Medicine of Ayurveda

According to Section 89 of Acc No. 31 of 1961."Ayurweda Includes the sidda and Unani and Desiya Chikitsa systems of medicine and surgery and any other system of medicine indigenous to Asian countries and recognized as such by their respective governments…………..."

It would appear that the legal definition of Ayurveda adopted by Sri Lanka is both wide in scope and flexible in its application. This definition embraces a field much wider than what the ordinary meaning of the team" Ayurveda denotes. In addition to the systems specified in the section, any other indigenous system of medicine recognized by an Asian government may be included.


However, only the four systems included in the definition above have so far been recognized as falling within the preview of Ayurveda. It is appropriate therefore to give a brief description of these systems, via: Ayurveda, Sidda, Unani and DesiyaChikitsa.

Of these four systems, Ayurweda is the most widely practicedin Sri Lanka. In this context the term is used in its ordinary sense-apart from the legal-to the ancient system developed in India more than 3,000 years ago.


The term "Ayurveda" is a combination of two Sanskirtwords : "Ayur" (ayuh) meaning science. It could therefore be translated into English as  "science of life ". Though the term has some resemblance to the word biology the difference is apparent at the very outset. Although the word Ayurveda can be rendered into English as the "science of physical life of animals plants ",  It has a much wider meaning than this. It means the science of life coupled with the science of living with greater emphasis being placed on the latter.

The following passage from Charka amply illustrates the above proposition. Ayurveda is the "science through the help of which one can obtain knowledge about useful and harmful type of life (hita and ahitaayus) happy and miserable types of life, things which are useful and harmful for such types of life, the span of life as well as the very nature of life" (Charaka : Sutrastana).

Ayurveda is considered the fourth in ancient medicines of the world. The oldest system was that of the Egyptians. The second place is attributed to the Jews and Chaldea and the medicine of Babylonia and Assyria is regarded as the third (Berdoe: The Origin and Growth of the Healing Art).

The origins of Ayurveda are shrouded in Indian mythology. Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation is said to have communicated this science of medicine. Historical evidence however points out to an evolutionof the basic concepts over a few centuries.


This system is popular among the Tamil speaking people in the country. Originally it was evolved and perfected in india. According to Hindu tradition this system of medicine was communicated by Silva and Parvati to Murugan, Nandi, Agasthiyar and other siddhars.
The profounder of this system is said to be Agasthiyar, who is commonly believed to be the originator of the Tamil Language. The basic concepts of Ayurveda, viz; panchamahabhuta, Tridhatu are found in the Siddha system also.


There are hardly any doctrinal differences between the two systems. Linguistically, however, there is a difference. While the ancient works on Ayurveda arev written in Sanskrit, the works on Siddha are written in Tamil. In its latro chemistry, Siddha shows a departure from Ayurveda.


Unani is also an ancient system of medicine. Originated by the Greeks it was subsequently developed by the Arabs. It has in the course of centuries absorbed the best in several ancient systems of medicine like the Egyptian, Syrian and Persian.

In different periods in the history of Sri Lanka there were waves of immigration of Muslims. At present the Muslims comprise 7.1% of the total population of the Island. As a community they preserve their own distinct cultural heritage. The Unani system of medicine is practiced almost exclusively by the Muslims.


Desiya Chikitsa
It will not be appropriate to call this independent system of medicine. It is actually a collection of prescriptions evolved in Sri Lanka itself.

Thus these prescriptions do not owe their origin to the orthodox Ayurveda, as developed in India. Some of these prescriptions have been tested and found to be very effective remedies.


" There is no lack of artzen or docters, though ignorant of anatomy……….All their cures consist of pure empirics and experience. They possess great written follow which have passed to them from their forefathers to which they have added the results of their own researches. " (A True and Extact Description of the Great Island of Ceylon. Pages 375-376)

This observation was made in 1672 by Rev. Phillipus Baldaeus, a Dutch clergyman who had served in Sri Lanka for several years. He was referring to a system that prevailed in this country for over two thousand years, namely the therapeutic system of traditional physicians. This system continues to the present day.

Reference has been already made to the type of formal Ayurvedic medical education in this country. The traditional physicians are those who have had no such formal institutional training. They acquire proficiency by serving a long period of apprenticeship under a teacher. The emphasis is on the practical aspects of medicine care. The pupil acquires a sound knowledge of the preparation of herbal medicine though long association with the teacher and by assisting him in his work. He learns clinical methods by observation of patients. The pupil took over from the teacher when the latter ceased to practice. Thus the accumulated therapeutic knowledge was passed from generation to generation.

These physicians were in a particularly advantageous position as for as the understanding of the health problems of the people in their locality were concerned. They were very much a part and parcel of the community in which they lived, often engaged in the same occupations as the rest of their neighbors. Thus they moved with the people, understood them and shared their joys and sorrows. For the system of Ayurveda, which advocated the treatment of man as a whole rather than merely curing a disease, this basic relationship was of particular importance.

This system of training has some obvious advantages. The physicians, by their own hard work and devotion help to preserve a national heritage. They acquire knowledge and experience on their own, thus relieving the state of any financial burden which world have entailed if institutional training was provided. The traditional physicians are known to possess very effective "secret formulae". These are jealously graded as the intellectual property of the particular" families of physicians". But for the intimate personal relationship that teacher and pupil under the mode of training such "secrets" would never be communicated.

There are however certain imperfections inherent in their scheme of training. They are compelled to be content with what little they have been able to learn from their teachers. There has been little or no exposure to scientific knowledge in such subjects like anatomy and physiology. Access to slandered texts and other literature has been meager. There is hardly any opportunity for them to follow the latest development in the field of Ayurveda.