The History of Ayurveda

The History of Ayurveda

India covers almost 3.3 million square kilometers in South Asia, and according to plate tectonic theory, can be visualized as more or less a large triangular landmass pushing upwards into the Asian continent. The base of the triangle is its northern edge, the focal area of impact between these two continents. This massive collision over millions of years has resulted in the towering Himalayas: huge sharp folds of land that once nursed an inland sea between India and Asia called the Tethys.

The southern section of juts into the Indian Ocean, with the island of Sri Lanka trailing along, the Arabian Sea lapping at its shores to the west, and the Bay of Bengal lying to the east.  It is a land of enormous geographic and ecological diversity: from the glacial streams and apricot orchards in mountainous Kashmir to the north; the ivory-colored deserts and fields of mustard in Rajasthan in the west; the rice paddies and tumultuous rains of the Gangetic delta in Bengal to the east; and the cardamom and coffee plantations and the emerald greenery of tropical Kerala to the south.

Ancient Indian civilization: Harappa

The archeological record suggests that humans have lived in what is now India for well over 300,000 years. Paleolithic tools such as arrowheads and polished stone axes can be found all over the Indian subcontinent, from the barren mountains of Afghanistan down into the deep south of tropical India (Basham 1954, 10-11). Although the subcontinent of India has long been known throughout recorded history as an ancient center of learning and knowledge, the historical extent of its influence is a subject unfolding. The earliest archeological evidence of human civilization found thus far on the subcontinent dates back between 7000 and 4000 BCE, mostly found in the Sindh and Baluchi areas of southern Pakistan, representing ancient village farming communities and pastoral camps (Chegappa 1998).

In 1920 European archeologist engraved seals were found near present-day Sahiwal in the Punjab region of Pakistan, in a place now referred to as Harappa (Rahman). Further excavations at Harappa, and at a similar site called Mohenjodaro along the banks of the Indus river (near modern-day Sukkur, Pakistan), uncovered two ancient urban societies, built upon a geometric grid, complete with aqueducts for in-home running water, and a sophisticated system of sewers. Radiocarbon dating has shown that these settlements are very old indeed, reaching back as far as the 3rd millennium BCE. Collectively, the discoveries at Mohenjodharo and Harappa yielded the first inklings of the enormity of what was initially called the Indus Valley civilization, home to the Harappan people of ancient India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Subsequent archeological findings, supported by satellite imaging have suggested that the heart of Harrapan culture was further inland, along what today is the dry bed of the Ghaggar river and its tributaries, where close to 200 Harappan sites have been laid out. Some archeologists believe this river to be described in the Rig Veda, the oldest extant writings of ancient India, as the Saravati River, giving rise to the moniker “Sarasvati Civilization,” or if including the Indus river sites, the “Sarasvati-Sindhu Civilization” (Sindhu being the original name for the Indus).

Altogether, the extent of the Harappan civilization appears to have encompassed 1.5 million square kilometers, an area larger than Western Europe, and was comprised of over 300 cities, dwarfing the size of ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilization (Chengappa 1998). There are however, some important components of Harappan culture that remain unsolved. The most important of these is the Indus script, a unique form of hieroglyphic writing that is displayed on many of the archeological specimens found at Harappan sites, but remains undeciphered. Until this script is deciphered, archeologists can only speculate on the complexities of this highly evolved civilization (1).

Harappan Health Care

As the Indus script remains undeciphered, archeologists and scholars can only speculate on what the health care practices of the ancient Harappans must have been. From what can be pieced together from the archeological evidence it is clear that Harappan society was centered around religious ideas of fertility and abundance, manifested in their worship of archetypal Mother goddess. It appears that the ancient Harappans worshipped fire as the archetypal seed in the eternal cycle of life and death, contained in a ritualistic sphere as the hearth of the home, or the womb (Atre 1987). Although some of these religious concepts remain preserved in modern Hinduism, it is likely that this emphasis manifested itself in a social sphere as well, with no clear separation of spirituality based on gender (Atre 1987).

Based on this supposition, it could be that ancient Harappan health care practices were not too dissimilar from other, similarly goddess-orientated agrarian cultures like Mesopotamia. From the various artifacts that have been uncovered, it is likely that the healing techniques of the Harappans were shamanistic. There are several depictions of individuals wearing elaborate costumes such as a horned headdress, seated in what appear to be yogic asanas (postures). If persons such as these were relied upon for their healing skills, it is likely that it took some form of ritualistic magic, including elements of ecstatic dance, the recitation of certain mantras (incantations), exorcism, astral travel, and the use of certain herbs and amulets (Zysk 1998, 12-13). Unique to Harappan culture however was an emphasis upon personal and public hygiene, as most Harappan cities included a bath and toilet in every dwelling, with a drainage system to remove wastes and covered sewers in the middle of the streets to carry the waste away from the city. Water was likely perceived as the source of all life, that which sustained the Harappan cultivation of barley and rice, the economic basis of this ancient agrarian civilization. In Mohenjodaro, one of the earliest Harappan sites uncovered, archeologists have speculated that the so-called “Great Bath” in the citadel area served as a place to perform religious ablutions in the sacred waters (Zysk 1998, 12-13).

Ancient Indian civilization: the vedic aryans

At one time archeologists believed that the demise of Harappan civilization occurred as the result of a series of invasions conducted by a group of Indo-European nomadic peoples who called themselves “Aryans” (noble-born). The actual evidence for such events however is fairly weak, and it is likely that Harappan civilization was already in a period of decline well before the Aryans arrived in the subcontinent. According to the predominant “Aryan Invasion” theory, the war-like Aryans conquered the indigenous Harappan peoples and forced them southward. Over several centuries, the Aryans established and imposed the caste system. The Brahmans —the Aryan priests— were the highest caste, and the Shudras —the farmers— were the lowest. The term “shudra” can be translated variously as “black, coarse, and slave,” and as such, one could speculate that these were the original Harappans: the dark-skinned, sudroid (austral-negroid) people of South India.

According to the Aryan invasion theory, the Brahmans perfected Sanskrit, the native language of the Aryans, and by about 1400 BCE organized their many elaborate rituals and religious ideas into a body of scriptures called the Rig Veda. Today, the 1028 hymns organized into ten chapters which comprise the Rig Veda is central to the practice of Hinduism, and young Brahmin priests spend countless hours committing these scriptures to memory (2).

Healing in the Rig Veda

While the Rig Veda is mostly a collection of hymns to various deities, the texts also make passing references to various diseases and healing plants, and which deities were important players in health and wellness. One important substance mentioned throughout the Vedas is soma, which, if taken literally, was an apparently psychotropic agent that gave the user a feeling of tremendous power and ability:

As the carpenter bends the seat of a chariot

I bend this frenzy around my heart!

Have I been drinking soma?

-Rig Veda, X, 119:5

It appears that soma was drunk only during certain religious rituals, prepared with great ceremony during the course of the ritual, when the plant or material was ground between stones, mixed with milk, strained, and then drunk (Basham 1954, 235). Its effects appear to have been fairly immediate, and there is no indication that it was a fermented beverage of any kind. Other writers have variously speculated that soma was the stimulant Ephedra sinica (Ephedra, Ma Huang), the inebriant Cannabis sativa (marijuana), the mildly psychotropic Rhazya stricta (Syrian Rue, Harmala), Aconitum spp., or the very potent psychotropic mushroom Amanita muscaria (Fly Agaric), also used by the shamans of Siberia (Basham 1954, 235-36; Riedlinger 1993). Other researchers however have concluded that soma was a gold-silver ore, which was purified to yield potable gold and silver after reducing and oxidizing the baser metals with the help of various plants and bones as reducing agents (Kalyanaraman 1993). This is based upon an analysis that the entire Rig Veda is in fact a metallurgical allegory – a secret text on the practice of alchemy (Kalyanaraman 1993).

Another Vedic text, compiled slightly later than the Rig Veda, is the Atharvaveda, the book utilized by the Aryan “fire” priests who were skilled in the ways of magic and fire worship (agni hotra) (Zysk 1998, 14; Feuerstein 1997, 40). The Atharvaveda contains an assortment of magical spells and incantations to achieve a variety of purposes, such as protection from demons, to secure healthy children, and to succeed in battle. The Atharvaveda also contains many passages on health and healing however, and sets the stage for the development of yogic practices such as pranayama (Feuerstein 1997, 40).

The practice of medicine among the Vedic Aryans was essentially magical: disease was thought to be the result of malevolent demons, typically occasioned by the breach of certain taboos, or sorcery. Injuries such as broken bones however were related to clearly established cause and effect relationships, such as an accident or wounds received in battle, and in some cases, “demonically motivated” insects, which could also be a cause of disease (Zysk 1998, 15). The basis of Vedic healing practices were essentially the same as ancient Mesopotamian or Egyptian practices: internal, invisible disease was a manifestation of supernatural causes, whereas external, visible disease was the result of mundane causes. (Zysk 1998, 15).

Vedic healers classified disease according to two basic types: yakshma (consumption), and takman (fever). Yakshma was a deficiency disease, characterized by wasting and weakness, whereas takman represents a condition of excess, where it was the accumulation of morbid wastes that disrupted the normal function of the body. Symptoms that didn’t fit into either of these categories might be variously classified as parasitic conditions, constipation, mental illness, etc. Ayurvedic medicine later expanded the number of diseases and their classification according to the tridosha theory. Diagnosis in ancient Vedic healing, unlike that of Mesopotamia and Egypt, did not include divination. Rather, the determination of the cause of disease was based upon the identification or the primary and recurring signs and symptoms, each of which represented a particular demonic influence (Zysk 1998, 15). Treatment was carried out by the use or combination of amulets, the recitation of sacred scripture (mantra), and herbal and animal-based remedies.

The practitioners of Vedic medicine were the bhishaj (lit. “healers”), who practiced rather mundane functions such as bone-setting and remedy preparation in combination with complex and often elaborate healing rituals. Although the role of the bhishaj is mentioned in the Rig Veda, it is clear, at least in later centuries, that the physician was held in contempt by his priestly counterpart, for no other reason except the nature of his profession. The bhishaj would consort with all people from all castes, unlike the Brahmin-priests who could be “contaminated” by associating with the lesser castes. Thus, these early physicians of the Vedic period in India appear to have existed outside the mainstream, and many of them, like the wandering rhizomotoki in ancient Greek medicine, would travel from place to place, sometimes outside the Aryan cultural milieu, earning their livelihood by attending the sick and collecting their remedies from the wild. Their contact with non-Aryan culture, as well as the exchange of medical information between wandering practitioners that met each other on the road, probably initiated an empirical approach to healing, further alienating them from the orthodox magico-religious orientation of the Brahmins. In later centuries however, the body of medical practices established by the bhishaj would later become part of the brahmanic tradition, and the heterodox origin of ancient Indian medicine would be erased in favor of an orthodox perspective. Thus, according to the orthodoxy, the origins of Ayurvedic medicine are divine: fully formed and eternal, revealed to Gods and humanity by Brahma, Lord of Creation. Despite this expropriation by the orthodoxy, the penultimate text of Ayurvedic medicine, the Charaka samhita, reveals its true origin in its title: the word charaka is a masculine noun of the root word “char,” which means, “to wander” (Zysk 1998, 33).

The rise of Buddhism

Among the sages that wandered through the forests of India there is perhaps no other in all of human history that had the kind of impact of Gautama Siddhartha. Born as a prince of a tribal king in what is today modern Nepal, Gautama would reject his birthright and leave his family to become a wandering ascetic, seeking to find a reason for all the pain and suffering of this world. Seated under a Banyan tree (Ficus religiosa) hundreds of miles from his home, after years of self-deprivation and arduous fasting, Gautama realized that his answer lay not in discovering a reason for suffering, but rather, to understand that suffering is the fundamental truth of existence. Meditating on this eternal truth, the Buddha suddenly understood that the path that leads from suffering is the cessation of the self: not through self-denial and arduous penance, but rather, through the cultivation of compassion for all living beings; and the destruction of the three-fold defilements of hatred, ignorance, and craving that eventually bring sorrow and pain to all living beings. With this realization, it is said that the Buddha attained the complete, final and total cessation of suffering, moving to a sphere beyond life and death into the final, blissful perfection of nirvana.

After initial doubts the Buddha decided to share this knowledge with the rest of the world, shortly afterwards attracting a group of forest-dwelling ascetics that sensed some amazing event had taken place. His retinue of followers quickly grew: first local cow-herders and travelers, followed by villagers and then townspeople. Buddhist tradition suggests that many of his followers immediately attained enlightenment in his presence, listening to but a single discourse of his teaching, and that these enlightened beings went forth to spread these profound teachings all across the India and the known world. For eight months of the year the Buddha would wander the Gangetic plains of India, silently begging for food, teaching and gathering disciples, and for the remaining four months of the rainy season, residing in one of the makeshift monasteries donated to him and his order of monks by wealthy land owners. The Buddha apparently continued this tradition for several decades, in a ministry that seemed unscathed by prejudice or persecution, until his death at the age of eighty (Basham 1954, 260). Upon his death the Buddha reminded his community of followers, the sangha, that there was to be no leader to follow him: the dharma (or doctrine) that he had preached was all there was to inspire them. He reminded them that they must be a light unto themselves, relying on no one else, looking for no refuge beyond the dharma. The Buddha’s discourse with the villagers of Kesaputta, the Kalamas, sums up the Buddha’s approach this empirical spirituality:

“It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.”

Anguttara Nikaya, Kalama Sutta, 4 – 10

Shortly following the Buddha’s death his order of monks gathered together and compiled his teachings. Within two hundred years a large gathering of monks took place, during which the Pali Canon was written (4th cent. C.E.), forming the heart of the most authentic Buddhist teachings today. Successive councils reinforced these teachings, and within another 200 years the teachings of the Buddha had more or less become a kind of religion, with several orders of practicing monks, and a growing body of lay followers that supported them.

Buddhist Medicine

As liberation from suffering is a central tenet of Buddhism, there was commensurate emphasis upon health and wellness early on in its development, with compassion directed towards the sick and injured. Built into the rules of conduct for Buddhist initiates (called the Vinaya Pitaka) was a provision for health care: that along with one meal a day (which was obtained through begging), clothing fashioned from discarded cloth, and sleeping at the foot of a tree (nuns excepted), monks could utilize cow’s urine as a therapeutic agent, a medicament mentioned extensively in Ayurvedic medicine in the treatment of a wide range of disorders. This initial provision for the prevention and treatment of disease was soon expanded to a vast array of medicinal herbs and foods, with the Buddha actively encouraging fellow monks and nuns to take care of each other. Thus, out of necessity, many Buddhists became skilled in the practice of medicine, and continuing in the tradition of the Vedic bhishaj, wandered the countryside, meditating, teaching, and tending the sick.

Similar to the bhishaj, it is clear that the wandering Buddhist physicians had an empirical approach to health care, but founded upon a uniquely Buddhist perspective called the Four Noble Truths:

1. That life is suffering: not simply pain and sorrow, but as an existential reality, the fundamental disquiet and deep emptiness that occurs with change, loss, death, and decay;

2. That life is suffering: not simply pain and sorrow, but as an existential reality, the fundamental disquiet and deep emptiness that occurs with change, loss, death, and decay;

3. That there is a path that leads to the end of suffering;

4. That the path that leads to the end of suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path (i.e. right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration).

The Buddha, fundamentally, was concerned with nothing other than the end of suffering: he refused to discuss an ultimate cause or divine purpose. Life, death and rebirth are points along a spinning, eternal wheel of existence called samsara:

“Inconceivable is the beginning of this samsara; not to be discovered is a first beginning of beings, who, confounded by ignorance and ensnared by desire, are hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths.”

Samyutta-Nikaya 15, 3:13, 5

This existential perspective fostered a spirit of rational inquiry and empiricism into all aspects of life, including health care. Monks and nuns that practiced and taught principles of health were often at odds with the brahminical healing systems of the Rig Veda, which placed a strong emphasis upon divination and complex rituals to heal the body. This rational approach became institutionalized in Buddhist centers of learning, with both members of the sangha and the laity studying and practicing medicine.

The story of Jivaka

Through time, and as Buddhism was shaped by the different cultures it spread through, the only portion of the Pali Canon that remained unaffected was the Vinaya Pitaka (Zysk 1998, 51-2). This massive text is usually referred to as a list of rules that both monks and nuns need to abide in order to participate in the sangha, but also contains much other information. In the chapter pertaining to rules of clothing, the texts describe the life and career of a lay-physician named Jivaka Komarabhacha, or simply, Jivaka. In the original Pali texts of Theravada Buddhism, the birth of Jivaka is occasioned by his promiscuous mother giving her infant son up to a slave, who then abandons him; other accounts in Sanskrit and Tibetan are similar, but in the Chinese version Jivaka was born with acupuncture needles in his hand (Zysk 1998, 53). This account and other literary evidence suggests that acupuncture may be Indian in origin, although its practice has been lost to Ayurveda. Buddhist centers of learning such as Takshashila (formerly located on the Indus River in modern-day Pakistan) that contained the Buddhist monks, nuns, physicians, and teachers that would have preserved this knowledge were attacked successively; first by the Greek and Chinese invaders in the third and second centuries BCE, and then consumed by the Persian Sassanid Emperor Shapur I in the 3rd century C.E. (Ros 1994, 2-4; Basham 1954, 58-61). Whereas Takshashila survived the Greek and Chinese invasions, leading to the spread of Buddhism west and northward into China, the Sassanid Empire cut Takshashila off from its cultural link with India, and one of the world’s first universities was gone forever.

The most famous account of Jivaka’s life occurs early in his life, as he was studying medicine at the university of Takshashila. The following account is an elaboration from the Vinaya pitaka, and has since become a story that has inspired countless Ayurvedic physicians:

“As a part of their final examinations, the teacher had asked his students to find one thing that could not be used as a medicine. As the students made their way back from their search, each one of them had found something that had no use as a medicine. After waiting an exceptionally long time, Jivaka returned to his teacher, crestfallen and empty handed. He had found no substance, which in some way, could not be used as a medicine. To his surpirse, the teacher congratulated Jivaka and gave him his blessing as a healer. The rest of the students, on the other hand, were berated: only Jivaka had truly understood the heart of Ayurveda” (Caldecott 2006).

The final portions of the Vinaya pitaka contain a series of accounts that describe some of the treatment used by Jivaka, some obviously very advanced when we compare them to the state of medicine in other parts of the world. In the Pali version, Jivaka performs a kind of laparotomy on a young acrobat, suffering from strangulation of the bowel after performing an exercise, disentangling the affected organs (Zysk 1954, 56). In another account, Jivaka treats a young girl with a disease of the head using medicated butter-oil (i.e. clarified butter) and applying it into the nose (Zysk 1954, 56). In one account from the Sanskrit version, Jivaka treats a man suffering from dropsy by having him drink a preparation of crushed radish seeds (Nigella sativa), mixed together with water and buttermilk (Zysk 1954, 57).

Medieval and modern Ayurveda

The impact that Buddhism had on India is undeniable. Although we known from the accounts of Hsuan Tsang, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim visiting India, that Buddhism was in decline by the 7th century, its long monastic history, and its emphasis upon non-violence and meditation shaped the popular resurgence of Vedic teachings. In turn, many of the healing and medical practices it influenced were preserved, but modified, at least on a theoretical basis, to support the evolving Hindu mythos. Some medical texts from this period, including the Ashtanga Sangraha and Ashtanga Hrdaya authored by Vagbhata (c. 6th cent. C.E.), clearly reflect a Buddhist influence, such as the mention of the Buddha in the invocatory verse, the mention of Buddhist scholars, and the elaboration specific Buddhist practices (Srikanthamurthy 1994, XX). The other two texts of prime importance to modern Ayurveda, the Charaka and Sushruta samhitas, are devoid of any reference to Buddhism, causing some scholars to argue whether or not these texts were authored before or after the Buddhist period. As is often typical in Indian studies, the Hindu scholars place the authorship of these two texts well before the birth of the Buddha, and Western scholars placing the authorship of these texts after. Nonetheless, given the organic development of Indian culture, both medieval Ayurvedic and Buddhist medicine are born from a common mother: the bhishaj. The legacy of Buddhism in the development of medicine on the Indian subcontinent was its emphasis upon rational empiricism, and the construction of public hospitals to care for the sick, dying and injured

Charaka samhita on palm leaf

Just as the date of authorship is difficult to conclude, so to are the authors of the Charaka and Sushruta samhitas difficult to identify. According to orthodox tradition, Charaka was a disciple of Agnivesha, author of the yet-to-be-found Agnivesha samhita, who expounded a system of medicine learned from Indra, King of the Gods, who in turn learned it from Brahma, Lord of Creation. From a historical perspective however, some researchers have suggested that the Charaka samhita may be a compilation of medical information from many different sources, such as the wandering bhishaj and Buddhist monks (Zysk 1998, 33). This would explain why the text lists a broad diversity of medical treatments for the same condition, and the mention of different schools of healing (see Charaka Samhita, Sutrasthana, Ch. 25). Others have speculated that because the Charaka samhita appears to written in a more-or-less strict Brahminic style, with no mention of Buddhist practices, and because Vagbhata quotes extensively from it (or rather, from a later redaction by Drdhbala), that the Charaka samhita is therefore pre-Buddhist, and hence Vedic in origin. External evidence from Chinese sources suggests that Charaka was a physician of King Kaniska, placing its authorship in the first or second centuries C.E.

While the Charaka samhita is a text of internal medicine (kaya chikitsa), using vegetable, animal and purified mineral remedies in the treatment of physical and mental disorders, the Sushruta samhita is a text on surgery. According to Ayurvedic tradition, in the course of history the teachings of surgery were lost to humanity. Filled with compassion, Lord Vishnu incarnated as Dhanvantari, God of Medicine, and taught the art and science of surgery (shalya chikitsa) to a physician named Sushruta, whose name means, “to listen sweetly.” Like the Charaka samhita, finding an accurate date for when the text was originally compiled is problematic. Unlike the Charaka however, the Sushruta samhita displays a remarkable consistency in style and content, indicating that there was only one author. And, unlike the Charaka, the Sushruta samhita appears to be much more of a technical manual, spending less time than the Charaka discussing introductory concepts (Krishnamurthy 1991, 2). Thus, the Sushruta samhita likely represents the fruition of a highly developed system of surgery. Indeed, some of our modern surgical techniques, such as rhinoplasty, were taken directly from Ayurvedic physicians that practiced according to the tenets of the Sushruta samhita. Although some scholars place the authorship for the Sushruta samhita in the late Vedic period (e.g. 1000 B.C.E.), archeologists have found potsherds with the name “Dhanvantari” inscribed, at the site of what was at one time a Buddhist hospital (arogyasala). This site dates back to about the fourth century C.E., and suggests that Sushruta could have been a Buddhist surgeon (Zysk 1998, 45). Along with the Ashtanga Hrdaya, the Charaka and Sushruta samhitas form the Brihat trayi (Greater triad) of Ayurveda: the oldest and greatest of the Ayurvedic texts.

As Hinduism began to reassert itself on the subcontinent, the ancient body of healing knowledge gradually became systematized into what is modern day Ayurveda. By the 14th century C.E., several important texts and commentaries had been added, including the Sharangadhara samhita. This text is primarily a text on pharmacy, discussing various procedures for preparing, storing, and dosing herbal remedies, including the preparation of base metals and mercury into relatively benign but efficacious therapeutic agents. It is one of the most important formularies in Ayurvedic medicine, relied upon to this day. Another important text, composed much earlier, is the Madhava nidanam. It was authored by about 700 C.E., and is completely devoted to the classification and description of various diseases. Along with another formulary, the Bhavaprakasha (c. 16th cent. C.E.), which still awaits translation into English, the Sharangadhara samhita and Madhava nidanam form the Laghu trayi (Lesser triad), of the extant works of Ayurveda.

When the British assumed control over India in the mid 19th century, they spent a great deal of time and effort trying to “reform” its populace, another word for eradicating the subcontinent of its “primitive” and “un-Christian” practices. Thus, the practice of Ayurveda was systematically undermined by the British, and at one time to practice of Ayurveda was punishable by death. Nonetheless, Ayurveda continued to exist, but deprived of state funding its importance was relegated to the status of folklore, and many of its advanced techniques, such as the surgical techniques described in the Sushruta samhita, were lost. Instead, Western medicine became dominant in India, with the educated elite of the pre and post-British India actively encouraging its populace to discard its time-honored traditions. Fortunately, this trend was countered in the late 1960’s and early 70’s under the government of Indira Gandhi. Ayurveda, as well as Unani medicine, began to receive the support of the central government, and since that time Ayurveda has been state-funded and regulated by the Indian Medicine Central Council Act of 1970. Today there are Ayurvedic colleges all over India, although the quality and content of the various programs can vary enormously. In some areas of India however, such as in the remote southern province of Kerala, Ayurvedic medicine was preserved despite the centuries of Arab, Persian and European invasions from northern India. Kerala and its various Ayurvedic hospitals, clinics, and colleges is the leading center for the study and practice of Ayurveda.

More recently, Ayurveda has undergone a resurgence in popularity, initially in North America, and now, as Indians are recognizing some of the pitfalls of Western medicine, in India also. Unfortunately, many of the concepts promulgated as belonging to Ayurveda bear no relation to its historical practice. For example, Ayurveda is often equated with vegetarianism. This probably arose because it was the primarily vegetarian priestly caste of the Brahmins that preserved the practice of Ayurveda in medieval and modern times. Nonetheless, the extant texts of Ayurveda make no mention of vegetarianism, listing instead many products of animal origin, such as meat, bone, rendered fat, and certain organs, in the prevention and treatment of disease. It is in North America however, that such preconceptions and misinformation are especially rampant.

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1. One riddle that has long puzzled archeologists is why were these cities abandoned sometime in the 18th century BCE. Early European archeologists speculated that Harappan culture suffered a series of invasions by a group of nomadic peoples from central Asia called “Aryans,” but actual archeological evidence for this theory is very weak. Newer evidence suggests an extended period of drought, complexed by a series of cataclysmic earthquakes in the Himalayan range that altered the course of the rivers that fed these communities, forcing the Harappans eastward into the Gangetic plains of northern India. As they attempted to rebuild their civilization under the duress of continuing climactic and geological changes, Harappan society devolved back in the pastoral and agrarian society that gave birth to its original splendor. Archeologists have shown that traditional Indian farming techniques used today are very similar with those of ancient Harappa: even the tandoor, or earthen oven, used by villagers in the Punjab and Rajasthani regions of Indian and Pakistan, are almost identical to what the Harappans utilized over 5000 years ago (Chengappa 1998). This suggests a remarkable continuity of culture, and the likelihood that many practices, including the techniques used in Ayurvedic medicine, reflect the ancient history of the subcontinent.

2. Some Hindu scholars object to the assertion that the Rig Veda was a foreign export into India. The Rig Veda for example, tells us that it was composed on the banks of the Saravsati river, and many Hindu scholars believe this river to be the Ghaggar river system, the home of Harappan civilization. Other scholars have pointed out that the Sarasvati could be any river, and more pointedly, that the roaring glacial river that appears to be described in the Rig Veda could not have been the Ghaggar, which, according to geomorphical and hydrological analysis, was a mild and gentle river system, better suited for the developing agrarian civilization of Harappa (Kochhar 1998). Rather, the Vedic river more resembles the Helmand River in modern Afghanistan (Kochhar 1998). Nonetheless, many scholars of both European and Indian origin have questioned the entire basis of Aryan migrations into post-Harappan civilization. Perhaps there was a conflation of races and cultures that gave rise to the Harappan civilization, including the Aryans. If true, then the actual date of the Rig Veda is much older, closer to 3000 BCE. Unfortunately, the arguments either way are not likely to be resolved until the Indus script is deciphered, and the full extent of Harappan civilization is uncovered. If the Rig Veda evolved from Harappan culture however, it poses a problem of what to make the dark-skinned, sudroid Dravidian peoples of South India. In modern Indian society, especially in the north of India, these people typically comprise the Shudra, or farmer caste, or they are the Dalits (“untouchables”), who perform much of the work, such as cleaning toilets and street sweeping, that no one else will do. Early Dravidian-Tamil literature suggests the previous existence of an island or a land extension off the Indian peninsula called Kumari Kandam. Tamil literature suggests that a great deluge of water submerged these lands, perhaps during the melt of last ice age some 12,000 years ago (Balasubramanian 2001). Preliminary excavations in areas such as Poompahur and Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, India, have shown the existence of ancient, underwater temples (Danino 1999). The whole question of the Aryan invasion and the role of the Dravidian people in the evolution of Indian culture is a highly complex issue, colored by issues of nationality, culture and race.


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