Our first week of class was incredibly affirming. We are now even more aware of what a remarkable gift it is to be at Vaidyagrama at this moment in time. We have landed in a community of authentic physician-teachers and heartfelt staff who are bringing to life an entirely unique vision. When construction is complete, Vaidyagrama will house several clusters of patient treatment buildings and a full staff who will live on-site with their families; they will grow all their own food and medicinal herbs, using solar and wind technology to power the place; there will be a temple, livestock, gardens, everything necessary to sustain life, all on a property designed in accordance with the complex guidelines of vastu (the vedic science of placement, the predecessor of the Chinese feng shui system). Nothing quite like this – with this integrity and grounding in authentic vedic knowledge – is being done anywhere else. And they are just getting off the ground. We have the rest of our lives to grow and learn along with this place.
We have the incredible honor of having Dr. Ramdas, the head physician here, as our teacher. I am increasingly amazed that we get to sit with him for five whole hours every day. The first thing you notice about him is his quiet nature and steady gaze. He exudes a sense of gravity and purpose, so his contagious giggle comes as a surprise the first few times. By now we are more familiar with his easy going attitude and his evident joy at being with others who share his passion. He doesn’t take himself or life too seriously, which is disarming in someone who is clearly due the highest respect.
Born into a family of Ayurvedic practitioners in Kerala, he trained at a traditional Ayurvedic college in Coimbatore and then went on for specialized training in Ayurvedic ophthalmology and pediatrics. He also received a master’s degree in psychotherapy before taking over leadership of his family firm’s treatment center and pharmacy. Along with four partners, he co-founded Punarnava Ayurveda, the parent organization of Vaidyagrama, and he has been here with his wife and two children full time for the last two years. Now in his early 40’s, he has only been outside of India once, when he went to Vietnam for eight months in 2007 to start Punarnava’s first international Ayurvedic center.
As the head physician here, Dr. Ramdas is responsible for up to 24 patients at a time as well as managing four junior physicians. As is often the case in a small organization, he seems to be involved in most decisions. This doesn’t prevent him from finding the time to call our driver when we were out shopping in Coimbatore this past weekend, just to make sure we were doing alright. Aparna, our main administrative contact and den mother, has said laughingly, “All the patients are so jealous that you get to spend so much time with Dr. Ramdas.” He has touched us all with his earnestness and sweet spirit.
His grasp of English is extensive when it comes to medical terminology as well as general conversation, but it’s not always quick. He will often pause to reach for the precise word he wants. I find this creates the perfect pace for learning. As a perpetual note-taker, I have always been focused on trying to capture every concept in a lecture, caught in a flurry of writing. Ayurveda, however, was originally passed on through oral tradition; material was learned through conversation, repetition, and hands-on experience in the context of a student-teacher relationship that would span many years. Much of the information is preserved in shlokas, brief verses that are easily memorized but really need to be explained by a teacher. It is in the discussion of the shlokas that you really learn Ayurveda. The pace of Dr. Ramdas’s speech further encourages discussion and contemplation. Simply stated, it slows us down enough that we can think.
At the end of the first day of class, as I was silently marveling that this accomplished man is willing to teach a group of relative novices – and westerners, to boot – he spoke right to our hearts: “We are so happy you are here, that you came here to learn Ayurveda. You are a very important part of our vision. You will take what you learn here to your home countries and help people.” He looked at each of us. “You will help Ayurveda spread across this world. We are so grateful for you.” Tears came to my eyes. Of course it is not for us that he is spending five hours a day with us. It is for Ayurveda. It is for the wisdom that he loves, this tradition that is threatened with extinction by a tidal wave of materialism and speed and quick fixes that is sweeping over our planet. For Ayurveda to thrive, it must light a fire in the hearts of true students from many cultures – perhaps especially westerners – who can help it spread.
It is a privilege to be here; it is also an inspiring responsibility. We have a lot to do to live up to the gift we are receiving.