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Ayurvedic doctor examining a patient, Nepal, c. 1990s.

Ayurvedic doctor examining a patient, Nepal, c. 1990s.

Credits:Mark de Fraeye, Wellcome Images

The name Ayurveda comes from the Sanskrit words for ‘life’ and ‘knowledge’, ayus and veda. This indicates a tradition that incorporates a way of life. It is one of India’s traditional systems of medicine, with an emphasis on staying healthy through maintaining balance in the body. Its broad approach incorporates practical advice on healthy living, and includes yoga.

Ayurveda is based on the three doshas: vata, pitta and kapha. These are sometimes compared to the humours. Each dosha must be in balance with the others. They influence health, appearance and personality.

Ayurvedic doctors are called vaidyas. They use the pulse, the patient’s symptoms and other physical signs to diagnose illness. Ayurvedic medicines mainly use herbs. Physical therapies are important. The main treatment is called panchakarma or ‘five actions’. It combines procedures including enemas and purging to drive out body wastes and rebalance the doshas.

The classic texts of Ayurveda were written between the 400s and 700s CE. They continued to be expanded and revised to become the Caraka Samhita and Susruta Samhita. These enormous compendiums form the basis of Ayurvedic thinking. They describe surgical techniques, materia medica, diagnosis, treatments and strategies to prevent illness. Vaidyas must have extensive knowledge of both texts.

In the 1800s, Ayurveda was not supported by the British regime. However, it was still practised in privately sponsored colleges and through apprenticeships. The revival of traditional Indian systems of knowledge, such as Ayurveda, was important for the independence movement. Since India became independent in 1947, the government has supported biomedicine. It also recognises traditional medicines including Ayurveda and Unani Tibb. Ayurveda is now popular worldwide.



J Langford, Fluent bodies Ayurvedic remedies for postcolonial imbalance (North Carolina; London: Duke University Press, 2002)

M Bode, Taking traditional knowledge to market: the modern image of the Ayurvedic and Unani industry 1980 – 2000 (Hyderabad: Orient Longman Private Limited, 2008)

J Alter (ed.), Asian medicine and globalization (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005)


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