Ayurveda through the Ages
When you think of Kerala, you think of Ayurveda- and when you think of Ayurveda, what comes first to the mind is its glorious past. The Divine gift of the knowledge of Life was bestowed by the Gods for the benefit of mankind. The ancient sages and rishis used this knowledge to prevent and heal illness, and preserved and passed on this wisdom through the Vedic Religion and scriptures, as well as through the myths and legends which add colour and depth to its vibrant history.
The Three Great Texts of Ayurveda
Yet Ayurveda is very much a science of the present too, and its tenets and principles have been passed down through the ages in their purest form, thanks to its three great surviving texts- the Charaka Samhita, written in the 1st century AD by Charaka, a legendary physician, the Sushruta Samhita written in the 4th century AD by the great surgeon Sushruta, and the Ashtanga Hridaya, which is the 8th century work of Vaghbata, another great philosopher-physician. These works became the foundation on which the two schools of Ayurveda, Charaka’s school of physicians and Sushruta’s school of surgeons, evolved. The ensuing years saw sixteen major supplements being added. They were known as the Nighantus, and they helped to refine the existing Ayurvedic practices. New drugs were discovered, new illnesses defined and new treatments emerged. More than 2000 plants and herbs with healing properties were identified in these supplements. The original texts were revised too- the Charaka Samhita by Dridhabala in the 4th Century, and the Sushruta Samhita by Nagarjuna in the 8thCentury. Ayurveda grew with the times and now consisted of eight specialized branches, very much along the lines of modern Western medicine.
From Sages to Vaidyars
Ayurveda, which was once practiced by sages, gradually became associated with the Brahmins. In fact, at one time, only Brahmins were allowed to be the physicians of Ayurveda. Later, people from other castes as well became well versed in this art of healing, and these physicians became known as vaidyars. Because of their art and knowledge, these physicians gained high social status regardless of their caste of birth. In Kerala, the Ashtavaidyas were the traditional physicians. According to legend it was Lord Parasuraman himself who assigned 8 of the families in Kerala as physicians, and these families came to be known as Ashtavaidyans, meaning 8 physicians.
From Decline to Resurgence
Ayurveda went through a period of decline in India during the rule of the British, when Western Medicine became more important. However some Ayurveda and Ayurvedic formula did make it to the west and extreme orient. The most popular one would be the “Amala” and “Aritha” fruits which are used to make “champoo” for hair. This gave birth to modern day “Shampoo”. With the coming of Independence, Ayurveda too broke free of its shackles. European surgeons translated and brought into practice Indian surgery techniques as described in the Sushruta Samhita including the discipline that is plastic surgery today. Many modern medications were derived from plants alluded to in Ayurveda texts. For example Rauwolfia serpentina was used to treat headache, anxiety and snakebite, and its derivative is used in treating blood pressure today. Since the mid 70’s the popularity of Ayurveda has steadily increased in the developed nations. People from these countries have been coming to India to learn about Ayurvedic herbs and concoctions, its principles of healing and treatment…for they know that it is Ayurveda, with its roots in the past that points the way to future advances in the world of medicine.