Is Āyurveda Adharma ? The Battle for Āyurveda begins …

Author: Dr. Priyanka Shandilya.

Editorial Note: This article is part of a Series on the purvapaksha of Western interpretations of Āyurveda. The claims and arguments made in the paper “Medicine and Dharma” by Dominik Wujastyk are examined with the traditional drishti. Videshi (by drishti) scholar Wujastyk, implies in his 2004 paper that Āyurveda is Adharma. Prof. Wujastyk first sets up false equivalences between Dharma and Religion, Medicine and Ayurveda. Then, using the argument of NOMA, suggestively implies that since Medicine is not Religion, Ayurveda also cannot be Dharma. The lines of argumentation, the deliberate misinterpretations, mis-translations, manipulation of the textual context, the mis-framing of texts will be all too familiar to Swadeshi (by drishti) scholars. At a very minimum, Ayurveda as a “body of text” needs to be interpreted (atleast by those claiming to be scholars) and understood using the principles of tantra yukti, and not using techniques of videshi hermeneutics and flaky conceptual abstractions like – Non-Overlapping MagisteriaNOMA. Vaidya Priyanka Shandilya in a scholarly piece takes apart Wujastyk’s 2004 research paper”.

Removing Āyurveda (or any Bharatiya knowledge system/ construct) from its dharma context, is one of the standard strategies of the Videshi methodology, especially when attempting to digest and malign the “source” of knowledge. Discussed by Rajiv Malhotra in the context of the phenomenon of Digestion and the U-Turn theory, and by few others in the context of Academic Imperialism, this “research” by Prof.Dominik Wujastyk is very much an exemplar of these insidious “videshi” academic phenomena.

Academics, scholars, IKs need to understand the seriousness of the issues posed by systematic institutionalized Digestion. Bharatiya Knowledge systems have been bearing the brunt of this for centuries. Modern Independent India has made no significant effort to nurture the civilizational “roots” of Bharatiya Knowledge. Tragically, even efforts which supposedly have been purposed to “revitalize”, ministries like AYUSH, constantly look to the West for legitimacy and approval. In fact, policy makers look up to videshi scholars like Prof. Wujastyk to evaluate and interpret Bharatiya vidya-s like Āyurveda.

Introduction: Dharma” is not same as “Religion” and “Ayurveda” is not the same as “Medicine”, as ancient Indian sciences look at every facet of life in both mundane and spiritual layers and give equal significance to both “corporal” and “ethereal” entities concerned, as the two engage mutually, till one is “mukta (liberated)”.

Abbreviations used in the article: C.S-Charaka.Samhita, M.S-Manu.Samhita, Author-D.Wujastyk

Medicine and Dharma”1 is a work authored by Dominik Wujastyk that discusses “Medicine (Ayurveda) and Dharma” with special reference to the thesis called “Non-Overlapping Magisteria”(NOMA)2 proposed  by Stephen Jay Gould which theorises that, “when in a conflict between “Science” and “Religion” it is the “science” that wins1.

 The author in his work “Medicine and Dharma” discusses, how NOMA is true even in Indian context by presenting a few cases of “conflict”1.

First, the author narrates instance3 of an Indian boy who contracts fever when in a warehouse and how on returning he was not allowed inside without taking a bath. But the father advises him not to take bath despite being ritually polluted as it is contraindicated in fever as per ayurveda. With this example the author tries to establish that the “medicine” takes precedence over “dharma”. Further he substantiates his view quoting the verse from C.S that “Health” comes first, as it forms the very substratum for achieving purusharthas.

Second, he takes up the issue of “Meat and medicine”4 in the Indian context. C.S does mention an exhaustive list of meats therapeutically beneficial, about which the author is scornful and expects C.S to be apologetic4. Author then starts discussing the dharma-sookshma (which he calls conflict) bringing in the reference of M.S as an authority on Dharmashastra saying, Manu’s attitude towards meat-eating is schizophrenic and the rules are tangled4,5.

In this article, I will analyse whether these claims made by the author are true. I will also focus on whether the very central understanding of the doctrines he is discussing about, is right. These can be known only when we recognize the position that Ayurveda itself takes and when its association with the co-doctrine of “dharma”, is deciphered.  

Dharma” – A myopic view:

The above examples cited by the author explains only one side of the story, that too in a very shallow way leaving out what is the very essence of Ayurveda’s alliance with Dharma. Considering the boy’s example above for instance, the author projects mere rituals like bathing as representing the dharma. Bathing (achieves physical and spiritual purity) is a ritual that forms only a part of dharmashastric practice, and is not the whole and sole idea of “dharma”.

While discussing “Meat and Medicine” the author seems to have trouble with Manu’s rules of meat- eating, finding it to be a matter of conflict between “medicine & dharma”.

Dharma” & “Ayurveda”:

That which sustains is “Dharma6. Dharma is defined as virtuousness in “Kaya-Vak-Mana 7 loosely translated as “body-speech-mind”. Ayurveda says all actions of a person desirous of sukha should invariably be in accordance with “dharma8. C.S says that the “Livelihood/Vrutti” should be so chosen that it wouldn’t abandon/compromise on dharma9.

Sadvrutta10, a section of Ayu-treatises explicitly deals with the “Individual-Societal” codes of conduct, the principle subject of Dharmashastra, instructing  a person to be “dharmik”. C.S recommends the study of dharmashastra as a means to attain moksha11 and in janapadodhwamsa (destruction en-masse)12, as a counter measure. A physician entering the medical profession with an aim of Bhuta-daya (~compassion, dharma par excellence) is said to achieve bliss13. These references provide a broader sense and application of “dharma” in Ayurvedic literature and explain that Ayurveda and dharma are not isolated. This implies that, mere practice of rituals like taking bath and “seemingly” contradictory nuances of meat eating alone is not the idea of dharma.

With regard to the “Meat and Medicine” issue the author has raised, it is always with reference to and in consultation with the co-sciences of Ayurveda like dharmashastra, that a concept/advice needs to be analysed as they are interwoven. Which is also why Ayurveda advises the readers to confer to dharmashastra in such matters.

Manu clearly says that it is okay for the brahmins to consume meat as part of yajna offerings and advises to abstain from it for a person in pursuit of moksha5. These statements seem schizophrenic5 to the author.

The author also brings up the concept of “Friendliness (maitri) / Compassion (karunya)”14 and wonders, how Ayurveda that propounds these principles, allows for the eating of animals. Although, this seeming contradiction has been clarified by Chakrapani (quoted by Author)14, it doesn’t seem to have convinced the author as he goes on claiming that the concept of “Friendliness/Compassion” is a Buddhist influence on Ayurveda14.

Author finds the purpose of Ayurveda also a bit mixed up. He claims that in the C.S:

“in some places “Trivarga (Dharma-artha-kama)”is said to be attained through Ayurveda, while “Chaturvarga ”(dharma-artha-kama-moksha)”in other places of C.S”15.

However, these are no contradictions but are misinterpretations/mixing up of mundane and spiritual priorities by the author. Ayurveda proves beneficial in both spheres. Trivarga and chaturvarga have been mentioned in samhitas, contextually

Dharma” & It’s deeper ramifications

Ayurvedic treatises are unequivocal about the significance of “dharma”. C.S when explaining the origin of “Atisara-roga” states that “In the age following the performance of sacrifice by Daksha-prajapati, the sons of Manu started “actually” assassinating the sacrificial animals as part of yajna and subsequently it became quite impossible to get other animals in required number and Prsadhra, started sacrificing even bulls and cows. Consumption of this caused dwindling of digestive fire and “loss of mental equilibrium”. Thus,“atisara-roga” originated”16. Janapadodhwamsa is said to be the offshoot of adharma17.These references show the extent of repercussions the acts of adharma could have in various strata.

Just like any other practice, meat-eating too should be in accordance with dharma, rules of which have been detailed unambiguously in M.S.

Author claims that, it was due to the rising popularity of vegetarianism, an influence of Jainism  that brahmins/orthodox medical community later were forced to adopt vegetarianism5. But, the fact is M.S, says “Nivrutti” is best when in pursuit of moksha, though having laid down the rules for meat-eating. The relevance/applicability of the guidelines in both mundane and spiritual spheres has been misrepresented, inserting a sense of incongruity. Meat-eating as a part of therapy is not conflicting, when done in accordance with dharma. However, details as to “who-when-where-how much” are vital is such matters. 

Dharma” & It’s concomitance with “Ayurveda”:

Ayu is the conglomeration of sharira(body)-indriya(senses)-satwa(mind)-atman18.The science dealing with ayu and aspects congenial-non congenial to it, is ayurveda19.It is not only the “physical body” that constitutes the ayu but a concomitant-conglomeration of these Corporal-Non corporal(ethereal) entities. Nurturing these aspects would nourish/enhance the ayu thereby facilitating sadhana. Reason why, “Swasthya(~Health)”20is defined as “Prasannata(Harmoniousness)”in corporal and non corporal entities like atman-indriya-mana-etc. This is the greater sense of “swasthya” and “medicine” in ayurveda.

Every disease, both physical and mental is invariably caused by “wrongful contact between senses with its objectsprajnaparadha-parinama”, as per ayurveda21.It is to prevent this wrongful contact that dharmashastra is essential. Indriyas (Senses) interface between corporal and non-corporal (mental-spiritual) aspects of the body and exert an influence on these spheres of human life. A prescribed contact/use of indriyas results in health and if not results in illness. It is as a measure to establish the rightful contact of senses with its objects, that the “sadvrutta”(Codes of conduct) have been introduced in Ayurvedic texts. These codes mainly work on taming the  indriyas (+mana) and acts as a facilitator to greater sadhana. This explanation of dharma being associated with Ayurveda makes no appearance in Author’s work. Ayurveda says that dharmic acts result in “bliss” and adharma causes “grief”22.This shows how Ayurveda is inseparable from dharmashastra. The conglomeration and consideration of both corporal & ethereal entities forms the very foundation of Ayurveda. This is where Ayurveda differs from “Medicine”. Hence, the abidance to dharma is essential for physio-spiritual aspects of life to remain healthy and to maintain a harmonious socio-cultural fabric of the society.

Dharmo rakshati rakshitah

Even though every act seems to be impacting only at an individual level, invariably it has a greater societal implication either sooner or later. Hence Indian tradition has laid out codes of conduct to enhance the health in physio-spiritual spheres of an individual, thereby benefiting the populace, as dharma/adharma is the one that shapes the destiny of the land through karma-sanchaya.

To conclude:

There are two crucial issues that need to be addressed while discussing dharma and Medicine(ayurveda) in the context of NOMA. 1.NOMA discusses about “Science” and “Religion” 2.NOMA tries prioritising/placing one doctrine above the other. Both of these are neither relevant nor applicable in the Indian context …

1. “Dharma” cannot be equated to “Religion” and “Medicine” to “Ayurveda”,as they are different in terms of the very definition and goals.

2. In the Indian context Dharma-Artha-Kama-Moksha are the four purusharthas (objectives) of human life.

Sciences dealing with any of these as its “primary subject matter” still propounds the final goal of an individual to be moksha and are all-inclusive, never isolated/divergent, so the question of one science winning over the other, does not come up.

In a nutshell, the entire discussion on “Dharma & Ayurveda” in the work “Medicine and dharma”1 by the Author has been done in orientation with “Religion & Medicine”.“Dharma”, however  is translated  as “righteousness” in his work, but has failed to embed the actual essence of Dharma and Ayurveda. The author, besides showing his contempt towards Manu M.S is also seen bringing up patriarchy3 as one of the reasons why medicine overpowered dharma in India.

Misinterpretations and trivializing the Indian paradigms may be due to a lack of comprehensive-understanding of the “Socio-ethical-cultural” milieu of India and due to the non-acquaintance to the nuances of “Traditional knowledge system, its transfer and preservation” in Bharata, which largely differs from the one in the west.

 Dharma”&“Ayurveda” are congruous, and complement each other. Hence, the issue of one subordinating the other does not arise.

Isolating Ayurveda from dharma is like ripping Ayurveda of its innateness.

Priyanka Shandilya is a practising ayurveda physician, based in Mysore. She completed under graduation and post graduation from Government Ayurveda Medical College, Mysore affiliated to Rajiv Gandhi University of Health sciences (RGUHS), Bangalore. (Read More)


1.Wujastyk.Dominik.Medicine and Dharma.JIP.2004:Pg:831-842


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