Maintaining health through Ayurveda
Ayurveda is much more than an ancient and alternative form of medicine. The word itself means “Knowledge of Life”. It is the science that suggests to you the ideal way to live, to have not only a lengthy but healthy existence. Ayurveda includes all that is needed for a man to be healthy and happy including study of the right conduct and the discussion on philosophical aspects of life. It is in fact a holistic system that considers health in a multidimensional perspective.
Ayurveda’s perspective on effective health care is divided into two dimensions - maintenance of health using discipline in daily life and rejuvenation therapies and treating diseases through medication.
One of the most important things in maintaining health is observation of systematic daily routine, especially in food habits and sleep. The key is to have food intake at regular and fixed intervals and a minimum of seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Ayurveda details this under the head Dinacharya.
Ayurveda asks us to live life in accordance with seasons. Eat foods that suit the seasons and do therapies that are more effective in that particular climate. In fact, Ayurveda says that nature provides in abundance food that is generally ideal for that time and that specific locality.
We should also have a well-planned schedule of diet and exercise. It is not enough to have healthy food but also sufficient exercise. Personal hygiene is a must for good health. But Ayurveda goes beyond that and says social and civic hygiene are equally important. As we know to our cost garbage accumulated in the streets is a grave threat to our health any time and especially in the rainy season.
Long before modern science understood the power of the mind in the treatment and cure of diseases, Ayurveda studied the phenomenon in detail. To have a healthy body you need a healthy mind. For that strict mental discipline and adherence to moral values are a must. Ethics in social life gives you a clear guideline and prevents unnecessary confusion and strain in decision making. It also helps to maintain good relations and thereby peace of mind.
Most of the Ayurvedic medicines and therapies are aimed at boosting the human immune system. For it believes that the innate strength of the human body is capable of warding off most of the diseases. All that is needed is to give it the necessary support and right nourishment. Periodic purification treatments like Kizhi, Pizhichil, Vasti and Dhara which cleanses, rejuvenates and relaxes the body and mind are also part of the methods to ensure good health.
The second dimension of Ayurveda is palliative care or treatment of diseases with medicines. The approach for this is also unique because Ayurveda researches the cause and treats the person rather than studying the symptoms and treating the illness. The cure is in empowering the body than destroying the external organisms.
Origin and History of Ayurveda
Ayurveda originated in the distant past under the aegis of ancient Indian Rishis but documentary proof of the exact period is unavailable. There are mythological stories about Lord Dhanwantari and the physicians of the Devas, the twins, Ashwini Devatas sprinkled about in Indian folklores. From the periodic mentions of different kinds of medicines in the four Vedas, it is obvious that Indian medicines pre-date them, which means, it is a system that is at least 4000 years old.
A large volume of original research happened in Ayurveda in the period 2000 BC - 1000 BC. There were periodic congresses where the Rishis discussed and debated diseases and therapies, the minutes of which were recorded in what are called the Samhitas. The Charaka, Susrutha and Ashtanga Hridaya are the most popular among these. Charaka Samhita is a treatise on General Medicine, Susrutha Samhita on Surgery, while Ashtanga Hridaya is more comprehensive covering all the eight branches of medicine from General Medicine, Surgery, Pediatrics, Psychiatry, Geriatrics, ENT, Toxicology to exotic subjects as Aphrodisiac and Tantric Medicine.
Presently, these three Samhitas are widely followed by Ayurvedic practitioners across the country with Ashtanga Hridaya being the favorite among Kerala physicians. These were compiled approximately between 1500 BC - 500 BC. A lot of research happened during the 3rd century onwards on the alchemy of minerals and metals, including mercury and several medications were invented during this time. These were more effective and faster compared to herbal ones and of great help during crisis situations. But on the other hand, they had side effects which prevented many traditional physicians (Vaidyas), especially Kerala ones from prescribing it unless all options were exhausted.
During this period the Arab and Chinese travelers brought with them their own systems of medicines and some of these were incorporated into the mainstream Ayurveda practice after due consideration. But with the advent of the British came the western system of medicine and due to lack of encouragement and patronage of the rulers and sometimes even hostile opposition, original research came to a grinding halt. Even otherwise from around 800 AD most of the books on Ayurveda were more commentaries than unique research.
It was only with independence with active encouragement from different governments that Ayurveda has started gaining popularity once again, but even then, the research part is just limping along. With the acceptance, Ayurveda has gained as an alternative system of medicine in foreign lands, especially in western countries there is hope that this may change soon.
What makes Kerala Ayurveda Different?
Kerala is famous the world over for its Ayurvedic system of medicine. Many consider the Kerala system of Ayurveda more holistic and hence superior to other forms available across India. So what makes it so?
Herbal v/s Minerals
Long before organized Ayurveda came to Kerala people in the state were using herbal pastes and concoctions and oils made of them to treat diseases. Because of the abundance of medicinal herbs of all kinds available and this hoary tradition even now Kerala Ayurveda has a preponderance of herbal medicines and oils. As different from those made with minerals and heavy metals prevalent in the Northern Indian states. In fact, many of the formulas of the early Malayali physicians are even now prescribed by the Ayurvedic doctors as practical home remedies.
Humid climate and rejuvenation treatments
There are two sides to the Ayurvedic medicinal system, the treatment of diseases using medicines and preventive care using certain therapies. In the second there are a number of rejuvenation and relaxation procedures like Kizhi, Pizhichil, Dhara, Vasti, Tarpanam and Lepanam which Kerala is famous for. Various oils and concoctions are applied to different parts of the body either directly or as muslin blouses to cleanse the body and relieve the stresses and strains of daily life. The humid climate helps the body to perspire and opens up the pores during the treatment with heated medicines. This, in turn, makes the treatment more effective as the medication seeps deeper into the body.
Reliance on Ashtanga Hridaya
The Kerala system of Ayurveda is holistic in nature because unlike other states where the Charaka and Susrutha Samhitas are extensively followed, in Kerala, Vagbhata’s Ashtanga Hridaya is considered the final authority in all matters medicine. The Ashtangas are the eight areas of medicine namely, General Medicine, Pediatrics, ENT, Surgery, Toxicology, Geriatrics, Aphrodisiac, and Occult or Tantric medicine.
There were thirty-two villages (Gramas) in Kerala in ancient times and there were eighteen and a half families who were the Grama physicians. These families were called Ashtavaidyans because they followed Ashtanga Hridaya strictly. The half family was the Sala Vaidyan - the physician in charge in the Yaga, the greatest of all Hindu rituals - who studied but did not do practical surgery. The rest of the physicians who practiced Ayurveda but were not well versed in all the branches were called Arya Vaidyans - the Arya is a respectful term derived from before the Mahabharata times. In fact, there were certain families and physicians who specialized in certain areas like Pediatrics, Toxicology, Geriatrics etc.
The Grama physicians in the olden times were paid a fixed salary from the Grama temples and this remained the same irrespective of whether there were no patients or an epidemic. There is a joke going around that they were hence very concerned that nobody contracted any disease as their job went up but not their income! No wonder they popularized the preventive care therapies!!