The Structure of Classic Ayurvedic Writings – A Hidden Story
Dr. Ram Manohar
The Classical texts of Ayurveda are variously called as Tantra, Sāstra, Lakṣaṇam, Śākhā and Vidyā. A tantra is a highly structured technical writing which employs many complex techniques of writing to coherently and concisely link sentences (vākya) and meanings (artha). These techniques are called as the Tantra Guṇas which are a measure of the quality of the writing.
In ancient days, it was a challenge to write and preserve knowledge in the absence of printing technology. Therefore the texts were composed in a neither too concise nor elaborate manner. Since it was a challenge to make copies of the manuscripts, the texts were designed for memorisation Oral transmission was the method of transferring the knowledge from one generation to another. Therefore, the texts served as a supplement material to the oral teaching. In other words, without the initiation of a teacher trained in the tradition, the written texts by themselves are difficult to read and understand.
The classical Ayurvedic writings are extremely codified and have preserved the information in an encrypted form. The key to decoding and decrypting the writings is safeguarded by the oral tradition. The teacher or the Guru holds the key to unlocking the knowledge preserved in the texts.
For this reason, a literal translation of classical texts will not yield deep insights. Without these deep insights, we cannot grasp the fundamental concepts and theories of Ayurveda. The deeper knowledge of Ayurveda arises in altered stated of consciousness. With the help of the teacher and the book, the consciousness of the student is also elevated, enabling him/her to comprehend the subtle aspects of Ayurvedic knowledge.
Modern aspirants of Ayurveda have limited access to the original writings of Ayurveda. Even when there is access, the right methodologies are often not applied to study and understand them.
In this discussion, an attempt will be made to unravel some aspects of the methods used in ancient times to study and understand the classical texts.
Systematic study of original Sanskrit words give better insights than translations. For example, the word Sukha is often translated as happiness. But the word Sukha in Sanskrit means good space. Su means good and Kha means space. So sukha means being in the good or proper space. At the mental plane it means the harmonious and coherent movement of thoughts. At the physical plane, it means that there is no obstruction in the micro and macro spaces of the human body. It means that all substances and fluids in the body are moving without any blockage. That is why Sukha is a synonym of health. To be healthy means that there is no stress in the mind as well as the body. There is no block in the flow of thoughts in the mind or the flow of substances in the body. The translation happiness cannot give such an insight. Sukha also means that we are positioned in the right time and space. Once we get to the root of the Sanskrit words, multiple meanings of the word give a deep illumination and insight, which is lost in the crude translation.
The method of exposition of the knowledge of Ayurveda adopted in the classical texts is to first summarise everything in a nutshell and then to elaborate in greater detail. Therefore, the first section of the main classical texts is called the Sutrasthanam. Sutra means thread. It is like the thread that connects everything together. The essence of Ayurvedic knowledge is first given in a seed form. Then it is elaborated just like a plant is grown from the seed. This is different from the modern method of breaking the subject into different topics and studying them one by one.
For example, in the Sutrasthana of Astangahridayam, the entire concept of treatment and the structure of an Ayurvedic prescription is explained. Chapter One introduces the basic terminologies of Ayurveda but also emphasises that the foundation of all treatment is psychological counselling. Without proper psychological counselling results of other methods of treatment cannot be optimised. Chapters 2 to 4 deal with lifestyle. This means that to change lifestyle, psychological counselling is needed. Chapters 5 to 8 deal with Food, Nutrition and Diet. The message is that Food is properly transformed and will nourish the body only if lifestyle is optimised. Diet control without lifestyle changes will not yield results. Next comes the application of medicines, therapies and surgery. With the support of psychological counselling, lifestyle adjustments and diet regulation, medicines, therapies and surgery can be applied to cure and manage diseases. Chapters 9 and 10 deal with the study of the properties of substances used as medicine. Chapters 11 to 14 deal with the physiology and pathology of the body giving an insight of how medicines can reestablish normalcy. Chapter 15 gives the knowledge of formulating different drugs into medicines that can be administered internally. Chapters 16 to 24 deals with the external therapies and cleansing procedures. Internal medications prepare the body for external therapies and cleansing procedures. That is why internal medications are mentioned first and then the external therapies and cleansing procedures. Chapters 25 to 29 deal with minor and major surgical procedures. Surgery is an option only when other approaches fail. So it is mentioned last. Even more invasive and destructive treatments are described in the end. Chapter 30 deals with thermal cautery and alkaline cautery, which are the final options when even surgery fails. Thus, the 30 chapters of Sutra Sthana engineers the mind. Of the Ayurvedic aspirant to structure a comprehensive prescription that begins with psychological counselling and ends with thermal and alkaline cautery. All these methods need not be always employed in all patients. We can thus see that a lot of information is conveyed even by the sequence and subject of the chapters in a particular section of the text.
In Carakasamhita, the Nidana Sthana which deals with Diagnosis of diseases is surprisingly short and concise. It contains only 8 chapters. We may wonder why this important section is very brief. Once again, the answer to this question is in the sequencing of chapters. The diseases dealt with in the Nidanasthana of Carakasamhita are Jvara (Fever), Raktapitta (Hemothermia), Gulma (Intestinal distention and tumours), Prameha (Diabetes), Kustha (Skin Diseases), Sosha (Consumption), Unmada (Psychosis) and Apasmara (Epilepsy). If we look at these diseases carefully, we can understand that they describe the substratum for manifestation of all diseases. The first six diseases originate in the body and the last two in the mind. Therefore, this list of diseases point out that the body and the mind are the substratum of diseases. The first three diseases manifest in the alimentary tract or Kostha of the body, which is the first disease pathway. The next two diseases manifest in the Sakha or peripheral pathway of the diseases. And the next disease, sosha manifests in the Marma or the central pathway of the disease. Jvara represents affliction in the Rasadhatu, Raktapitta in the Raktadhatu and Gulma in the Mamsadhatu. Prameha affects the Medodhatu and Kushta the Asthi and Majja Dhatus. Sosha affects the Sukradhatu. With the help of these six diseases, the involvement of the seven dhatus in diseases are explained. Unmada represents Rajoguna imbalance of the mind, whereas Apasmara denotes the Tamoguna imbalance of the mind. Thus, the Nidanasthana of the Caraka Samhita explains the platform and pattern for the manifestation of all diseases, which are further elaborated in the section on treatments. We can say that the Nidanasthana maps the evolution of diseases in a comprehensive manner and all other diseases come within the gambit of this classification.
Even the structuring and sequencing of chapters convey profound meanings and give interesting insights. We can then imagine what a more systematic study of the texts can yield.
Why does the chapters of Rasayana and Vajikarana in Caraka Samhita have four subchapters each? Why is Rasayana mentioned before Vajikarana. Why are both mentioned before discussion of treatments? What is the meaning of Sarira in Ayurveda? Is it just the study of Anatomy or something more? These are some of the questions regarding the structure of the texts that will be discussed in the talk.
We will also discuss about the methods of studying classical texts – Sentence by sentence (Vakyasah), Meaning of the Sentence (Vakyarthasah), Deeper meaning of the sentence (Vakyarthavayavasah). This is coming within the scope of Patha (Reading) and Avabodha (Contemplating). Once the text is carefully read and contemplated, then it has to be applied in practice (Anusthana).
To sum up, the discussion will be focused on the keys that can unlock the hidden meanings of the classical Ayurvedic texts, an exercise that can bring about a deep transformation in our perception and understanding of Ayurveda and of life itself.