This post was last updated on February 11, 2020 by Preethi Sukumaran
We are often asked if we could recommend a few books to help people begin their journey into Ayurveda. Apart from our formal study of Ayurveda, we also occasionally read many more books on ayurveda to see if we can suggest these to people who are beginning their ayurvedic journey. In many cases these books are disappointing – their understanding of Ayurveda is not deep. It is also obvious that many of the authors have not undertaken any formal study of Ayurveda and worse still have mixed up the principles of Ayurveda with Shamanism, Occultism and Western Herbalism, to suit their purpose.
Even among formally trained Ayurvedic students, many biases can creep in when we attempt to translate the texts from their original Sanskrit shlokas. Many of the ancient Ayurvedic texts are written by Rishis and Vedic scholars who are practicing Hindus and in much later periods by practicing Buddhists and Jains. Hence these texts draw from the rich philosophical and cultural traditions of the foundation of Sanatana Dharma and use this as a background when they discuss mental health, spiritual health, harmony and happiness. The practices, philosophy and moral code all come from this foundation.
A shloka in the Charaka Samhita which talks about maintaining mental health, advises the Householder to cultivate mental discipline and fortitude by the daily practice and fulfillment of their duties as a Householder / Grihasta. So the Grihasta is asked to revere “Deva Go Brhamansaya” (Gods, Cows and Brahmanas), respect the “Guru, Vriddha, Siddhas and Acharyas” (Teachers, Learned Men, Elderly and the Gifted Ones). In addition the Grihasta is asked to perform their Sandhya rituals twice / thrice a day (depending upon the translation) and these rituals include the very specific oblations to Surya Deva.
Worship of Surya Deva is central to Sanatana Dharma and the Sun occupies a central position in Ayurveda as the origin of Life, Mover of seasons, and bestower of good health. Hence worshiping the Sun in the Sandhya ritual is beneficial to Grihastas. Worshiping the Sun is also advised when a woman is trying to conceive, and in other important life phases.
So here is an example where we can see how Ayurveda is derived from the Vedas and is seen as a subset of a larger Indic framework. There is no line drawn between Science and Spirituality, and we can see that the Ayurvedic Acharyas believe that only this cohesion harmonizes the working of the Mind, body and spirit and brings in a sense of meaning to our daily duties and obligations.
In a few translations, the Sandhya rituals are left as is. Depending upon the religious leaning and belief system of the translator, we have also seen this shloka being watered down in translation to “being righteous”, “doing duties”, or “thinking of God”. This is not a mere translation issue. If belief in the Divine, and a moral code drawn from this belief is an anchor and a path to our higher self, this sense of Divinity and worship of the Divine cannot be watered down / altered when we translate the texts – this reduces their very higher state and lowers our state of consciousness when we study them.
Hence for the very serious student, we always suggest learning under a proper Ayurvedic teacher, or finding a few authentic sources of Ayurvedic information and taking information only from these sources. But if you are a beginner, and do not plan to take up Ayurveda as a career / vocation and are happy knowing and learning the basics, we have 3 book recommendations for you. Read on.
The Origins of Ayurveda
Ayurveda, the science of life, is of divine origin. The practice of Ayurveda as a holistic system of medicine is old as the Hindu religion itself and as old as the Indian civilization. In fact there was never a time in India, when Ayurveda was NOT there as a part of everyday life. Ayurveda therefore is based on first principles, that are accepted as fundamental truths and their application restores good health and promotes long life. Even after thousands of years, Ayurveda has survived and continues to thrive, which is Darwinian proof of Ayurveda’s importance to our life today.
In contrast , modern medicine (allopathy) relies on the effects of different drugs on the mere suppression of externally observable symptoms of diseases. Allopathy does not have any clearly defined first principles on what constitutes good health or the fundamental workings of the human body and mind. In fact the entire allopathic fraternity is completely silent on the vast, dizzying array of toxic side-effects of drugs and chemicals used in treatments. The fundamental quest in allopathy is the quick suppression of symptoms of disease using drugs and other chemicals – however this quest does not address the root cause of disease or the formulation of safe medicines without any side-effects whatsoever.
In Ayurveda, the fundamental quest is on the achievement of Ayu (long life) + Ayush (good health).
The Ayurvedic Canon
The Entire practice of Ayurveda today flows from 3 principal textbooks, which are the foundation of Ayurveda, known as the Brihat Trayi ( the Great Three), namely
- Charaka Samhita
- Sushruta Samhita
- Ashtanga Hrdaya
Of these 3 principal works, the Charaka Samhita and the Sushruta Samhita are the older works, respectively attributed to Acharyas Charaka and Sushruta , who lived around 3000 years ago. The most important point to note here is that these two works are “Samhita” , which is a compendium of the entire practice of Ayurveda at that point in time.
These Samhita are not the thoughts and ideas of their individual authors; they are in fact a compilation of the collective evolution of thousands of years of evolution of Ayurveda, transformed from what was perhaps a purely oral learning tradition into the written form. The Charaka Samhita narrates that Ayurveda was originally in the divine realm created by Brahma and handed over to Indra and the devas and then to the Rishis like sage Atreya. It was sage Atreya made Ayurveda accessible to the earthly realm through his disciples. Of these disciples, Agnivesa is the most prominent and the Charaka Samhita is actually a compilation of the teachings of Sage Atreya as compiled by Agnivesa.
The Sushruta Samhita is the other ancient compendium of Ayurveda. It has a special significance as is the only work with chapters on Salya –Tantra ,which is Ayurvedic Surgery and Sushruta is acknowledeged as the “Father of Surgery”. This Samhita traces its lineage to Indra, who taught it to Dhanvantari who then passed on the teachings to Sushruta, the son of Viswamitra.
The Ashtanga Hrdaya was written several centuries after the two ancient Samhitas by Acharya Vagbhatta. It is so named as it addresses all eight ( ashtanga) branches of Ayurveda and unifies the two schools of Ayurveda of Caraka and Sushruta. This work attained such prominence that it now occupies a pre-eminent place in the Ayurvedic Canon as part of the Brihat Trayi.
The Caraka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita and Ashtanga Hridaya were written in Sanskrit and the editions of these works printed today usually contain a commentary in English, written by Ayurvedic Doctors.
In later years, around the 10th century, three important works, known as the Laghu Trayi ( the Lesser Three) were written , which attempted to simplify the essence of the Brihat Trayi for Ayurvedic Doctors , without comprising on the application of the fundamental principles. These Laghu Trayi , named eponymously are
- Madhava Nidhana
- Sarangadhara Samhita
The Ideal Ayurvedic Vaidya (Doctor)
Given the nature of Ayurveda, it is evident that a good Ayurvedic doctor must have mastery over Sanskrit and botany, possess a strong intellect to absorb the teachings of the Guru and compassion to effectively apply them for the well-being of his patients.
Caraka Samhita defines the ideal medical student as
“He should be of a mild disposition, noble by nature, never mean in his acts, free from pride, strong memory, liberal mind, devoted to truth, likes solitude, of thoughtful disposition, free from anger, of excellent character, compassionate, one fond of study, devoted to both theory and practice, who seeks the good of all creatures.”
—Caraka Samhita 3.VIII.6
So what does this mean for us today?
As a seeker of good health, it is important to be aware of the history and lineage of Ayurveda and its core principles in order to appreciate its application in our daily life.
Obviously, these classical texts of the Ayurvedic Canon, the Brihat Trayi and Laghu Trayi are not light reading material and are meant for the use of Ayurvedic Vaidyas. But Ayurveda is not merely about the treatment of diseases, it also defines the principles of good health that can be followed by us on a daily basis, to prevent disease and enjoy Ayush. These rules for healthy living are broadly classified as “Dinacarya” ( Daily Routines) , “ Ritucharya” ( Seasonal Routines) and Ahara Vidhi Vidhana ( Proper Nutrition)
Much as the Laghu Trayi attempted to distil the essence of the Brihat Trayi for Ayurvedic Practioners, hundreds of introductory books on Ayurveda are available today for laypeople. Our purpose in reviewing these books is not for the reader to self-diagnose himself and by-pass consultations with a good Ayurvedic doctor. These primers on Ayurveda should serve two purposes
- Help the reader appreciate the benefits of Ayurveda and develop an attitude of reverence.
- Provide guidance on good habits, derived from the first principles, which can be safely and easily implemented. Of course each Ayurvedic expert will have different interpretations of the principles based on their lineage, geographical origin and even the medicinal plants available to them.
Acharya Vagbhatta has said that 85% of diseases can be cured without a doctor and only 15% of diseases need a doctor. This important statement should be interpreted in the proper context. This statement was made at a time when Ayurveda was the only medicine and not an alternative option. Therefore each family had a continuous oral tradition of applying Ayurvedic principles to heal everyday problems and diseases, had access to the basic set of herbs required to prepare medicines at home.
This was also a time when the 4 pillars of Ayurvedic treatment, i.e “Ahara Vihara Achara Vichara” were also implicitly accepted as basis for treatment as opposed to seeking a quick-fix pill or surgery without any change to food habits or lifestyle. The 4 pillar of Ayurvedic treatment are:
- Ahara : Correct Nutrition
- Vihara : Correct activities
- Achara : Correct lifestyle
- Vichara : Correct thoughts
This is certainly not the case today in India and a complete revival of Ayurveda and use of medicinal plants over a few generations is required, before we can re-create a society where families can handle 85% of common diseases through Ayurveda.
So here are 3 books that will introduce you to Ayurveda in a gentle yet profound way
- Jeevani : Ayurveda for Women by Dr PLT Girija
Dr PLT Girija is one of the leading Ayurvedic Doctors in India and is the founder of Sanjeevani Ayurveda Foundation, Chennai. Dr Girija is on a mission to restore Ayurveda to its pre-eminent position in India , where Ayurveda is the first and automatic choice of treatment for all diseases.
As the title of the book suggests, the focus in on Women’s health, where the concepts are explained in great detail in 16 chapters. Case studies from the practice at Sanjeevani Ayurveda Foundation makes this an in-valuable source of information.
The title of the book however does not do justice to the wealth of information available in the additional chapters in the book which serve to give a complete perspective. These chapters cover basics of Ayurvedic nutrition, Dinacarya, Ritucharya, Simple home remedies and an Ayurvedic first-aid kit.
This well produced hard-back book, written in 2013, makes for compelling reading and easy application.
- Living Easy with Ayurveda by Dr JV Hebbar
Dr JV Hebbar is the leading Indian Ayurvedic blogger and is the force behind the health and lifestyle blog www.easyaurveda.com. His blog is possibly the most extensive and authentic Ayurvedic online resource . In recent times, a community of other Ayurvedic doctors have also started contributing to the blog , significantly expanding the value of the blog. The most important feature of this blog is its absolute reliance on the first principles as defined in the Brihat Trayi texts. Every article contains the original Sanskrit verse with translation, which gives authenticity and authority to the articles.
Dr Hebbar’s book, Living Easy with Ayurveda (available in e-book and print) is literally the easiest yet authentic introduction to Ayurveda. This comprehensive book is written in a very light, blog –like style, richly illustrated with personal examples from Dr Hebbar. The striking feature of the book is the emphasis on the immediate application of Ayurvedic principles in every facet of life without sacrificing technical rigor, for example, ideas for suitable clothing by dosha type (!)
- Everyday Ayurveda by Dr Bhaswati Bhattacharya
This well written, well produced book fulfills an important need in this space – it is written by an Indian origin person who was raised, educated and now practises in the West. Dr Bhaswati has deep roots and reverence for the Indian systems of knowledge and now applies them in a Western milieu which makes for a truly unique perspective. This book is note-worthy for the numerous personal examples used to illustrate Ayurveda in everyday life and emphasizes Dinacharya as the foundation for good health.
The Ayurvedic Dincharyas: a system designed to prevent diseases and give you Ayu & Ayush
We wrote this blog post on request from our readers and consumers who were intrigued by what they read on Ayurveda in the Krya blog, and sought easy to understand simple Ayurvedic books to begin their self enquiry. We hope this post has given you 3 great books that you can read to begin your self study.
We’d like to leave you with something that Acharya Sushruta said:
” The right physician focuses on investing effort to ensure his patient never falls ill and diseases are prevented by following the 4 tenets of right living, i.e. “Ahara” (food), Vihara (activities), Achara (lifestyle) and Vichara (thoughts). “
This is a great way to think about your health as well. We hope this post has inspired you to look at different facets of your life and understand for yourself where the pressure points and invest some time behind understanding how you too can lead a more healthy life.