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Ayurveda, meaning the "Science of Life," is said to be the oldest and most complete medical system in the world and dates back to c.3000 B.C. Its roots are in ancient Indian civilization and Hindu philosophy, and it has been an important influence on the development of all the other Oriental medical systems. The original source of Ayurveda is the holy scriptures of the vedas and the texts known as the Samhitas, which give a treatise on healthcare and describe medical procedures, including surgery and a form of massage of vital energy points (similar to Chinese acupressure).

Ayurveda has much in common with Chinese medicine. The human being is viewed as a microcosm of the universe, and both the body and the universe can be seen partly in terms of five elements. In Ayurveda these are space or ether, air, fire, water, and earth, and they correspond with the five cognitive senses: hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell, and also with five "senses" of action.

The concepts of life force or energy and balance within the body are important in Ayurvedic as in Chinese medicine. In Ayurvedic medicine, the life force is prana, similar to the Chinese chi, or qi. As in Chinese medicine, the functioning of the body is controlled by immaterial forces, linked to physical substances.

These substances are the three basic forces or doshas that exist in all things:

  • Pitta, the force of heat and energy, linked with the sun, that controls digestion and all biochemical processes in the body
  • Kapha, the force of water and tides, influenced by the moon, the stabilizing influence that controls fluid metabolism in the body
  • Vata, linked to the wind, the force that controls movement and the functioning of the nervous system in the body.

When "not abnormal" these three forces ensure that the body is healthy, but when they are "abnormal" or unbalanced, disease follows.

Ayurveda emphasizes equilibrium - balance of mind, body, and spirit and balanced adaptation to external forces - and it focuses on keeping a person healthy rather than on disease itself.

The cure of a sick patient involves purification and palliation and is tailored to the nature and strength of the disease and of the patient. The first stage is generally control of diet, and fasting, combined with practices such as meditation, yoga and chanting, as well as following advice on posture, sleep, and other lifestyle matters. This alone may effect a cure, but herbal medication may also be required to treat excesses with their opposites (for example, cooling heat symptoms and warming cold symptoms) in order to restore balance.

For stronger disease, stronger treatment is then required, and this is purification, with purges, emetics, or enemas, and perhaps also medication to drain or nourish the body, depending on whether the disease is wet or dry. When the disease has been eliminated a period of palliation, with rest and careful diet, follows. Finally the patient is given rejuvenation therapy to restore full strength. Advice is given on lifestyle, exercise, diet, hygiene, and daily habits.

Ayurveda is used all over India and in many developing countries and is recognized by the World Health Organization.

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