Ayurveda is one of the oldest systems of healing. What distinguishes it from many of its cognates is that it is a living tradition, more vibrant and dynamic then it was a thousands year ago. The secret of its vitality lies in its inherent capability to interact with other disciplines. Ayurveda in its long journey had faced many challenges, passed through difficult phases and yet it could stand the text of time without compromising on its basic principles.
Ayurveda today is the sum total of the accumulated wisdom and practical experiences of very many generations. This process of evolution will continue as long as ayurveda remains a living tradition. Caraka calls this process pratisamskara, redaction.
History occupies a less significant spot in our thought-process; we have myths and legends in abundance. Legendary accounts cannot be substitutes for historical facts. This realisation led historians to trace the routes which the living traditions have traversed.
According to age-old belief, ayurveda is anadi and is revealed to the sages. This notion gives scriptural sanctity to the science. For those who consider that Ayurveda is complete in itself, any addition or deletion is anathema. This approach discourages the spirit of enquiry, which inn turn, leads to decadence.
The protagonists of renaissance had realized this pitfall. To rejuvenate ayurveda they insisted on the study of its evolution. Search for roots thus became the prime concern of leaders during the first quarter of last century. It was in this background that Kavikulaguru P.V. Krishna Varier wrote Aryavaidyacaritram in 1903 at the instance of P.S. Varier, the founder of Arya Vaidya Sala. And it was incorporated into the curriculum of the Pathasala which P.S. Varier established in 1917 to impart formal and institutionalized education in Ayurveda. The students who came out of the Pathasala were in the forefront of the revitalization movement of ayurveda in the last century. Sri N.V. Krishnankutty Varier and myself belong to that generation of aryavaidyas. For us, ayurveda was not a frozen discipline; it was a symbol of national pride and social awakening. We learned from experience that ayurveda cannot be studied in isolation. The study of its evolution is as important as that of clinical or pharmaceutical aspects. It is this spirit that prompted Sri Varier to embark upon a project of writing a scientific history of ayurveda. After extensive research and painstaking study, he brought out a volume in Malayalam in 1980. The world of ayurveda received it well. Soon it was hailed as a very useful reference text.
The book has its genesis in that work. While rendering in English, the text has undergone a thorough restructuring; some portions have been added, some omitted; notes are appended to chapters and index is prepared for Sanskrit words in alphabetical order followed by English words in its order. We have benefited greatly from the expertise of Major P.U.K. Warrier in bringing out this volume.
Prof. M.G.S. Narayanan has added value to this book by providing an erudite introduction. I would like to quote from what he has to say about the author.
‘What distinguishes this work from the works of other Indian scholars on medical history is the effort to pursue a scientific course with a mind freed from all superstition. His mature scholarship in social history as well as ayurveda seems to have enabled Varier to take this bold stand.’
As a person who is convinced about continuous evolution of Ayurvedic tradition, I would hasten to add here that the reader must not treat this work as an end in itself. A significant beginning is made here. Our efforts will be properly rewarded if this work inspires some of out young talents to pursue the subject vigorously and come out with fresh insights and new postulates.
There was an impression among English educated Indians that everything western was great and everything Indian contemptible. Those who did not have this education saw everything the other way round. There is growing realization today that neither is correct. The perception that all geographical regions naturally pass through different stages of growth in civilization and that neither Europe nor India has permanent parameters of culture is yet to evolve. History proclaims that Sarasvati, the Goddess of wisdom is as fickle as the proverbial Mahalaksmi, the Goddess of wealth.
The age of progress was inaugurated in Europe about five centuries ago. Their new life style, including bad habits, was being disseminated all over the world. With the recent political backlash, we threw out their dominance. We have now to consider the possibility of selecting materials from our own traditions for analytical purpose. This possibility is particularly strong in the case of a living tradition like ayurveda. We owe this not only to India but also to the whole world. Pioneers like Vaidyaratnam P. S. Varier were the leading lights of Indian renaissance in this field. Posterity will blame us if this glorious chapter goes unrecorded.
What do we find when we turn towards the West? Till recently, many were under the impression that with the spread of modern medicine all other native systems will die a natural death. They thought that the anthropologists interested in ritualistic practices or linguists alone will explore matters connected with Indian ayurveda, Arabic Unani and Chinese medicine. The west looked down upon these systems as unscientific notations of dead or dying civilizations.
However, at the dawn of 20th century, Hoernle opened a new chapter with his work.' It was only later that Indians like PC Ray K. A. Nadkarni G.N. Mukhopadhya and others came to the scene. In the thirties and forties, research studies by the Frenchman J. Filliosat created a new awareness on ayurveda among western scholars.
Thus, things are changing slowly. In 1969, the Welcome Institute of the History of Medicine brought out a book 'Medicine and Culture' based on a seminar held three years earlier. It questioned the practice of promoting western medicine through pet labels like scientific and modern and discussed the need for creating a universal medical pattern. ‘Asian Medical Systems: A Comparative Study" is another work that emerged from 53rd Burg Wartenstien Symposium held in 1971. The authors have tried to examine with due respect the plurality of medical systems existing in Asia. The editor of the work, Charles Leslie, himself wrote about the ambiguities in the revival of medical science in modem India. Many a writer has upheld the healthy results of the influence exerted by Asian systems on western medicine, as atonement as it were for its long neglect. The article by Gun Nath Obaye Sekare discusses the spread of ayurveda in Sri Lanka.
Though the international importance and the scientific value of ayurveda are becoming clearer in such a context, certain steps that should have been initiated in India have not been properly completed. The background against which ayurveda blossomed here and the stages of its development remain still obscure. No concerted effort has been made to reveal them. If ayurveda is to flourish here, a threefold strategy has to be implemented. The first two of these are research in ayurveda and the comparative study with other systems of medicine. The study of history now under review is an essential aid for both. What problems arose in each period; how solutions were attempted; to what extent they were successful in different circumstances - this knowledge is necessary for a new developmental concept to take shape in order to meet the challenges of the new era. Therefore, it is imperative that students of medicine study the history of the system too.
The books to meet this need are rare even in English today. Sri Varier has made use of whatever is available. The main obstacles in the study of the history of ayurveda are the absence of reliable history of the Indian society and the lack of chronology of various movements. These obstacles can be overcome if we make an earnest effort. However, we must remove, first, the various blocks that exist in our minds.
First of all, the assumption that ayurveda is vedic and therefore divine, dissuades many from adopting a critical approach to the subject. This attitude must be set aside. In the sense that all knowledge is divine, ayurveda too is divine. As divinity is manifested through human intelligence, any criticism that comprises its radiance is equally divine. In some ancient ayurvedic works, we see that free play of the critical intelligence. Mr. Varier has quoted many instances of this type. We can do justice to the ancient teachers only when we use our critical faculty to the maximum extent in the belief that it is an exercise of the divine powers bestowed on us. It is only a delusion to hope that we can preserve any part of Indian culture through blind worship. Only those parts that survive relentless and rational scrutiny shall merit universal recognition. Let us put our knowledge to the touchstone of practical usage. A science cannot depend on the support of personal affection, faith or charity for its existence.
There is a feeling that ayurveda was perfect even at the time of its inception. This too is connected with the belief referred to earlier. The legend is that it manifested itself in its fullness in the minds of sages, without having to proceed by means of observations and experiments, without groping its way slowly forward through the method of trial and error. Thus, the stages of gradual progress from a primitive state to refinement are dissolved, the conflict of diverse theories and movements, and history as such, is no more. This false notion about the perfection of the seers acts as another inhibiting factor discouraging historical enquiry. If there was no development in the past, there can be non in the future; if no past, no future.
In fact, the use of veils of divinity and perfection was there from the beginning. It must have been necessary to sustain faith among the people in a tribal stage. This is found at one stage in Greek medicine too. But later on, the genius of man broke all those shells and brought out science from the cult of mantras. Such a pheno- menon was witnessed in India also under the leadership of Buddhists. However, brahmin-priesthood covered it up again with legends and fables. In the medieval centuries, the codes of the poetic language in which these myths were enshrined, were forgotten. With the admission of every word in the literal sense by some reputed scholars, free investigations became impossible. That is how the Banyan tree of wisdom, including the branch of ayurveda, withered away.
For a meaningful analysis of history, some common principles must be accepted. World of wonders must be relegated to the realm of fairy tales. We must then be able to comprehend the process of scientific theories taking shape gradually in the various spheres of activity of the human intelligence from initial primitive, superstitions and lowly beginnings through detailed studies and discussions. One cannot but see the statements of the vedas in the natural course as the reflection of the primitive state. This may hurt our hearts, but can never be avoided in the scientific study of history.
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