The word Ayurveda is composed of two terms, "Ayush" meaning life and "Veda" meaning knowledge or science. Thus, etymologically, Ayurveda means the science of life or biology. Medicine apart, various other aspects of life also come within the purview of Ayurveda. In its broader perspective it deals with the health and treatment of diseases of animals and even plants. Thus in ancient India, there were specialised subjects like ashva-ayurveda (for the treatment of horses), gaja-ayurveda (for the treatment of elephants); go-ayurveda (for the treatment of cows) and vriksha-ayurveda (for the treatment of diseases of plants). Eminent scholars like Nakula, Shalihotra and Parashara wrote treatises on these sciences.
Ayurveda provides rational means for the treatment of many internal diseases, which are considered to be obstinate and incurable in other systems of medicine. Simultaneously it lays a great deal of emphasis upon the maintenance of positive health of an individual. It thus aims at both the prevention and cure of diseases. Ayurveda also studies basic human nature, and natural urges like hunger, thirst, sleep, sex, etc., and provides measures for a disciplined, disease-free life.
Practice of Ayurveda fell into disuse after repeated invasions of India. Original works were destroyed, and quacks flourished who introduced unauthorised modifications in the system.
It was in late 19th century and the early 20th century that people started thinking afresh about the development of Ayurveda. This gained an impetus along with the swadeshi movement. Many expert committees were constituted by the Government to look into the problems of this science and suggest measures to solve them. After independence, the national Government took keen interest to set the affairs of Ayurveda on scientific lines and develop it because of which Ayurvedic colleges, dispensaries, hospitals and pharmacies were established in different parts of the country.
In the accompanying sections, the emphasis is on home treatment for general complaints.
The human body according to Ayurveda, is composed of three fundamental elements called doshas, dhatusans malas. The doshas govern the physicochemical and physiological activities of the body, while the dhatus enter into the formation of a basic structure of a body cell, thereby performing some specific actions. The malas are substances which are partly utilized in the body and partly excreted in a modified form after serving their physiological functions. These three elements are said to be in a dynamic equilibrium with each other for the maintenance of health. Any imbalance or their relative preponderance in the body results in disease and decay.
Pancha Mahabhutas: The man has five senses and through these senses he perceives the external world in five different ways. The sense organs are the ears, the skin, the eyes, the tongue and the nose. Through these sense organs, the external object is not only perceived, but also absorbed into the human body in the form of energy. These five types of senses are the basis on which the entire universe is divided, grouped or classified in five different ways, and they are known as five mahabhutas. They are named as akasha (sky), vayu (air), agni (fire), jala (water) and prithvi (earth). The English equivalents, however, do not connote the correct and full implications of these terms. For example, ordinary water does not contain jala mahabhuta alone, it is composed of all the five mahabhutas, It is the force of cohesion or the power of attraction that is inherent in jala or water which is the characteristic feature of jala mahabhuta. Similarly, air is not vayu mahabhuta alone, it contains the elements which belong to other mahabhutas also. For example, oxygen will be nearer to agni mahabhuta and hydrogen nearer to jala mahabhuta.
Modern physics and chemistry have divided the matter available in the universe into some basic elements. These elements differ from each other in certain respects. All these elements can be classified into five categories of mahabhutas. On the other hand, each atom has the characteristic features of the five mahabhutas in it. The electrons, positrons, neutrons, etc., present inside the atom, represent prithvi mahabhuta. The force of movement of the electrons represents the characteristic feature of vayuv mahabhuta and the space in which they move is the primary attribute of akasha mahabhuta.
Different school of philosophy have tried to explain the pancha mahabhuta theory in different ways. While some of these explanations are basically the same, others are widely different. However, all schools of theistic philosophy have a common ground in their belief in the creation of this universe through the pancha mahabhutas. Some atheist schools of philosophy like the one of Charvaka does not believe in the existence of the fifth mahabhuta, ie., akasha because, it is not perceptible to the ordinary eye. However, Ayurveda is very clear about it and believes in pancha mahabhutas theory.
According to Ayurveda, the body of an individual is composed of five mahabhutas, similarly, in other extraneous matters; there are also five mahabhutas. In the human body, these five mahabhutas are represented in the form of doshas, dhatus and malas. Outside the body they form the basic ingredients of the drugs and food ingredients. The characteristic attributes of these five mahabhutas are explained in terms of rasa or taste, guna or quality, virya (potency) and vipaka (the taste that arises after the digestion and metabolism of a substance.
In a normal body of a living being, these substances remain in a particular proportion. However, because of enzymatic action inside the human body, this ratio of five mahabhutas or their equilibrium inside the body gets disturbed. The body has, however, a natural tendency to maintain equilibrium. It eliminates some of the mahabhutas which are in excess and takes of the mahabhutas which are in shortage. This shortage of mahabhutas is replenished through the ingredients of food, drinks, air, heat, sunlight, etc. how the exogenous pancha mahabhutas are converted into indigenous pancha mahabhutas will be discussed at a later stage.
Even during the process of death, these five bhutas play a very important role. They have two different forms, namely, gross and subtle. The five categories of subtle bhutas inside the body impregnate the five senses for five times and thereafter, they get detached from these five senses and thus death occurs. The dead body loses the five senses and is composed, therefore, only of the five mahabhutas.
Tridosha Concept: As has been stated before, inside the body there are three doshas which govern the physico-chemical and physiological activities. These three doshas are vayu, pitta and kapha. The nearest English equivalents of these terms will be air, bile and phlegm.
As has been stated before, all the constituents of the body are derived from the five mahabhutas. Therefore, the doshas are also composed of five mahabhutas. All the doshas have all the five mahabhutas in their composition. The vayu dosha is dominated by akasha mahabhuta and vayu mahabhuta. In pitta, agni mahabhuta is predominant, and kapha is primarily constituted of jala and prithvi mahabhutas.