The historical roots of Ayurvedic teachings are covered as much in myth as in tradition. The understanding of its origin and evolution is limited in several respects because of:
- uncertainty about dates associated with the major texts of Ayurveda,
- biographical material on the important medical writers is sketchy;
- English translations of texts and related documents are often incomplete and inaccurate,
- available Ayurvedic texts often contain a mixture of legend and facts that are difficult to separate.
Mythological Origin of Ayurveda
The mythological origin of Ayurveda has a link with Brahma, the God of Creation. Hindu myth holds that Brahma wanted to ease the suffering of human by offering knowledge of Ayurveda to other Gods. One of those deities was Dhanvantari, who then transmitted the knowledge to mortal sages. Hence, Ayurveda is viewed as a divine science of revelation and thus values personal insight as much as empirical observation.
Early Indian Medicine
The initial phase of development of Indian medicine are traced back to India’s Indus River civilization that flourished from about 2700 to 1500 B.C. Mythico-religious hymns associated with this civilization were written down in Sanskrit in the form of Vedas .Out of these Vedas, Atharvaveda; the youngest one contain many references to medical lore. The Atharvaveda appears to be a compilation of materials that date to around 1500 to 1000 B.C. The volumes of Atharvaveda are not only an important source of knowledge about practical religion and magic but also include descriptions of anatomy, medical treatments and explanations of certain diseases. This Vedic period of Indian medicine lasted until around 800 B.C.
The Rise of Ayurveda
There is no clear association between the Vedas and Ayurvedic medical texts, although some Ayurvedic materia medica may have been derived from Vedic traditions. The rise and acceptance of Ayurveda as a system of medicine is associated with the preparation of samhitas such as Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, etc.Ayurveda flourished from around 800 B.C. to A.D. 1000, its so-called golden age. The three most important treatises in Ayurveda appeared during the golden age and are referred to collectively as the Senior Triad: the Charaka Samhita, the Sushruta Samhita, and the Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita. The next important treatises in Ayurveda are the Madhava Nidana, the Sarangdhara Samhita, and the Bhava Prakasha, known collectively as the Junior Triad. The Samhita means compilation or collection. The Charaka Samhita is the earliest major medical text of Ayurveda, attributed to the physician Charaka. Traditionally it is thought that he lived around 1000 to 800 B.C., but according to some Western scholars his period was around the first century A.D., when the Charaka Samhita probably reached its present form. The Sushruta Samhita is the major surgical text of Ayurveda, attributed to the physician Sushruta. It is the most advanced compilation of surgical practices of its time. The exact period of Susruta is unclear but some scholars put him at around 600 B.C. Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita is the third major treatise in the Senior Triad, attributed to Vagbhata. It is a concise version of the works of Charaka and Sushruta and possibly his period was around A.D. 700.
In between the 10th and 12th centuries A.D. India was overrun by Muslim invaders from the West and they brought their own medicine, Unani Tibb, a blend of Islamic medicine and Greek medicine. So Ayurveda’s popularity declined in this period. Unani Tibb and Ayurveda, which have mutually influenced each other, are both practiced today in India In the 13th or 14th century, Sarngadhara Samhita was written which introduced new treatments and described new syndromes. During the period of Akbar, the liberal Muslim ruler, Ayurveda was flourished with a free exchange of ideas between Western and Indian physicians. During the British rule, Ayurveda declined and western medicine was promoted. In the 20th century once again the interest of Indian increased in Ayurveda .In 1947, when India gained independence from the British, Ayurveda was recognized as an official form of medicine along with allopathy, homeopathy, naturopathy, unani tibb, siddha (a variant of Ayurveda practiced in the Tamil-speaking region of India), and yoga therapy. In 21st centaury Ayurveda spread throughout the world and it is said ‘Ayurveda revisited’.