There are many traditions of healing from around the world that run parallel to the type of medicine practised in the West. For centuries peoples from the Australian Outback to the plains of the Kalahari have been using the plants and herbs found locally for healing and medicinal purposes. In this series of articles we will take a look at some of them and hopefully introduce you to some of the fascinating ways in which humankind has sought succour and relief from the flora and fauna that lay around them.

Indian Ayurvedic Healing

The Hindu god of ayurveda, DhanvantariOne of the most ancient is the Indian Ayurvedic system, which is still common at a community level in India. In Africa, the Americas, and in Australia and New Zealand, the indigenous peoples have their own medicinal practices using plants. Their ideas about healing are deeply rooted in their culture and traditions. Some have used plant drugs that have subsequently been adopted by Western medicine.

Medicinal knowledge gained by trial and error in India, Central and South East Asia was practiced some four thousand years ago in a system of medicine called Ayurveda. This simple system was followed by both high and low castes and many of its claims and  teachings have been confirmed by modern medicinal techniques.

The origins of the system are lost in time, but are said to have been handed down by the early Vedic deities. In legend it is said to have been taught by the creator, Brahma, to the Prajapati Daksha. (One of the lords of the animals) who taught it in turn to the divine twins called the Asvins. These Asvins are the heavenly healers. They taught Indra, the chief of the shining ones. When mankind began suffering from various diseases they beseeched their gods for remedies to their ailments. The wise man Bharadvaja was visited upon by Indra and the knowledge of medicine was told to him. Gradually this vast knowledge was divided into 8 branches called ‘The Ayurvedic System’.

'Ayurveda' in Sanskrit means 'the science of life' or 'the science of ( (living to a ripe) age' and was dominant in the Indian sub-continent from 1500 BC until the tenth century AD. Ayurvedic doctors believe that there are seven 'dhatus' or elements (food juices, flesh, blood, iat, bones, marrow and semen) in the body and three 'tridosa' or humours (wind, bile and phlegm). In the body of a healthy person there is a good balance between the dhatus and the tridosa, which may be affected by the constitution you inherit.

The principal Ayurvedic texts (the Caralea Samhila and the Susruta Samhita) date from 200 BC to AD 200 and include over 700 useful herbs classified by their action on the dhatus and tridosa, or by their effects on the patient. The tradition also stresses the need to collect the plant drugs in the right way, at the right season and from the right soil. The purity of the doctor and the way the drugs are stored are considered important, as is the patient's diet.

The eight main branches of the Ayurvedic system are as follows:

  • Kaya chikitsa: Internal medicine
  • Baala: Pediatrics
  • Graha: Treatment of diseases arising from possession by pathogens, evil spirits, etc. Mainly diseases of a mental nature.
  • Urdhvanga: Dealing with the eyes, ear, nose, throat and dentistry
  • Salya: Surgery including plastic surgery
  • Danstra: Insect bites, poisons ( Toxicology)
  • Rasayana: Diseases of advancing age
  • Prasuti: Gynecology and obstetrics

Vyaadhi, or disease in Ayurveda is due to an imbalance of three fundamental elements of the body. These are VAATA, PITTA and KAPHA.

The entire universe is made of five Maha bhootas, or great "elements" (which are not material in the usual sense of the term, and are types of energy.). They are called:

  • Akaasa ( roughly, "space")
  • Vaayu ( air )
  • Tejas ( light )
  • Ap ( water )
  • Prithvi( earth )

Life in the Ayurvedic systemVAATA: Human bodies are mainly made of Akasa, Vaayu with a little of Teja, Ap and Prithvi. Vaata is what allows one to interact with the environment. Briefly, vaata transmits sense impressions to the mind and responses to various places of the body , maintains the integrity of the body and proper functioning of its various constituent elements , the sensory organs of touch and sound depend on vaata : the Dhaatus and Malas (tissue material and waste matter) are transported by vaata. It stimulates Agni and produces joy. It forms the embryo in the womb into particular shapes It is the evidence of life .

PITTA : Is the primary constituent of the living body whose structure is Tejas ( "luminous light"). Its function is balancing and transformative. Its functions in particular are -- vision, digestion, production of heat, Hunger, thirst, softness and suppleness of body, lustre, cheerfulness and intelligence.

KAPHA : Is one of the primary constituents of body, having "water" and "earth" as elements. Function of pitta is conserving and stabilizing . It organizes the tissues (into their microscopic and macroscopic form).

Disease is called Vyaadhi in ayurveda. It is the state of body and mind in which they are subjected to discomfort, pain and injury. The fundamental cause is imbalance of the three Vaata, Pitta and kapha. Fairly elaborate classification of diseases are made in Ayurveda. Here are some examples:

The doshas, vaata, kapha, and pitta when disturbed either singly or in combination, cause fever. The example is given- due to over- eating incompatible foods, the doshas reach the gastro intestinal tract and expel the internal gastric fire which is responsible for digestion. While it is moving and expelled to exterior, which fever is caused. Treatment is to set the fire element in its right place.

mainly due to absence of physical activity. Other causes may be sleeping during the day, intake of Kapha - increasing foods, finally results in the accumulation of fat. These block the channels of nutrition. This blocking causes an INCREASE in hunger because the body does not get nutrition.

Watery elements of the body imbalance the gastric fire and large quantities are expelled . Treatment is by restoring balance of the watery element.

Over eating of foods that are too salty, sour, alkaline, fatty , improperly cooked, meat of the animals or birds of marshy and desert regions which have been soaked in water, excessive drinking of sugarcane juice, exposure to cold winds, sleeping in the daytime and not in the night, travelling long distances at a stretch causes gout in susceptible persons.

Ayurvedic HealingRheumatism:
Eating foods which are incompatible, lack of physical exercise in general, doing exercise particularly after eating fatty foods, incorrect use of purgatives, causes improper digestion. The half digested food called AMA associates itself with Vaata and moves about. It fills the seats of kapha, and blocks the transport channels of the body. This blocking of channels produces weakness of the heart, which is the SEAT of the disease. This results in loss of strength, feeling of heaviness, stiffness of the body , and small and big joints alike.

Excessive intake of foods that are pungent, bitter, astringent, dry, or insuficient food, supression of the natural functions of the body, excess of exercise all vitiate vaata which affects the digestive acitivity, producing disease.

Taking excess of water, taking small/large quantities of food at odd times, supression of the natural functions of the body, loss of slep at night and sleeping during the daytime, causes indigestion.

Intestinal problems:
Use of foods that are dry, salty, sour . Uncleaned vegetables, molasses, taking foods that are incompatible with each other, excess of animal fat, fish, fermented stuffs, and lack of physical exercise.

Skin problems:
Are often due to Pitta. This is caused by excessive exposure to sunlight, taking foods which are pungent, hot and alkaline.

Peptic Ulcer and colic:
Excessive eating of astringent and dry hot bitter foods ; grief ; starvation; fasting; and keeping awake at night all increases vaata. This in turn increaes gastric fire causing peptic ulcer, and induces colic.

Heart disease:
The doshas having undergone morbid changes either singly or in combination, vitiate the blood and similar fluids (like plasma). These localise themselves in the heart.

This is caused by increase of Pitta, usually as a result of eating incompatible foods and over- hot or spicy foods. Spoilt food also causes this.

Diseases of the ear:
The vaata pitta kapha balance may be disturbed by exposure to cold air, hearing sudden loud noises. The elements move in wrong directions and cause ear problems.

Ayurvedic treatment differs from modern medicine in the way the disease is viewed. Usually ayurvedic practitioners say antibiotics may have their uses, especially in surgery, but that antibiotics basically attack the germs which are considered to cause disease.

The ayurvedic doctors prefer that the balance of the body be restored. The causative factors which allow the germs to grow have to be removed, not just quickly attacking the germs they say. Many doctors with long experience hold this very sensible view and even laymen nowadays are tending to be suspicious about improperly tested and very powerful chemical drugs.

The drugs used in Ayurveda are made by several processess from vegtable and mineral raw materials. It appears mostly plant alkaloids are the active ingredients. Obviously barring some chemical changes it is mostly natural derivates. ( modern medicines are also based upon these but proportion of synthetic derivate is more.) However the plants growing in particular soils, with pattern of weather, sunlight, time of harvesting, method of preparation of medicine all are very important. The identical species of plant growing in rain forest and city backyard may not have the same medicinal value.

Here are a few Ayurvedic remedies:

General tonic for health: Boiled extract ( decoction) of the roots of Sida cordifolia 1 -2 ounces every morning is recommended.

Another tonic: Finely powdered roots of Withania somniferum cooked in half a litre of milk till the water evaporates, is a very effective tonic.

Dandruff: Leaves of Neem ( Azadirachta indica) or Indian hemp applied in paste form to the scalp, and kept for half an hour. A lukewarm shower to follow, removes dandruff. ( neem contains several powerful substances like azadirachtin. Indian hemp is well known.)

Corns: The milky sap of the papaya tree/unripe fruit applied to corns or warts removes them. ( there is a digestive enzyme called papain in it, and is used in todays's tenderisers.)

Bad taste in the mouth: Pomegranate juice, rock salt and honey in equal quantities to be kept in the mouth for a while is very effective.

Gas, rumblings in the belly and elsewhere: A mixture of Fried asafoetida ( a resin), black salt, cardamom and ginger 30mg per day in divided doses is very effective.

Cough and hacking cough: equal parts of honey and juice of baked lemon,( i.e. sour citrus fruit)
or 10 -15 drops of betel leaf juice with honey three times a day.

Today, Ayurveda is encouraged by the Indian government as an inexpensive alternative to expensive Western drugs. It is widely practised in Sri Lanka where many also believe that the humoral  balance  can   be  disturbed   bv  demons who need to be exorcized.

In Britain, Ayurveda is used by Asian communities and there is now an Ayurvedic Company of Great Britain working in association with a pharmacy in Coimbatore, Southern India, that manages two therapy centres. Much of the therapy consists in the use of herbal oils that are employed in massage and in diet control; and it is claimed to be particularly effective in treating rheumatic diseases.

Ayurveda has been criticized, however, for the inclusion of heavy metals in its medicines, which are now known to be toxic, especially to children.

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