The name Ayurveda was given to the ancient healing tradition of India. It is often translated as the "science of life," from ayus (life) and veda (knowledge), but this is actually a poor representation of the term. "Science" refers to a particular method of study for gaining knowledge that developed long after Ayurveda was already well-established. Reading Ayurvedic texts, one sees a religious document rather than a scientific one. Another translation is this: "Love of the Divine is the basis of health and longevity." In fact, this is a better reflection of what is seen in the defining texts of Ayurveda.
The basics of Ayurvedic medicine are set down in ancient texts, of which the Charaka Samhita is the principal resource. Samhita refers to a collection of rules that is part of the larger collection of sacred texts known as the Vedas. Charaka (also spelled Caraka) is the legendary author, who lived about 2,000 years ago. It is likely a compilation of the work from several authors over an extended period, attributed to one who had a great name. As described by Dr. P. Kutumbiah, author of Ancient Indian Medicine (1969): "The Charaka Samhita stands as the finest document of the creative period (600 B.C.-200 A.D.) of ancient Indian medicine, in regard to the extent of its contents and to the state of its preservation....Charaka is the most rewarding author among the writers of classic medicine…."
The ancient Charaka Samhita reminds us that the first cause of all illness is the loss of faith in the Divine. In other words, Ayurveda is an instruction based on divine inspiration (and teaching of fundamental rules) aimed at enhancing and prolonging life and returning to full faith. The introductory chapter of the Charaka Samhita depicts the response of wise men (Rsis: enlightened masters, sages) to a new human condition: disease. The text opens thus (after a mention of names of those Rsis involved):
When diseases appeared as impediments to penances, fasts, study, celibacy, vows, and the life of people, the great Rsis of righteous deeds, keeping compassion for all beings before them, assembled together on the auspicious side of Himavat [a mountain of the Himalayas]….These Rsis, seated there at their ease, took part in this beneficial conversation, saying: 'Freedom from disease is the ultimate source of religion, benefit, pleasure, and salvation. Diseases are depredators thereof, as also of a happy life. This, therefore, is a great enemy of men that has appeared. What shall be the means of overcoming them?' Having said this, they undertook deep meditation. Then, with the eye of meditation they beheld Sakra [Indra; Lord of the Devas] to be their refuge: 'The Lord of the Celestials will duly declare the means of overcoming diseases.'…[Upon being transported to the Lord of the Celestials, their representative, Bharadvaja, pleaded]: 'Diseases have sprung into existence, striking fear into every creature. Therefore, O Chief of the Celestials, tell me duly what the means of defeating them are!' The Illustrious One of a Hundred Sacrifices declared all of Ayurveda unto that great Rsi in a few words, knowing his intelligence to be great….Having learnt it in its entirety, Bharadvaja acquired through it unlimited life, and blessed with happiness, declared it to the Rsis exactly as he had acquired it….Good and evil; happiness and unhappiness, is life [ayus]. That knowledge [Vedas] with which are declared its nature and measure, what is beneficial and what is injurious, is called Ayurveda.
The Rsis, thus enlightened by the teaching Bharadvaja gave them, also became immortal and, with their compassion for all creatures, they relayed this message of Ayurveda to all, which is largely explained in the Charaka Samhita, as well as in a few other ancient texts that are less famous. A summary of the teaching is then provided in this introduction to Charaka Samhita:
Mind, soul, body-this trinity called a 'person'-rests in union like three sticks standing with one another's support. Upon that trinity, everything rests….Body and mind are regarded as the subjects in which health and disease reside; parity of correlation [harmony and balance] being the cause of health. The soul is immutable and eternal. Wind, bile, and phlegm [the three doshas] have been said to be the causes of all bodily diseases. Passion and darkness have been indicated to be the causes of mental diseases. The bodily disease is cured by medicines founded upon acts performed in respect of the deities [ceremonies and rites of propitiation] and upon reason [analysis of their properties and effects]. Mental disease is cured by knowledge of the soul, knowledge of the scriptures, exercise of patience, and retreat of the mind from all worldly objects.
To clarify, it was understood at the founding of Ayurveda that asceticism-the practice of restraining worldly desires and unnecessary actions-was the method of spiritual growth; disease was an obstacle to these practices, as well as an obstacle to life itself. In the Hindu pantheon, Indra is the king of gods, and it was he who conveyed the basis of Ayurveda. The message was a basic philosophy conveyed in a few words and concepts, and then expanded greatly only to convey therapies for specific circumstances and diseases. While the soul is immutable and free of outside influence, the body and mind are subject to disease. The body may become imbalanced, and restored to balance by medicines; the mind may become imbalanced and be restored by religious practices. Ayurveda includes therapies for both mind and body, though in the modern world, people turn to it primarily for its influence on the body; those remedies for the body may also be used to affect the brain, as part of the body.
Although those involved in natural healing in the West mention the trinity of body, mind, and spirit (soul), religion is often not part of the recommendation. Meditation, separated from its religious significance, might take its place, relied upon for its calming effects. However, prescribing herbs, administering massage, and other medical therapeutics become the dominant method of alleviating disease conditions. The largest part of the Charaka Samhita describes herbs for treating various conditions; even though it is presented in the context of the religion, the listing of herbs and their uses (often in complex formulas) is today taken out of that context. The herb formulas described in the Charaka Samhita are said to be given by Indra to the Rsis and then recorded in this text. This suggests that they were not based on human analysis of herbs and their effects. Still, the text allows for one's "reason" to be employed in the practice of medicine, so one can adjust the formulas according to an understanding of the basic principles. This is what has been done in making modern Ayurvedic formulas.