Ayurveda (literally, life knowledge) is the most ancient healing modality on record at this time in history. Conservative estimates show it to have been a fully developed science for at least the last 5000 years! And there is evidence to suggest Vedic civilizations 15,000 to 20,000 years ago had a working knowledge of these principles.
The mythological origins of Ayurveda are described in the Mahabharata, one of the epic foundational texts of Indian spirituality.
In a story both metaphorical and historical, the world is flooded over by an ocean of milk. The nectar of immortality is lost in the flood, and the life-force of the immortals is fading. Left with no other choice, the immortals join forces with the demons. Together, they twist the cosmic snake Vasuki around sacred Mount Meru to churn the milk ocean into butter, forcing to the surface all that had been submerged.
Fourteen treasure jewels (ratnas), including Chandra the moon and the Goddess Lakshmi, bearer of both spiritual and material wealth, arise in the process. Dhanvantari, the unparalleled physician, doctor to the Gods and presiding deity of Ayurveda, is the last of these jewels to arise. Among other symbolic objects, he carries the precious amrit – the elixir of life.
However, the churning also produces a lethal poison (halahal), which spreads with terrifying speed, threatening to destroy all creation. Lord Shiva intervenes, swallowing the poison and holding it in his throat before transmuting the halahal into amrit itself. Nonetheless, minute droplets escape the lips of Shiva become the seed essence of all poisonous plants and animals on the planet. Thus we find the world as it is — in constant flux between nectar and poison, in the push and pull between sickness and health.
The metaphoric symbolism of this story is endlessly deep, describing many aspects of the nature of creation. On a more literal level, the fundamental precepts of Ayurveda are derived from Sankhya, one of the six systems of classical Indian philosophy.
Fundamental Elements of Ayurveda
Sankhya, originally brought forth by Sage Kapila, is a complete system of physics and metaphysics founded on the premise that consciousness is primary to form, and describes in detail “the process of creation and the journey of consciousness as it evolves into matter” [Lad].
We as humans encounter this journey of consciousness into matter here in space-time, also called the third dimension. This dimension is composed of five fundamental elements, or panchamahabhuta — ether, air, fire, water and earth, unfolding in that order. Every thing in this world, all manifest creation, is constructed by these five elements in varying proportion.
Please note that in this dimension there is no pure expression of any element. Every thing contains at least a trace of all five elements. Think about it: even the thinnest layers of the upper atmosphere carry minute dust (earth). Even the densest particles in the planetary core are, upon close examination, made of 99% empty space (ether).
Humans are no exception. Each person is composed of a unique conglomeration of all five elements. Individually differing ratios account for the infinite variety of human size, shape and demeanor. The Sanskrit expression for this inborn nature is prakruti.
The foundational assumption of Ayurveda is that we are born to embody a very particular balance of elements. Everyone knows certain individuals who are innately ethereal, infinitely imaginative but barely embodied. Many people are obviously full of fire. Still others are just earthy, patient and abiding if not stagnant.
In theory, so long as their unique, natural ratio is maintained, a person will experience vibrant physical wellness, mental clarity and psycho-emotional harmony. Life, however, offers no end of obstacles to disrupt such maintenance; misalignment is all but inevitable. The Sanskrit term for the current state of balance or imbalance relative to prakruti, is vikruti.
In practice, Ayurveda, concerns itself with maintaining and restoring individuals to their ideal ratio – matching vikruti to prakruti. The methodologies applied in this effort are vast and all encompassing. Since every food, action, idea and feeling can be analyzed Ayurvedically, each and every choice we make on a daily basis serves the creation of greater or lesser harmony, ease or dis-ease.
A Holistic System
Diet, one of our most common choices, is of vital importance. An Ayurvedic proverb proclaims: “When diet is correct, medicine is of no need. When diet is incorrect, medicine is of no use.”
Ayurvedic medicine focuses on herbs, spices, oils and tinctures. There are a particular set of herbs famously described in the classical texts (turmeric, ginger and tulsi prominent among them) though again, every plant on the planet can be described according to Ayurvedic energetics. Factors considered in treatment plans include local climate and home environment, as well as daily, seasonal and life cycles.
Ayurveda is truly a holistic system describing a complete spectrum of interactions between internal and external influences. From this perspective, wellness is not a destination at which one arrives, but an ongoing flow of fine-tuning, of constant adjustments and skillful realignments.
Ayurveda insists on the idea of “little, little.” The wisdom of collective experience suggests that drastic interventions often do more harm than good, and that the fastest track to authentic, lasting transformation consists of many, many tiny choices.
Though the texts do offer protocol for acute conditions, the real genius of Ayurveda shines through proper diet and lifestyle choices that preempt disease in the first place.
This is but a brief introduction to the basic principles of Ayurveda. The science of life is deep, the art of being endless. The hope is that this information is both useful and inspiring. Knowledge of Self is available for those who seek it. Through the lens of Ayurveda, the opportunity for profound personal healing comes to light. Healing ourselves creates space wherein we can support others in their self-healing process so that wellness ripples through the planet, out across the ethers and beyond.
Watch this space for more Ayurvedic information coming soon. We’ll discuss doshas (bodily humors), gunas (the qualities of nature), chakras (subtle energy centers) and seasonal self-care. Until then, Honor Your Body!