Concepts of Disease

Ackerknecht (1982) summarized the ancient Indians' concern for disease and health thusly:

The ancient Indians put great emphasis on hygiene and prevention. They recommended toothbrushing, chewing of betel leaves, anointing, combing, exercise, massage, bathing, piety, taking the proper food, sitting idle, sexual inter course (once in four days), politeness, not being witness or guarantor, not going to crossroads, not urinating in the presence of superiors, cows, or against the wind, not sleeping during the daytime, and not eating fly-infested food. During epidemics one should not drink water or eat raw vegetables; one should run away and pray. Lest we smile at this strange mixture of Indian hygienic measures, we might remember that the Indians knew for thousands of years a technique for preventing smallpox, which the Europeans learned from the Turks only during the eighteenth century: inoculation.

In the Ayurveda, the balance of bodily health is viewed as being maintained by the healthy functioning of three dosas - Vayu, Pitta, and Kapha or Sleshma — which are somewhat akin to the Greek notion of bodily humors. Disturbances of one or more of the dosas caused by indiscretions in eating or by bad personal habits, such as suppression of the desire to defecate or excessive sexual intercourse or male intercourse with a menstruating woman, were seen as causes of illness. A few diseases could be triggered by riding on a horse, mule, or camel in an ungainly fashion. Others could arise because of external influences, such as injuries, whereas still others were due to heredity.

After being disturbed, the dosas were believed to lodge in a system of the body in an attempt to be excreted. While there, however, they produced disease. Thus specific symptoms or signs were generally viewed as disease, and consequently, the descriptions of many conditions are quite similar.

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