How to study Ayurveda?


I have been thinking a lot about this. Most of us have been educated and trained since our early age in the western thought process. It appears that we need to undergo a restructuring of our thought process or let me say a “paradigm shift” in order to properly comprehend and apply any of the vedic sciences. I am specifically addressing the science of Āyurveda here.

The eastern and western medical systems are fundamentally different in their approach. It is not just about learning the three doshas, some new herbs, a different diet, some formulations, Indian cooking, massage, marma points or even life style (comprising of a few routine cleansing and strengthening practices are what are usually taught in the name of Āyurvedic lifestyle).

It needs a restructuring of the thought process. Unless this happens, we are not really able to touch the core of Āyurveda. That could be a possible reason why some of us find it difficult to study the classical ancient Sanskrit texts – because the underlying thought process does not subconsciously agree with what we are trained in. This does not usually happen when we try to read some of the anglicized versions of Āyurveda where the author has made a deliberate effort to fit Āyurveda into the western mould – to make it agreeable to the western minds by equating scientific terminologies from Āyurveda to modern or western medical terms (though they do not actually mean the same). This may seem emotionally and intellectually easier. But as we go deeper into the science we reach a dead end. Especially when we try to apply that kind of learning to a real scenario, we become very restricted with limited options. But this is far from the truth.

One who has truly understood the concepts of Āyurveda will experience their options open up to infinity upon progressing in their studies and applications. Newer and newer ways of applying the same basic concepts will spring up in the minds of the students and practitioners. This is how many of the traditional vaidyas in India developed their own regional unique styles of practicing the same philosophy of Āyurveda – For example, the Kerala style of panchakarma treatments and rejuvenation therapies.  This is the reason why in the traditional style of education, the student was only taught the first 14 chapters of the Ashtanga Hridayam out of a total of 120 chapters. Imagine if you would join an Āyurvedic school and they would teach you the first 14 chapters of a textbook that has 120 chapters! Some might say, “this is not fair. I paid up for 120 chapters! I want my money back! ”   That is just a striking example of the western paradigm. You get what you pay for, right? There is a price for everything and everything is for sale.

Each word in the ancient texts is like a huge library of encrypted information. The more we read or study them, the meanings begin to unfold one by one. This is not the case with the anglicized versions. To be able to study them in the proper frame of mind, we need to cultivate or develop the Vedic thought process. I can hear you asking “What is this Vedic thought process?” Of course we also need to know what is not the Vedic thought process.

I am giving below, a short tabular description (though it is a western style to put information in neat little boxes) showing some of the differences between both the eastern and western thought processes including those of the respective medical sciences. Each of these points can be elaborated in detail to explain this dichotomy. Meanwhile I leave it open for you to ponder and interpret…

Western  Eastern
 Linear  Circular
 Atheistic (sometimes covered atheism)  Theistic
 Sees everything separated (reductionist)  Sees everything interconnected (holistic)
 Materialistic  Spiritual
 Mood of exploitation  Mood of service
 More and more specialization (knowing everything about nothing)  More and more going back to basics
 Less than 500 years old  More than 5000 years old
 Sometimes illogical  Always logical
Does not understand energy system of body  Works mainly through the energy system
 Mostly palliative (symptomatic) Mostly curative (trying to correct basic cause)
 Emphasis is on treatment  Emphasis is on prevention
 Relies mainly on direct perception (pratyakṣa)  Relies mainly on yukti and āpta vacana
 Emphasis on objectivity  Emphasis on subjectivity
 Has unavoidable side effects in treatment  Has avoidable side effects in treatment
 Less emphasis on diet and lifestyle  More emphasis on diet and lifestyle
No concept of harmony with the environment  Harmony with environment is the cornerstone
 Divisive  Unifying
 Looks for causes outside  Looks for causes inside
 Trying to destroy the invader  Trying to change our own environment
 Destructive  Constructive
 Exclusive  Inclusive
 Micro to macro one inside the other
 Microcosm and macrocosm are similar
Replacing old theories with new theories which disprove them  Including new theories to old ones
A changing truth (theory keeps changing)  An unchanging truth (theory remains the same)
Disease is a phenomenon coming from the outside (external) and attacking us Disease is primarily due internal factors which may at times be triggered by external factors
 Based on the understanding that life is nothing but a combination of chemicals Based on the understanding that life is a divine spark
 Linear thought process  Circular or a networking thought process
Operates out of the advanced theories, not so much going back to fundamentals – the methods of treatment and protocols are more or less fixed – there is no real need to go back to fundamentals unless for theoretical discussions and reasons Have to keep going back to the basic fundamentals – it means that one cannot practice effectively unless one knows how the methods of treatments have been derived from the fundamentals because the methods have to be customized and modified according to many factors
 Standardization is the norm  Customization is the norm
 No equivalent in modern medicine  Similarity of the universe and human being
No relation between character of a physician and healing ability  The character of the physician (following principles of dharma) influences the healing ability
 Medicines are dead chemicals  Medicines are living embodiments of energetic signatures of herbs, animals and minerals
 Fixed reference point  Changing reference points
 Concept of body is based on physical structure  Concept of body is based on energetics
 Concept is applicable only in a fixed context  All concepts are applicable from micro to macro
Dead anatomy  Living anatomy
Primarily quantitative and secondarily qualitative  Primarily qualitative and secondarily quantitative
 Primarily structural and secondarily functional  Primarily functional and secondarily structural
Believes that the function is dependent on the structure. If structure is intact, function will not be affected. Function is not dependent on structure alone.
 No such concept  Everything is inside everything else and everything is outside everything else.
 Sāmānya (general principles) and viśeṣa (specific principles)
 Standard protocols are supreme and physician should follow it Yukti (logical conclusions) of the Vaidya is supreme… every physician can have an individual unique approach to the same problem. Texts are only meant to assist and point us in the right direction.
Objective evidence is more important than subjective experience (if investigation reports are negative, patient’s subjective feelings may be dismissed as irrelevant) Subjective experience is more important than objective evidence (in certain treatments, the symptoms disappear in spite of investigation reports still showing defects) – energetic correction
 Enslaving  Empowering

Having said that, we are well aware that the thought process of the modern medical scientists (myself being one of them) are also undergoing a rapid evolutionary change. Many new concepts like mind-body medicine, functional medicine and other theories are being explored. It will take some time before we come full circle and these percolate into the curricula in medical schools and the practitioners on the ground level.

Some people may disagree or pass me off as being narrow minded, pontificatory or impractical, and others may agree with this as true. How the two different types of thought processes came to be is another discussion. We will need to get into the history, evolution, epistemology and ontology of both the sciences to understand that. We will do that in another article. Thank you for reading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *