That, the macrocosm, is whole and complete.
This, the microcosm too, is whole and complete.
From whole and complete, only whole and complete can emerge.
Removing whole and complete from whole and complete will leave behind whole and complete itself.
Ayurveda has a very unique approach to health. It looks at health from a combined angle from physical, mental and spiritual realms. Ayurveda aims for the ultimate pleasure, which is the worldly fulfillment of life and attainment of salvation.
When we begin to learn Ayurveda, we see that all classical literature on the subject begin with accounts of the transmission of medical knowledge from one God to another (daivaparamparā- divine personalities) and then to the Sages (ṛṣīs) who eventually set up schools and passed the knowledge on to their disciples.
Essentially, a first year student of Ayurveda, coming from the world of modern physics, chemistry and biology, opens the Ayurveda textbook to find a big list of Gods and Sages who were involved in this transfer of knowledge. While going through this list, many of them will begin to wonder..why are these names relevant today? Are they even real? If the students are thinking so, then it is needless to say that for someone who is not at all oriented to Ayurveda, this is enough to label Ayurveda as ‘Unscientific’, ‘Pseudoscience’ or ‘Bogus’. So to become a real Ayurvedic student, or a true patron of Ayurveda, it is important to shun all preconceptions and dive deeper into spiritual, mental and physical aspects of Ayurveda and decipher the symbolism and expand the mnemonics presented as ślokās.
Let us have a look at who these Gods are. After that, let us try and have an entirely different approach in understanding who they actually are..
We see that in this mythological transfer of Ayurveda knowledge, there is a group of individuals representing the divine or celestial realm (the devaparamparā) connecting with the heightened intellectuals of our realm (the ṛṣīs or Sages). The devaparamparā starts with Brahma. He is followed by Dakṣa prajāpatī, Aśvini twins, and Indra. (In some literature, Bhāskara, Viṣṇu, Rudra and Dhanvantarī are also mentioned, but they are not considered here for the sake of brevity.) Here is a sequence showing the transmission of Ayurveda among them.
Myths are known to have a deep and often symbolic meaning and have a complex range of interpretations. They represent both the worlds, the world they were set in and today. Here is an very shortened biography of these Gods as per the mythologies..
Brahma: In Indian Mythology, Brahma is considered as the creator of the entire cosmos. He is depicted with four faces. Brahma is also considered as the God of intellect.
Dakṣa Prajāpatī: The universe may be created by Brahma but it is ruled over by another God. Dakṣa Prajāpatī is this emperor of the whole universe. He is related to Rudra as he is the father of Rudra’s first wife, Sati. He is represented as a man having the head of a goat. In mythology, ‘goat’ is a symbol of faith, sturdiness, a nurturing nature, exploration, initiation, guardianship, intelligence and independence.
Aśvini Twins: They are the twin sons of the Sun God and his wife Saraṇyū or Sanjana- the cloud goddess. They are often symbolized as horsemen riding white and black horses. Sometimes they are shown as white and black horses themselves. Horse symbolizes passion, freedom and power. It is equally a driving force and a balance between the instinctive and tamed halves of a personality. The black and white horses are interpreted as positive and negative, day and night and so on.
Indra: The king of heaven (svargaṃ), Indra is often depicted as a God with uncontrollable desire. He is responsible for lightning and thunderstorms. He is the God of suffering from rebirth to death.
We, The Universe
The soul, mind and body combine to create a universe that is us, the microcosm. Let us explore this a bit..
Ātma: The soul (ātman) is of utmost importance in Indian Mythology. It is so in Ayurveda too. Caraka Saṃhitā, one of the oldest textbooks in Ayurveda, says that life is the conjunction of body, senses and mind which are connected to the soul. This conjunction is what that sustains life. The knowledge of Ayurveda is found to persist the same in the past and in the present. Looking from the perspective of the bygone era, it appears that this knowledge will stay unaltered in the future too. But to perceive this knowledge, to assimilate it and utilize it, the mortal body must stay in conjunction with the immortal soul because the soul is the substratum of all knowledge. Signs of life are shown by response to stimuli or knowledge. When this substratum of knowledge-the soul, leaves the body, the sensory faculties and the motor faculties are rendered useless- the body becomes a dead body.
Satva: The soul, even though is the underlying layer of knowledge, it doesn’t express any attributes (nirguṇa) or response to the knowledge it possesses (nirvikāra). As the Vedanta phrase indicates, soul is a pure and sentient being (prajñānāṃ braḥmaḥ). But when the soul combines with mind, the satva is manifested. The satva will have afflictions like hatred, anger, jealousy etc. (due to the mental quality rajas) or laziness, ignorance, excess sleep etc. (due to the mental quality tamas). The self-awareness that is generated when satva emerges is the ego (ahaṃkāra). A tainted ego under the grasps of selfishness and ignorance shrouds the soul from real or valid knowledge and eventually the realization that the soul is one with the macrocosm, is lost.
Śarīra: Imagine a bubble over a flowing river. It is formed in a moment, existing in the next and will burst in the following moment. Similarly, our body (śarīra) too is a bubble, floating in the stream of life where it undergoes birth, growth and death. It is during this momentary existence of body in this river of life, that the soul within it is obtaining the knowledge specific to that embodiment. The knowledge perceived through the sense organs and the body’s responses to it are the very indicators of life. The dead perceive no knowledge. As the soul is the substratum of knowledge, the body is the substratum to derive the sensations of it..pleasure and pain, health and illness; bondage and liberation.
The Gods- Logical or Mythological?
Ayurveda as a field of study was an advanced course. It was taught and learned by scholars who were expected to have prior eminence in parallel Indian sciences and philosophies. A true learner or practitioner of Ayurveda was expected to be devoid of ego possess a very clear perspective on their subject. At least for a brief moment, let us try to look at the Gods mentioned earlier from the perspective of this ego-less scholar..
‘Brahma’ represents knowledge. His four faces represent the four Vedas, which are considered as codified knowledge regarding perceptions of the self, the surrounding and the divine. Brahma is the soul..the substratum of knowledge. The Knowledge resides in intellect, but only an intellect devoid of ego will perceive the true or valid knowledge. In its simplest sense, true and valid knowledge is nothing but the awareness about what is favorable (sukha) and what is opposing (duḥkha) to us.
‘Dakṣa’ means a noble and skilled personality. It symbolizes a balanced mind that is sātvika and devoid of the taints by rajas or tamas, sturdy, pious, determined and enterprising in the pursuit of true wisdom and thereby eventually re-establishing the link between the microcosm and macrocosm.
‘Aśvinis’, the horsemen. The rider of white horse (or at times, he is depicted as having the body of a man and head of a white horse) is the representative of life. The other twin, riding the black horse, represents death. Remember that within the living body itself, birth and death are constant phenomena. They are the controllers of life, travelling between the world of the living, the dying and the dead. The Aśvini kumāras depict our lifespan (āyuḥ or jīvitaṃ) itself!.
‘Indra’ is the unified symbolic representation of our sensory and motor faculties (the indriyās). Easily subjected to lust, fear, anger, greed, confusion, aversion, competition and so on..Indra is very expressive! In fact Indra has a name Sahasrākṣa..his entire body is covered in eyes. What are more expressive than eyes, right? Indra is the indicator of the life force within us..its state, its well-being and its illnesses as well.
Putting up this perspective
When we evaluate the devaparamparā involved in the transmission of Ayurveda aka the Science of Life, we come to a mind-blowing realization. It is the very communication that the life is making to us! The bodily perception or the awareness on ‘sukha and duḥkha’ (Brahma) is accurately carried on by the diligent mind (Dakṣa) via the process called life (Aśvins) to eventually reach the senses (Indra) which expresses it. A true scholar seeking the true knowledge (The sage-ṛṣi) understands this and does things to satisfy the ‘Gods’ as part of their moral obligation (dharma), material obligation (artha) and spiritual obligation (mokṣa).
Now, it makes more sense to consider these Vedic personalities or preceptors of daivaparamparā as personifications of ancient spiritual concepts such as Soul, Mind, Lifespan, Sense organs and Body. At this point it slowly dawns upon us..Perhaps it was never a mythological story! It may not have been just an event that occurred thousands of years ago. This transmission of the ‘Knowledge of Life’ is happening even today, every hour, every second. Not on the foot hills of the Himalayas, but within us!
In this angle, a student of Ayurveda gradually gets enlightened to the fact that learning Ayureda is not a mere scholastic exercise it is a tapas..a deep meditation and to finally gain the true Knowledge of Life..Ayurveda..every student should elevate themselves to the level of a Sage like Ātreya or Bharadhvāja. At the very least, with this understanding, they can set this as their vision in the very first day of formally learning Ayurveda so that they are mission-bound to distinguish what is right (hitaṃ) and wrong (ahitaṃ) for life and what brings wellness (sughaṃ) and illness (duḥkhaṃ) and help those who care for a good life (āyuṣkāma) and fulfillment of their worldly obligations.
[Mural: “Aśvini kumārās imparting the Knowledge of Ayurveda to Indra. Indra’s city, Amarāvati is on the backdrop” Artist: Shyamnadh. From the collection of Dr. Nimin Sreedhar.]