Background The Ancient Indian Texts The Ayurvedic Texts

Ancient Indian Medicine had close ties with philosophy and religion. The basic texts of Hinduism are the four Vedas: Rg, Sam, Yajur, and Atharva. Ayurveda, meaning the "science of life," is considered to be the fifth of these texts and as important as the other four. All of the first four Vedas have sections that deal with healing and the prevention and cure of sickness. Yet the approach is usually magical or by prayer to the deities of the Vedic pantheon.

The Ayurvedic texts, by contrast, are of later origin and tend to attribute disease to divine causes less frequently. The codification of Ayurveda probably occurred around the sixth century B.C., and the texts presumably took their defined forms, in which they are still available, by the sixth or seventh century A.D. They were compiled in the northwestern part of India and in areas that today include Pakistan and Afghanistan, although, with the spread of the Aryans and their culture, Ayurveda came to be practiced over much of the country. Among other things this meant that the texts were modified to take account of the impact on health of geographic location, climate, water, seasonal variations, and diet. Indeed, many sections mention diseases due to these external factors, and one even suggests that geographic variations cause a difference in general health, and that certain locations favor epidemic disease.

The texts are known as the Samhitas - a Sanskrit term meaning "any systematically arranged infor mational collection of texts or verses." The five known Ayurvedic Samhitas are the Sushruta, the Caraka, the Astangahrdaya, the Bhela, and the Kashyapa. Some doubt exists about the authenticity of a sixth and incomplete text: the Harita.

Ayurveda deals with life (human and animal) in all its aspects including hygiene, ethics, medical education, and rules of behavior. Dietetics, geographic pathology, and even the philosophical basis of existence are also treated. Both the Sushruta and the Caraka divide medicine into eight broad areas: (1) Surgery (Salya); (2) Diseases of the Ear, Nose, Throat, and Eye (Salakya); (3) Internal Medicine (Kayachikitsa); (4) Mental Diseases (Bhutavidya); (5) Pediatrics Including Pregnancy and Its Complications (Kaumara-bhrtya); (6) Chemicals Used in Treatment (Rasa-yana)\ (7) Rejuvenation; and (8) Aphrodisiacs (Vajikarana). The Astangahrdaya also mentions eight divisions of the Ayurveda, which are similar but not identical to the previous sections.

Caraka and Sushruta

Any discussion of diseases recognized during the period under scrutiny must rely heavily on the two major Ayurvedic texts - Caraka and Sushruta -because they are the most comprehensive and the least altered by later authors. These texts constitute a massive compendium that describes more than 360 separate diseases. This essay will concentrate on only the more clearly defined of these and, when possible, attempt to equate them with modern disease entities. The detailed observations of the ancient Ayurvedic physicians make available a body of information in which we can find something of a reflection of many of the diseases affecting the Indian subcontinent today.

In discussing the human being in health and disease, the Caraka mentions the necessity of examining the following facets: structure, function, causation, symptoms, methods of treatment, objectives of treatment, the influence of seasons and age, the capabilities of the physician, the nature of the meditations and appliances used in treatment, and the procedures to be used and their sequences.

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