The Sri Lankan Ayurvedic Tradition

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The Sri Lankan Ayurvedic Tradition

Definition of Ayurveda

Ayurveda means Ayu (life) and Veda (knowledge). Hence it means the Science of life.

The main objective of Ayurveda according to Pandit Shiva Sharma is, "to maintain and promote physical, mental and spiritual health of the individual and the community". The other objective is, "to prevent disease and to treat, and to cure it when it appears" Even though the primary purpose of Ayurveda is to serve mankind, there are Ayurvedic texts that deal with the treatment of elephants, horses, cows and other animals (Salihotra Samhita), and also Vruksha Ayurveda that deals with the art of preservation and healing of plants. Even today in our villages there are unregistered physicians who treat cattle and dogs using herbal medicines learnt from their fore-fathers. They serve in addition to western-trained veterinary surgeons who are posted by government to the major towns.

Ayurveda recognizes a fourfold categorization of disease, as

  1. Adventitious (eg. cuts, bites, stings, infections etc.)
  2. Physical (eg. endocrinological, nutritional, organic, functional etc.)
  3. Mental (e.g. greed, avarice, jealousy, fear, anger etc.)
  4. Natural (e.g. bondage of birth, death, old age, hunger, thirst, sleep etc.)

Roughly speaking, adventitious diseases are treated surgically, physical diseases medically, mental disease psycho-analytically, and natural disease spiritually (Pandit Shiva Sharma). Mental disease and mental hygiene in Ayurveda go far beyond the scope of their meanings in other systems of medicine. The development of the higher moral and cultural approach to life as described at length in Ayurveda as a specific preventive measure against a number of personal and mass evils, find exclusive mention only in Ayurveda. According to Charaka, "When leaders take to injustice in dealing with their public, then their camp followers aggravate to make injustice eclipse justice and thus the land becomes godforsaken".

Hence Ayurveda is a system of medicine that concerns itself not only with disease but also with the general welfare of mankind. Dr. R.T.Troll amply demonstrates this difference in the basic attitudes in the following comment. “There are two methods of treatment. One aims at curing the disease, the other at curing the patient. We profess to cure the disease, and we can do it, whatever happens to the patients." As Ayurveda follows a holistic approach and treats the patient by strengthening the immune system to cure disease, there are no significant side effects.


The Indian authorities mention three of the greatest names in ancient Ayurveda, Sushruta Charaka and Vagbhata. King Buddhadasa of Sri Lanka, perhaps, was a senior contemporary, of Vagbhata produced a book in Sanskrit verse named Sarartha Sangrahaya, containing most of the Ayurvedic medical knowledge available at that time in Sri Lanka. 4th century A.D. Mahawamsa credits him with a number of fantastic operations on both animals and men. Sri Lankan medicine taught by that king, had the advantage of Indian Ayurveda as well. Therefore, until about the 13th century A.D. Ayurveda flourished in Sri Lanka with Royal patronage. However, with the foreign invasions, Ayurveda as well as Buddhist scholarship underwent a period of decadence. Fortunately, the monks during that period preserved the priceless books on Buddhism and Ayurveda.

The 20th century has seen remarkable progress in Ayurveda in Sri Lanka. The Ayurvedic practitioners in the rural areas continued to serve the people. As Medical knowledge was bequeathed from father to son, and as the Ayurvedic physician produced his own drugs, this system continued even without royal or state patronage. Hence, there are practitioners with long experience who are able to help patients who have chronic diseases e.g. persistent backache, continuous stress problems, arthritis, kidney stones etc. Already 1000's of tourists to Sri Lanka have had access to these benefits of Ayurveda and are now leading healthy and painless lives. Any information on Ayurveda and its practitioners can be obtained from the Director of BMARI, Nawinna, Sri Lanka. This modern institute employs a team of highly qualified Ayurvedic research scholars.

Ayurveda has never been considered as a business. It was, always reckoned as a service to mankind, by healing hands, directed by a penetrative intelligence but nurtured by a warm heart.

By P.L.N. de Silva - Former Chairman, Sri Lanka Ayurvedic Drugs Corporation.