Monday, April 20, 2009

The Roots of Ayurveda, translated by Dominik Wujastyk, reviewed by Sandhya Srinivasan

The Roots of Ayurveda is a selection of medical writings by physicians renowned for their mastery over one of the most ancient forms of medicine. Starting with the compendia of Caraka and Susruta, the book also covers some chapters from the works of the other great physicians Kasyapa, Vagbhata, and Sarnagadhara, who practiced medicine in the period before the fourteenth century AD.

Dominik Wujastyk has selected text which he believes are of contemporary interest like the use of garlic or the suppression of urges. At the same time, he has also included text which helps us to know about the concerns and preoccupations of a more ancient society. Given that Caraka’s Compendium itself consists of 120 chapters, one can imagine the huge task that confronted Wujastyk. This book is of great interest to the medical practitioner who wishes to know more about Ayurveda. At the same time, Written in simple uncluttered English, the text is quite clear to the layperson that picks up this book to acquire some basic knowledge of this ancient medical system.

One of the interesting sections in Caraka’s Compendium was on the root cause of epidemics and how these could be brought on by corrupt rulers! Surely there is a lesson somewhere in this for us in this day and age. Of similar interest are the sections on the earliest record of professionalised surgical practice like ophthalmic couching or removal of splinters and arrows, as described in Susruta’s Compendium.

Kasyapa’s Compendium deals principally with the ailments of women and children, and their treatment. The idea underlying this selection is that disease is caused by evil conduct and Revati or Lady Opulence gains entry into a household and wreaks havoc because of the build-up of unrighteousness. It touches on the prevention of miscarriages and the rituals to be followed to ensure safe pregnancy.

Vagbhata’s Heart of Medicine touches upon the importance of massage and exercise and the appropriate savours for the different seasons, the different humours and the treatment of corrupted humours. This is of particular interest to a layperson, as is the section on the lethal points of the body.

Sarangadhara’s Compendium describes the weights and measures used in Magadha and Kalinga, the quality of the ingredients used and the system of introducing medicine through the skin.

At the end of the book, one can’t help but be awed at the extent of advancement in medical sciences that was prevalent in ancient times. While the book does not qualify as light reading, it is a classic that provides excellent reference material.

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