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Monday, September 15, 2008

Ayurveda in Kerala

Emperor Asoka the Great introduced Buddhism in Sri Lanka by sending his daughter and son in the 3rd Century BC. Apart from the royal paraphernalia, the duo would have been accompanied by thousands of Buddhist Monks as well. Asoka was very much concerned about the well being of his subjects. To ensure proper medical aid, he has owned up in one of his rock inscriptions, of having created medical facilities, even in the remotest parts of his empire, bordering other kingdoms, to enhance well being and promote longevity. Dispensing of medical care had been the domain of the monks with knowledge of the traditional system of Aurveda, which then existed. Monastic system of education was considered incomplete without acquiring knowledge of medical therapies.
Ayurveda is considered a divine science being a part of the Hindu scripture "Atharvaveda". The oral traditions were led by Atreya and Dhanvantari representing two different schools of thought i.e. the school of physicians and the school of surgeons respectively. Further codifications were carried out in "Charaka Samhita" which deals with internal medication. "Susruta Samhita" on the other hand contains surgical procedures.

The Ayurveda system of medicine believes that the human body is made of Panchabhutas, the five elements, namely either (space), air, fire, water and earth. They combine with each other and manifest themselves as three basic principles, collectively known as Tridosha.
Either with Air creates Vata
Fire with Water creates Pitta
Water with Earth creates Kapha
The system attempts to address the imbalances in Tridosha to cure human ailments.

During the 8th century CE a Buddhist monk named Vag Bhatta from Kerala is said to have visited Sri Lanka for studying the Buddhist System of medicine. He is credited to have authored "Ashtanga Hridaya" and "Ashtanga Sangraha", treatises in Sanskrit, which has formed the backbone of Ayurveda in Kerala. "Ashtanga Hridaya" contains knowledge comprising the two schools of Ayurveda. "Ashtanga Sangraha" is bigger in size but more or less similar to the "Ashtanga Hridaya". Some scholars are of the opinion that the compilations could have been made by two different persons of the same name.

Soon after Buddhism got established in Sri Lanka, southern parts of Kerala came under Buddhist influence. The Ezhava community (also known as Chovars in central Kerala and Thiyyas in Malabar area) of Kerala is believed to have migrated from Sri Lanka, who became the torch bearers of Buddhism. They were physicians, astrologers,warriors, coconut farmers and so on. As a class they were held in high esteem in the society. Karappuram Kadakkarappally Kollattu Veettil Itty Achudan was a pioneer in editing the first Malayalam book on traditional medicine, published by the Dutch in 1675, titled Hortus Indicus Malabaricus. Kayikkara Govindan Vaidyar was the one who translated the famous "Ashtanga Hridaya" into Malayalam. Both the physicians belonged to the Ezhava community.

After the advent of Shankaracharya, a Hindu revival movement received great impetus. Over a period of time the Brahmins had a sway in the society with the support of the local rulers. All Buddhists were assimilated into the Hindu stream. However a large section of the ezhavas preferred to stick to their old faith. This infuriated the Brahmins and since they were wielding great power, with the connivance of the ruling elite, persecution of the non-converts gained momentum. Ezhavas were kept out of the Varna system of caste division and denounced as untouchables. Thus the community received a severe setback. They were compelled to work as toddy tappers, farmers etc. for a livelihood. This also made many of them to embrace Christianity.

Shri Narayana Guru (1855 - 1928) born into an Ezhava family was one of the greatest social reformers Kerala has ever seen. He revolted against casteism and relentlessly worked for social equality. It is he, who was responsible for the social emancipation of Ezhavas. They now constitute a major chunk of the Hindu population and considered to be one of the most prosperous communities. Buddhist influence can still be traced in their festivals. Their gods Cittan and Arattan are said to be of Buddhist origin.

Major ayurvedic hospitals, spas, pharmaceutical companies are now owned by them. Products like Kamilari, Chandrika, Medimix, to name a few, come from their factories. They also own large hotel chains, modern hospitals, multi-storied complexes and so on. Incidentally the present day Chief Minister of the State also comes from their clan.

To sum up, Buddhism and Ezhava community together have contributed immensely for the growth of the traditional wisdom in Ayurvedic medication and popularizing it amongst masses in Kerala.
Inspiration: Sampath Iyer, Kochi Abridged Hindi version