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History of Ayurveda

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The Vedic Scriptures comprised of four volumes: Rg Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda were passed down through the millennia through song and scripture.  They were written in Sanskrit prose in specific repetitive sounds known as mantras, which are vibrational sounds that embody the laws and energies of the universe. 

The Rg Veda is the oldest of the four Vedic scriptures and contains the main concepts regarding Ayurveda.  It speaks about three cosmic powers associated with Wind, Fire and Earth and how these primal forces relate to the three psycho-physiologic constitutions of man known as Vata, Pitta and Kapha.

The Yajur Veda contains the Vedic rituals and practices that aim to improve health and longevity. It is in the scriptures of the Yajur Veda that the concept of organs and tissues (dhatus) are introduced. 

The Sama Veda contains musical chants that are said to bring health, harmony and well-being to body, mind and soul.  Ayurveda stresses the importance of mantra, music and sound therapies for healing at the deepest level. 

The Atharva Veda contains references to specific herbs, the treatment of particular diseases and other systematic knowledge about Ayurveda and deals with the daily routines of man. 

Other secondary texts known as the Upavedas contain other knowledge useful to healing. 

Dhanur Veda - contains intricate knowledge of the marma points (acupressure points on the body) that promote healing in specific organs.

Sthapatya Veda - shows the healing forces inherent in directions and how to use these in building houses, temples and hospitals. These forces called “Vastu” help generate more healing prana (life force) in the proper environment. 

Gandharva Veda - shows how music and movement can heal the body and mind.  Vedic music is used to balance and harmonize the elements within us that change with the days and seasons.

Ayurveda is also connected to the six limbs (Vedangas) of the Vedas:

Jyotish (Vedic Astrology), Kalpa (Vedic Ritual), Shiksha (Pronunciation), Vyakarana (Grammar), Nirukta (Etymology), Chandras (Metrics). 

According to Ayurveda, Vedic astrology, ritual and mantras are all important in healing.  By delineating the movement of our past, present and future (karma), Vedic astrology is said to aid in disease diagnosis, showing us which diseases are likely to occur as well as treatment remedies and prognosis.  

Later Vedic texts such as the Brahmanas outline the five pranas (vital life forces) and the seven dhatus (body tissues) in detail.  The Upanishads teach the spiritual and psychological background of Ayurveda and its dedication to self-knowledge and the elevation of consciousness.  The Bhagavad Gita contains specific sections on Ayurveda, explaining the doshas (individual bodily constitutions) and their effects for health and disease. 

From 2000 – 300 BCE, Ayurvedic knowledge was reformulated and supplemented by observations and experimentation from subsequent generations of Ayurvedic scholars.  Still maintaining the spiritual roots of the system, the medical material was collected and tested for efficacy and systematically arranged into compilations known as Samhitas – which literally mean “collections”.   Over the last 2000 years, only three Samhitas remain:

Charaka Samhita

Sushruta Samhita

Ashtanga Samhita

Together they are called Brihattrayi or “great trio”.  They constitute the oldest and possibly the longest medical texts in the world.  All are written in the Sanskrit language and thoroughly cover such topics as diet, behavior, herbs, health and disease.  

During the Buddhist period of 300 BCE – 1000 AD, the knowledge of Ayurveda spread beyond the bounds of India.  Medicinal herbs were planted along the sides of the public streets to be used freely by all.  During this time, India was considered the pinnacle of learning and medical glory was at its zenith. Ayurvedic physicians were invited to the Middle East for consultation and were put in charge of hospitals there.  The cultural influence of India expanded to Tibet, Indochina/Indonesia, Afghanistan and Persia, through the dedication of monks and yogis, who carried the sacred knowledge and means of healing to all who were open to it.  Around 600 AD, Vagbhatta of Sindh who came from the lower Indus valley, introduced a new number of herbs and made valuable contributions to surgery.  His treatise called Ashtanga Hridaya presents a summary of Charaka and Sushruta Samhitas.  The book is written in prose making it easy for students to memorize.  During this time, the Ayurvedic texts were translated to Arabic. The Unani or Islamic system of medicine never lost touch with its parental source and even today works with many Ayurvedic herbs and principles. 

From 1000 AD – 1750 AD, the Muslim Invasion caused a great decline in the classical culture of India and Ayurveda.  Many universities, monasteries and temples were destroyed.  Ayurvedic teachers and practitioners retreated to the south of the country to rural areas or to the mountains of the Himalayas.  From 1750 – 1950 the British invasion saw a further decline of Ayurveda.  The British not only denied state patronage to Ayurveda, they regarded it as backward or superstitious.  All the schools on the Indian subcontinent were closed.  Yet in spite of suppression, Ayurveda remained popular with the masses still serving much of the general population.  Through apprenticeships, Ayurveda maintained its integrity. 

With the independence of India in the early 20th century, Ayurveda has been revived with new schools being built all over the country.  This ancient system of healing is being taught along with allopathic medicine in many of the universities and colleges throughout India and the rest of the world.  Some well known institutes in the United States include The Ayurveda Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico and the California College of Ayurveda in Grass Valley, California.

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