This is the indigenous system of medicine in India. Ayurveda literally means ,the science of living, (longevity). Ayu means life and Veda means knowledge. The origins of this system of medicine are lost in the hoary past, and the body of knowledge that comes under the heading Ayurveda constitutes ideas about diseases, diagnosis and cure, which have been accumulated over the ages past.
The feature that distinguishes this system of medicines from other systems like Allopathy and Homeopathy is that it is solely based on herbs and herbal compounds. This it shares in common with the ideas on this area in tribal societies. But what makes Ayurveda, a scientific art of healing is its disassociation from the magical aspect which tribal forms of healing normally have. Hence the practitioner of Ayurveda could never degenerate to the level of a shaman or witch-doctor. Hocus pocus and voodoo which are still widely prevalent in rural India could not become a part of Ayurveda as it always retained a physical link between the disease and its cure.
According to Charaka, a noted practioner of Ayurveda in ancient India: “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”.
These remarks may appear rudimentary today, but they were made by Charaka, some 20 centuries ago in his famous Ayurvedic treatise Charaka Samahita. The treatise contains many more such remarks which are held in reverence even today. Some of them are in the fields of physiology, etiology and embryology. Charaka was the first physician to present the concept of digestion. metabolism and immunity.
According to him a body functions because it contains three dosha or humours, namely, bile, phlegm and wind. These dosha are produced when dhatus, namely 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. For instance, it is more weighty, stronger, more energetic, Further, illness is caused when the balance among the three dosha in a human body is disturbed. To restore the balance Charaka prescribed medicinal drugs.
Charaka also knew the fundamentals of genetics. For instance, he knew the factors determining the sex of a child. A genetic defect in a child, like lameness or blindness, he said, was not due to any defect in the mother or the father, but in the ovum or sperm of the parents which is today an accepted fact.
Under the guidance of the ancient physician Atreya, another physician named Agnivesa had written an encyclopedic treatise in the eighth- century B.C. However, it was only when Charaka revised this treatise that it gained popularity and came to be known as Charaka-samahita. For two millenniums it remained a standard work on the subject and was translated into many foreign languages, including Arabic and Latin.
The medical system of Ayurveda draws heavily from the doctrines developed in the Charaka-Samahita. The main quality which Ayurveda has borrowed from Charaka is its aim of removing the cause for illness and not just curing the disease itself. In Ayurveda there are no such things as instant relievers, pain killers or antibiotics. The herbs used in Ayurvedic remedies do not operate against the body’s metabolism, their effect is registered gradually and hence there are minimum side-effects. The constituents of Ayurvedic medicines are largely based on organic matter. The absence of fast registering inorganic compounds which are at times corrosive, contributes to the absence of side-effects from Ayurvedic medicines.
This art of healing had been held in high esteem in ancient India. It was elevated to a divine status and Dhanvantari the practitioner of this art was deified as the God of Medicine. Even ordinary practitioners of this art - the Ashwinikumars - were given a special status in mythology and folklore. Although very few ancient texts are available today, this method of healing was systematised in early times. The fact that the term Veda was attached to this body of thought testifies to this.
Knowledge of this art was spread among sages, hermits and medicos who roamed from place to place. Those who practiced solely this art were called Vaidyas and they generally belonged to the Brahmin caste. Knowledge of this art was passed from generation to generation. But it remains surprising how this vocation did not obtain the status of a separate caste.
The absence of a caste, wherein this body of ideas could get crystallised and changeless which incidentally could ensure their preservation, along with the absence of a system for regular education and training for practitioners of the art has resulted in its gradual though partial withering over a period of time. The above two lacunae also resulted in the emergence of quackery and made it difficult to distinguish bonafide practitioners from quacks in absence of professional standards. These lacunae have been identified in modern times and recently, organised efforts have been launched to revive and nourish this flagging discipline.