So, what have we been doing in class over here, one might rightly ask? That IS the whole point, right? Remarkably, on average we have over five hours of class every day. We have been reviewing a great deal of material to which we were introduced last year in school, but now we have the weighty pleasure of studying the actual ancient texts in which Ayurveda has been preserved all these many years. We gather in a circle around Dr. Ramdas and he starts reading the Sanskrit shlokas and translating for us, adding stories and examples based on his experience. We tend to follow a thread off into a side topic and then come back to the text again. After awhile, Armohan or one of the other staff brings us yummy ginger-jaggery tea, and we sit around and talk some more. It is immensely enjoyable.
There are three main texts in Ayurveda known collectively as the Bruhut Trayi (“the great three”). They are the Ashtanga Hridayam by Vagbhata, the Charaka Samhita and the Sushruta Samhita. The Sushruta Samhita is mostly about surgery (yes, surgery, thousands of years ago – today’s allopathic plastic surgeons actually still use specific techniques first explained by Sushruta). We aren’t using that text, but we are now proud owners of the other two, which come in three volumes and six volumes respectively. Weighty indeed. Our versions contain the original Sanskrit and a rather charming English translation. As we review familiar topics with Dr. Ramdas, we are uncovering new nuances of meaning and, in some cases, entirely different interpretations.
These texts contain incredible amounts of information. There are theoretical explanations for the development of specific diseases, guidelines for healthy diet and lifestyle practices, lists of herbs and their qualities, explanations of embryology and anatomy, recipes for herbal formulas, methods of medicine preparation – the list goes on and on. The best estimate is that these texts are over 5000 years old, and the assumption is that the information was passed on orally for a good long time before they were recorded in writing. Coming from our 200-year-old country, it’s wild to see these ancient volumes still being actively referenced in clinical practice today – and still producing healing results.
Ayurveda’s basis in these ancient tomes is one of the fundamental things that sets it apart from allopathic medicine. Modern medicine uses the scientific method with its double-blind controlled study as the primary Truth Finding technique, while Ayurveda turns to its ancient texts as the ultimate authority. Accordingly our modern newspapers tout the latest medical discoveries or the newest research findings, with new advice about the way to find health. While this method can unearth some helpful information, at other times we end up with contradictory information or, worse, false leads. In the sixties, the “latest findings” told us that margarine was IT, the modern way to a trim waistline and a healthy heart, and a whole generation changed their eating habits. Thirty years later, the impact of trans-fats on human anatomy was “discovered” and the new “latest findings” acknowledge that margarine is actually pretty bad for the heart and other body parts. In Ayurveda, history speaks for itself. The way to find Truth is through the test of time. If it’s in one of the ancient texts, it has passed that test – you just have to figure out how to apply it to the current situation.
The legends tell us that the science of Ayurveda was transmitted directly by Brahma (the creator of the universe) to rishis, disciplined yogis who received these teachings in meditation. When you consider how much information is in the Bruhut Trayi, and the specificity of that information (the exact measurements for herbal formulations, the exact time of day certain procedures should be done, etc.), it strikes you that no one could have come up with all of it through experimentation – you just can’t imagine someone sitting around using trial and error to determine all of these formulas of 20-plus herbs and having them actually WORK. Something else is going on here. When you open these books, you are entering a very tangible mystery.
And did I mention, it’s all written in meter with a set number of syllables in each line? The poetry is unbelievable. Yet another reason to learn Sanskrit – but that’ll have to wait until my next visit to India!