Ayurveda (Sanskrit: ayu—life; veda—knowledge of) or ayurvedic medicine is a more than 6,000 year old comprehensive system of medicine based on a holistic approach. Ayurveda also had a tradition of surgery. Two early texts (from centuries BC) of Ayurveda are the Charaka Samhita and the Sushruta Samhita.
The Charaka and Sushruta Samhitās are compendiums of two traditions rather than texts authored by single authors. A third tradition is that of the Kāshyapas. The beginnings of these traditions must go to the second millennium BC if not earlier because of the parallel information obtained in the Vedic Samhitās and the description in the Mahābhārata. There is much that is common in the texts, except that the Sushruta Samhitā is richer in the field of surgery. Part of the original Charaka Samhitā is lost, and the current version has several chapters by the Kashmiri scholar Dridhabala.
An attempt to reconcile the texts of Charaka and Sushruta was made by Vāgbhata the Elder in second century BC in his Ashtānga Sangraha. The works of Charaka, Sushruta, and the Elder Vagbhata are considered canonical and reverentially called the Vriddha Trayi, "the triad of ancients." Later, Vāgbhata the Younger wrote the Ashtānga Hridaya Samhitā which is a lucid presentation of the Āyurveda giving due place to the surgical techniques of Sushruta. In the eighth century, Mādhav wrote his Nidāna, which soon assumed a position of authority. In the 79 chapters of this book, he lists diseases along with their causes, symptoms, and complications.
Ayurveda used inoculation for protection against smallpox. This was a consequence of the principle that like cures like on a small level, whereas at a grosser level opposites cure opposites. Ayurveda has employed certain toxic substances in small dosages for powerful healing effects, including its alchemical preparations. It also used various herbal and animal toxins like snake venoms. It has a whole science of toxicology called agada-tantra as one of the eight branches of traditional Ayurveda. This branch not only treated poisons but used them in certain conditions generally small doages. The Ayurvedic idea is that the organism adapts to the environment and its food, climate etc. This principle of adaptation is called satyma. Through introducing small amounts of a germ, the organism can adapt to it and learn to resist it.
Ayurveda became increasingly symptom based, treating the symptoms of a disease rather than the root cause. However, it is important to note that Ayurveda was originally a consciousness based system of health care. Its philosophy, expressed in modern terms, is to strengthen the immune system.
The 3 main doshas (organizing qualities of intelligence) are Vata (resembles the classical elements ether and air), Pitta (fire), and Kapha (water and earth).
Having lost state patronage during the British rule in India, Ayurveda is making a slow comeback. In practice in India, Ayurvedic doctors use it in combination with Western medicine.
Ayurvedic treatments in the West are primarily dietary and herbal. Patients are classified by body types, or prakriti, which are determined by proportions of the three doshas. Illness and disease are considered to be a matter of imbalance in the doshas. Treatment is aimed at restoring harmony or balance to the mind-body system. Vata, composed of air and space, governs all movement in the mind and body and must be kept in good balance. Too much vata leads to "worries, insomnia, cramps and constipation.... Vata controls blood flow, elimination of wastes, breathing and the movement of thoughts across the mind." Vata also controls the other two principles, Pitta and Kapha. Pitta is said to be composed of fire and water; it governs "all heat, metabolism and transformation in the mind and body. It controls how we digest food, how we metabolize our sensory perceptions, and how we discriminate between right and wrong." Pitta must be kept in balance, too. "Too much [Pitta] can lead to anger, criticism, ulcers, rashes and thinning hair." Kapha consists of earth and water. "Kapha cements the elements in the body, providing the material for physical structure. This dosha maintains body resistance....Kapha lubricates the joints; provides moisture to the skin; helps to heal wounds; fills the spaces in the body; gives biological strength, vigor and stability; supports memory retention; gives energy to the heart and lungs and maintains immunity...Kapha is responsible for emotions of attachment, greed and long-standing envy; it is also expressed in tendencies toward calmness, forgiveness and love." Too much Kapha leads to lethargy and weight gain, as well as congestion and allergies.
In sum, Ayurveda represents a system that considers both the states of mind and body in its diagnosis and treatment. Ayurveda took into consideration the fact that many illnesses are caused by foreign agents and small organisms that may require aggressive intervention.
Ayurvedic medicine is gaining in popularity around the world. There are a number of medical schools that teach Ayurveda.