Recently my eyes happened to fall upon an advertisement for an online course in a specialized subject of Ayurveda for westerners.
Such specializations are undertaken by students in India after completing their BAMS degree for five years and a firm grounding in the principles of Ayurveda. It set me thinking “Is this appropriate? Do most of the western students have the basic tools to enable them to study and comprehend such advanced subject matter? Is Ayurveda going in the right direction in the western world? What are the teachers who are teaching these courses aiming to achieve? Will the right ends be achieved? Is it a camouflaged way of compartmentalizing Ayurveda?” and so on.
Some of the specialization courses undertaken in India are Panchakarma, Kaumarabhrtya (Pediatrics), Shalya chikitsa (Surgery), Kaya Chikitsa (General Medicine), Prasooti and Stri roga (Obstetrics and Gynecology), Manasa roga (Psychiatry), Bhaisajya Kalpana and Rasa shastra (Pharmacology) etc.
In the Caraka Samhita, Siddhi Sthana, 12. 49 it is stated:
दुर्गृहीतं क्षिणोत्येव शास्त्रं शस्त्रमिवाबुधम्॥४९॥
सुगृहीतं तदेवज्ञं शास्त्रं शस्त्रं च रक्षति॥४९॥
dur-gṛhītaṃ kṣiṇotyeva śāstraṃ śastramivābudham||49||
su-gṛhītaṃ tadevajñaṃ śāstraṃ śastraṃ ca rakṣati||49||
“If the knowledge of śāstra is not received in the proper way, it destroys the receiver like a weapon. If the knowledge of śāstra is received in the proper way, it protects the receiver like a weapon.”
Here the great sage Caraka, in the very last chapter of his book, is reminding us of the importance of receiving knowledge in the proper way and warning us of the consequences if it is not done so. Ayurveda is a double edged sword. It is of interest to notice that Caraka has first mentioned the result of not receiving the knowledge properly rather than the result of having received it properly. Hence we have to be very careful knowing that we are dealing with a highly inflammable substance.
Fundamental is the foundation
It is not wrong to have a desire to study specialized topics in Ayurveda. At the same time, one should understand that without a strong fundamental understanding, one will only be wasting time (or even causing harm!). We all know that a building is as strong as its foundation. Will our house keep standing when the “big bad wolf” (the imbalance in a patient) comes and starts to huff and puff ? Unlike in modern medicine, when we try to specialize in a particular topic in Ayurveda, we will need to always keep going back to all the fundamentals. This is why it is often said that if one knows the first section of the ancient text (sūtra sthāna) properly, there is no need to study anything else. If we turn it around we can also say, “If one does not study the first section of the ancient text (sūtra sthāna), then there is no use of studying anything else.” Because everything else is only an adaptation of the same fundamentals into another area. Why else would the students who were trained traditionally be taught the first verse of the Astanga Hrdayam for six months? Of course the gurus were not crazy.
Back to the fundamentals
In modern medicine for example if one becomes a gynaecologist, it is not really necessary to remember the course of the radial artery or the biochemistry of muscle contraction, which one studied in the first year of medical school. But in Ayurveda you will need to remember each and every teaching of the sūtra sthāna in every step of advanced study. In Ayurveda when you go to an ophthalmologist for example, they are not only checking your eye. The symptom in the eye is only an indication of what is going on holistically in the body. And to connect in that manner, one should have all their basic principles thorough. This is because modern medicine is based more on structural application (How it works?) while Ayurveda is based more on functional application (Why it works?). The difference is subtle.
Whenever I would ask a question to my teachers about an advanced subject matter, they would advice me to go back and read certain verses from the sūtra sthāna. I went to study from some of the senior specialized vaidyas, and they told me to come back after studying sūtra sthāna.
Some students ask me “What are the Ayurvedic medicines for Scleroderma? What is the Ayurvedic treatment for Psoriasis?” Studying a specialized subject is not about memorizing a list of herbs and medicines that can supposedly be prescribed in advanced disease conditions. Such a memorization of lists is very easy.
According to one of my respected teachers,
- the most superficial vaidya is one who prescribes a medicine for a disease that is indicated in the verse describing that medicine. eg. Guduchyadi kashayam in vomiting.
- the second level vaidya is one who looks at the cause and prescribes the medicines given in the chapter describing that disease. eg. Dadimadi ghrtam for pandu.
- the third level vaidya is one who is capable of analyzing the avastha of the imbalance (situation) as well as the medicines/lifestyle/diet with respect to the fundamental concepts of Ayurveda and make a customized prescription. eg. Vidaryadi kashayam for lumbar disc prolapse knowing that we have a situation which is a vata dominant, vata kapha disorder where the dry quality of vata is more aggravated than the cold quality.
The third level of vaidya is what we should be aiming to become.
Putting our education to the test
I would logically assume that the intention to study a specialized subject is to help people who are suffering from various specialized ailments. Or is it meant to refer patients to go to India? We can test ourselves when we try to perform nidāna and cikitsa of a rogi after completion of our studies. If we are unable to successfully provide comfort, relief and cure to a rogi who comes to us, then our study has not reached its fruition. After having undergone these “specialized” courses without having a strong foundation in the basic principles, no one will be able to accurately diagnose and treat (though it may not be legal to use that term in the west) a patient. That is what we are intended to do as healers, right? And if our intellect brings up the argument that it is not within the legal scope of doing that, then why waste time and money doing such courses? Yes one may even argue that “we have to start somewhere.” But if we start in the wrong place, the more we travel, it will only take us further away from the actual goal.
The most important aspect of Ayurveda education is to root ourselves in the fundamental basic concepts including Ayurvedic anatomy and physiology. Then one should move ahead to study the basic principles of diagnosis and treatment. And after that one should understand the specific patterns of disease progression in the body. Finally one can learn to apply all the above three aspects into studying a specialized area of Ayurveda. This will shape us into independently thinking vaidyas. Otherwise we can only hope to become expert technicians at best.
Please note that this article is not meant to criticize or disrespect any individual. It is written only to promote the learning of Ayurveda in the proper manner as explained in the texts and in the traditional way. Thank you.