Category Archives: Ayurveda

Spiritual Healing Practices in Hinduism

In western culture, different forms of possession, mental illness, and spiritual disorders are often categorized as pathological and abnormal; these pathologies are usually treated with psychoanalysis, psychiatry and mass amounts of medication with less frequent attention paid to spiritual treatment. In the east, and more specifically, in the Hindu tradition, spiritual abnormalities and anomalies are oftentimes treated using various religious practices and spiritual healing techniques that date back to the time of the Vedas (Frawley 1997).

Many forms of spiritual healing exist in the Hindu tradition, from the time of the Vedas to Hinduism in its contemporary form, and this article will only scratch the surface. Historically, the Ayurveda—which is an ancient, five thousand year old Vedic system of medicine known as the “Science of Life” (Frawley 1997; Jones and Ryan 2007)—placed emphasis on the pure self (Atman) and true consciousness and its relation to the universe (Brahman). Essentially, the Ayurveda gave Hinduism a guide for medical and spiritual healing and enlightenment (Frawley 1997; Jones and Ryan 2007). Furthermore, exorcisms have always played a fundamental role in cleansing and ridding the soul of unwanted negative possession (Sax 2011; Crapanzano 1987), and gemstones, Soma, sacred ash, and healing amulets also serve a symbolic healing purpose with respect to protecting the soul from demonic and ghostly entities (Crapanzano 1987; Sax 2009).

The Ayurveda is the oldest of traditional healing guides that Hinduism has to offer us. “Diet, herbs, water, minerals, and other treatments are [typically] used for cures” (Jones and Ryan 58) in this system of healing. Traditionally, yoga (which has presently become popularized in the west) was therapeutically used as a part of Ayurvedic practices to delve into the actualization of the true self (atman) and the nature of reality (Brahman). Spiritually speaking, the Ayurveda and the practice of yoga ultimately seek to liberate the soul (jiva) from the cycles of rebirth (samsara) and the tremendous constraining moral principle that is karma (Frawley 1997).

To understand spirituality and spiritual healing in Hinduism one must first understand the ultimate goal in Hindu philosophy, which is to free oneself from the cyclical nature of existence. This liberation is termed moksa—which is essentially the same ultimate goal in the practice of yoga, termed kaivalya. Techniques such as mantras and meditations used in yoga, which have been adopted from the Ayurveda, attempt to spiritually link the self and consciousness to the natural world that surrounds it (Frawley 1997). This broad look at the spiritual focus of Hindu philosophies to maintain the well being of the self is linked to the spiritual healing that accompanies anomalies in one’s spirit, such as spiritual possession.

Possession can be understood as an altered, unusual or extraordinary state of mind due to the controlling power of a spirit, god, goddess, or demon over an individual’s consciousness (Crapanzano 1987). Spirit possession can be distinguished into two broad categories: positive possession and negative possession (Crapanzano 1987; Sax 2009; Sax 2011). Positive possession is when the individual is spiritually possessed by a deity, a god or a goddess (Crapanzano 1987; Sax 2011). Negative possession, on the other hand, is when the individual is spiritually possessed by a devil, a demon or a ghost-like figure (Crapanzano 1987; Sax 2011). When an individual’s spirit is possessed, the individual will display behaviours that are uncharacteristic of it; this is due to the fact that the body is possessed by some other entity—one that is no longer the normal self (Sax 2011). The possessed body may actually experience pain and various symptoms of disease and illness while under possession (Crapanzano 1987). In the Hindu tradition, spiritual healing (with regards to curing these aversive mental and physical symptoms) comes in many practices, objects and materials, including but not limited to: exorcisms, temples, healing amulets (tabiz), healing ash (vibhuti), gemstones, and Soma (Crapanzano 1987; Jones and Ryan 2007; Sax 2009; Sax 2011).

Healing, in the form of an exorcism, can be a one-on-one ritual (puja) between the patient and the exorcist, or it can be a pubic affair, involving the whole community (Crapanzano 1987; Sax 2011). In William Sax’s chapter “A Himalayan Exorcism” in Studying Hinduism in Practice (Sax 2011) he outlines a specific instance of fieldwork in which he witnessed, and contributed to, a communal exorcism. Possession is an uncommon phenomenon in the west and in Europe, but in India, possession is a relatively frequent occurrence, and as such, exorcisms are often a site of public gathering (Sax 2011). Holistically, Sax describes his fieldwork as “psychologically demanding […] because the rituals were so exciting and dramatic: the drumming and singing, the ecstatic dancing of possessed people, the awesome appearance of fearsome deities, and the ghosts from the past, wailing and shrieking in a stuffy, crowded room” (Sax 154). In general, musical sounds, singing, and dancing are important ritual components in the process of exorcizing an unwanted spirit from a body (Crapanzano 1987). There are three important roles in the musical background of the Himalayan exorcism as studied by Sax: (1) the huraki, which is an unusual sounding drum that effectively invokes spiritual awakening; (2) the thakalyor, “who plays a metal platter with two wooden drumsticks” as a background beat (Sax 150); and (3) the bhamvar, who sings the final lines of each verse of the exorcism song—the bhamvar is known in English as “the bumblebee” (Sax 2011).

In the exorcism that Sax describes, multiple spirits uncontrollably possesses multiple people; these possessions are often observable via shrieks, screams, unconsciousness, odd bodily positioning and violence (Sax 2011).  This state of mind, this altered state of consciousness, can be best described as a trance; that is: “[t]he subject experiences a detachment from the structured frames of reference that support his usual interpretation and understanding of the world [around] him” (Crapanzano 8688). These altered states of consciousness are not only healable with drums, chants, songs and dancing, as is found in the practice of exorcism, but spirit possession can be cured via other spiritual methods as well.

Essentially, the goal of spiritual healing in Hindu philosophy seeks to protect the soul from demonic spiritual powers; the influence of this negative spiritual energy can be, and should be, warded off. Negative spiritual possession can be counteracted by the use of Soma, which is an intoxicating, mind-altering, hallucinogenic drink that is perceived as divine and therefore connects the spirit of the ingesting person to higher understanding and consciousness (Crapanzano 1987). Negative influences on the mind and spirit in general have been understood as celestially caused; the inauspiciousness that is associated with the universe at certain times is counteracted by the wearing of specific gemstones that repel negative spirits from interacting with the body (Sax 2009). Along the same lines as the wearing of gemstones, the protection from evil spirits is also sought in other objects such as sacred healing ash (vibhuti/bhasman/bhabhut), and healing amulets (tabiz). Vibhuti is ash derived from the cremation of humans or from the excretion of a sacred animal in the Hindu tradition—the cow (Sax 2009). The sacred ash is not only seen as protection from evil spirits but also as rejuvenation and revitalization of the material and spiritual aspects of one’s life (Sax 2009). Rituals that invoke the use of vibhuti essentially serve as a purification of the mind and the spirit. Tabiz, on the other hand are lockets in which sacred Vedic or other Hindu textual verses are held, they are usually made of copper, brass or iron, similar to the ta’wiz in the Islamic tradition (Sax 2009; Dwyer 2003). Interestingly, the sacred healing ash (vibhuti) to which I made reference above is oftentimes placed inside the amulet for the same spiritual protection purposes (Dwyer 2003). Most importantly, the amulets serve as a force that diverts evil, malevolent and harmful spiritual entities (Sax 2009). Tabiz and vibhuti are both ritual symbols that are commonly used in exorcisms (Sax 2009; Dwyer 2003). As we discussed earlier, exorcisms can take place privately, but they are just as likely to be performed publically—sometimes at a shrine (Crapanzano 1987).

There are many shrines in India that are dedicated solely to the curing of the spirit and the mind. A famous symbolic site that is renowned for spiritual healing in the Hindu tradition is the Balaji Mandir—this temple is located in Rajasthan, a north Indian state near the village of Mehandipur (Sax 2009). The shrine is dedicated to the Hindu god Hanuman, who is a mythical destroyer of demons and Pretraj, who is the “King of Ghosts” (Sax 2009; Dwyer 2003). Demonic and ghostly possession, trances and exorcisms are all commonplace at the Balaji temple—the temple is notorious for the healing of mental illness (Sax 2009). Daily, thousands of pilgrims, devotees and spiritually suffering persons visit the shrine in the hopes of having their soul cured from any negative spiritual possession (Sax 2009).

Contemporarily, exorcisms, gemstones, intoxicating substances and yoga still play important spiritual healing roles not only in India but in the west as well. Mindfulness, spiritual awareness and yoga are implicated in contemporary western conceptions of spiritual well being (Srivastava and Barmola 2013). The present psychological healing that Hindu rituals have on positive thinking and spirituality worldwide shows that spiritual healing should not be underestimated as a powerful tool in curing mental illness (Srivastava and Barmola 2013). The most vital aspect to understanding our own consciousness is to understand how the spirit can be healed and refurbished with guidance from the spiritual healing practices of the Hindu tradition.



Crapanzano, Vincent (1987) “Spirit Possession: An Overview” in Encyclopedia of Religion. Jones, Lindsay (ed.). United States: Thomas Gale. pp. 8688-8694.

Dwyer, Graham (2003) The Divine and the Demonic: Supernatural Affliction and Its Treatment in North India. London: Routledge.

Frawley, David (1997) Ayurveda and the Mind: The Healing of Consciousness. Wisconsin: Lotus Press.

Jones, Constance A. and James D. Ryan (2007) “Ayurveda” in Encyclopedia of Hinduism. J. Gordon Melton (ed.). New York: Facts on File Publishing. pp. 58.

Sax, William (2009) “Healers” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Jacobsen, Knut, A. (ed.)  Leiden: Brill.

Sax, William (2011) “A Himalayan Exorcism” in Studying Hinduism in Practice. Hillary P. Rodrigues (ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 146-157.

Srivastava, Kailash Chandra and K. C. Barmola (2013) “Rituals in Hinduism as related to spirituality.” Indian Journal of Positive Psychology 4.1:87-95.


Related Topics for Further Investigation










Pretaraj (King of Ghosts)





Mehandipur Balaji Temple




Spiritual Healing





Huraki drum



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Tanner Layton (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Ayurvedic Concepts of Health and Illness

Ayurveda, or “the science of life,” is heavily influenced by the Sankhya school of philosophy, most notably through the concepts of purusa (pure consciousness) and prakrti (nature or materiality) (Mishra 482; Rodrigues 123). In this model, prakrti creates all materiality out of her three qualities, or gunas (Gopinath 105; Rodrigues 123):

  • Sattva, which is bright and pure,
  • Rajas, which is mobile and stimulating,
  • Tamas, which is heavy and dull.

The gunas recombine in various proportions to form the 23 elements that make up the manifest universe (Rodrigues 123). Important to concepts of physiology in Ayurveda are the five gross elements (mahabhutas), which combine to form the body’s 7 dhatus (tissues) and 3 dosas (humors) (Prioreschi 238; Rodrigues 124). It is the equilibrium between the dhatus, dosas, and their waste products, malas, which determines good health, while stress to this equilibrium causes disease.


Dated back to the Vedas, the pancabhuta (five elements) theory suggests that all matter is composed of the five mahabhutasprthvi, ap, tejas, vayu, and akasa (Prioreschi 238; Subbarayappa 12). Although often understood in terms of the Greek elements of earth, water, fire, air, and ether, respectively, to do so is to diminish the meaning of the Sanskrit word (Subbarayappa 12):

  • Prthvi gives mass, roughness, inertia and density, and is associated with smell and the nose.
  • Ap gives fluidity, viscosity, coldness and softness, and is associated with taste and the tongue.
  • Tejas gives hotness, dryness, sharpness, and courage, and is associated with colour and the eyes.
  • Vayu gives movement, pulsations, and the sense of lightness, and is associated with touch and the skin.
  • Akasa, which should not be equated with Ether, is an omnipresent element giving space. It is mainly associated with sound and the ears.

Interestingly, even at their most pure, each element also has the others present in it, but in smaller proportions. The interaction between these elements is the basis for the formation of the physical and physiological body (Gopinath 99 – 100).


The 7 permanent tissues (dhatus) that make up an organism are each composed of all five mahabhutas, but in different proportions. The dhatus include rasa (the essence of digested food, basically lymph and chyle), rakta (blood, which is rasa coloured red), mamsa (flesh), meda (fat), asthi (bone), majja (bone marrow), and sukra (reproductive essence, or sperm) (I.P. Singh 121; Prioreschi 256; Vir 414).


While the physical body is composed of the 7 dhatus, its physiological functioning depends on the 3 dosas, or troubles (Prioreschi 259). Each person has two sources of dosas. The first is inherited, and is termed dosa prakrti (R.H. Singh, 131). This represents the individual’s normal proportion of the dosas, which also determines the physical, physiological and mental characteristics of that person (Gopinath 80; I.P. Singh 120). Physical characteristics include strength, eating and bowel habits, and skin, hair and eye colour (Gopinath 80). While dosa prakrti does not change over time, the dosas obtained from food do fluctuate, depending on the type of food ingested, as well as the climate, geography, age and emotional state of the individual (I. P. Singh, 120). The three dosas are vata (wind), pitta (bile), and kapha (phlegm), but again, our translations do not carry the full meaning of these words, and a more descriptive explanation is necessary (Subbarayappa 17).

Vata has a high proportion of vayu and akasa, and is regarded as the regulatory dosa, governing all metabolic activity and the movement of the other two dosa (Gopinath 100, 104; I.P. Singh 120). It is responsible for excretion, voluntary actions, all mental and motor activity, respiration, circulation, and enthusiasm (Subbarayappa 17; Gopinath 104; Mishra 484). The mental characteristics associated with vata include cowardliness, grief, ungratefulness and humbleness (Gopinath 80). A decrease in vata results in sluggish movements and speech, while an increase results in twitches, pain, and sleep loss (Susruta 159, 163). Diseases resulting from irregular vata, which is aggravated by excessive exercise, bitter tastes, and the cold, include dwarfism, insomnia and paralysis (Govindan 31). There are five forms of vata: prana, udana, samana, vyana, and apana (Prioreschi 259; Susruta 156-7).

Pitta is mainly composed of tejas/agni and is regarded as the excitatory dosa, responsible for catabolism (breaking things down) and producing heat (Gopinath 104; I.P. Singh 120). It is thus responsible for digestion, tissue metabolism and vision, as well as boldness, arrogance, energy, and forbearance (Subbarayappa 17; Gopinath 80, 104; Mishra 484). A decrease in pitta is felt in low body temperature and digestion, while an increase results in a liking for cold, loss of strength, and fainting (Susruta 159, 163). Pitta is aggravated by anger, heat and pungent, sour or hot foods, while diseases include fever, jaundice, herpes and bad breath (Govindan 33). Again, there are five forms: aloca, karanjaka, sadhaka, bhrajaka, and pacaka (Prioreschi 250; Susruta 156-7).

Kapha has a high proportion of ap and prthvi (Gopinath 100). Contrary to pitta, it is an inhibitory dosa, responsible for anabolic activity and the maintenance of cellular and intracellular structures and the body’s internal environment (I.P. Singh 120; Gopinath 104; Mishra 484). In essence, it is responsible for strength and stability of the body as well as the mental states associated with strength, such as courage, knowledge, vitality and zest, but also devotion, faithfulness and forgiveness (Subbarayappa 17; Gopinath 80; Mishra 484). Symptoms of decreased kapha include thirst and loss of sleep, while the opposite results in coldness, drowsiness and stiffness (Susruta 159, 163). Diseases include anorexia, obesity, goiter, and lethargy, which stem from laziness, sweet and sour foods, and wheat products (Govindan 34). The five forms are kledaka, avalambaka, tarpaka, bodhaka, and slesmaka.


Mala, or excreta, are those elements that are formed from the different dhatus. While these include more obvious excretions such as urine and sweat, the dosas are also produced as byproducts of certain tissues (I.P. Singh 121).

Relationship between the dosas, dhatus and malas

Each of the 7 dhatus, except for semen, has three components – its own essence, a mala, and the essence of the next, more pure substance:

  • Rakta is purified from rasa, whose mala is kapha.
  • Mamsa is purified from rakta, whose mala is pitta.
  • Meda is purified from mamsa, whose malas are excretions of the orifices.
  • Asthi is purified from meda, whose mala is sweat.
  • Majji is purified from asthi, whose malas are hair and nails.
  • Sukra is purified from majji, whose malas are feces and skin.
  • Sukra is the purest of the dhatus; it produces no malas and no other dhatu is purified from it.

It should be noted that both pitta and kapha are formed as waste products, but there is no mention of vata production. It is actually formed based on the proportion of food to agni (digestive agent). There also seems to be a grey area between dosa, dhatu and mala. In essence, dhatus are substances that help in the normal functioning of the body, dosas are those that disturb the normal functioning, and malas are those that cause imbalance in the normal state. This means that a dhatu can become a dosa or a mala when in an abnormal state, and a dosa or a mala is a dhatu in its normal state (I.P. Singh 122).


Dosas and malas are transported through the body by a system of channels, or nadi (R.H. Singh 149). If these channels become blocked by an excess or stagnation of malas, the elements cannot flow freely, causing further stagnation and disease (R.H. Singh 149). Thus, early diagnosis and intervention is a fundamental philosophy in Ayurveda. There are six stages to the pathogenesis of disease (satkriyakala), each of which mark opportune times for intervention (R.H. Singh 135):

  • Sancaya is the buildup of dosas in their normal sites – vata in the bones, pitta in the blood, kapha in the lymph and muscles (Gopinath 104). Symptoms felt at this stage are those of the increased dosa, not of any disease.
  • Prakopa is aggravation (usually called vitiation) of the dosas. At this point the dosas become abnormal, but the damage is still reversible.
  • Prasara is the spread of the vitiated dosas outside their normal sites. Unless the causative agent is removed immediately, this is usually the point where pathogenesis becomes irreversible.
  • Sthanasamsraya is the localization of the vitiated dosas to a weak site in the body. This allows the vitiated dosa to interact with the surrounding dhatus, which produces symptoms of a disease for the first time.
  • Vyakti is the stage where the disease manifests itself fully. The exact disease depends upon which dosa is vitiated, with which dhatu it is interacting, and to what extent they are mixing.
  • Bheda is the final stage of disease progression, where the disease is mostly diagnosed by its complications. Treatment of this chronic disease includes dealing with both the main disease and its complications.

There are a variety of different ways to relieve symptoms of disease. These include bloodletting, the use of drugs, and eating foods that either increase or decrease the vitiated dosa (Susruta 134, 355) [See R.H. Singh pages 148-155, Susruta, and Govindan for information about treatments].

References and Related Readings

Gopinath, B.G. (2001) “Foundational Ideas of Ayurveda.” In Subbarayappa, B. V. (Ed) History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization (Vol IV Part 2) (pp 59-107). New Delhi: Bhuvan Chandel.

Govindan, S.V. (2003) Fundamental Maxims of Ayurveda. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Mishra, S.K. (2001) “Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha Systems: An Overview and their Present Status.” In Subbarayappa, B. V. (Ed) History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization (Vol. IV Part 2) (pp 479-516). New Delhi: Bhuvan Chandel.

Prioreschi, Plinio (1991) A History of Medicine: Volume 1 Primitive and Ancient Medicine. Queenston: The Edwin Mellen Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Singh, I.P. (2001) “The Concept of Sarira (Human Body).” In Subbarayappa, B. V. (Ed) History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization (Vol. IV Part 2) (pp 108-125). New Delhi: Bhuvan Chandel.

Singh, R.H. (2001) “Kayacikitsa (Internal Medicine).” In Subbarayappa, B. V. (Ed) History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization (Vol. IV Part 2) (pp 128-156). New Delhi: Bhuvan Chandel.

Subbarayappa, B. V. (2001) “A Perspective.” In Subbarayappa, B. V. (Ed) History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization (Vol. IV Part 2) (pp 1-38). New Delhi: Bhuvan Chandel.

Sustra (1999) Susruta Samhita (Vol. 1) (Priya Vrat Sharma, Trans. and Ed.). Varanasi: Chaukhambha Visvabharati.

Vir, Kaviraj Dharam (2000) “Utility of Ayurveda in the Programme of Health for All After 2000 AD.” In Vaidya Banwari Lal Guar and Vaidya Santosh Kumar Sharma (Eds) Researches in Ayurveda: Past & Present (pp. 413-420). Jaipur: Sheetal Offset Printers.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Caraka Samhita
Dasa Vidha Pariksa (tenfold examination)
Karma in Ayurveda
Susruta Samhita
Therepeutic approaches
Vedic medicine

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by LeeAnna Tavernini (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Ayurveda: The Ancient Hindu Science of Health and Medicine

Some time ago, around the fifth century AD, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa Hsien visited the city of Pataliputra. It was here, in this ancient northern Indian city, that he discovered an organized system of medical provisions that eventually became known as Ayurveda (Wujastyk 2). Ayurveda, which literally means “the knowledge of science for longevity” is said to have materialized at the beginning of time when life itself was created. It is therefore thought to have no concrete beginning and will thus continue until the end of creation (Sharma 719). Ayurveda is an all encompassing system of medical practices that includes both preventative and prescriptive measures, advice on exercise, diet, morality as well as specific medical teachings for the professional physician, focusing on aspects of diagnosis and therapy (Wujastyk 3). There are two Ayurvedic classics, the Carakasamhita and Susruta’s Compendium. Both of these texts describe diagnoses, pharmaceuticals, human body and treatment among other things, however, the Carakasamhita is the text in which the roots of Indian medicine originate (Wujastyk 31). These texts, as well as Ayurveda’s other teachings and doctrines, suggest that this could have been the world’s first organized medical system and have thus laid the foundation for the medical procedures that are practiced today.

Ayurveda’s exact roots are difficult to trace as its practices go back to prehistory around the time when people started to become conscious of their health and became aware that they had to take measures to improve and preserve their lives (Sharma 719). While it is hard to set a concrete time when actual Ayurvedic practices came about, by the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, Ayurveda was well developed and the attitude of people towards health practices was advanced (Sharma 719). The ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro were intricately planned to include drainage systems, public wells and waste removal structures indicating their appreciation of proper sanitation (Sharma 720). Excavations of these cities found stag-horn and cuttlefish bone suggesting that vegetables, animals and minerals were used as sources for drugs (Sharma 720).The ash of Stag-horn and the cuttlefish bone were useful in treating cardiac pain, respiratory disorders and diseases of the ear and, interestingly, many of these ancient remedies are still used today (Sharma 720). In addition to the use of certain drugs, Indus peoples placed great emphasis on personal hygiene and cosmetics use including the use of collyrium for preventing and curing eye diseases (Wujastyk 184). With their intricate techniques and insightful knowledge into therapeutics, the Indus Valley Civilization played a vital role in the development of Ayurveda. Today, Ayurveda is a living system of medicine in India. In 1970, the Indian Parliament set up a Central Council for Ayurveda recognizing its integral role in Indian Medicine (Wujastyk 9). This counsel provides accredited colleges, standardized qualifications and professional training in Ayurveda. By 1983, there were approximately 100 accredited Ayurvedic training colleges in India (Wujastyk 9). It is clear that the ancient practice of Ayurveda continues to prevail in the medicinal practices of today. The treatments, practices and therapies of Ayurveda revolve around a central concept: the body. The pancha-bhuta theory asserts living creatures are formed from the five forms of matter: earth, fire, wind, water and akasa and therefore the body is in a perpetual state of flux just as nature is (Kakar, 231). The central process of the body is digestion and is seen as “cooking” and known as “fire in the belly” (Kakar 232). When food enters the belly it is cooked by the digestive fire and turns into the first of several body tissues quickly becoming flesh and eventually reaching the highest bodily essence: semen (Wujastyk 5). Networks of tubes carry the fluids of the body from place to place, and interestingly, blockage of these tubes is vital in Ayurveda’s explanation of insanity (Wujastyk 6).

In keeping the bodily elements in balance, the consumption of environmental matter in the right form, proportion and combination must be taken into consideration (Kakar 231). Therefore, diet is essential to Ayurveda emphasizing that any food used for medicinal purposes should be avoided to maintain physical well being (Kakar 231). A pure, bland diet is recommended, emphasizing Ayurveda’s belief in the mutual relationship between food and the “mind” (Kakar 269). Different foods are believed to have different qualities that each affected the body in a variety of ways. It was believed that sour foods increased promiscuity while red chilies and pepper activated a person’s urge to dominate others; even water at different temperatures had diverse effects (Govindan 23). Certain types of mind prefer certain types of food and therefore, one of the first questions that a physician asked their patient pertained to what foods the individual had consumed (Kakar 269).

The Carakasamhita, or “Caraka’s Compendium,” is the text in which classical Indian medicine really begins and the text that sheds the light on real medical practices (Wujastyk 39). The present-day Carakasamhita, the oldest Samhita of Ayurveda available today, was not the work of a single author but has three distinct authors: Atreya-Agnivesa in the pre-Buddhist period (1000BC), Caraka in the post-Buddhist period (2-3rd century BC) and Drdhabala in the classical period (4-5th century AD) (Sharma 728). The compendium consists of 120 chapters divided into eight parts: Sutra – on pharmacology, food, diet, etc.; Nidana – on causes of eight diseases; Vimana – topics such as taste and nourishment; Sarira – on philosophy, anatomy and embryology; Indriya – on diagnosis and prognosis; Cikitsa – on therapy; Kalpa – on pharmacy and Siddhi – on further general therapy (Wujastyk 41). Included in the Vimana section is a chapter on epidemics. Mosquitoes, rats, earthquakes and bad water are all recognized as possible causes of epidemics highlighting the exceptional thinking of these people in recognizing disease vectors and carriers. In addition, the chapter reflects on the classification of diseased patients into three categories: those who can be cured, those who cannot be cured but can be improved and those who are incurable (Wujastyk 49). The Carakasamhita recommends that physicians do not get involved with patients of the incurable type. Natural urges are highlighted in another chapter of the Carakasamhita. This chapter emphasizes the urges which should be suppressed and those that should not (Wujastyk 53). It was stated that a wise man was not to suppress the urges of urine or feces, sneezing, yawning or the urging of hunger and thirst. However, the urges of fury, pride, envy and excessive passion should be suppressed (Wujastyk 54). The Carakasamhita highlights many vital aspects of Ayurveda and plays an important role in the interpretation of Ayurvedic theory.

Similar to Caraka’s Compendium, Susruta’s Compendium also consists of sections relating to Ayurvedic practices (Larson 108). One section, Nidana, highlights surgery. While Caraka goes into brief descriptions, Susruta goes into great detail about all aspects of surgery (Wujastyk 106). It emphasizes that a good surgeon will be one who has witnessed operations and developed practical experience. He should be clean, keep his nails and hair short and dress in a white garment (Wujastyk 130). Knives, integral parts of surgeon’s equipment, are also discussed and include: types, sizes, proper handling and sharpening techniques (Wujastyk 124). Also included is how a surgeon must be able to diagnose the ailments by either the five senses or interrogation and, after this, how he is to treat the problem through various surgical techniques included in the Compendium (Wujastyk 131).

In addition to surgery, some of the most fundamental components of Ayurveda treatments are the use of drugs. Physicians had to be well acquainted with the identification of drugs as well as their properties and actions (Sharma 722). Drugs were used by external application, internal administration and, as well, the use of natural remedies such as sun-rays, fire, water and air were recognized as having important therapeutic qualities (Sharma 722). Essential components of drugs were plants as they were often a main source of which drugs came from. The osadhi-sukta of the Rg Veda is a document on the knowledge about plants in that age with soma being recognized as the king of herbs (Sharma 724). Some of the plants were cultivated while others grew in the wild (Sharma 724). Sometimes, herbs were combined for medicinal purposes and since a physician was to have complete knowledge of the plants, when administered, desired results were often observed (Sharma 724).

Ayurveda encompasses many different aspects of Indian medicine and is widely regarded as the world’s first organized medical system (Wujastyk 5). Both the Carakasamhita and the Susrutasutra are integral in the interpretation of Ayurvedic theory and provide insight into the forward thinking of the people of this time (Larson 108). They also provided a trustworthy reference for teachings in Ayurveda which furthered the development of the medical system and preservation of both the mind and body (Wujastyk 31). As well, they formed a basis in which many therapies originate today. While the body, drugs, surgeons and classics have all been discussed, Ayurveda includes many more essential components that have not been included here. However, all of Ayurveda’s components are equally important; these are just the ones I have chosen to highlight. With its intricate techniques, exceptional treatments and brilliant procedures, Ayurveda has undoubtedly played an enormous role in ancient medical practices as well as in laying the foundation for the medical practices seen today.

References and Further Recommended Readings

Gaur, Banwari and Santosh Sharma, eds. (2000) Researches in Ayurveda Past and Present. Jaipur: Publication Scheme.

Govindan, S.V. (2003) Fundamental Maxims of Ayurveda. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Kakar, Suhir (1982) Shamans, Mystics and Doctors. New York: Random House.

Kumar, Deepak ed. (2001) Disease and Medicine in India. New Delhi: Tulika Books.

Larson, Gerald “Ayurveda and the Hindu philosophical systems” (1993) Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice. Ed. Thomas P. Kasulis. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Selvester, Joseph (1997) Ayurveda: 5000-Year Old Medical Science for the Next Millenium. Total Health. 19(5), 56.

Sharma, P.V. “Development of Ayurveda from Antiquity to AD 300” (1999) The Dawn of Indian Civilization (up to c. 600 BC). Ed. G.C. Pande. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Wujastyk, Dominik (1998) The Roots Of Ayurveda. New Delhi: Penguin Books.

Related topics for Further Investigation

Fa Hsien
Central Council for Ayurveda
Pancha-bhuta theory

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Article written by: Carlie Boras (March 2006) who is solely responsible for content