Editor’s Note: In a speech written for the Maharaja of Baroda in 1901, Sri Aurobindo had referred to the history of indigenous system of medicine in India prior to the British colonial rule.
“There was in this country an ancient and indigenous system of medicine, which had shared the fate of the other Hindu arts and sciences both in the comparatively high degree of scientific knowledge and intelligent practice it had reached in astonishingly early times and in the premature blight which had subsequently come over it. In surgery, in pharmacy and in sanitation its knowledge was sound and masterly; it conducted successfully surgical operations which would have been far beyond contemporary science in Europe; it had amassed a pharmacopoeia from indigenous drugs, which, however imperfect, was possessed of considerable merit and efficacy; and its rules of sanitation were exhaustive, sound and in consonance with the scientific opinion of today. Its theory of the human body was, it is true, rather in agreement with ancient opinion than the more enlightened modern ideas, but its practical science was superior to its theory. Upon this promising science as upon almost everything else in India there fell a curse of stationariness and decay. Its practice became mechanical; its science fell into desuetude; the old authorities couched in the learned tongue came to be repeated by rote; its pharmacopoeia was administered without intelligence or original research and analysis and therefore with only a fitful efficacy; surgical knowledge ceased to exist except in a rudimentary form, and sanitary rules once invested with a religious sanction came to be flagrantly violated in the daily practice of the people. Mahomedan medicine, a mediaeval science based on the Greek, did not tend to correct this state of things; it only added another imperfect system to the existing one. To a country thus circumstanced Western civilisation came with a medical science which, recovered from its old stagnation, was making immense strides, with a vastly superior pharmacy, an ever bolder & more subtle surgery and organised & living grasp of sanitation.” (CWSA, Vol. 1, pp. 687-688)
We bring to you a series of articles written by Rajeshwari, a qualified specialist in Alternative Medicine who has conducted extensive research among rural and tribal communities of our country learning about diverse customs and rituals related to health and well-being. Learning from the wisdom of the elders in these communities, and based on her research into drugless therapies of India and the Far East, she has been practicing natural medicine for a long time. In this series, she advocates living in harmony with Nature for a life of wellness and also strives to evoke and enhance the inherent divinity within each of us by sharing practical examples, interesting tales and anecdotes to help us along on this learning odyssey. This series was first published on cybernag.in under the author’s pen name Amritavarshini. We are grateful to the author for permitting us to re-publish it here, with some editorial modifications.
Our ancestors had great knowledge about the factors that affect our lives and well-being. Using their common sense, they keenly observed every minute detail in their surroundings and natural forces, and learned, assimilated and used the knowledge thus gained to give us an invaluable legacy of health imbued with spirituality. By ‘ancestors’ I mean those of all indigenous cultures and civilisations but with specific focus on Indian and Eastern cultures.
They had an astonishing knowledge not only about health and diseases but also knew the importance of the right food in preventing and managing disorders of the body. They harnessed the Five Elements or of pañcamahābhūta – Ākāśa (sky/space/ether), Vāyu (air), Agni/ (fire), Appa/Jala (water), and Prithvī (Earth) which are present both in Nature as well as the human body – to correct imbalances and restore good health. To achieve this, they set in place customs, rituals and traditions that would bestow on us the best of physical and spiritual health. If one were to closely study the customs and rituals followed by people of different cultures over centuries, one would be amazed to see the wisdom of our ancestors.
Though both men and women of the ancient world possessed a good knowledge of health and diseases, it was the women who took care of the family’s welfare, including health and meals. They knew precisely how to keep all the members fit and healthy. A grandmother could be equated to a senior family doctor, and the younger women to interns. All knowledge was transmitted down the generations through observation and practice, and of course, by listening to elders, without the benefit of any notes.
When we look at Indian and other Eastern cultures, we are amazed at our ancestors’ knowledge of astronomy, astrology and other cosmic sciences, though they did not call them by these names! They knew about climate variations and could predict natural calamities just by observing the changes in the behaviour of animals and birds – more accurately than our meteorologists with all their sophisticated equipment can do today. They could deduce the effects of the movement of the planets and other celestial bodies on the behaviour and health of the inhabitants of the Earth. Finally, they connected with the Divine within themselves by being connected and compassionate to all living beings, including plants.
To this day, remote communities and tribes that are untouched by modern trappings rely on their elders’ knowledge of Nature’s ways. Unfortunately, generations of nuclear families and the increasing popularity of conventional medicine in both urban and rural areas have reduced the influence of elders in our society and consequently the importance of folk medicine and wisdom. It is a pity that a treasure trove of such wisdom is being lost due to scepticism, which are getting rejected as superstition and old wives’ tales.
The pañca mahābhūta have always been the guiding and governing forces of our well-being, despite sea changes in medical practices over the millennia. Thankfully, we have a clearer vision with proof, backed by scientific experiments and investigations under lab conditions, that the Five Elements are indeed the vital forces in our lives.