October 14, 2012
Ayurveda is one of the oldest continuously practiced health-care system in the world. Derived from its ancient Sanskrit roots, ‘ayus’ (life) and ‘veda’ (knowledge), and offering a rich, comprehensive outlook to a healthy life, its origins go back thousands of years. Ayurveda deals with the practical issue of how to lead a healthy life.
With the growing understanding that nutrition is a subject far more complex than previously appreciated, today the perception of food as mere calories has changed. The holistic wisdom of Ayurveda is gaining international popularity as an alternative and complement to modern medicine.
The two most important treatises in Ayurveda – Charaka Samhita concentrating on internal medicine and Susrutha Samhita concentrating on surgery- were compiled during the golden age of Ayurveda long before the beginning of the Christian era.
Chronology of Ayurveda
Ayurvedic tradition traces its origin from mythical through semi mythical to historical beginnings. The mythical beginnings trace to Brahma to Indra to sage Bharadvaja to Atreya; and from Indra to Dhanvanthari to Sustrutha. It is believed that before the time of Atreya and Susrutha there were only medicine men that practiced witchcraft, whose source was claimed to be supernatural or semi mythical. Atreya and Sustrutha are considered the founding fathers of their respective fields of medicine and surgery.
Charaka Samhita, the comprehensive and authoritative text on Ayurveda, is a gem of practical wisdom and remains to this day as the most respected work on Ayurveda. It was written in Sanskrit in poetic format and the valuable information in this work is scattered over thousands of sutras or verse statements in the manuscript. In ancient times this format helped the aspiring students of this science to memorize the sutras. Charaka Samhita has eight sections and 120 chapters containing 8,400 metrical verses and it focuses on healing the body, mind and soul of a patient in a minimally invasive manner.
The present manuscript of Charaka Samhita has a long history behind it. It was originally composed by Agnivesa one of the six students of Atreya. Agnivesa Samhita did not survive in its original from. Years later Charaka compiled and revised the brief sutra style of Agnivesha’s work with annotations and interpretations. His contributions in this respect were so remarkable that the original treatise in its new form began to be known as the work Charaka himself. The latter one third of the Charaka Samhita is believed to have compiled, still several centuries later, by another physician Dridhabala who also revised portions written by Charaka. But the name of the compendium remained Charaka Samhita. For practical purposes, Charaka’s compendium represents Atreya’s system of medicine as handed down by his student Agnivesa. Passages on the qualitative and quantitative aspects of food in Charaka Samhita are contained in the earlier portions composed by Charaka.
The life and times of Charaka are not known with any certainty and there is considerable disagreement about the period during which he lived. Some scholars suggest that Charaka is quoted in the works of the Sanskrit grammarian Panini (520-460 BC) and Patanjali (circa 250 BC) and he should have lived before them. Another opinion is that Charaka was the name of one of the branches of Krishna Yajurveda and the persons following this branch of the vedas formed a sect known as Charaka. Thus perhaps Charaka, the annotator was a person belonging to that sect. Based on the Chinese version of the Buddhist Tripitaka French orientalist Sylvan Levi has stated that Charaka was the court physician of the Emperor Kaniska who belonged to the first or second century AD. From these conflicting suggestions it can only be concluded that Charka should have lived sometime between the sixth century BC and the second century AD.
At the beginning of the Samhita itself Charaka declares: “Ayurveda is that which deals with the good, bad, happy and unhappy life, its promoters and non-promoters, measure and nature – mind, self and body – these three make a tripod on which the living world stands.” He states that the foundation for a healthy life is not asceticism and avoidance, but, rather, enjoyment and appreciation of all of the good things of life – appropriately, and in moderation. Charaka Samhita does not prohibit eating the meats of all animals, or on drinking wine or smoking of herbs, so long as they were done right.
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Valiathan, M.S. The Legacy of Caraka Orient Longman 2003
Van Loon, Gabriel (Ed). Charaka Samhita Handbook on Ayurveda Volume I, ebook 2002-2003