Ayurveda – Science or Belief System

Ayurveda, the Indian system of medicine, is one of oldest medical systems in the world. Ayurveda is also the first complete medical system which has identified specialties such as General medicine, Surgery, Head & Neck medicine, Psychiatry, Mother & child health, Reproductive medicine, Geriatrics and Toxicology. It is a structured medical system with a view on diseases causative factors, pathologica framework and specific treatments. But more than just a medical system Ayurveda is a way of life which encompasses practices to stay healthy day and night, seasons and even preventive measures during epidemics. Like all ancient medical systems, Ayurveda is also structured by belief systems of its times. Hence you can find both Hindu and Buddhist ideologies of living and value systems inculcated into them. Unfortunately most of studies conducted by western scholars in Ayurveda were done by Anthropologists who were more interested in the socio political aspects of these textbooks and shut an eye to the medical literature. This has greatly resulted in looking at Ayurveda as a belief system and not as a science. Before delving into scientific nature of Ayurveda let us look up what is meant by science. Webster’s dictionary defines science as “knowledge covering general truths of the operation of general laws, esp. as obtained and tested through scientific method [and] concerned with the physical world.” Ayurveda also uses scientific methods of observation (prathyaksha), interpretation (anumana), upamana (assessments based on similar phenomena). All Ayurvedic texts of ancient origin that is still available today such as Charaka Samhitha or Susruta Samhitha are edited, added and discussed by different eminent experts in Ayurveda over centuries. This aspect probably prompted the author of Ashtanga Hrudaya, a medical text written in 6th century CE, to write that “It is a science that has been taught by experts and validated by observed results, hence a physician can use it in his practice like mantra or sacred hymn ( i.e. without doubt).” Another reason why I call Ayurveda, a science is because it has constantly reinvented itself and there was almost always a continuing discussion about its basic principles. It has assimilated alchemy (preparations using mercury and other minerals) into its treatment modalities. New diseases of foreign were also dealt upon in detail, understood and addressed. A good example is description of Syphilis (coined as Phiranga by Ayurveda physicians) in Bhavaprakasha, a 16th century medical text. A belief system or folklore medicine is ultimately static and does not evolve with time. In contrast Ayurveda is a fluid dynamic system which continues to grow and flow even today.

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