to give you a better understanding of this ancient Indian medical practice. I hope to make my teachers proud and to deliver the information in a comprehensible manner so that you, the reader, can walk away with a better understanding of Ayurveda.
Let’s take a look at the word “Ayurveda.” The prefix, “Ayuh” or “Ayus” means “span of life.” The suffix, “Veda” means “knowledge.” Together it literally translates to “lifespan knowledge” or “life science.” Ayurveda’s aim is to heal the body, relax the mind, understand the soul, and renew spirit. We will later discuss the definition of health according to Ayurveda.
Ayurveda is a 5,000 year old medical science with roots in India. It’s possible that the practice is even older. However, the oldest found records are dated back 5,000 years. These documents were recorded on dried palm leaves and written in verses to help the teacher and student memorize the information. It’s probable that before the verses were documented, they were only verbally passed down from generation to generation.
It is believed that Ayurveda has no beginning and was revealed to the great sages, otherwise known as rishis, through enlightenment by the infinite wisdom that is known as the vast Universe or God. In this case, God would be Lord Brahma, the creator according to Vedic Religion, the precursor to Hinduism. This belief can be discovered in the samhitas, the most ancient layers of the Vedas (the most ancient Hindu scriptures written in early Sanskrit, the first ever written language.)
I would like to touch briefly on the ancient scriptures called Vedas. There are four texts: Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Veda. These set of texts contain the most complete set of scientific knowledge recorded today. From mathematics, to astrology, to medicine, and even veterinary studies, this ancient knowledge holds so many incredible truths. For example, the Vedas state that the Sun is 108 Sun diameters away from earth. Modern science has confirmed it true and highly accurate. What’s mind boggling is that this accuracy was discovered thousands of years before modern science could legitimately calculate our distance from the Sun.
Like the Vedas explain, Ayurveda also says that everything is interconnected. This is the truth of Cosmos. Everything we do is both a cause and effect. We eat because we are hungry and we are hungry because we need nutrients. All things, living and nonliving, are directly or indirectly connected through the entirety of the universe. All things are an extension of this universe. For example, human beings are miniature universes. The elements that compose the universe are the same elements that compose everything in existence. Though, everything contains the same elements, the amounts and combinations vary resulting in the uniqueness of individuals. Because the universe is so vast and much of it is foreign to us humans who live on one planet, I like to explain it like this:
We are our own miniature universe. Within our body are trillions of cells that make up all of our flesh, bones, blood, and organs. Each organ performs a different job. Even though they all perform differently, together they create you, a living human. Every tiny cell that is a part of this miniature universe has its own consciousness and together create your consciousness which is a small piece of the biggest consciousness that it the universe. Understanding that we are merely a fraction of the universal consciousness is key to understanding oneself. You are both very small but extremely important to our network.
Ayurveda teaches us how to maintain perfect health, prevent diseases and diagnose/assess the imbalanced states. Ayurveda understands that no two people are the same and therefore their health must be treated uniquely. Therapies, prevention, and maintenance vary by the individual.
There is a common misconception that Ayurveda is linked to a specific religion. It is important to clarify this misconception before moving forward. Ayurveda defines science as “the discovery of truth.” Ayurveda defines religion as “applying the use of science (discovery of truth) to everyday life.” Through this ancient knowledge of science, we can increase longevity.
Though, Ayurveda is not linked to a religion, the idea that we are souls who reside in bodies can be confusing and controversial. As mentioned before, we are merely a fraction of the universal consciousness. This being said, the soul/consciousness is separate from our body or mind. The body is the tangible object composed of cells. The mind is an intangible object composed of thoughts and desires. When the human expires/dies, the body and mind die with it. The consciousness does not. The consciousness is eternal. It is energy, therefore it cannot be created or destroyed. It can only move. It does not lead or influence but rather it observes and simply exists. This specific energy is pure, clear, weightless, and satisfyingly deep, deep love and truth, free of suffering and attachment that we deal with as human beings. Everything living and nonliving has this observant pure energy. This idea turns people off when they start to ask about the souls of criminals who commit unthinkable crimes, like murder. Do they have a soul? The answer is yes. We all have souls, or should I say, we ARE souls. Again, it is not the soul or consciousness that makes the decision, it’s the mind and body. The only difference between you and a cold blooded murderer is that you have better control over your senses and perceptions.
You might still be confused by this concept. So let’s talk about the five senses. Sight: a sense perceived through the eyes. Smell: a sense perceived through the nose. Touch: a sense perceived through the skin. Taste: a sense perceived through the tongue. Hearing: a sense perceived through the ears. These five organs take in the world around us and send the messages to our brain to help us to make sense of the universe. As mentioned earlier, the universe (including humans) is made up of the same elements. There are five elements that create this universe, the same five elements that we perceive through our five senses. They are called the Mahabhutas and they are earth, water, fire, air, and space.
These elements are easier to understand when recognized in nature. Earth is the bedrock, dirt, and trees. Water is the oceans, lakes, rivers, and streams. Fire is the sunlight that is absorbed by the plants through the process of photosynthesis and turned into glucose as food and energy for plant survival. Air is the gas molecules like oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen. Space is where all matter exist. Without space, there would be no earth, water, fire, or air. These same elements are also recognized in the human body. Earth is the structure of the body. It is the bones, cartilage, fat, cell membrane. Water is the cohesion and fluid in the body. It helps cells to stick to one another and form a union of cells that create you. Fire is the hormones, enzymes, and chemicals in the body that aid in the transformation of energy. Digestive enzymes transform food into chyme and chyme into feces. Air is the oxygen we breathe in and the carbon dioxide we breathe out. Space is where all the matter of the human body exists. These elements are what we perceive in the universe through the five senses of perception.
So far, I’ve been working backwards to explain the creation of the universe. It’s vital to have an understanding of what we see in front of us before we dive into the dawn of time and existence. This next part may be hard to follow but stay with me and hopefully it will all fall into place.
Samkhya or Sankhya philosophy is an ancient Indian philosophy that describes cosmology in the Ayurvedic system. Most ancient civilizations and practices speak about the importance of balance. This is easily explained by the balance of male and female roles. Purusha is the ultimate consciousness. Purusha is the ultimate experiencer. This is like the fraction of consciousness each individual has, but the sum of it all. It only observes, experiences. Purusha is male. The Prakruti (not to be confused with prakruti that is our individual constitution) is the energy, matter, experiences, the cosmic substances. Prakriti is female. Together they are the essence of the universe. From the Prakriti of the universe comes the universal intelligence, otherwise known as Mahatma Buddha. First there is existence. Then there is the intelligence of existence, or the intelligence of individualization. Once the intelligence of individual is realized, the sense of self unfolds. This is called Ahamkara. This is the ego. The intelligence and ego combine to create identity. By identifying ego, it is then easy to identify the moving parts of the self. You have solidity that is called tamas. You have the enlightenment that is sattva. And you have the force and drive that is rajas. Together, tamas, sattva, and rajas are known as the trigunas. You have form, you have ability to understand, and you have a drive to live. This circles us back to the use of our perceptions which come from the matter of elements. Below is a table that shows the five senses, sensory organs, and corresponding elements.
Our senses not only help us to perceive the world, but they help use to diagnose and heal. We can assess one’s state of health through sight. Doctors use their eyes to see if a patient’s eyes, skin, or tongue is discolored. They listen through a stethoscope to hear sounds in the body to determine how much space is inside. They can tell if a patient has tooth decay by the scent of his/her breath. They touch the body to check for abnormalities. Though, we do not use taste as a means of diagnosing others, taste is still useful for one to use on his/her own body. A constant sweet taste in the mouth can be an indication of diabetes. So, it’s not uncommon if a doctor asks if you have a sweet or metallic taste in your mouth.
These same senses are used in healing. Color therapy is done through with the use of sight. Sound therapy is done through the use of hearing. Aromatherapy is done through the use of scent. Diet is done with the use of taste. And massage therapy is done through the use of touch.
Let’s take a moment to look at these elements at a cellular level. Take a human cell, for instance. It contains all 5 elements. Earth is the structure, like the cell membrane, the outer wall. Water is the cohesion that keeps the parts stuck together. Fire is the transformative organelle within the cell responsible for digesting things like the lysosomes. Air within the cell is the oxygen. And the space is what allows the individual cell to exist. That’s not all that exists within the cell. Wisdom and consciousness are also within the cell. Wisdom is responsible for carrying out the appropriate cellular function. When the wisdom of a cell becomes erratic, it’s known as an autoimmune disease according to Ayurveda. When there is a loss of wisdom within a cell, it becomes a cancer cell, according to Ayurveda. Atma, or consciousness runs through all cells, giving it life as it passively observes and exists within you. Remember? This is the small fraction of the universal consciousness you carry within you that vibrates within every single cell of your body.
We all contain the five elements within us. Some of us contain more of one than another. We begin to classify these balance of elements as humors or constitutions called doshas. There are three doshas that govern the physiological activities in the body. They are kapha, pitta, and vata. Kapha is the abundance of earth and water elements. Pitta is the abundance of fire and water. Vata is the abundance of air and space. Like the elements, these doshic energies dominate everything. They dominate you, me, time, season, age, vegetables, animals, the universe - literally everything! You can learn more about the individual dosha by reading the articles titled “Kapha Dosha,” “Pitta Dosha,” and “Vata Dosha.”
Everyone is born with a specific amount of each element. Those who have more earth and water are predominantly Kapha. Those how have more fire and water are predominantly Pitta. And those who have more air and space are predominantly Vata. However, having one predominant dosha is rare. Most people are predominantly two doshas: kapha-pitta/pitta-kapha, pitta-vata/vata-pitta, vata-kapha/kapha vata. And some people have an equal amount of all elements which would make them tridoshic. This is called Prakruti, or the constitution determined at conception. Vikriti is the state of imbalance which develops when there is an increase or decrease of elements within the body. The goal is to regain the original nature, Prakruti, of oneself and balance the three doshic energies through the use of Ayurveda.
There are three factors that govern one’s Prakruti. Karma is the first factor. Yeah, karma, like the accumulated complexes and impressions from a past life or past reactive momenta. The second factor is the mother’s Prakruti and Vikriti during the time of conception. The third factor is genetic disposition and family history. Basically, Prakruti is your DNA.
There are many factors that govern one’s Vikriti. Lifestyle, diet, relationships, workplace, environment, and karma. Karma is a belief that is defined as fate influenced by a person’s actions and reactions that is followed as effect from cause. You can think of Vikriti as the harmful dormant illnesses waiting to be triggered and the environmental factors that are capable of altering our DNA. If Vikriti or imbalance isn’t corrected, it can lead to disease.
Ayurveda utilizes the knowledge of elements and doshas to identify a person’s true state of balance and state of imbalance to create an individualized method of preventing, healing and maintaining a perfect state of health. According to Ayurveda, the definition of health is when the 3 doshas (kapha, pitta, vata), Agni/digestive fire (digestion, assimilation, metabolism), all the Dhatus (7 body tissues and components; the entire physical body), and the Malas/excretory functions (sweat, urine, feces) are in perfect order along with the proper functions of the five senses and a sound and happy mind and spirit.
The definition of “health” according to the dictionary is, “a state of being free from illness or injury.” So if you’re free of illness, it means you’re healthy. But what about when you feel constantly achy? Or feel fatigued all the time? Or you’re simply unhappy? Doctors tell you nothing’s wrong with you but you’re considered healthy because you aren’t diagnosed with diabetes or cancer?
Maintaining perfect health is achieved by balancing the mahabhutas, the five elements that compose the universe. This can be done by keeping our planet clean and sustainable. This means we should do our part by recycling, reducing waste, and supporting environmentally conscious methods to avoid speeding up the process of climate change which increases our chances of several natural disasters that devastate our wellbeing. This can also be done through diet and lifestyle which includes work, environment, exercise, and sleep. Though we can’t always control our environment, the good news is we can mostly control everything else. We can control what we put into or on our bodies, how much we exercise and sleep, and where we work or what we do for a living. This can often be difficult without the guidance of a professional.
An Ayurvedic Practitioner can determine your state of balance and imbalance through a pulse reading and series of questions. The questions may be deep, extensive, and to many, invasive. Knowing everything about the individual is extremely vital in determining the root of the problem. Remember, all things are interconnected and related. For example, you’re experiencing constant headaches so you go see a neurologist to scan your brain. Everything in the brain is fine and healthy according the scans but the headaches continue. Months laters, you vomit and you see blood. You go to a gastroenterologist and the doctor discovers that you have ulcers and silent acid reflux. Once you are prescribed an antacid and a nutrition plan to calm the GERD and protect the mucus lining of the stomach, your headaches begin to go away. This is because the pH level of the Cerebral Spinal Fluid reflects the pH of the G.I. tract. If the stomach is highly acidic, the acidity in the CSF will mirror that, essentially surrounding the brain in a pool of acid, resulting in headaches. Two things you would have never thought were related, were indeed affiliated.
Once the Ayurvedic Practitioner determines your imbalance, they provide you with a plan to return to a state of equilibrium. The plan often includes nutrition, herbs, exercise, sleep, therapies, meditation, and yoga. It is up to the individual to make the changes to return to balance. Ayurveda’s tools for healing are limitless. In a world where we are surrounded by Modern Medicine and quick band aid fixes, Ayurveda is a great system to use for preventative measures and some non-life threatening imbalances. Though, I think Ayurveda has the answer to everything, I still encourage you to regularly visit your primary care physician. Please feel free to reach me via email: email@example.com with any questions you may have or to schedule a session with me.
I wish you nothing but health, happiness, and longevity.