Resurgence of Ayurveda

Features Issue 55 Jul, 2010
Text by Shivendra Thapa / Photo: ECS Media

The Atharvaveda (10.2.31) calls the human body the city of the devas (gods). This passage also speaks of the body consisting of eight cognitive centers which, other references suggest, are hierarchically organized. The devas are visualized in a complex, hierarchical scheme, with some being closer to the autonomous processes of the body and others being nearer to creative centers.

There are two scientific languages in the world namely,Vedic and Latin. The culmination of the Vedic scientific language into medical language is known a ‘Ayurveda’. Ayurveda is a traditional system of medicine that originated in the east. It is the oldest known continuously practiced medical system in the world and incorporates every aspect of holistic healing.  Ayurvedic theory has influenced the development of many other medical systems including Chinese, Arabic, Greek, Tibetan and modern medicine. Therefore, ayurveda is not selective and embodies health aspects or practices prevalent in all cultures and brings them all under the same umbrella.

As the origin of Ayurveda pre-dates written records, it is not exactly clear where and when it was first established. It is estimated to be between 5-10,000 years old. Nepal has reserved a special place for itself in the history of Ayurveda. It is thought by many that the original knowledge of Ayurveda was obtained in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal. There are thousands of ancient Ayurvedic manuscripts located here. The biodiversity of Nepal makes it a fertile region for many Ayurvedic herbs and the geology, with mountains facing north, south, east and west, encourage the growth of unique flora.

The knowledge of Ayurveda was passed down orally for generations, and then eventually recorded as part of the vedas - the oldest books known on Earth. The vedas are vast texts that incorporate information on all aspects of society and life - politics, economics, religion, science, mathematics and architecture. The practice of health and longevity is known as “Ayurveda” - the science of life and most of it is recorded in the Atharvaveda.

This knowledge and practice has flourished for centuries and today, Ayurveda is a popular form of treatment for many people around the world even though it’s not entirely understood.  The value of many Ayurvedic herbs and therapies is now gaining recognition and is clinically validated, and there is increasing interest in Ayurvedic systems of healing in the West. This is because it is a holistic, natural and an effective healing system. It recognizes the individual as unique and more than just a physical entity. As renowned pharmacologist, Terrence Mckenna said, “………we’re spiritual beings in physical bodies.” Veda means ’knowledge and ayus is ’life’. It is the science or knowledge of life. Life in vedic consciousness has a broad meaning. It is considered to have four dimensions - physical, mental, sensorial, and spiritual. Living a healthy and balanced life must therefore take into account more than just the physical body.  “What is the real meaning of ayu or life according to the fundamental principles of ayurveda? Sharirendriya sattwa atma samyogo ayuhu, goes one verse. Sharir means physical body; indriya means senses. Sattwa refers to the combination of mind and heart—overall psychological strength, and atma means soul or spirit. When all of these—body, senses, heart, mind and spirit—are in proper balance and function in a harmonious, coordinated manner that is true life—”the living body.”

According to Ayurveda, to be healthy is not only the absence of disease but is a state of balance in all aspects of the human body including the mind and soul. Ayurveda provides us with a complete understanding of what is life-sustaining and what is not, not just for the physical body, but also our mind, heart, senses and spirit. This includes descriptions of the kind of diet, lifestyle and behavior that is optimal for well-being, the ideal environment, and the herbal rasayanas that are good or bad for each of these aspects of health. There is great detail on each of these modalities—what to eat, when to eat and how to eat are a part of dietary recommendations, for example. The texts also include recommendations for nurturing relationships and living as part of the human community.

In Nepal, there are two types of practitioners. One is the traditional healer or better known in this region as a Vaidhya (Ayurvedic doctor).  They have not undergone any formal training in medical therapy but are hereditary healers whose knowledge stems from what has been passed on from one generation to another. The other type of practitioner is a formally educated Ayurvedic doctor.

The traditional way of healing is embedded in Nepali society and none other is more traditional or more natural than the Shree Krishna Aushadhalaya at Bagbazar. It’s a one stop shop for those wishing to seek health related advice, medication or holistic healing. They house only pure and natural ayurvedic medicines and combine herbs and healing plants to create their own therapies based on a lineage of family tradition. Basanta Man Vaidhya, proprietor of Sri Krishna Aushadhalaya remarks, “we treat the entire body as a fluidly functioning unit rather than selectively diagnosing it.” His energetic demeanor resonates well with what he says.

Another private institution that has added credence to holistic healing through Ayurvedic treatment is the Ayurvedic Health Home at Dhapasi on the outskirts of Kathmandu valley. It is a pioneering organization under a dual Nepali-German management. The founders and managers are Dr. R.R.Koirala M.D. (Ay.) (Medical Director), Mr. Badri Koirala (Managing Director) from Nepal and Marlies Foerster (Chair Person) from Germany. Their main aim is to awaken the individual’s natural healing potential source and restore inner harmony, balance and rhythm. Accordingly, they provide a range of classical Ayurvedic therapy services and guidance.

The government of Nepal has also taken many initiatives in nurturing and establishing Ayurveda based institutions.  In 1928, Nepal Rajkiya Ayurveda Vidyalaya was established in Naradevi to educate young students to become Vaidyas and offers bachelor degree programs in line with contemporary standards. Courses for health assistants, auxiliary heath workers, nurses and midwives was started in 1955 and graduate level education in 1977.  The Nardevi ayurvedic campus is the constituent campus of the Institute of Medicine under Tribhuvan University.  The department of Ayurveda is the apex body for Ayurveda in the country directly under the Ministry of Health and is responsible for the overall supervision of other units such as Naradevi Ayurveda hospital, Anchal level Ayurvedic Aushadhalaya (zonal level dispensaries) and District Ayurvedic Aushadhalaya.

The Nardevi Ayurvedic hospital was the only Ayurvedic hospital in the country till the regional hospital was started a few years ago. It had the provision of 50 beds and it has now been raised to 100 beds.  It is located close to Chettrapati and has a popular reputation for the treatment of jaundice. According to the statistics of the last year this hospital provided service for nearly 46,000 patients and the average daily attendance is between 100 and 150. Ayurvedic treatment is quite popular in Nepal but has lacked a structural base to enhance its services.

In the peripheral dispensaries, the patient attendance varies from 12 to 30. These are fair indications that Ayurvedic services are definitely sought after by a significant proportion of the native population. Besides these official set ups we are now having an increasing number of Ayurvedic practitioners of different hues, colors and qualifications with claims of probable to miraculous cures. Interestingly their clientele is from the sophisticated, educated and western people which indicates that health is not the sole prerogative of “scientific” modern medicine only and medical pluralism has to be accepted and that health should be a matter of public agenda and choice. Ayurvedic treatment is quite popular in Nepal but has lacked an organized, structural base to enhance its services.

The timeless tenets of Ayurveda are based on the natural world. As such, they are considered universal and eternal. That is, Ayurveda is not considered to be relevant only to a particular time, place or people. Ayurveda is considered to offer guidance on how to live a healthy, balanced and harmonious life to all people, through all ages. Ayurveda is a science based on detailed theories and principles. These theories explain evolution and define the environment, human beings, and how they relate to each other. The main principles are:

Three primordial forces (Triguna):

The three forces (gunas) represent the phases of creation, as well as the qualities of the mind. Everything in the universe is influenced by the triguna (sattva, rajas and tamas). In the theory of evolution, sattva brings into creation and is pure consciousness, rajas is a maintaining and moving force and tamas represents the cohesive unity or destructive force. In the human mind, sattva is purity or goodness, rajas is action and passion, and tamas is ignorance or darkness.

Five Elements (Panca Mahabhuta):
The universe is composed of five elements. Everything in the universe, including human beings, are made up of different combinations of the same five elements. These elements are earth (prithvi), water (apa or jala), fire (tejas or agni), air (vayu) and space (akash).

Three biological forces (Tridosa):
In humans, the five elements combine to produce three primary life forces, or three “biological humors”. The Ayurvedic term for this is dosa. As there are three, they are referred to as the tridosa (tri meaning three). The three dosas are vata, pitta and kapha. Each dosa is made of the five elements. However each has a predominance of one or more elements. Vata has a predominance of the elements of air and space and is responsible for movement, Pitta has fire as the dominant element and controls transformation, and Kapha has predominance of water and earth and represents cohesion. All humans have the three dosa present in different proportions. This unique combination of tridosa is responsible for our unique nature. Knowing your constitution assists both in preventing as well as curing diseases.

Ayurveda considers diet and digestion to be prime factors in good health.

There are a variety of guidelines to ensure adequate nutrition as well as assimilation of nutrients. A diet which consists of a lot of meat, alcohol, caffeine, processed or frozen foods, fried foods, dairy products and white sugar and flour is very toxic to the system. According to Ayurveda, these types of foods produce ama. Ama is a residue that circulates in the body and creates disease. It can also give you bad breath, constipation, dull skin, dark circles under the eyes, acne, and so on. To avoid producing ama, attention needs to be paid to what you eat, how you eat, and when you eat.

What to eat?
The most important thing is to choose food that is fresh, usually cooked, tasty and easy to digest. It should be seasonal and not excessively spiced. Avoid eating stale, left-over, processed or refined foods. Fresh, natural foods provide you with a lot of energy, vitamins and minerals, and are low in fat. Seasonal fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and salads should form the basis of your diet. Drink herbal teas, milk, water (with honey, lemon or lime juice), fruit and vegetable juices. Do not mix too many food items at one meal, and eat foods that complement each other in taste. It is also important to eat according to your constitution. There are specific dietary recommendations based on individual constitution, which can be found in the fact sheet on constitution.

How to eat?
Eat in clean, peaceful and pleasant surroundings, and concentrate fully on the food you are consuming. Chew food thoroughly, and do not rush your meal. Appreciate and respect the value of the food provided. If you feel tired or heavy after a meal, it is a sign of improper eating. Avoid talking, standing or lying down while eating. Don’t completely fill your stomach - allow some room for air to circulate and the food to be digested properly.

When to eat?
Avoid eating when you are upset or angry. Eat only when hungry, and leave at least four hours between meals to ensure that food is properly digested. It is best to establish a regular eating routine, with lunch being the largest meal of the day. This is because the power of digestion correlates with the movement of the sun. When the sun is at its peak in the sky (midday), digestion is strongest. Do not eat heavy foods in the evening, or for two hours before you go to bed. Fasting for one day every two weeks is considered beneficial for the digestive system. On this day, drink only water or juices. Fruit can also be eaten.