All Vedic knowledge, which Ayurveda is part of, aims at Self-realization – the recognition of our true nature (Atman or Purusha) as pure consciousness beyond body and mind. This is the highest goal of human life and grants us liberation from the cycle of rebirth, and ultimate bliss and immortality.
The knowledge that grants Self-realization is called Vedanta, which is the essence of Vedic knowledge. This is the higher Self-knowledge or Atma Vidya taught in the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita.
Ayurveda is an Upaveda, a Vedic branch aiming at wellbeing of body and mind. It addresses the treatment of disease (chikitsa) and the principles of right living. While Ayurveda accepts the ultimate Vedic goal of Moksha, liberation or Self-realization, it does not teach the specifics of how to achieve it. It does provide us important preliminary and background information and lauds the Vedic Rishis for deeper wisdom.
This means for Ayurveda to lead us to Self-realization one must also study Vedanta, based on the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, along with related teachings like the works of Adi Shankara, the great teacher of Advaita Vedanta and his modern representatives, including Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi and recent Vedantic gurus like Swami Chinmayananda and Swami Dayananda (Arsha Vidya).
From Ayurveda, Samkhya and Yoga to Vedanta
Ayurvedic students learn the Samkhya system of philosophy that forms the first phase of Ayurvedic programs. Samkhya is one of the key Vedic systems coming out of the Upanishads, and teaches us the nature of the Purusha or Atman, the higher Self, as well as the different tattvas or principles of the Cosmic Existence. Yet this study of Samkhya in Ayurveda is only introductory and does not include the broader study of Vedanta.
A study of Vedanta is also helpful for learning Yoga through the Yoga Sutras, which is based upon the Vedas and Samkhya. Vedanta represents the Yoga of Knowledge or Jnana Yoga, regarded as the highest of the Yoga approaches. While Yoga speaks of union with Divine or Self-realization at a practical level, the knowledge behind it is taught more specifically in Vedanta, revealing nature of the Self and how to experience it, through a process of Self-inquiry and deep meditation.
A study of Vedanta is essential for understanding Ayurvedic psychology. Ayurveda follows the understanding of the mind and consciousness in terms of Yoga and Vedanta, relative to the fourfold division of mental functions as chitta (background mental field or memory bank), buddhi (higher discernment), manas (outer mind) and ahamkara (ego), with the true Self or Atman beyond the mind. These mental functions (vrittis) and how to transcend them are clearly discussed in Vedanta.
Ayurveda’s approach to spirituality, what is called the Adhyatma Vidya in Vedic thought or the knowledge of the inner Self, similarly rests upon Vedanta, for which that is the prime subject matter. Without a proficiency inVedanta it is difficult to teach the spiritual view of Ayurveda in any traditional Vedic sense. For traditional Ayurveda the way beyond all spiritual sorrow is Self-realization, such as best described in Vedanta.
The Need for Vedanta in Ayurvedic Training Programs
Ayurvedic curriculums East and West should include at least the basics of Vedanta in their programs, which complement the teachings of Samkhya and Yoga Sutras that many students already examine. Charaka himself reflects the Vedantic view that there is only One Self in all beings. This unfortunately is rarely the case. Even in examining Ayurveda and spirituality and Ayurvedic psychology, Vedanta is seldom mentioned, much less explained in detail.
Such a study of Vedanta should include the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and key Vedantic texts like the works of Adi Shankara. It should examine modern Vedantins, including Swami Vivekananda, Rama Tirtha, Ramana Maharshi, and recent Vedantic teachers Swami Chinmayanada and Swami Dayananda (Arsha Vidya). This can provide the intellectual background and deeper insights on mind and consciousness that are often lacking in Yoga or Ayurvedic programs, which are necessary to teach meditation and Self-realization in the Vedic sense.
Many great Vedantins have also embraced Ayurveda. Many great Ayurvedic teachers have also embraced Vedanta. It is time for global Ayurveda to restore this essential Vedantic connection. The same group of Rishis are associated with Yoga, Ayurveda and Vedanta, including Hiranyagarbha, Vasishta, Bharadvaja, Vamadeva and Vishvamitra. We must understand the full and integral tradition.