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The Oldest Medical System in the World

François Gautier


Did you know that the oldest medical system in the world, still in practice, comes from India? And that today it is becoming more and more fashionable in the West !


The word Ayus means life and Veda means knowledge. There are four most ancient sacred books in Hinduism called the Vedas. Ayurveda is considered to be a part of 4th one,  the Atharva Veda, which is nearly entirely devoted to medicine & dated to approximately 3,000 years B.C. The book is divided into eight branches: general surgery (Safya), ophtamology (Salakya), general medicine, psychiatrics, demonic possessions, obstetrics, paediatrics or child care, the knowledge of tonics and the science of aphrodisiacs.


                  Most of the ancient Hindu texts were transmitted orally from generation to generation and one has to wait for the first century to find a written compilation of ayurvedic medicine, called Charaka Samhita, penned by a famous surgeon, himself called Charaka. Nearly a century later, a second treatise comes up, also in Sanskrit and written on palm leaves, the Sushruta Samhita. This book is unique because it describes surgeries that were practiced long before they became known in the West, like hare lip or cleft palate and nasal reconstruction - the ayurvedic doctors were the first in the history of humanity to practice cosmetic surgery. It is also extraordinary because for the first time ever, Ayurveda postulates that some diseases have a psychosomatic origin and prescribes the consulting of medical psychiatrists, as well as a practice of Pranayama, the ancient Indian science of breathing, Hatha-Yoga and meditation to quieten the mind, regulate the blood flow and slow down the breath. All these have a profound effect on the causes of the disease. Indeed, one of the greatest discoveries of Ayurveda is that one should treat the cause of the illness, rather than the symptoms – something which is more and more accepted today. The last exceptional feature of that book is that there are images of surgery instruments (image) of that day, such as scalpels, also much ahead of their time.


The genius of Ayurveda is that it insists that sickness should be prevented rather than cured. Also it had a remarkable knowledge of the human skeleton and had categorised most of its bones, joints and spatulas” Charles Tipton in 2008 Journal of Applied Psychology.


What are the great principles of Ayurveda?


                   Firstly, the ancient ayurvedic doctors found out that most human beings can be divided into three main categories, which regroup most of the physical and psychological traits in mankind. These are called Gunas  and there are three of them: Raja Guna, which is the dynamic element in us and controls will power, ambition and impulsions. Unfortunately, many of us have an excess of Rajas and it may lead to over eating and too much indulging in worldly pleasures, like sex. Ayurveda recommends that one avoids drugs, alcohol, tobacco or anything that exacerbates our senses. Pranayama and meditations are advised for those who have an excess of Rajas. Rajas types have a tendency to be thin.


                  The second Guna is Tamas, which represents inertia, lack if dynamism, or laziness in us. Tamas also manifests itself as ignorance or resistance to change in human evolution. For those who have an excess of Tamas, ayurvedic doctors prescribe more of exercise, less of eating, particularly spicy and heavy food. Human beings who have an excess of Tamashave a tendency to put on weight.


                  The third Guna is called Sattva. In Ayurveda and Hindu philosophy, Sattva symbolises harmony, both physical and psychological well being, goodwill towards the others and balance in whatever we do in life. Sattva represents also the quest in any spiritual or religious path. Our aspiration should always be to cultivate Sattva in us through prayers, devotion and meditation.


It is very rare that one possesses only a particular Guna. Each one of us has at least two predominant Gunas, often contradicting each other. Ayurvedic medicine has certain tests to determinate which Guna you have in you” Dr Alan Johnson Ayurvedic Practitioner.


The other unique feature of Ayurveda


The other great principle of Ayurveda is called Doshas or moods. The first is Vata, which is the engine of any human being and is found in movement, energy, dynamism etc. Vata is linked to ether and water. Too much Vata leads to digestion problems and mental confusion. The second one is Pitta, which is linked to fire and water. Those who have Pitta in them are prompt to action, intuitive and are sometimes impulsive. However, a Pitta predominance gives an intense capacity of concentration and Pitta people are energetic, courageous and sometimes ambitious. An excess of Pitta can lead to jealousy and sometimes anger, which can provoke liver and pancreas problems. Pitta children have sparkling eyes and quick intelligence. Kapha is the third Dosha and is linked to ether. Kapha men and women often possess a calm nature, sometimes bordering on lethargy and can quickly put on weight. An excess of Kapha can provoke laziness and often depression. Hatha-Yoga and dynamic exercises, such as fast walking are prescribed for these people, as well as a light diet or fruits and vegetables.


It is the combinations of Gunas and Doshas which determine, quickly after birth, both the physical as well as psychological constitution of a human being. It is therefore important for parents to consult an ayurvedic doctor early in the lives of their children, to find out which Gunas and Doshas predominate in them. The practician will then prescribe a diet, also a number of exercises, as well as ayurvedic medicines, to balance the Doshas and Gunas in the child.” Sushruta Samhita


Diagnostics and medicines in Ayurveda


                  The ayurvedic diagnostic is very different from allopathic medicine. The ayurvedic doctor first checks the pulse of the patient. It is said that an experienced doctor first gently places his index, middle and ring finger on the hollow spot beneath the wrist of the patient and can thus monitor the characteristics of pulse under each of his fingers. In this way, Vata Dosha can be felt under the index finger, Pitta Dosha by the middle finger and finally Kapha Dosha under the ring finger. The examination of the tongue and the pupil of the eyes are also extremely important in ayurvedic diagnostics and we find of course, examination of stool and urine.


            The genius of Ayurveda is also in its medicines. Long before it was found that alopathic medicined can have side effects, Ayurveda used plants, herbs and minerals to manufacture drugs. Some of these are still prescribed today and can be found now widely in the West, like Ashwagandha, Triphala, Liv-52 for liver problems, Cystone for gall bladder stones, etc. Many of the herbs contained in these medecines are found in the Himalayas and some of them are endangered. Fortunately, modern ayurvedic companies like Himalaya, Patanjali or Dabur have been trying to preserve them. Patanjali is owned by a modern day Sushruta, called Swami Ramdev. Swami Ramdev is firstly a Hatha-Yogi, a master of Pranayama and a great exponent of modern ayurvedic medicine In conclusion, it can be said that Ayurveda, or a combination of Ayurveda and Alopathy is the medicine of the future.


“A country can only be healthy if its people are healthy” Swami Ramdev


The intricacy and vast knowledge of ayurvedic medicine, can be a hurdle for the beginner. However, there are now in India and abroad, ayurvedic spas, for all kinds of budgets, from the 5 star hotels to the village dispensery in Kerala, where one can experience first hand ayurveda, particularly its famous massage techinque, known as Panchakarma, as well as be prescribed ayurvedic medicines by the in house doctor and practice some Hatha-Yoga and Pranayma. So: good luck in your discovery of the most ancient medical system in the world, still in practice…


The author has written a book on Ayurvéda: “Encyclopedie de l’Ayurvéda” (Editions Flammarion Paris, 2021)







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