THE SCIENTIFIC WISDOM BEHIND ANCIENT INDIAN CUSTOMS
The first question that is raised when an ancient custom or tradition is mentioned, is whether it has any scientific basis or is it just a superstitious practice. Scepticism demands concrete proof. सर्वे भवन्तु सुखिनः , a short series on physical and mental wellness as practised by ancient Indians specifically addresses this issue. It unravels the astonishing scientific wisdom of our ancestors, which has been handed down the generations in an unbroken chain. They achieved this by harnessing the power of the Five Elements or Pancha mahabhootas for their benefit, even while nurturing them in return, thus living in harmony with the Universe. Even in the 21st century, we have wise elders who continue with these ancient practices, helping those around them.
Amritavarshini, the author of this series, is one such wise elder, who has conducted extensive research into the customs and rituals related to health, among rural and tribal communities of our country. Learning from the wisdom of the elders in these communities, she has built on them with her own research through drugless therapies of India and the Far East. She not only advocates living in tune with Nature for a life of wellness but also strives to evoke and enhance the inherent divinity within each of us, by sharing practical examples, interesting tales and anecdotes to help us along on this learning odyssey. I am grateful to her for permitting me to publish the series on my blog.
सर्वे भवन्तु सुखिनः
Our ancestors had great knowledge about the factors that affect our lives and well-being. Using their common sense, they keenly observed every minute detail in their surroundings and natural forces and learnt, assimilated and used the knowledge thus gained, to give us an invaluable legacy of health imbued with spirituality. By ‘ancestors’, here, I mean those of all indigenous cultures and civilisations but with specific focus on Indian and Eastern cultures.
They had an astonishing knowledge not only about health and diseases but also knew the importance of the right food in preventing and managing disorders of the body. They harnessed the Five Elements or of pañca mahābhūta – Vāyu (air), Appu/Jala (water), Agni/Teyu (fire), Prthvī (Earth) and Ākāśa (sky/space/ether) – which are present both in Nature as well as the human body – to correct imbalances and restore good health. To achieve this, they set in place customs, rituals and traditions that would bestow the best of physical and spiritual health on us. If one were to study the customs and rituals followed by people of different cultures over centuries, one can appreciate their health benefits and how wise our ancestors had been to have instituted them.
Though both men and women of the ancient world possessed a good knowledge of health and diseases, it was the women who took care of the family’s welfare, including health and meals, who had practical experience. They knew precisely how to keep all the members fit and healthy. A grandmother could be equated to a senior family doctor, and the younger women to interns. All knowledge was transmitted down the generations through observation and practice and of course listening to elders, without the benefit of any notes.
When we look at Indian and other Eastern cultures, we will be amazed at their knowledge of Astronomy, Astrology and other cosmic sciences as well, though they did not call them by these names! They knew about climate variations and could predict natural calamities just by observing the changes in the behaviour of animals and birds more accurately than our meteorologists, with all their sophisticated equipment can do today. By studying them, they deduced the effect of the movement of the planets and other celestial bodies on the behaviour and health of the inhabitants of the Earth. Finally, they connected with the Divine within themselves by being connected and compassionate to all living beings, including plants.
While talking about predicting climate variations, I am reminded of a story: A tyrannical and whimsical Japanese emperor, once ordered that all old people in his kingdom be put to death, as they were not productive and were a drain on the resources. And so, all the unfortunate elderly were dragged to the gallows. However, one of the Generals of the emperor’s army decided to hide his elderly father at great risk to his life. He hid him in a cellar and cared for him.
Not long after that, there was a great commotion in the land. The sky darkened ominously with the raucous and panic-stricken screeching of thousands of birds rushing to the land from the direction of the sea. No one could tell what had caused this abnormal behaviour in the birds. There were no elders to consult – except the one hiding in the cellar of the General’s house. The moment he had heard the cries of the birds, the old man shouted a warning to his son: ‘A storm and tsunami are going to strike the land within the next two days. We must all flee this place!’
The General fled along with those who believed his father’s words to a safer place further inland just in time, for as his father had predicted, a tsunami struck the kingdom and destroyed it along with the demented emperor.
This might be just a story, but not very far from the truth. Remote communities and tribes that are untouched by modern trappings, rely on their elders’ knowledge of Nature’s ways even today. Unfortunately, generations of nuclear families and the increasing popularity of conventional medicine in both urban and rural areas have reduced the influence of elders in our society and consequently the importance of folk medicine and wisdom. It is a pity that a treasure trove of such wisdom is being lost due to scepticism, which are getting rejected as superstition and old wives’ tales.
The pañca mahābhūta mentioned above, have always been the guiding and governing forces of our well-being, despite sea changes in medical practices over the millennia. Thankfully, we have a clearer vision with proof, backed by scientific experiments and investigations under lab conditions, that the Five Elements are indeed the vital forces in our lives.
I will be dealing in detail with this concept – the pañcabhūta tattva – in the succeeding posts, explaining how they are intertwined with each other and how only the perfect balance can make for our physical and mental well-being. To illustrate the points, I will be giving examples from our rituals and customs and share anecdotes and stories to illustrate them.
A version of this post was first published in Jagrit Bharat.