Empiricism in Ayurveda 


By Anu Paavola

I was engaged once in an interesting conversation on herbs and their medicinal properties with someone who had just retired after a long career in a well-known pharmaceutical company. Although quite skeptical of alternative healing methods he was still curious to hear what ayurveda had to offer. One of the things he asked me was if ayurveda was empirical or was it based on a philosophy. He meant if it was a system of belief rather than something based on hard evidence. My answer to him was that ayurveda is both a system of belief and is based on hard evidence, just like modern science. But, there is a significant difference in the approach with which these two systems observe the universe.

The premise of modern science is that knowledge is an experience based on sensory perception. Empiricism is a theory where truth is verifiable by sensory experience and the experience can be repeated over and over again with the same results. In this context we should expect the same results of, for example, a flu jab in every human, or same kind of nutritional benefit out of a carrot in anyone who eats one.

Ayurvedically speaking we more or less agree. We experience universe through our senses either through direct observation or deduction. We see, hear, smell, touch and taste things and can see they exist. Or, we see the effects of a phenomenon like electricity, or the mind, and decide they exist by causality.

What is different, first of all, is that ayurveda agrees that there are things and phenomena that cannot be perceived through senses or logical reasoning. Knowing can also come to us through intuition. In this respect modern scientific approach is not only reductive but negates the possibility for higher learning, which is the key to understanding the nature of the universe and how it evolves.

Secondly, Ayurvedic approach is an ancient empirical scientific method of observation through dynamic nature of things. Everything is a process. Nothing is stable and the conditions of any event are always different. Therefore modern scientific method of randomised control trials is partially flawed because the exact conditions can never be repeated faithfully. Real life experiences have a lot of variables, which are hard to control.

On this premise everyone will behave differently, in a unique way to anything they encounter on their way. So how can that be empirical? How can we ever measure anything when variables change all the time? The answer lies in sensory experience.

In mainstream education we learn to look at what things are made of and what are the component parts of things. With this we try to understand the nature of things and classify them accordingly. What I see, for example, now whilst writing, in front of me is a cotton cloth on a wooden table and a wall that is made of bricks. Or I see a cup of steaming rooibos tea, H2O with highly antioxidant tea leaves.

This kind of information has not much relevance in ayurveda because ayurvedically we observe the universe through its qualities. What is important is how things feel. The cotton cloth is soft, the bricks on the wall are hard and cold, the tea in the cup is hot and moist and the table underneath is stable and hard to touch.

Qualitative knowledge comes from the experience through five senses. The clues on the nature of substances come if we feel things being hot or cold, dry or moist, heavy or light etc. With this qualitative information we want to understand what kind of relationship we are going to form with anything we come in contact with.

Through qualities we can understand the nature of things we wouldn’t even be able to understand from the viewpoint of modern science. We do not know everything in the universe but we can always understand how they feel. For example with food, even without knowing how many carbs, proteins and fats they contain we can retrieve information on how it is going to behave in our body just by looking at its qualities. It tea is hot in my cup it will warm me up. If its ice tea it will cool me down.

Everything in the universe can be qualified somehow. Everything our minds think that can exist can be qualified with a term that comes to us by sensory experience connected with the mind. For the rational mind there is no other way of knowing than through the five senses. The qualities of things open up to us by observation with sight, touch, hearing, tasting and smelling.

So what is the real reason for this alternative way of observation? It is because nature balances itself through opposites. To think in opposites we need to have qualities, like hot and cold. We cannot find an opposite say to coffee, or an opposite to milk on basis of their nutrient content. But, we can find an opposite to some or many of their qualities. In fact, coffee and milk are almost exact opposites to each other’s qualities and no wonder they balance each other so well.

It is empirically true that dry always reduces moist. It is valid that heaviness balances lightness. Hot always regulates cold, but to what extent, depends on the case. Some people just tolerate heat better than others. The defining factor is their feeling and that can depend on what they’ve eaten, what emotional state they are in or have they just had exercise and so on.

This approach gives us a more flexible way to observe the universe, to understand better how we relate to everything around us and make sensible decisions in order to keep in balance, prevent and heal.

Ayurveda honours the specific situation as a starting point. There is no need to isolate the variables but to count them as defining factors in achieving results in any given moment. It is the particular situation that determines the line of treatment, healing and rejuvenating, strengthening and empowering.

Therefore, in healing the body and mind we start from finding the qualities present at that specific moment. Is there excess heat or cold, dryness or moisture, lightness or heaviness? If any of these are found in excess we apply the law of nature, which is the principle of opposites.

Everything is circumstantial, everything is relative and nothing is stable. Situations vary and their qualities change character. What stays is the balance through opposites: opposite qualities observable through five senses.

So, what about the philosophy part then? Is modern science based on a belief system?  The prevalent culture of scientism is a system of belief because there is no absolute empirical certainty that the science will give an answer to the meaning of life. Modern science, which moves ahead with the principle of ”valid until proven otherwise” has to accept the fact that some aspects of life and the nature of truth can only be conceptualized and that knowing can happen on a another level of consciousness. Ayurveda recognises the possibility of knowing the ultimate truth but this does not happen through the use of the rational mind. This happens by expanding consciousness, by taming of the mind and overcoming its power so that existential clarity can be achieved. And, there is no empirical way to prove this because it is a subjective journey of each individual. There is a potential for everyone to achieve this but it will happen in as many ways as there are humans on the planet. These experiences can be shared and whoever has gone through this process agrees on one thing. The rational mind, through the use of senses, is not able to describe the experience in one specific formula.

It took time for me to open my ayurvedic eyes and to start observing the universe from a different angle than I was used to. For a long time I also considered ayurveda to be something based on a belief until suddenly it revealed itself to me. I made a paradigm shift in the way I look at myself and the environment my body and mind communicate with. I realised how it is not, as the name and origin suggests, an Indian system of healing (although codified there) but a universal way of interpreting the world around us and finding balance in every specific moment.

I was happy also to open the eyes to this kind of approach for my 2-hour pharmaceutical acquaintance. We agreed that modern and ayurvedic science are by no means mutually exclusive, just two different ways of observing the beautiful universe around us. They both aim for the same purpose, finding the answer to the question on what is the purpose of it all. But, whilst modern science finds it difficult to accept what the senses cannot directly observe, ayurveda recognises a space of higher knowledge, which transcends the body, the senses and the mind.

Anu Paavola

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