Here’s the Real Story of Ayurveda; It’s Better Than What You Know

The real story of Ayurveda’s origins is more vibrant than the made-up claim that ‘Ayurveda derives from the Vedas’. 

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Ayurveda was a highly sophisticated body of medical knowledge of its time, and under the onslaught of modern science and medicine in the 1800s during colonial rule, it was showcased by many Indian elites as evidence of the scientific achievements of the people of India. But since the methods and techniques of historical scholarship used then were not highly rigorous, many of those claims have turned out to be exaggerated.

For example, Ayurveda is not ‘5000 years old,’ as we will later see. Of course, the fact that many of the myths around Ayurveda have been proven false is no judgement on the greatness of this traditional system, but on the insecurities of those who claim to be the only authorities on the topic and continue to propagate such myths.

As historian and faculty at University of Alberta, Dominik Wujastyk very rightly points out: “Ayurveda's real history is impressive enough and does not benefit from proleptic scientism.”

Distinction Between ‘Magico-Religious’ Medicine & ‘Rational-Empiric’ Medicine

Before getting into the story of the origins of Ayurveda, it might help to understand an important idea that historians of medicine employ when discussing medicine in premodern times: the distinction between ‘magico-religious’ medicine and ‘rational-empiric’ medicine. For several millennia, humans utilised what can be called ‘supernatural’ concepts to explain the world around them, including ill health and sickness (magico-religious). It is only in the first millennium BCE that more rational explanations began to appear in the human historical record (rational-empiric). The example of Hippocrates might suffice to explain this.

As the National Library of Medicine says, Hippocrates turned “away from divine notions of medicine and using the observation of the body as a basis for medical knowledge. Prayers and sacrifices to the gods did not hold a central place in his theories, but changes in diet, beneficial drugs, and keeping the body ‘in balance’ were the key.”

Somewhat similar to that, historian and Sanskritist Kenneth Zysk tells us, in his fascinating book on the origins of Ayurveda, when and how sickness and ill health began to be described in rational-empiric ways on the Indian subcontinent.

The Vedas (especially the Atharvaveda) which are commonly claimed to be the origin of the medical ideas in Ayurveda, are characterised entirely by magico-religious medical ideas, for example, invoking rituals like the recitation of potent charms and the application of amulets to exorcise demons (who were considered important causes of ill health then).

Brahminical Connotations of Rational-Empiric Medicine

An important reason why rational-empiric medicine could not develop in Vedic society was its notoriously hierarchical nature and the huge emphasis on Brahminical rituals. To quote Zysk:

“A close scrutiny of the sources from [around 800 BCE] to the beginning of the common era reveals that medical practitioners were denigrated by the brahmanic [Vedic] hierarchy and excluded from orthodox ritual cults because of their pollution from contact with impure peoples. Finding acceptance among the communities of heterodox ascetic renunciants and mendicants who did not censure [them], these healers wandered the countryside performing cures and acquiring new medicines, treatments, and medical information. A vast storehouse of medical knowledge soon developed among these wandering physicians, who, unhindered by brahmanic strictures and taboos, began to conceive an empirically and rationally-based medical epistemology with which to codify and systematise this body of medical information.”

Zysk shows that this “vast storehouse” of knowledge survives in the Buddhist canon (known as Tipitaka in Pali and Tripitaka in Sanskrit) and that it is actually these Buddhist texts that are the more immediate precursors of the rational-empiric Ayurvedic concepts. Historian Dominik Wujastyk says that Zysk’s “evidence is indeed compelling. The detailed parallels between the medical passages in the Pali Tripitaka and the Sanskrit Ayurveda treatises are inescapable. Especially fascinating are the comparisons Zysk draws between the medical ‘case histories’ embedded in the Tripitaka and the diagnoses and therapies described theoretically in the Ayurveda [samhitas].”

Long story short, as Vedic society stabilised and the social structures and hierarchies in it became more rigid, healers/physicians began to be relegated to the ‘lower’ strata. Zysk dates this to the later Vedic period (900–500 BCE).

Of ‘Purity’ & ‘Impurity’ — And Image of ‘Healers’ in Vedic Age

This denigration of healers originated in Vedic ideas of ‘purity and impurity’ — which themselves are precursors to the Manu-ordained caste system which would appear a few centuries later — and in the association of healers with supposedly ‘impure’ objects, activities, and people (like blood and pus, and the Adivasis living in forests).

The denigrated healers then gradually dissociated from the Vedic mainstream and came to be part of non-Vedic traditions.

Buddhism was one such tradition, and it is among the Buddhists that the accumulated knowledge of these healers was organised systematically in texts.

How ‘Non-Mainstream’ Ayurveda Became What Today’s Classical ‘Hindu’ Ayurveda

The final part of the story is to understand how this non-mainstream medical knowledge re-entered the mainstream to finally become the classical ‘Hindu’ Ayurveda that we know today (exemplified by the samhitas). Zysk writes:

“Hinduism assimilated the ascetic medical repository into its socioreligious and intellectual tradition beginning probably during the Gupta period [around 320 - 550 CE], and by the application of a brahmanic veneer made it an orthodox Hindu science. The earliest extant medical treatises, the Caraka and Susruta Samhitas, bear distinctive indications of this Hinduisation process. Hindu monastic institutions also followed the Buddhist model and established infirmaries, hospices, and eventually hospitals in their monasteries.”

The True Origins of Ayurveda & Its Vibrant Story

One important example of this ‘Hinduisation’ is the introductory passages in the Sanskrit texts like Charakasamhita which claim their origins in the Vedas. Philosopher Debiprasad Chattopadhyay explains this, in his fascinating book ‘Science and Society in Ancient India,’ by saying: “The fact that Ayurvedic texts claim to ‘derive from’ the Vedas is not evidence for medical history, but rather evidence of a bid by medical authors [of that time, that is, of the early centuries CE Gupta period] for social acceptance and religious sanction.”

The way I see it, this real story of Ayurveda’s origins is far more vibrant and lively than the staid, made-up claim that “Ayurveda derives from the Vedas”. It also shows that the origins of Ayurveda stretch back to around 2,500 years and not 5,000 years.

Most importantly, the great tradition of rational medical ideas in our history, including Ayurveda, owes a lot to the attitude of nonconformity and the idea of dissent, and to the dissenters who were courageous enough to stand up to the Vedic brahmanic hierarchy and carve out their own paths outside of their rigid, non-empirical, inherited traditions.

(Kiran Kumbhar [MBBS, MPH] is a PhD candidate of History of Science (Medicine) at Harvard University. He tweets @kikumbhar. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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