The Spiritual Foundations of Ayurveda

This article by Shruti Bakshi and Subhash Kak uncovers a new perspective on Ayurveda’s spiritual basis. An heretofore unexplored link sheds light on Ayurveda’s profound connection with the process of life and provides a deeper understanding about the ‘science of life’.

 

Introduction

Ayurveda, the science of life that originated in India thousands of years ago, has emerged in recent decades as a very popular system of medicine globally. Too often, however, like yoga, it is practiced as a mere health and wellness regime – where yoga is identified with asanas and pranayama, Ayurveda is identified with herbs and massages. Relatively speaking though, whereas the spiritual understanding of yoga (of union between the individual self and the Divine) still remains fairly firmly established, the only spiritual context that Ayurveda clings onto is as a complement to and a facilitator of yoga (in its function of keeping the body and mind healthy and vibrant so that yoga can happen).

So is Ayurveda then nothing more than a system of eco-friendly treatments for the body and mind that help you along on your spiritual path? And if that’s the case, then why is it called the “science of life”? Why not the science of health, the science of healing, the science of the body or something more specifically biological? Our Vedic rishis who coined the name certainly don’t have the reputation of being prone to inexactness or overstatement.

If Ayurveda deals only with protecting and enhancing life in the body i.e. with materiality, then it would be a lesser cousin of yoga which is a spiritual process and yet we find the two sciences holding equal place in ancient Vedic teachings. Research into Ayurveda’s spiritual bearings reveals that there are references to Ayurveda in Vedic texts and that Vedic deities (namely Agni, Vayu and Soma) are associated with the three doshas (Pitta, Vata and Kapha, respectively). But this still does not explain why Ayurveda is called the science of life.

For that understanding, we must look to an heretofore unexplored link – to an ancient story inextricably linked with creation. The story is none other than that of the samudra manthan (“churning of the ocean”) and it shows that Ayurveda is not only profoundly linked to yoga, but to the process of life-making itself. It elucidates the spiritual underpinning of Ayurveda which in turn helps us better understand the science. It shows how Ayurveda explains the very process of life, the play of life, how life happens and why it happens. It shows why Ayurveda is not the science of herbs or the science of health, but quite aptly, the science of life.

Ayurveda and human wellness: a brief overview

Ayurveda is the Vedic system of medicine that is formally associated with the Atharvaveda (1). It views health as harmony between body, mind, and spirit.

Every substance in the universe is considered to be made up of the five elements, the mahabhutas, which are (in order from gross to subtle) earth, water, fire, air and akasha (2). Ayurveda speaks of good health as a balance between three doshas (bodily constitutions/ energies/ humours) namely Vata (praṇa), Pitta (agni), and Kapha (soma) identified respectively with the elements of air, fire and water (3). The predominance of one or the other dosha leads not only to different physiological but also to different psychological types of constitutions. An imbalance of these doshas leads to illness.

It is important however, to understand what we mean by the ‘balance’ that the science of Ayurveda sets out to achieve. When viewed as a static state, a perfectly balanced body and mind could not sustain life, for life needs some tension to find expression (4). So what Ayurveda refers to is a deeper, dynamic balance which we posit can be properly understood within the archetypal frame of samudra manthan (churning of the ocean).

Samudra manthan – the game of life

The story of the samudra manthan is a well-known and important part of Indian culture, appearing in many ancient texts like the Bhagavata Purana, Mahabharata and the Vishnu Purana. The legend goes that the weakened gods (devas) were advised by Lord Vishnu to enter into a peace pact with the demons (asuras) in order to seek the latter’s help in churning the ocean of milk out of which many boons including the nectar of immortality (amrit) would emerge. The asuras were told that the gifts would be shared with them but Vishnu secretly promised the devas that they would receive the amrit which would restore their strength and dominance over the asuras.

Samudra manthan, churning of the ocean with the devas on the right and asuras on the left. Vishnu’s Kurma (turtle) avatar supports Mount Mandhara at the base
Side view of the samudra manthan installation at Bangkok airport

And so began the churning of the ocean. The samudra manthan is widely viewed as symbolising the process of life which is a play between the positive and negative polarities. However, it is often spoken of as a battle between good and evil but that is a misunderstanding. The legend does not depict a battle but a consolidated effort from two complementary sides towards the same end. The asuras are not opponents in a battle, but contributors in a task. The spiritual meaning is that, for life to happen (the ocean to be churned) the duality of good and bad is needed.

In the samudra manthan story, this is validated by the fact that the stick used for churning the ocean (the Mount Mandhara), is supported at the base by Vishnu in the form of the Kurma or turtle avatar. The maintainer of life Himself supports the churning because the churning makes possible the happening of life. Without the play of dualities, life i.e. experiencing is not possible.

Churning for balance

As we’ve stated, Ayurveda stresses dynamic balance. Life as dynamic balance is conveyed directly through the churning of the ocean which thus serves as the natural spiritual underpinning of Ayurveda. To see this more clearly, we need to elucidate a few symbolisms of the story.

First, it is important to note that the properties associated with an element or mahabhuta emerge only in a state of activation. For instance, if a substance produces heaviness in the body, then it is understood that the earth element (prithvi mahabhuta) is present in an activated state in it. Indeed, the activation of the elements in the body takes place as a part of samudra manthan. In other words, if the five elements are what constitute reality, it is samudra manthan that depicts its dynamic nature.

We can recognise the churning in the body taking place between the inner devas and asuras. These two poles are represented by the elements of prithivi (earth) and akasha, where prithivi is materiality or base nature (asuras) and akasha is light or Divine nature (devas).  Indeed the words “divine” and “deva” can be traced to the Sanskrit root “div”, which means “to shine” or “to be lit”. Between these two poles lie the remaining three elements of water, fire and air which are mapped into the doshas of Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.

The agitation caused by the churning within the body creates ongoing turbulence amongst the three elements of air, fire, and water. This churning has the potential to cause loss of balance that leads to physical or psychological illness. On the other hand, the potential for healing also resides within the body. Ayurveda is geared towards maintaining the dynamic balance of nature/life and avoiding imbalances that lead to physical and mental disease and disturbance.

Dhanvantari, physician to the Gods and father of Ayurveda

Ayurveda can be thus seen to be directly concerned with the field in which the dynamic play of life happens. Indeed Ayurveda in fact emerges out of this dynamic play. This symbolism is confirmed in the samudra manthan itself with the emergence of Dhanvantari, the first physician and father of Ayurveda, from the ocean at the end of the churning. Dhanvantari carries the pot of amrit signifying Ayurveda’s ultimate role in bestowing immortality once balance has been attained (churning has stopped and one has merged with Divinity). The samudra manthan framework thus shows that Ayurveda is intrinsically linked to Self-realisation.

A new paradigm for the link between Ayurveda and yoga

Traditionally, the following verses of the Svetasvatara Upanishad (Chapter 2: 6, 8) have been viewed as elucidating the common origins of and link between yoga and Ayurveda:

“Where the Agni (fire) is enkindled, where Vayu (the wind) is controlled, where Soma overflows, there the mind attains perfection.”

Here, Agni, Vayu and Soma represent kundalini fire, pranayama and Samadhi respectively in yoga, which in Ayurveda represent the Pitta, Vata and Kapha doshas respectively.

The samudra manthan provides a new framework for the association between yoga and Ayurveda. Having set the Ayurvedic view of wellness against the backdrop of samudra manthan, we see a fascinating new coherence between the two sciences. The two poles of earth and ether representing the asuras and devas also represent the Muladhara chakra (at the base of the spine) and Vishuddha chakra (pit of the throat) respectively. The chakras that sit in the middle are the Svadhishthana, Manipura and Anahata, representing water, fire and air respectively. This harks back to the Ayurvedic model of the doshas (5). Imbalances in the body are caused by imbalances in the activities of these three elements – represented as doshas in Ayurveda and as chakras in yoga (kriya yoga specifically). Leaving the realm in which these three elements play, signifies transcendence in yoga (the activation of the Ajna or third-eye chakra) as it does in the samudra manthan paradigm of Ayurveda with the stopping of the churning at which point immortality is bestowed.

While kriya yoga which is concerned with energy and has a close relation to the elements readily shows a close association with Ayurveda, the other forms of yoga too, because they signify transcendence of the duality of life, are also related to Ayurveda in a spiritual context. The vasanas that we must transcend in yoga are linked to the doshas we must balance in Ayurveda. In fact, we may even go so far as to say that while samudra manthan has been widely interpreted as a symbolic representation of yoga, the process of churning, being the play of life itself, more truly represents Ayurveda.

Conclusion

In modern materialist societies dominated by a body-centric view of life, Ayurveda naturally too became overly associated with the body. The objective of immortality then became associated with longevity rather than its higher spiritual meaning of recognition of our true Spirit nature.

Spirituality, at its heart, is not about what should be but about what already is. For instance while to the uninitiated it may seem like the Ramayana or the Bhagavad Gita are imparting a teaching, advanced seekers and masters have realised that they are merely expressing what already is so. The story of the samudra manthan shows that the same is true also for Ayurveda, confirming its roots as a spiritual discipline. So far, the common view about Ayurveda has been that it is a means to an end. But the samudra manthan shows that Ayurveda reflects what is already true about life, explains the nature of life and therefore is indeed, in a profound sense, the science of life.

Notes:
(1)    ‘Veda’ in Sanskrit means ‘to know’. Atharvaveda is the fourth Veda which is considered to have been a later addition. The other three Vedas are Rig Veda, Sama Veda and Yajur Veda.
(2)    The five bhutas are entities that can be perceived by the five sensory organs (jnanendriya).  These operate together with the five organs of action (karmendriya), and manas (mind).
(3)    This tridoṣha or tridhatu theory has frequently been misunderstood to imply that Vata, Pitta, and Kapha literally mean air, bile, and phlegm, which are the ordinary physiological meanings of the terms. In reality, Vata was taken to stand for the principle of motion, development in general, and the functions of the nervous system in particular. Pitta signifies the function of metabolism, including digestion and the formation of blood, and various secretions and excretions that are either the means or the end product of body processes. Kapha represents functions of cooling, preservation, and heat regulation.
(4) This can be understood through the concept of karma, which on a physiological level, holds life in the body.
(5)    The Ayurvedic model is a horizontal representation while the yogic is a vertical. This seems appropriate given that the play of life is better understood as a horizontal plane (of ‘what is’) while transcendence is better understood as a vertical plane (of ‘being here’).

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Shruti Bakshi, Subhash Kak

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