Considered one of the oldest systems of traditional medicine, Ayurveda, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘knowledge of life’ draws upon the expertise of nature-based medicine, the relationship between the body, mind and soul, and our connection to the universe and its elements (air, fire, water, earth and space). The origin of which is thought to be divine, emerging from the consciousness of Lord Brahma - the Creator in the Hindu faith.
Indian mythology attributes Dhanvantari (revered as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) as the physician to the gods, who appeared from the ocean with the knowledge to alleviate human suffering by protecting them from disease and untimely death. All depictions of Dhanvantari, which means destroyer of sorrows, show him holding 4 items, a pot of nectar, a Conch shell, a scripture and herbs.
The knowledge was originally narrated to sages and eventually found its way into the Vedas, a set of ancient scriptures which cover topics such as health, yoga, astrology, spirituality, government and politics, human behaviour and art.
By the 8th century BC, the pathway for sharing Ayurveda became written, rather than the oral tradition it had relied on previously. Two pioneering approaches were to emerge, one in the works of a physician called Charaka, where all aspects of theory and practice were discussed and, that of Sushruta, a surgeon who discussed the science of surgery. All later writings on Ayurveda came from their work and even today, students are taught Ayurveda using these ancient texts.
Charaka's work was an in-depth holistic approach to the treatment of disease, whereby treatment was cause led rather than symptom-led. Life, according to Charaka, was more than what occurred between the cycle of birth and death, it was a combination of the body, its mechanisms and our mind and soul as a single existence. Disease treatment focused on the individual as the primary factor and not necessarily the disease, by bringing balance to both body and mind through a series of methods using purgation, detoxification, bloodletting, emesis and enemas as well as a general practice, with plants and herbs, minerals and animal-based products. This led to the idea of hospitals, where patients could undergo treatment under constant observation of the physician.
Sushruta on the other hand was purely surgical in his text. Detailing over 125 instruments made of metal, stone and wood, it is thought that he was the first to design a type of stethoscope to listen to a patient’s heartbeat and chest cavities. Operations included in his work include Cesarean delivery, Rhinoplasty and the removal of cataracts as well as techniques for skin grafting, suturing and the many different ways of bandaging.
It is understandable why Ayurveda is still widely practiced today. The knowledge and wisdom pioneered by both Charaka and Sushruta thousands of years before modern medicine would even discover them has sealed the concept of Ayurveda in history. Times may change in terms of how we live and the influence it has on our health but our reaction to disease and its symptoms remains the same as our ancestors. Divine origins or not, Ayurveda was then and still is a complete healing system devised to nourish and nurture in alleviating human suffering from disease.