Various stories within Āyurveda help outline the inherent reasons for a person's ailment.
Manjushree is a Mechanical Engineer who decided to make a crossover to a serious study of Sanskrit and Indian culture. She has a post graduate degree in Sanskrit and is now working as a research scholar.
Muriel Rukeyser poetically said, “The universe is made up of stories, not atoms”. This is perhaps a literal description of the Indian worldview — for India is a land of story-tellers and story-telling. Oral and literary traditions aside, ancient Indians employed stories in the most serious texts — the Veda-s, Upaniṣad-s, textbooks of Mīmāṁsā, Vedānta, Āgama-s, etc. Is there any branch of Indian knowledge-system that is untouched by the story? Perhaps not. In this article, I explore the medicinal stories of Āyurveda.
Classical texts of Āyurveda contain innumerable stories to explain the ways in which, and the reasons why people become sick. In most of these stories, illness is presented — not as a somatic fact — as a consequence of misconduct, infringement of societal rules, and adharma. Francis Zimmermann commented
“[in Āyurveda], moral sentiments become in-dissociable from physiological effects” (Zimmermann, 1999: 190).
Take, for example, the case of fever. The basic kernel of the story of the origin of jvara (fever) occurs in the Carakasaṁhitā, Śuṣrutasaṁhitā, Bhelasaṁhitā, and the Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasaṁhitā. In the Carakasaṃhitā’s version, the primary causes of fever in the world are social and religious behaviors. It is a version of the popular Dakṣa’s yajña. Ātreya Punarvasu narrates the story to his pupil, Agniveśa:
द्वितीये हि युगे शर्वमक्रोधव्रतमास्थितम् ।
दिव्यं सहस्रं वर्षाणामसुरा अभिदुद्रुवुः ॥
“In the Second Cosmic Age, the Treta Yuga, Rudra made a vow of non-anger for 1,000 divine years. Taking advantage of the situation, the demons, who derive nourishment from the obstruction of people’s religious observances, hastened to block Rudra’s vow. Though Dakṣa saw this, he disregarded it. Furthermore, when he was preparing his sacrifice, Dakṣa did not arrange the fixed share of offerings for Maheśvara, even though the gods implored him to do so. And even though the sacrificial oblations offered to Śiva and the hymns of the Ṛgveda sung to Paśupati ensure a successful sacrifice, Dakṣa omitted them during his worship.
When Rudra’s vow of non-anger ended, he learned of Dakṣa’s misconduct, and he became furious. He opened the eye on his forehead, and fire erupted forth scorching the demons [who had irritated him during his vow].
सृष्ट्वा ललाटे चक्षुर्वै दग्ध्वा तानसुरान् प्रभुः ।
बालं क्रोधाग्नि-सन्तप्तमसृजत् सत्रनाशनम् ।
Then, for the purpose of destroying Dakṣa’s sacrifice, Rudra created a child, who was ablaze with the fire of his anger. This child destroyed the sacrifice, and the excruciating feeling of being in flames seized the throngs of gods and people in all directions. The gods and seven Vedic sages then sang hymns of praise to the all-pervading deity to put him in an auspicious (śiva) state-of-mind.
Upon learning that all living creatures were in Śiva’s esteem, the fierce anger-fire [that was Śiva’s child] — standing with hands cupped in supplication, bearing a weapon made of ash, with three dreadful heads and nine-eyes, ensconced in garlands of fire, irascible, with dwarfish legs and a dwarfish belly—approached the god and said: “What should I do for you now?”
क्रोधाग्निरुक्तवान् देवमहं किं करवाणि ते ।
तमुवाचेश्वरः क्रोधं ज्वरो लोके भविष्यसि ।
जन्मादौ निधने च त्वमपचारान्तरेषु च ।
Rudra replied to his anger: “You will become fever in the world at the start of life, at death, and among people who act improperly.” (CS 3.14–25)
The story of “Dakṣa’s Sacrifice” links fever to “improper acts”. Health or a lack of health, so the logic of the story goes, depends on the ethical quality or dharma of the actions and karma that people produce in society.
Another case in point is the story of miscarriage. This is found in the Kāśyapasaṃhitā, in the chapter called Revatī-kalpādhyāyaḥ, which is one of nine chapters in the section on Kalpasthāna. Instructing his pupil, Vṛddhajīvaka, the august sage Kaśyapa introduces the miscarriage narrative in the following way:
“In the beginning, the Lord of Creatures, Prajapati, was alone. This is all there was. He then created Time, and he made the gods and demons, the fathers, humans, seven domestic and wild animals, medicinal plants, and the trees. As Prajapati looked on, thereupon Hunger was born. Hunger entered Prajapati, and he languished. So it is that hungry creatures grow weak. Soon Prajapati noticed that the medicinal plants countered Hunger. So he ate those plants and, having digested them, he was released from Hunger. For that reason when human and nonhuman animals eat medicinal plants they are freed from Hunger and become active.
Prajapati consumed the most essential juice of those plants, and because of this, he was completely satisfied. Human and nonhuman animals, however, eat the remaining juice [i.e., not the most nourishing juices] of the medicinal plants, and that is why earthly creatures get hungry from day to day.
Prajapati then placed Hunger in Time, whereupon Time became hungry. Time then began to feast on the gods and the demons, who, being eaten by Time, sought Prajapati’s protection. Prajapati told them about the elixir of immortality. They churned [the cosmic ocean], and the elixir of immortality emerged [from it]. “But who would consume the elixir first?” Vṛddhajīvaka asked Kaśyapa. The gods alone consumed it, and they became forever young and immortal. Because of the elixir of immortality, the gods thwarted Hunger and Time. Snubbed by the gods in this way, Time thus wears away all earthly creatures."
The demons then converged on the gods, and the two groups fought. A young demoness named Dīrghajihvī started destroying the army of the gods, who collectively called out to Skanda, their military leader:
“Dīrghajihvī is attacking us with great might. Control her!” Skanda then sent the goddess Revatī to fight Dīrghajihvī. Revatī took the form of a she-jackal, approached the army of demons, and immediately devoured Dīrghajihvī. After killing the young demoness, Revatī turned into a vulture. With meteors, lightning, and a rain of stones, Revatī, the Many-Formed One, raining all weapons, conquered the demons. Because they were being annihilated by the Many-Formed One, the demons absconded to the wombs of human and nonhuman animals. Revatī saw where the demons went, and immediately she became Jatahariṇī, Seizer of the Born, and killed them.” (KS 6. 1-7)
So the demons inhabited the wombs of female human and nonhuman animals who had strayed from the path of dharma, and Revatī’s avatara, Jatahariṇī, entered into the very same wombs to destroy them. Miscarriage, therefore, is Jātahāriṇī “rescuing” the women from demon-children. But interestingly, the Kāśyapasaṃhitā establishes that dharma is the central motivating factor in Jatahariṇī’s attack:
अथ खलु या स्त्री त्यक्त-धर्म-मङ्गलाचार-शौच-देवक्रिया देव-गो-ब्राह्मण-गुरु-वृद्ध-सद्द्वेषिणी दुराचाराऽहङ्कृताऽनवस्थिता वैरकलिमांस-हिंसा-निद्रा-मैथुनप्रिया ….
“Jatahariṇī does not enter the womb of the woman who obeys dharma. She is driven by the absence of dharma against the mother, father, and sons… whereupon [she causes] the destruction of the offspring of mothers. Because of [a woman’s] own actions, Jatahariṇī makes the lives of children come to an end…”
If this is one “type” of story that contextualizes illness, there are also other “types” of stories in Āyurveda. Take, for example, the short narrative about the origin of garlic (laśuna) in the Kāśyapasaṃhitā. Bhagavān Kaśyapa narrates this story:
न लेभे गर्भमिन्द्राणि यदा वर्षसतादपि |
तदैनां खादयामास शक्रोऽमृतमिति श्रुतिः ||
तस्यास्तु सौकुमार्येण ह्रिया च पतिसन्निधौ |
अमृतस्य च सारत्वादुद्गार उदयद्यदा ||
“Because Indrāṇi was unable to conceive a child for a hundred years, the god Indra gave his wife, some divine nectar to drink. Upon drinking the nectar, the delicate Indrāṇī promptly belched, and some of the nectar fell out of her mouth and onto the unclean ground. Thereupon Indra declared that Indrāṇī would have many sons.
एतच्चाप्यमृतं भूमौ भविष्यति रसायनम्
स्थानदोषात्तु दुर्गन्धं भविष्यत्यद्विजोपगम्
The nectar that fell to the earth became a rejuvenating substance (rasāyana) for humankind. Yet because of its inauspicious discharge in the form of a burp, and eventual setting on the ground, the nectar will have a foul smell and twice-borns shall not go near it. On earth, its name will be garlic.”
This story captures at once the divine origin of garlic, its rejuvenating benefits, its foul smell, and the taboo for twice-born Hindus — everything weaved together so brilliantly! These and the other different types of stories of Āyurveda simply point to the undeniable fact that for ancient Indians, “reality was a function of imitation of celestial archetypes”. Mircea Eliade remarks,
“To summarize, we might say that the archaic world knows nothing of “profane” activities: every act which has a definite meaning — hunting, fishing, agriculture; games, conflicts, illness, sexuality — in some way participates in the sacred… the only profane activities are those which have no mythical meaning...
… even the magical and pharmaceutical value of certain herbs, it too is due to a celestial prototype of the plant, or to the fact that it was first gathered by a god. No plant is precious in itself, but only through its participation in an archetype, or through the repetition of certain gestures and words which, by isolating it from profane space, consecrate it.”
Eilade (1959: 30)
Eliade points to the herb, kapitthaka (feronia elephantum), which cures sexual impotence because, ab origine, the Gandharva used it to restore the virility of Varuṇa. Hence the ritual gathering of this herb is, in effect, a repetition of the Gandharva’s act.
“Thee that the Gandharva dug for Varuṇa whose virility was dead, thee here do we dig, a virility-causing herb” (Atharva-Veda IV, 4, l).
For the ancient Indian, the eternal repetition of paradigmatic gestures and the eternal recovery of the mythical time of origin, sanctified by the gods, rescued him from nothingness and death. Much of India retains at least a modicum of its archetypal-mythical perspective. It is simply the “urban intellectual elite” who is forced to take cognizance of his situation. In Coomaraswamy’s words, “From the Stone Age until now, quelle degringolade (what a decline)”.
- Carakasaṃhitā of Agniveśa, with the Āyurvedadīpikā of Cakrapaṇidatta. Edited by Jadavji Trikamji ācārya. 5th ed. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1992.
- Eliade, Mircea. (1959). Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. Harper Torchbooks. New York.
- Kāśyapasaṃhitā of Vṛddhaājīvaka. Edited by Vaidya Jadavjī Trikamjī ācharya and Somanath Śarma. Nepal Sanskrit series, no. 1. Kathmandu, 1938.
- Zimmermann, Francis. The Jungle and the Aroma of Meats: An Ecological Theme in Hindu Medicine, 1987 (orig. French pub., 1982). Reprint, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1999.