The Vedic Āryans believed in a vigorous life, a life of health, strength and vitality. They paid as much attention to the culture of the body and the arts of war as to the science of the mind and the spirit. This gradually resulted in the ‘Āyurveda’ or the ‘science of life,’ the elements of which have been found even in the Ṛgveda. However it is in the Atharvaveda that a more detailed—and to some extent, systematic—treatment of the subject, is found.
Though the word ‘Āyurveda’ appears to limit its scope to purely physical health alone, it is not so. Its approach to the science of health is holistic and includes not only the physical but also the mental and spiritual aspects of health in the context of man’s interaction with his environment. While doing so, it deals with several subjects which may be categorized briefly as follows: philosophical speculations about matter and life as also general ethics; biological theories which include embryology and genetics; physiology and pathology; food, nutrition and diet, general rules of health and longevity, diagnosis and treatment of diseases; poisons and their antidotes.
As in the case of other ancient Hindu sciences, the origins of Āyurveda also are buried in the bosom of hoary myth and tradition. Starting with Bramhā the Creator himself, this science was handed down first to the Aśvins, the twin deities and then to Indra. Then it is said to have branched off into two streams, of medicine and surgery. Bharadvāja, Ātreya Punarvasu and the six disciples of the latter like Agniveśa and Kṣīrapāṇi established the science of medicine whereas Suśruta established the science of surgery. Modern scholars are inclined to believe that Dhanvantari and Divodāsa (the king of Kāśi), the other two well-known names, actually represent the same person Bharadvāja; and that Ātreya and Suśruta are identical. They also hold that Caraka and Suśruta are the historical personages who organized the two bodies of know-ledge, medicine and surgery. They probably lived in the pre-Christian era and the redaction of their texts were done in the early part of post-Christian era.
Classical texts of the Āyurveda, especially those of Caraka and Suśruta, contain certain metaphysical speculations about matter and life. They generally follow the Sāṅkhya-Vedānta view of cosmo-gony and the allied Vaiśeṣika view of inherent nature of substances. All material substances are evolved from the interaction of prakṛti (the dynamic principle comprising the three guṇas, sattva, rajas and tamas) and puruṣa (the static and conscious principle). The material bodies of human beings are composed of kalā (protective layer), dhātu (component matter), mala (eliminations), three doṣas (humours), agni (digestive fire) and kriyā (movement or activity). These components, as also the pañca-mahā-bhūtas (five gross elements) impart their specific nature and properties to the individual in proportion to their presence.
Most of the standard texts of the Āyurveda deal with the subject under eight topical headings—hence the appellation ‘Aṣṭāṅga’—as follows:
Kāyacikitsā (therapeutics), Śalya-tantra (major surgery), Śālākya-tantra (minor-surgery including the E.N.T.), Bhūtavidyā (psychiatry), Kaumāra-bhṛtya-tantra (paediatrics), Agada-tantra (toxico-logy), Rasāyanatantra (geriatrics) and Vājīkaraṇatantra (virilification).
Kāyacikitsā relates to the treatment of diseases affecting the whole body. The diseases are said to be the result of the imbalance of the three doṣas or humours. An excess of vāta or wind can lead to nearly 80 diseases. The treatment of such diseases involves the liberal use of medicated oils. A surfeit of pitta or bile can cause as many as 40 diseases affecting blood or eyes or skin. The treatment is generally centred round purgatory pro-cesses and medicines. A profusion of śleṣma (phlegm) can produce 20 kinds of illnesses affecting the throat, the digestive and the excretory organs. Administration of certain astringent substances to make the patient vomit is an important course of treatment adopted in curing this defect.
Śalya-tantra deals with the methods of removal of arrows (śalya=arrow) and other foreign bodies, obstetrics and treatment of injuries and diseases requiring major surgery. The Suśruta Saṁhitā which is a great classic in surgery, gives an amazing amount of information regarding the use of about 100 surgical instruments, alkalis, bandages, pre-operative preparations and post-operative care including nursing. Plastic surgery too was known to the surgeons.
Śālākya-tantra is concerned with the treatment of the diseases of the body above the clavicle (E.N.T.) using thin bars, small sticks and probes as instruments.
Bhūtavidyā treats of mental derangements and disturbances believed to have been caused by malevolent spirits. Apart from prayers and exorcism, administration of certain drugs is also mentioned. Mention is also made of Pañcakarmas or five purificatory processes which will help relieve the mental illnesses. Analysis of dreams of the patients in order to find out the root causes has also been attempted.
Kaumārabhṛtya-tantra deals specially with obstetrics, female diseases connected with child-birth and the diseases of children, many of which were considered to have been caused by demons. Attention has been paid to the bringing up of children from the standpoint of health.
Agada-tantra discusses the methods of diagnosis and treatment of the bites of poisonous snakes, scorpions or insects and of other poison cases. A very large number of poisons have been mentioned with appropriate remedies including mantras that eliminate or destroy the poisons.
Rasāyana-tantra deals with the methods of preservation and increase of vigour, restoration of youth, improvement of memory and prevention of diseases. The medicines are prepared out of mercury and precious stones apart from certain other materials.
Vājīkaraṇa-tantra concerns the means of increasing virile powers as also prevention and cure of venereal diseases. The standard works generally extol brahmacarya (continence) as the best means.
The techniques of diagnosis of diseases had been fairly well-developed. Apart from his own observations and inferences, the physician also depended upon the instructions of the wise. Other factors which helped in the diagnostic process were: the normal constitution of the patient, time and season of the first appearance of the disease, things giving comfort or relief to the patient, things that cause aggravation of the disease, nature of digestion and appetite, the way the organs of evacuation are functioning, and, whether the disease is in an advanced stage or not.
During the medieval period, ‘nāḍī-vijñāna’ (the science of pulse) came to be a major means of diagnosing the condition of the three doṣas.
Treatment of diseases, according to the Āyurveda, depends upon four factors: physician, patient, medicines and attendant nurse. Factors governing the treatment are puruṣa (patient), vyādhi (dis-ease), oṣadhi (medicine), kriyā (processes) and kāla (seasonal and climatic factors). Āhāra (diet) and ācāra (right conduct and medical regimen) were also considered important. Saṁśamana (sedation) and saṁśodhana (purgatory processes) were often resorted to.
Texts of Āyurveda lay down a strict code of conduct for the physician. He should treat the patients to the best of his ability since they trust him for their lives. He should refuse to treat morally depraved persons who are a scourge to the society. He should also refuse to take up terminal cases where he is sure that death is imminent. Nor should he undertake the responsibility of patients suffering from incurable diseases. Once he accepts a patient, he should provide him with proper medical and nursing facilities. He should never attend to a woman patient in the absence of her husband or guardian. All professional information should be kept strictly confidential. He must have compassion on his patients, look upon them as his own children; but, adopt a philosophical outlook in respect of cases proving fatal.
Āyurvedic theories and practices were also applied to animal and plant life. There are voluminous medical treatises on plant life (Vṛksāyurveda), bovine species (Gavāyurveda), horses (Aśvāyurveda) and elephants (Hastyāyurveda).
A new type of Āyurvedic treatment, ‘rasacikitsā,’ which incorporated iatro-chemistry or metallic compounds came into vogue around A.D. 1300. Opium and certain other foreign drugs as also mineral acids and tinctures were incorporated into Āyurvedic pharmacology in about A. D. 1500.
There is evidence to believe that Āyurveda had influenced the medical works of Greece. Translations of several well-known Āyurvedic texts into Arabic prove the spread of the science in the Arab countries. Evidence is also not wanting to prove its dispersal in Central and South East Asian countries.