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 are 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.

The Rishis in their rudimentary huts in the deep jungles did intensive research and through rigorous trial and error formulated medicines both herbal concoctions and compounds of minerals thousands of years back. That this system survives, nay thrives even now without any change in the fundamentals is proof of its efficacy and effectiveness. Since Atharva Veda has the clearest and most comprehensive descriptions of treatments and medicines Ayurveda is considered an auxillary (Upaveda) of Atharva Veda.

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 favourite among Kerala physicians. These were compiled approximately between 1500 BC - 500 BC. A lot of research happened during the 3rd century onwards on alchemy of minerals and metals, including mercury and a number of 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.