Ayurveda: History, Philosophy, and Why I Practice

Ask most people what Ayurveda means, and they will respond with a blank stare. A select few will understand Ayurveda is translated as “the science of life” but are uncertain what this really means.  Others may know there is a relationship between Yoga and Ayurveda, but the exact connection is unclear.

Is Ayurveda an art, a science, or a philosophy?  Is it a form of medicine dug up from ancient texts to indulge the minds of current folks fed up with the current healthcare system?  All of the above are correct. Let’s explore…

According to Ayurveda, everything (everything - whether you can see it or not) has specific energetic properties; these properties are connected to everything else in the Universe in some way.  In other words, all matter is a microcosm of the macrocosm (the Universe). We, as people, are microcosms, and so are rocks, air, water, plants, animals, consciousness - some things we can see and touch and others we can’t, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.  Ayurveda never fails to consider all the energetic properties by which we are surrounded (temperature, light, sound, stress, moods of others) as each plays a role in our physical, emotional, and spiritual health and presence. In other words, everything in the Universe is collectively like a huge game of Jenga: you cannot adjust or even slightly move even the smallest piece without disturbing the integrity of the rest of the puzzle. If one piece moves, another will, too; there is always a reaction for every action (thank you, Sir Isaac Newton, for validating what the Ayurvedists discovered without physics).   Good, bad or indifferent, it is impossible to adjust one microcosm without adjusting the macrocosm. As is the case within the Universe is also the case within our bodies.

ayurvedic universe


All forms of medicine have a foundation in philosophy.  The origin of Ayurveda is up for debate, anywhere from 5,000 - 10,000 years ago.  The knowledge was channeled through enlightened rishis (seers), and because scripture had yet to be developed, the teachings were stored mentally and passed verbally to other select holy men.  This carried on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years when eventually written language emerged. Information was then written in short, poetic phrases called sutras. Great meaning was cryptically hidden in the sutras, and only under the guidance of a trained teacher could one completely understand the subtle essences woven in the content.

The Sutras were recorded in ancient texts called Vedas.  Of the Vedas, there are four main texts, considered to be among the oldest bodies of recorded information - Rigveda, Yajurveda, Atharvaveda, and Samveda - and four secondary Vedas, called Upa-Vedas.  It has been debated in which Upa-Veda Ayurveda was documented, but most scholars agree it was part of the Atharvaveda.

In 6th century B.C. the sage Lord Brahma taught Prajapati the secret knowledge of Ayurveda.  In turn, Prajapati taught the Ashvin twins who then passed knowledge to Atreya. Atreya was responsible for teaching Agnivesa, who finally wrote the first Ayurvedic treatise in 5th century B.C., but it has since been destroyed.  Perhaps the most widely recognized text of Ayurveda is the Charaka Samhita, which was compiled in 400 A.D., several hundred years later, and is still used worldwide. Around the same time, the Sushruta Samhita, a text explaining surgery, was also written and is currently referenced in Ayurvedic medicine.

Suffice it to say, Ayurvedic medicine is old.  You could almost, but not quite, use it in the same sentence as Brontosaurus.  What is captivating to me is that in thousands of years not much has changed. We still use Charaka, Sushruta, and Asthanga Hridayam in assessing, diagnosing, and treating patients.  We still define health as:

“the maintenance of the equipose of dhatus [body tissues/organ systems] being the object of this science”
- Charaka Samhita, Vol I, p. 5

ayurveda mountain comparison


I like to use climbing a mountain as a metaphor to the journey of life.  We are all trying to get to the top of the mountain, and there are countless ways to do this: some routes are faster; other paths are harder; you may choose to walk with others or walk alone; you will meet and lose people along the way, find shortcuts and experience setbacks. The point is, our intent is the same: to reach the summit.  However, the long and arduous journey is almost impossible in a diseased state.

The Vedas go on to break down what we are all essentially striving for, the purpose of life, and this is where Ayurveda comes in: optimal health yields longevity thus adequate time to achieve the objectives of life.  Aspirations in life transcend culture, gender, socioeconomic status, race, and spiritual beliefs. At the end of the day (life) we are all ultimately working towards the same goals, walking up the same mountain of life:

  1. Dharma: purpose in life; Dharma is associated with the soul and inferred from results, like what did you do?  What difference did you make?
  2. Artha: attainment of wealth.  This does not mean in a hoarding manner or to be “rich”, but rather finding a way to financially support yourself comfortably, creatively, and doing what you love.  It is freedom from the anxiety of not having enough wealth to survive comfortably.
  3. Moksa: the loose translation is “happiness”.  It also means “liberation from the world” as in not being attached to material objects, unnecessary medications or substances, and freedom from toxic people and environments.  Being content.
  4. Arogya: health; represents the equilibrium of the dhatus in the absence of disease

“One suffering from a disease is absolutely incapable of performing any act conducive to the attainment of any of these four objects.”
- Charaka Samhita, Vol I, p 19

When people ask, “Why Ayurveda?”  This is why. Longevity. To live in optimal health as long as possible, to achieve and enjoy the true goals in life, to reach the top of the mountain.  

In a nutshell - love and happiness.

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