Returning To Balance With Ayurveda
You hear the word Ayurveda often enough now…your friends who swear by its miraculous effect on their health (after they have exhausted all other treatment modalities, of course!); you also come across the word “Ayurveda” almost all the time on labels of bottled cosmetics, shampoos and elixirs. Model turned movie star Christy Turlington sells with a sweet insistence her Ayurvedic beauty and rejuvenation line of skin and body care. Time Magazine wonders if it is India’s home spun Ayurveda and its tradition of insistence on total wellbeing – mind, body and spirit – that is responsible for the rapid turn over of Beauty Queens?
And we Indians, can we forget our very own Shahnaz Hussain, whose simple Ayurvedic recipes in crass green plastic jars, heralded a revolution in Indian women reclaiming her right to be groomed, which exploded the “Beauty Parlor Culture” on middle class India? And, last but not least, can we forget our grannies, mothers and aunts constantly reminding us to not drink cold water after coming in from the hot summer Sun, to not eat mangos without soaking them in water and insisting upon rubbing hot ghee and heeng on our bellies when we were faking stomach aches to avoid going to School?
Which of us does not remember the warm blessing of a ginger and black pepper Chai brought to us during a cold and cough, the soothing relief of Rose and Khus sherbats in summer and the “khichri” or ”pongal” when we had fevers? So Ayurveda lives on…in each one of us, in our families, in our choices and in our collective memory.
So what is Ayurveda…exactly?
Literally translated from Sanskrit, it is composed of two words “Ayu” which means life and “Veda” which denotes knowledge. Ayurveda is the knowledge of healthy living and is not confined only to the treatment of diseases. A compendium on life itself, in its entirety, Ayurveda’s scope ranges from birth to death, including disease, decay, aging, and wellness, lust and ambition, rage and love. This is a major agenda, indeed, for any system of healing, but can it be any less – especially if true healing has to take place?
Perhaps this is exactly why Ayurveda manages to get to the bottom of the disease that distresses the mind or the emotion that ails the body. Ayurveda is considered as one of the Upavedas of Atharvaveda, and has thus its origin from the Vedas, the oldest recorded wisdom of the Hindus. There is evidence that suggests that in ancient India, Ayurveda had spread to several other parts of the world in some form or the other.
In Ayurveda, the mind -body question is not even up for debate – it is a given, that mind and body are one and the same. What affects the mind will affect the body and vice versa. Ayurveda, with its deep understanding of the cause of disease, the routes of disease and the manifestation of diseases, is often successful in areas where traditional medicine fails or only offers symptomatic management.
Ayurveda advocates a complete promotive, preventive and curative system of medicine and include eight major clinical specialties of medicine namely, (I) Medicine (Kayachikitsa), (2) Surgery (SalyaTantra), (3) ENT (Salakya Tantra), (4) Pediatrics (Kaumatabhritya), (5) Psychiatry (Bhutvidya), (6) Toxicology (Agad Tantra), (7) Nutrition, rejuvenation and geriatrics (Rasayan Tantra), (8) Sexology and virilization (Vajikarana). This shows what a developed science Ayurveda was in ancient times.
The Britishers came down heavy on the imparting of Ayurvedic knowledge and promoted British owned Pharmaceutical companies and modern medicine; and soon, Ayurveda, instead of being a mainstream medicine of the Hindus, like every thing else of the Hindus, was soon crushed, prevented from developing. Ayurveda’s importance diminished and faded away as generations of Indians were beguiled and misinformed with the quick fixes and rapid cures of modern medicine, requiring no dietary restrictions or internal discipline whatsoever.
A national brain washing by modern ‘rational Maculay education” was underway and medicine based upon the Cartesian model of man as machine – soul-less and stripped of choices – treating the ‘liver’ and the ‘gall bladder,’ not the person as a whole – came to stay. Medicine was no longer about preventing disease, optimizing life, or to bring back to balance, rejuvenate and if death were inevitable – prepare for the final journey with dignity.
Modern medicine was all about a world full of hostile allergens, bacteria and microbes out to get us. Ayurveda’s premise that unless and until the hosts’ inner immunity caves in, no allergy or infection will manifest was quickly forgotten and so were the accompanying behaviors that ensure optimum immunity, strong metabolism (agni), and ability to resist and adapt to the change of season and different living and environmental conditions, etc. Plants and animals are constantly altering and adapting their inner balance to be in equilibrium with the changing outer environment.
The Hindu in modern India now had a pill, an antidote, an inoculation, a guarantee! The message was loud and clear: Live as you want , eat as your tongue dictates, sexually indulge per fantasy and generally believe (and support) that the anti-death/anti-aging pill is only a matter of some more research and time.
Ayurveda is based on certain fundamental principles that pertain to life (of man, plants and animals) on this earth. These fundamental rules have not changed since the beginning of time itself. One is often over awed by the wisdom of the ancient Hindu scientists who unfolded the secrets of nature after astute observation and re-examination of evidence for centuries.
So rest assured Ayurveda made no declarations in a hurry or even based its studies on 20 year controlled study of mice! Its laboratory was the entire universe, its ingredients simply the basic building blocks of this universe itself: the five great elements (Pancha Maha bhutas) – Space (Akash), Air (Vayu), Fire (Tejas), Water (Aap) and Earth (Prithvi). Shake up the five elements and you have the recipe for creating this universe in all its entirety and variety.
Man is a part and parcel of this universe and can hardly be considered in isolation. The pancha maha bhautik Sharira (body) along with manas (mind) and Atman (soul) constitutes you and I, the Purusha (the living, breathing, feeling self) in constant interaction with the outer universe (loka). The pancha maha bhautic body will one day become exactly that: reduced to ashes and the atman, in its eternal quest to unite with the paramatma (universal spirit/soul) will move up and down in the karmic wheel, taking on new bodies, discarding old ones; as per its evolutionary agenda and consciousness.
The self of the person (Purusha) is a continuum of the universal self, while the physical body composed of pancha maha bhutas (five great elements) originates from the pancha maha bhautik seed and derives nourishment from food and drinks of the similar composition. Hence, equilibrium and non antagonism between the internal and external milieu of man is essential for the maintenance of the living body.
Since the individual human being is the miniature replica of the universe, the individual (purusha) and the universe (loka) stay in constant interaction with each other and also derive and draw materials from each other in order to maintain their normalcy and homeostasis. This interaction and exchange continues in a normal way, such as by breathing the air, eating foods available in nature, etc. So long as this interaction is wholesome and optimum, the man is in optimum health. When this harmonious process breaks down, a disease state starts. Hence, in Ayurveda, the main principle of treatment will be to restore harmonious exchange between Purusha and Loka and restore to normal the pancha maha bhutas composing the purusha (mind and body) with due processes.
Ayurveda is deeply concerned with the concept of true balance. This balance entails not only a correct functioning of systems and organs, psyche and spirit, but also a balanced and creative relationship with our fellow creatures, nature as a whole, between family members, our climate, the civilization we live in, between our ideals and customs, between truth and our selves, with God, etc. Ayurvedic texts flourish details on right behavior, right thinking, right action and right response, right eating, right lifestyle, etc.
A healthy individual makes for a healthy society and a body that is balanced holds a spirit that is free – free for spiritual advancement. ‘Healthy’ is termed as ‘Swastha‘ in Ayurveda – one who stays in his ‘sva‘ (self). This ‘sva’ involves the total personality of man comprising of consciousness (atman), body (sharira) and mind (manas). “Sva‘ also denotes prakriti, ‘constitutional normalcy,’ which makes the concept of sva different from person to person. This is quite different from the world of ideal blood counts, ideal height-weight ratios, ideal heart rate, etc.
Ayurveda regards each individual as unique, a brand new painting with its own set of colors. So what may be normal to one and constitute his or her health may be quite abnormal to another. In Ayurveda, people do not come from a cookie cutter – so Ayurveda provides the encouragement and tools for self analysis, understanding one’s native nature (prakruti) and departure from one’s native nature (Vikruti).
Ayurveda recommends a return to Self, to what is simple and intrinsic to one’s life, and provides information to make responsible choices which promote good physical and mental health.
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