Monday, October 6, 2008

Ayurveda in Sri Lanka

The system of medicine practiced by the Ayurvedic physicians of Sri Lanka is almost identical with that of India. Its history dates back to many thousands of years, and the books said to have been compiled by Rishis. These Ayurveda books are complete works of science including even the teaching of surgery and anatomy and they contain descriptions of surgical instruments used at that time.

Ayurvedic science in Sri Lanka shone at its best during the reigns of Kings Buddhadasa and Parakramabahu the Great. During these days, every Sinhalese of noble birth was expected to know Ayurveda; besides Royalty, they included Buddhist monks and poets. These physicians attained a high degree of efficiency in both medicine and surgery; yet they did not work for pecuniary gain. Even the Sinhalese kings, among whom were famous surgeons and physicians, practised medicine as an act of service to gain merit.

It may be interesting to inquire at this point why the indigenous system of medicine with such a historical background fell into disfavor. This disfavor may not be due to any grave defects in the system or the medical science itself. It could be due to a misconception on the one. hand and utter ignorance on the other. The Ayurvedic theory of causation of diseases is founded on the theory of Vayu, Pita and Kapha; many fail to gather their true meaning.

In Ayurvedic literature, Vayu, Pita and Kapha are mere techni­cal terms used to mean three conditions or forces or doshas. They are supposed to exist in the human body and they can only be recognised by the phenomena they exhibit, as the forces themselves are intangible to the senses.

They should not, therefore, be understood in their literal sense. Pita does not mean bile but signifies heat production and includes the process of digestion, the formation and discoloration of blood and all the secretions and excretions. Vayu does not mean the wind we feel, but functions as respiratory, assimilation, speech, memory, relaxation and contraction pervading the whole body. Kapha does not mean phlegm, but primarily implies the heat regulation and the formation of all preservative fluids and secretions including the circulation of blood which was known to Ayurveda before Sir William Harvey discovered it in the 17th century.

According to the Ayurvedic theory of causation of disease by Vayu, Pita and Kapha health is maintained, so long as three doshas or forces, retain their equilibrium in the body. As soon as one or more of them are disturbed, it causes ill-health. When a condition is brought about by any cause or causes that disturb all three doshas, the condition is called 'Sannipatha' (typhoid state) by the Ayurvedic physicians.

The Sannipatha is not confined to fever alone, but may be met in other diseases, such as cholera and acute diarrhoea as well. It is obvious then that there is nothing irrational in this Ayurvedic theory of the causation of diseases, and it remains a fact that the sick are restored to health, when treatment is applied based on this theory.

This theory does not conflict with the theories of the West in this field. However it must be realised that Ayurveda was practised over the last three or four thousand years, while the Western system has a history of only three or four centuries: but in these same few centuries we have also had the greatest advancements in scientific knowledge. But this has not made the Ayurvedic system seem archaic pr useless in the light of new knowledge.

In many parts of the Island, people still have confidence in indigenous treatment. The main reason is that the indigenous physician is available in their hour of need. Even without state aid and without any facilities they still continue their valuable traditional medicine. This shows the usefulness of indigenous medicine to relieve mankind from suffering.

The indigenous practice of medicine has a vitality that the extensive spread of Western medicine has not been able to oust. Mild refinement of indigenous medicine may not damage the medicative properties. In India we find indigenous medicines in the form of tablets, pills and powders and the Western practitioners there administer the native medicine when the Western medicine fails. But there is no mixing of Western drugs and native medicine.

Having an advanced science of medicine with us, we have still not put it to the best use. The main reason could be the mixing of drugs by Ayurvedic physicians. So in the first place future Ayurvedic physi­cians should be trained to gain absolute confidence in the knowledge of their system of medicine. Only non-confidence in their own system would make them mix or resort to other systems.

The next drawback is that the native physicians rarely compose their prescriptions guided by a knowledge of the curative properties of the different ingredients. They use the prescription found in the old works and neither deviate nor add anything from personal knowledge or experience with Ayurvedic ingredients. They have left the science of Ayurveda at the point where the Rishis have left it. The reason for this is the lack of knowledge of the therapeutical properties of the ingredi­ents. A complete knowledge of the curative values of the ingredients is very essential. This was considered an essential part of the preliminary education under the Gurus.

The esteem in which the profession is held is the other impor­tant thing. The Ayurvedic medical profession was held in the highest esteem. Physicians practiced merely to gain merit and not for worldly benefits. Their motto was "Relieve suffering mankind at all cost". For instance, Charaka tells his pupils. "Not for sale, not the fulfillment of any desire, not for earthly gain, but solely for the good of suffering humanity. Those who sell the cure for diseases as merchandise gather the dust and neglect the gold."

It would indeed not be easy to carry out Charaka's injunction today, but this can be adequately compensated by sincerely feeling for the sick and the diseased. The nobility of the honourable profession is lost when one's treatment is advertised in the mass media. Curing patients alone is sufficient publicity for a medical man. One reason for the downfall of Ayurvedic treatment is the countless sellers of oils and other medicines at various spots where the public gather. Our valuable treatment does not need soap box or curbside orators.

The gap between the Western doctor and the Ayurvedic prac­titioner must be brought much closer. A sound knowledge of the English language is very essential, to enable exchange of views and ideas of the two systems. English can be an easy medium for this purpose. The Ayurvedic books must be translated into English. Books like the Sinhalese "Materia Medica" would certainly give the Western doctors an insight into the Ayurvedic form of treatment.

We are urging the practice of both forms of treatment under one roof. This definitely is a step in the right direction and is bound to bring good results to us all in Sri Lanka.