Last updated on March 26th, 2019 at 11:57 am

Similar to the origins of Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine has both mythological and historical beginnings. According to myth and religion, the god, Brahma, was in charge of creation while the god, Vishnu, was responsible for preserving creation, and the god, Shiva, had the ability to destroy creation. All of these gods represented one Ultimate God and created the first man, Manu.

Brahma was considered the expansive state of pure existence before light or dark. (Some have drawn a correlation to the modern-day scientific theory of an ever-expanding universe). A grandson to Brahma, avatar to Vishnu, and descendant of Manu named Kapila, passed along this information by describing creation as the journey of awareness evolving into matter. He was a famous philosopher who lived approximately 600 BCE. His philosophies, such as using meditation to calm stress, were similar to the spiritual sage Buddha.

Vishnu supported the universe and maintained its natural and spiritual order or dharma. At times, this order became unbalanced, so Vishnu rescued the good and defeated the evil. One such triumph occurred when Manu was told by a fish that a great flood would destroy all he knew. The fish instructed him to build a large boat and put himself, the animals and plants inside. This fish, actually Vishnu in disguise, also knew that when the flood arrived, the boat would save them all. This story has similarities to the Noah’s Ark flood story from the Old Testament of the Bible. Another example, described as the Churning of the Ocean, begins when the bottom of the ocean collected many valuable things. These items needed to be returned, so Vishnu then became a tortoise, named Kurma, and dove courageously to the bottom of the ocean to bring these valuables back. The ocean began swirling and churning as the tortoise tried to swim upward. Gods and demons pushed and pulled on a snake that suddenly surrounded the tortoise, but this pushing and pulling actually worked to help restore the valuables to the surface. One important thing that surfaced was Dhanvantari, the god of Medicine, but one item that also returned was poison. This endangered all of humankind. It was important that Shiva now became involved. Shiva drank the toxin to save humanity and destroy the evil. His power and spiritual strength removed the suffering of the world. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, along with their respective creative, preservative, and destructive powers, were destined to maintain a balance in the universe.

Mandala of Vishnu - Vitality Fusion excerpt

Mandala of Vishnu painting, also pictured in Vitality Fusion

Dhanvantari, who was returned to the surface in this myth, was also a grandson of Brahma and the founder of Ayurveda or the “science of life” medicine. He’s believed to have become wise in the ways of optimal health by listening to the gods during meditation. Afterwards, he in turn taught this information to mortal sages. It’s at this time that something resembling a true historical record of Ayurvedic medicine begins.

In approximately 8000 BCE, Atreya, a great Ayurvedic master, wrote the oldest medical book in the world, the Atreya Samhita. It had many chapters and discussed the eight main branches of Ayurveda: internal medicine, surgery, fertility, pediatrics, psychiatry, toxicology, anti-aging and ears, eyes, and nose.

Estimated at 3000 to 2000 BCE, a famous sage and avatar to Vishnu, Bhagavan Sri VedaVyasa, codified Ayurvedic medical and spiritual information into books or Vedas. The oldest of these texts was the Rig Veda. It contained information regarding disease and treatment options such as surgery (including organ transplants), herbs with great curative properties, yoga, essential oils, and recommended food adjustments and lifestyle changes. Another of these famous Vedas was the Sama Veda. It contained holy hymns. A companion veda was the Yajur Veda, primarily recording religious rituals. For example, mantras containing particular sounds, words or songs were documented, to be repeated during meditation. Lastly, the Atharva Veda was also written at this time, containing specific information about each of the eight main areas of focus in Ayurveda originally treated in the Atreya Samhita.

Around 1500 to 1000 BCE, Ayurvedic medicine followed a similar developmental path as Western and Chinese medicine by evolving from a religious discipline into a medical system with many specializations. In particular, two schools of medicine were founded: Atreya, as a school for physicians and Dhanvantari, as a school for surgeons. Two significant books, the Charaka Samhita and the Susruta Samhita, were written during the time. The Charaka Samhita was authored by the physician Charaka, considered to be “the father of Ayurvedic medicine.” Digestion, immunity and metabolism were discussed in this internal medicine textbook. The Susruta Samhita was written by the physician Susruta, named “the father of Ayurvedic surgery.” Amputation, brain and cosmetic surgery are described in this equally important medical textbook. Marma points are noted: these points on the body are similar to acupuncture points. Around 500 CE, these two texts were followed by a third, called the Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita. Together, these three medical texts became known as the “Senior Triad.” The next important written contribution to the development of Ayurveda was that of the physician Vhagbhatta, who wrote the Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita. This compilation of medical material combined internal medicine and surgical information into one book. These influential manuals were “published” and to some degree “circulated” during the Golden Age of India, approximately 1000 BCE to 800 CE. The medical information they contained became popular not just with native Indians, but also with the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Tibetans, Persians and Arabs who travelled to India to glean the secrets of Ayurvedic medical knowledge. After their studies were completed, they brought back these valuable insights to their own cultures.

As part of this information migration, during the Middle Ages, from approximately 1000 CE to 1200 CE, the physicians Razes and Avicenna translated much of this Ayurvedic medical wisdom into Arabic. Unfortunately, the spread of Ayurvedic medicine began to decline as the Muslims invaded India. Medical universities and libraries were burned. The Muslims practiced “Unani Tibb” medicine exclusively at that time, a combination of Greek and Islamic medicine, based on work dating as far back as Hippocrates and Galen, further developed by others, most notably Avicenna. This medical approach was also favoured in Europe. Hindus, however, despite the growing Muslim influence, continued to use their ancient Ayurveda. One important medical book that was written in approximately 1100 CE, by Madhava Charya, was called the Madhava Nidanam. This text described and classified diseases about children, women, toxicology, and the ear, nose, and throat. It’s the first of three significant works that would come to make up the “Junior Triad” of Ayurvedic medicine.

The second member of the Junior Triad was the Sharangdhara Samhita written by Acharya Sharangdhara in approximately 1300 CE. This book included information about new syndromes, their treatments, herbal and pharmacological formulas and pulse diagnosis. The final part of the Junior Triad reference was a text called the Bhava Prakasha, authorized by Bhava Mishra around 1500 CE. This valuable book reorganized the two earlier works and discussed many medicinal characteristics of food, plants and minerals. It’s also during this time that Paracelsus, the great Swiss Renaissance physician, is greatly influenced by the growing corpus of Ayurvedic medical knowledge.

Dhanvantari - Vitality Fusion excerpt

Dhanvantari, Hindu God of medicine

When Mughal Emperor Akbar ruled India during the mid-1500s, Ayurveda again began to flourish. Akbar was open-minded and encouraged Western and Indian physicians to exchange information. For example, Garcia D’Orta, a Portuguese doctor and naturalist, printed an Indian medical book called Conversations on the Medical Simples and Drugs of India in 1563. He collected information about disease case studies and plant properties from many local physicians as part of his extensive research for this work.

Unfortunately, in the 1600s, feuding began between the Portuguese and Indians. One consequence was that the Portuguese outlawed Hindu physicians. In addition, the British, in the form of the British East India Company, began arriving at the beginning of the 1600s, and establishing a colonial empire across most of India. However, at the end of the 1600s, a more positive exchange occurred when the Dutch East India Company showed great interest in the local Indian plants and flowers. In particular, Hendrik van Rheede, a Dutch colonial governor and naturalist, prepared, with help from a small army of physicians and botanists, the comprehensive Hortus Malabaricus, a 12-volume set that described approximately eight hundred Indian plants and their medicinal properties. These volumes were published in Amsterdam between the years of 1686 and 1703.

By 1833, the British East India Company had banned all Ayurvedic medical institutions and opened the first Western medical university in Calcutta. During this time, as was the case with Chinese medicine in China, Ayurvedic medicine was kept alive only in the rural areas where people either could not afford Western medicine, or were geographically dispersed from the larger urban areas where it was available. Any Ayurveda training was received from a private college or taught by families secretly sharing medical information with each other By 1858, the East India Company disbanded and India was ruled under the British crown. The British Pharmacopoeia became widely used, a standardized compilation of Western drugs. Its popularity helped to further decrease the medicinal use of Ayurveda plants, flowers and herbs.

However, by 1920, Indian nationalism was increasing under the leadership of Gandhi and with it, the more traditional aspects of Indian culture, including Ayurveda, were being rediscovered. In fact, when India received its independence from the British in 1947, Ayurvedic medical schools were reopened. Today, there are many colleges in India practicing and teaching Ayurveda. Ayurvedic doctors are working with Western doctors in hospitals to provide the best complementary medical care. As one sign of the growth and popularity of this approach, the All-India Ayurveda Congress now counts itself as the largest medical organization in the world.

To get a glimpse of modern-day Ayurvedic practices, read THE CONSCIOUS CONNECTION: An interview with Maharishi Ayurveda practitioner Dr. Nancy Lonsdorf>>

Excerpted from the book Vitality Fusion: A Comparative, Interactive Survey of Western, Chinese and Ayurvedic Medicine. © Copyright 2013 Shape by Shane; 2nd edition. Reprinted with permission from Wasabi Publicity, Inc.

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Author Susan Shane is a Diplomate in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbology with the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Vitality Fusion reveals how readers can create a customized path to optimal health using a combination of Western, Chinese, and Ayurvedic medical practices. Shane also created Exaircise, a cross-cultural fitness program based on the primacy of breathing in global health traditions.

image 1: nozomiigel via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA—no changes); image 2: public domain via Wikimedia Commons; image 3: Hari Prasad Nadig via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons BY-SA—no changes)

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