Is ayurveda quackery?

ayurvedayati iti ayurveda –  “that which explains ayu is ayurveda”.

What is ayurveda

Before we understand what is ayurveda, we need to know what the word is made up of.  The word “ayurveda” is a combination of 2 sanskrit words – “ayu” which means “life span” and “veda” which means “knowledge or learning or science”. (The root word veda comes from the root word “vid” to know).  ayurveda therefore covers the vast knowledge of the Life, including the eco system, minerals, plants, animals, environment etc.

ayurveda and biology

When you look closely at the term ayurveda and the term biology there are a lot of similarities but ayurveda goes a step further. The etymology of biology is derived from the ancient Greek word “bios” which means life. The current study of biology includes the study of all physical entities that have life. But for ayurveda, life includes both physical and subtle – the subtle aspects include the Universe, the prana, the atma (Link to ayurveda definition of health) which have a strong influence over the physical and mental “body”.  The panchamahabhuta (5 Great Principles or dravya) comprises the body and the universe (link to article on panchamahabhuta).   The panchamahabhuta and the principle of creation stem from Indian philosophy (which is a science by itself). To truly appreciate ayurveda (and yoga) one must have a basic understanding of the philosophical texts (shad darshana) of the ancient Indian system. The shad darshana (six “seen”) will provide the clue for understanding the mind-body complex.

What is ayu

śarīrēndriyasattvātmasaṁyōgō dhāri jīvitam|

nityagaścānubandhaśca paryāyairāyurucyatē||42||

charaka samhita, deerghanjiviteeya adhyaya

This sloka is interesting because not only does acharya charaka define ayu (life span) as comprising 4 components but also provides synonyms and the interconnectedness of the 4 components.

Four components of ayu (life span)

acharya charaka defiens ayu as a unification (yoga) of 4 components namely, the living body (sharira), senses (indriya), mind (sattva) and True Self (atma).  At the outset it is crystal clear that the ancient way of looking at the human is starkly different from modern science. Life is a flow not static. When acharya define the body as a living body, they automatically differentiate a living body vs a inert body (jada).  This distinction may sound weird, but in the context of True Happiness and understanding Life, differentiating these aspects is pertinent. When it comes to disease management, modern science only look at the body and its organs thereby taking a reductionist approach to life and body.  Whereas ayurveda takes a holistic approach to life by recognising the different components of life, studying it separately and at the same time seeing a close interrelationship between all the components. A disconnect or imbalance of the 4 components is the cause of disease.

Synonyms of ayu (lifespan)

acharya charaka  further explains ayu (lifespan) by using synonyms such as  dhari (that which sustains or preserves vitality), jivita (a state of having life), nityaga (a continuous process), and anubandha (connection, link, interconnectedness). As mentioned above, life is not just the body but a dynamic interplay of various components and there is a strong link and interconnectedness (anubandha) between the 4 components of ayu (lifespan).

Significance of understanding ayurveda from an ancient perspective

To understand ayurveda we have to look at the human being from the lenses of ayurveda. Modern science only sees and deals with the physical body.  Whereas way back then, ayurveda recognise mind as an integral part and is responsible for the overall health and wellbeing of a person.  Furthermore a living body (sharira) is different from an inert body (jada) in that it is a continuum comprising senses, mind and atma. It is only recently that modern science has started to pay attention to mental health. It will probably take another 100 years for modern science to see the interconnectedness of sense organs and atma as part of life’s components and why a balance of all 4 components is important for overall wellness.  These four components are responsible for the sustenance of ayu (lifespan) of an individual (jiva). Only when all four components of ayu are in balance, is a person considered to be truly healthy.

Purpose of ayurveda

prayōjanaṁ cāsya svasthasya svāsthyarakṣaṇamāturasya vikārapraśamanaṁ ca||26|| arthedashmahamooliya adhyaya SS 30

The purpose of ayurveda is to preserve the health of the healthy and cure the disease of the unhealthy

A point to note here is that ayurveda’s principle of wellbeing is steeped in the prevention of disease and promotion of the health through diet, lifestyle and harmonious living with oneself and the universe.  Although the curative and maintenance aspect of disease are also discussed in-depth (and ayurveda offers a holistic solution for disease (roga)), the main emphasis is on the prevention of disease through diet and lifestyle which is the ultimate key to health and wellness.  

Writer

Vasanthi Pillay is the President of the Ayurveda Association of Singapore (AAOS) and the Director of Innergy Ayurveda and Yoga Pte Ltd. She conducts several Talks and Workshops on Ayurveda in Singapore and Asia to help people understand the fundamental principles of Ayurveda so that they can apply the principles as a preventive medicine for their families and themselves. Vasanthi works with 2 large conventional hospitals in Taiwan in assisting them with training and integrating ayurveda and yoga into the healthcare system. She has  also worked with Montessori Schools in China and Taiwan in educating the parents and teachers in incorporating a holistic diet and lifestyle program for parent-child education.  Vasanthi who has worked in a highly stressful corporate world, developed a keen interest in mind-body relationship. This prompted her to take up her yoga Instructor Course in Vyasa, Bangalore India in 1995 and several ayurveda Courses. Vasanthi also holds a Bachelor of Arts (NUS) majoring in Philosophy and Sociology; Post Graduate Diploma in Business Administration (SIM) and Post Graduate Diploma in Banking and Finance (UNSW, Australia).  Vasanthi collaborates with M S Ramaiah Indic Centre for Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine (Bangalore) to offer joint certificate programs on ayurveda and yoga.