What is Ayurveda?
Atreya Smith

The classics of late Vedic times describe Ayurveda as the science of longevity or the means to live a full, happy and healthy life. Ayurveda is commonly seen as a simplistic, outdated type of natural medicine. Modern, educated people often see Ayurveda as inapplicable to current society. While there is some truth that Ayurveda, as practiced today in India, needs to be updated it remains the most appropriate medical system for the present time.

To understand why Ayurveda is the best medical system to use today one needs to comprehend the basic purpose of the human being. The ancient scriptures tell us that there are four goals of life- kama (pleasure), artha (material wealth), dharma (the individual's life purpose), and moksha (liberation from the individual 'I' concept). To pursue any of the four life purposes two things are desirable - health and intelligence. Unfortunately, Ayurveda is seen as being limited to a health system. The Astanga Hrdayam clearly states that Ayurveda is the means to attain the four goals of life (Sutrasthana 1.2). Yet it is the Caraka Samhita (Sutrasthana 1.56) which gives us the true context in which to understand Ayurveda.

ayurvedaIn pursuing the modern goals of life (which are mainly pleasure and material wealth) few would argue of the need for health. Perhaps some could successfully argue that intelligence is not really needed, yet most would agree that it is certainly a useful commodity. The true purpose of Ayurveda is to develop intelligence and this is why it is the most applicable medical system today.

Ayurveda states that the cause of disease is the pathogenic actions of Vata, Pitta and Kapha (Caraka.Samhita, Sutrasthana 1.57). However, the role of intelligence is considered to be the primary factor in attracting, creating, or allowing pathogenic elements to take hold in the body and mind. Hence, the development of intelligence is the fundamental element for health and the true purpose of Ayurveda. Without the development of intelligence the individual makes poor decisions that create wrong or destructive habits. This in turn ruins either the mental or physical health, or at times, both.

Ayurveda can be viewed on a superficial level as basic rules in which to live by - e.g., the development of proper daily habits to maintain homeostasis of the organism. Additionally it can also be viewed as a health system that offers a variety of medicinal and therapeutic options. Yet, neither of these views will actually address the other two fundamental needs of the human - Dharma and Moksha - which are considered to be the actual goal of human incarnation. Both of these require the correct development of intelligence, buddhi or the intellect.

The highest development of intelligence is discrimination. And it is precisely the lack of discrimination that has led to the dominance of mechanical thought in the health sciences. The human being is an alive, psychosomatic, phenomenon that can never be totally understood by its parts. This is both the limitation and gift of mechanical medicine - the knowledge and treatment of the parts. However, true health is a dynamic expansion of homeostasis - it is not static - when it becomes static we call it death or suspended animation. Mechanical medicine sees health as the lack of symptoms. By this definition living on pills and medications for twenty or thirty years is health - because there are no symptoms. This shows a lack of discrimination between the static and dynamic states of health.

The return of Ayurveda to its proper place as a major world medicine can only happen if its primary goal is met - developing intelligence and discrimination. This is the main global issue of today - increasing the level of human intelligence. If this occurs both Dharma and Moksha can be restored as the primary goals of humanity. It is the global obsession with Artha and Kama that is quickly destroying society and all natural resources. The global predominate of mechanical medicine and petroleum based pharmaceuticals is primarily due to its commercialization. Allopathic dominance is actually a question of economics and when Artha dominates any society or system then intelligence diminishes.

Similarly, this is why Ayurveda has declined in social acceptance. The Ayurvedic system is based on ayur - life, or the dynamic, animated aspect of consciousness. If Ayurveda as a system blindly remains rigid and non-receptive to social changes then this too is a lack of discrimination. Failure to comprehend social changes leaves society in general viewing the system as old fashion. The present poor regulations on Ayurvedic medicines is one example of this failure. Modern economics requires commercially grown and prepared medicines instead of individuals manufacturing their own medications and relying on questionable merchants who often sell adulterated raw materials.

Hence, the modern dilemma is to live in such a way that the homeostasis of the body is not severely deranged through a fast paced, stressful life. The obvious way to do this is to live intelligently - in accord with your individual capacity, situation and environment. In other words to live according to Ayurveda. And it is this intelligent, individualized approach of Ayurveda that is fast pushing it to the forefront of medical systems in Western countries. Isn't it time we all begin to live in a more intelligent manner?


Atreya Smith was born in California, he is the author of six books on the healing traditions of India and is currently the director of the European Institute of Vedic Studies in France.

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