November 16, 2008

Human Genetics and Āyurveda Tradition

Human Genetics and Āyurveda Tradition
Karin Preisendanz in Dialogue with Anand Amaladass

Amaladass: Today the discussion on human genetics has taken center stage. On the one hand there is an urge to show human achievement in the scientific field. On the other hand there is a strong reaction against this tendency by those who claim that this amounts to playing the role of God, interfering with the divine plan of creation, and destroying the dignity of human life by reducing it to the level of a robot. In this context, what would be the response to these problems from the point of view of āyurveda tradition in India, since you are involved with the textual study of this tradition?

Preisendanz: First of all, it has to be stressed that the classical āyurveda tradition in India does not refer to a notion of God in its theoretical and practical medical teachings. The Carakasaṃhitā, one of the two fundamental compendia of classical āyurveda and probably the older among the two, contains a wealth of information on the metaphysical, ethical, and soteriological foundations of āyurveda as they were maintained in the first two or three centuries CE. Even though the compendium reflects at least two stages of ideological development within early classical āyurveda, in neither of them can we find the notion of a creator-god who is also responsible for the creation of the human body.

The older ideology can be characterized as a philosophy of nature focusing on ontology: the external and internal world with its multitude of entities and occurrences is analyzed and brought into a categorical framework to explain causal processes, in the widest sense and specifically with regard to the body and its transformations – that is, the initial formation of the body and its changing states of health and sickness. As we can also discern from other sources on early classical philosophy of nature in India, there is no place for God in this pluralistic and 'mechanical' worldview; however, the residue of deeds performed in earlier lives is a crucial factor in the formation of the human body.

The second ideology, which seems to have subsequently affected classical āyurveda, presumes a dualism of mind and matter, with pure consciousness as an unchanging eternal phenomenon on the one hand and matter as the constantly changing world of external and internal – macro- and microcosmic – phenomena and events on the other hand. In this ideology there is equally no scope for the activity of a creator-god because matter – affected by the mere presence of consciousness – acts by itself for the latter's sake; this includes the formation – again in consonance with the effects of previous deeds – and transformations of the human body.

There is, however, mention of a very important divine role in classical āyurveda, namely, in the various accounts of its 'origin' and transmission to human beings which reflect the cultural self-perception of the early classical physicians of India and their attempts to integrate their non-orthodox science into the dominant world view of the first centuries CE. Even though āyurveda (literally 'the knowledge of the [human] life-span/life-force') is eternal according to the Carakasaṃhitā, it was first pronounced by God Brahmā, the creator, to Prajāpati, who is conceived as the creator of rituals and other religious institutions and father of humankind. Prajāpati transmitted this knowledge to the twin-gods called the Aśvins who figure as divine healers in the oldest Indian mythology. From the Aśvins āyurveda passed on to God Indra, the most powerful 'king of the gods' of Vedic and Epic mythology.

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