The Indian subcontinent is the birthplace of Ayurveda, or “life-knowledge”, a system of complimentary or alternative medicine based on manifold therapies and practices that have been integrated in general wellness applications and as well in some cases in medical use.
A Gift from the Gods
The main classical Ayurveda texts begin with accounts of the transmission of medical knowledge from the Gods to sages, and then to human physicians.
Sushruta was one of the foremost practitioners of the same. In “Sushruta Samhita” ([Sushruta’s Compendium]), he wrote that Dhanvantari, Hindu god of Ayurveda, incarnated himself as a king of Varanasi and taught medicine to a group of physicians, including Sushruta.
Ayurvedic Therapies are typically based on complex herbal compounds, minerals and metal substances (perhaps under the influence of early Indian alchemy). Ayurveda texts also taught surgical techniques, including rhinoplasty, kidney stone extractions, sutures, and the extraction of foreign objects.
Science or Protoscience?
Cynics consider Ayurveda medicine is pseudoscientific. Other researchers consider it a protoscience, or trans-science system instead. Researchers in the US claim to have found toxic levels of heavy metals, specifically lead and mercury. The public health implications of such metallic contaminants in India are unknown.
Scholars assert that Ayurveda originated in prehistoric times, and that some of the concepts of Ayurveda have existed from the time of the Indus Valley Civilization or even earlier. Ayurveda developed significantly during the Vedic period and later some of the non-Vedic systems such as Buddhism and Jainism also developed medical concepts and practices that appear in the classical Ayurveda texts. Humoral balance is emphasized, and suppressing natural urges is considered unhealthy and claimed to lead to illness.
The concept of Ayurveda is based on three elemental substances, the doshas (called Vata, Pitta and Kapha), and states that a balance of the doshas results in health, while imbalance results in disease. Ayurveda practitioners had developed various medicinal preparations and surgical procedures by the medieval period.
Charaka: The wandering scholar, the doyen of ancient Diagnostics
Charaka(literally referring to the “wandering scholar”) was one of the principal contributors to Ayurveda. He is famous for authoring the medical treatise, the Charaka Samhita.
According to Charaka’s translations, health and disease are not predetermined and life may be prolonged by human effort and attention to lifestyle. As per Indian heritage and Ayurvedic system, prevention of all types of diseases have a more prominent place than treatment, including the restructuring of lifestyle to align with the course of nature and four seasons, which will guarantee complete wellness.
Charaka seems to have been an early proponent of “prevention is better than cure” doctrine. The following statement is attributed to Acharya Charaka:
A physician who fails to enter the body of a patient with the lamp of knowledge and understanding can never treat diseases. He should first study all the factors, including environment, which influence a patient’s disease, and then prescribe treatment. It is more important to prevent the occurrence of disease than to seek a cure.
Charaka is generally considered as the first physician to present the concept of digestion, metabolism, immunity and sexual problems. A body functions because it contains three dosha or principles, namely movement (vata), transformation (pitta) and lubrication and stability (kapha). The doshas correspond to the Western classification of humors, bile, phlegm and wind. These doshas are produced when dhatus (blood, flesh and marrow) act upon the food eaten. For the same quantity of food eaten, one body, however, produces dosha in an amount different from another body. That is why one body is different from another.
Charaka studied the anatomy of the human body and various organs. He gave 360 as the total number of bones, including teeth, present in the human body. He was right when he considered heart to be a controlling centre. He claimed that the heart was connected to the entire body through 13 main channels. Apart from these channels, there were countless other ones of varying sizes which supplied not only nutrients to various tissues but also provided passage to waste products. He also claimed that any obstruction in the main channels led to a disease or deformity in the body.
According to the Charaka tradition, there existed six schools of medicine, founded by the disciples of the sage Punarvasu Ātreya. Each of his disciples, Agnivesha, Bhela, Jatūkarna, Parāshara, Sharita, and Khorasan, composed a Samhitā. Of these, the one composed by Agnivesha was considered the best. The Agnivesha Samhitā was later revised by Charaka and it came to be known as Charaka Samhitā. There were 8 main chapters in this book.
1. Sutra Sthana
2. Nidan Sthana
3. Viman Sthana
4. Sharir Sthana
5. Indriya Sthana
6. Chikitsa Sthana
7. Kalpa Sthana
8. Siddhi Sthana
There had been 120 sub chapters of which they all in total had 12,000 shlokas and description of 2,000 medicines. There were cures for diseases related to almost every single body part of human body and all medicines had natural elements without any chemicals to cure the diseases.
There are three principal early texts on Ayurveda, the Charaka Samhita, the Sushruta Samhita and the Bhela Samhita. The Sushruta Samhita is based on an original from the 6th century BCE, and was updated by the Buddhist scholar Nagarjuna in the 2nd century CE. The Charaka Samhita, written by Charaka, and the Bhela Samhita, attributed to Atreya Punarvasu, are also dated to the 6th century BCE.
Charaka & Susrutha: Soothsayers Ahead of their time?
With their emphasis on preventive medical care, both Charaka and Susrutha shared a lot in common with the Greek healer & medical practitioner Hippocrates at the fundamental root of their approaches.
Diagnostics & Preventive Healthcare: Dreams being realized
Both Susrutha & Charaka would have been amazed at the nature of diagnostic treatments across the world today and India is an emerging force in the same. Companies such as Thyrocare, Dr Lal Pathlabs, SRL Diagnostics, Practo, and iHealthmantra (a leading Preventive Healthcare & Diagnostics company) are laying the stage for the future evolution of the same.
Consumer choice is King and reigns supreme. Sophisticated tech ecosystems have made online-offline selection of the most suitable doctors/clinics/hospitals in the hands of the consumer.
The Immortals of Indian Medical Science
Truly today’s world of medicine with its emphasis on prevention would have been a dream come true for the pioneers such as Charaka & Susrutha. But both would have been wise enough to realize that this is just another milestone in the ever-evolving quest of mankind for a better quality, disease free lifestyle forever questing for the fountain of youth, and daresay one day immortality itself!
Read the 1st part, THE HORSE-POWER OF “HIPPOCRATES”, blog.
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