A Brief History of Ayurveda

Updated: Aug 25


Ayurveda has a rich long history that is both filled with immense happiness and healing and profound sadness and colonization.


Ayurveda Pre-colonization


Ayurveda is the medical system used in India that can be dated back to 6000 BC. It had all the same branches of medicine our current western system has from geriatrics to surgery to pediatrics. Much of this is recorded in the ancient text of the Vedas and then combined and simplified by Charaka in 300BC in a text known as Agnivesa Samhita. Monotheism spread and co-existed with other ancient practices such as Unani.


This was all doing pretty well on its own.

No stitches needed after childbirth, no chemical alterations need to cure ailments and a huge focus on diet and lifestyle as the main factors of one’s well being.


Ayurveda during colonization


Around the 16th century, Europeans began to enter India, and with that European physicians. For the most part there was an equal exchange of knowledge to help each other grow and be effective. However, with the “Age of Reason” European physicians began to feel they were superior to Ayurvedic and Unani practitioners. When the British East India Company popularized, British rule solidified throughout India in the 18th century.

During their 200-year reign, Indian people were banned from learning any western medical practices.

The British assumed all folk and Ayurvedic medicine to be quakery because they didn’t often use surgery and had little written texts (oral tradition was more prominent)


Over the years even Indian people were requesting British doctors over Ayurvedic practices because of the immediate results that could be seen or felt in a specific organ or location of the body.

Thought about the body switched from a whole system integrated with the natural environment to a lot of physical parts that can be treated separately from each other.

European doctors began to study Ayurveda and local plants to specify their practices for the region and began to feel that they were “conquering” both medical systems and had superiority over Indian practitioners. No surprise here...keep in mind they didn’t have access to any of the inquired knowledge passed down through the oral traditions.


Ayurvedic Education


There were a few schools instituted by the British in the 1820s to teach eastern and western practices together, but those were short-lived. By 1835 all British support for Ayurveda ceased and the culture of medicine in India switched to be more focused on western practices. This was largely in part to Christian missionaries drawing their own connection between Hinduism and Ayurveda as primitive undeveloped practices.


Ayurveda's National Revival


Ayurveda continued to be practiced in more rural areas of India and eventually went through a revival in the late 18th century into the early 19th century.

Indian Ayurvedic practitioners were able to ride the wave of nationalism and strengthen each other as they defined their own true perception of Hinduism and Ayurveda, separate from the narrative written for them by their oppressors.


Because the more accepted thought around medicine was of the Europeans, the Ayurveda revival had a hard time proving itself to a system that had already developed its own exclusionary ideas about how to see, heal and understand the body.


Ayurveda in the USA


Over time Ayurveda “was reborn” in India alongside the continued practice of western medicine, but was still culturally suffering in its “legitimacy” This struggle cause doctors like Dr. Vasant Lad and Dr. Naina Marballi (whom I studied under) to bring Ayurveda to the United States in the late 1970s.

There are a lot of people tired of the simplistic diagnosis of western medicine that fails to see the connections between mind/body/spirit and treats ailments rather than the root causes of our dis-ease.

Ayurveda found a home in the United States and a way to spread its knowledge beyond India. I hope we can protect the aspects of Ayurveda that seem to be vanishing as it continues to be underfunded and disrespected around the world. I am excited to see where our current boom of interest and trust in holistic health can offer to ancient practices like Ayurveda; perhaps there is a way to service those whom it was stolen from.


Learn more about how these practices work!


Resources:

Physicians of Colonial India (1757-1900), Anu Saini, J Family Med Prim Care. 2016 Jul-Sep, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5290754/


Medicine and Modernity: The Ayurvedic Revival Movement in India, 1885-1947, Uma Ganesan, University of Cincinnati OH, https://castle.eiu.edu/studiesonasia/documents/seriesIV/Uma_Ganeshan.pdf


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