Ayurveda is for everyone, and, being a Westerner, Dr. Svoboda succeeds in eloquently and poetically delivering this information !
Robert Svoboda is the first Westerner ever to graduate from a college of Ayurveda and be licensed to practice Ayurveda in India.
Tutored in Ayurveda, Yoga, Jyotish, Tantra and other forms of classical Indian lore, he is the author of twelve books including the very famous “Prakriti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution” and the “Aghora” trilogy, which discusses his experiences with his mentor during the years 1975–1983.
As per Indian Vedic culture, one should be grateful to those who provides us knowledge, skills and directions. And here, dear doctor, let me express my gratitude for your guidance throughout my own ayurvedic research !
Interview by Armanda Dos Santos
1. Dear doctor, your are the first Westerner to graduate from a college of ayurvedic medicine and to be licensed to practice ayurveda in India. May I ask you how Ayurveda became your subject of study ?
Robert Svoboda : After getting a bachelor’s degree in the USA I was admitted to a medical school there, but before beginning that course of study went traveling in Africa, Europe and Asia.
After being exposed to traditional African modes of healing I began to question my dedication to modern medicine. I first heard about Ayurveda in Nepal, and later when in Mumbai (which was Bombay back then) I was very fortunate to have met just the right people, thanks to whom I was promptly granted admission into the Tilak Ayurveda Mahavidyalaya in Pune, where I studied from 1974 through 1980.
2. A thorough understanding of any system of healing requires some knowledge of the culture it came from. And language reflects what a culture is about. Just as Western medical vocabulary is based on Latin words, Eastern medical (Ayurvedic) vocabulary is based on Sanskrit words. My question is, how can we call ourselves therapists without some basic knowledge of sanskrit?
Robert Svoboda : Ayurveda means “the science of life”, or “the art of living”, or “the lore of longevity”, and as such at base it is a knowledge born of practice; Ayurvedic theory has emerged from practical experience, and must always remain subservient to practical experience.
To paraphrase Sushruta, the author of Ayurveda’s chief text on surgery, whenever you find your personal experience to be at variance with the theory, don’t hesitate: immediately jettison the theory.
As such we can certainly attempt to understand Ayurveda without a proper understanding of Sanskrit, because the foundation text of Ayurveda is the Book of Life itself. Moreover, there still exist traditions of Ayurveda that are separate from the Sanskritic tradition, though most of these remain gurugamya – accessible only via a teacher.
And, much or most of the details Ayurveda that are contained in the Samhitas can be adequately translated into other languages. If however we wish to be able to truly think in the way that they authors of the Samhitas thought, then a familiarity with Sanskrit becomes very helpful.
3. Both Yoga and Ayurveda systems come from a philosophy called “Sankhya ». Could you explain briefly this concept ?
Robert Svoboda : Though strongly dualist in its classical form, the Sankhya (or Samkhya) philosophy has found wide application in non-dualism as well. Sankhya teaches that there are two realities in the universe – purusha (consciousness) and prakriti (matter, however subtle) – and that living beings arise via a process of evolution in which consciousness becomes progressively more entangled in matter.
Sankhya’s importance to Ayurveda and Yoga lies particularly in its usefulness in explaining how awareness manifests itself through matter, how the actions of the sense organs influence both body and mind, and how this knowledge can be employed to make mind, body and spirit healthier and better integrated, for bhoga (enjoyment) and yoga (spiritual development) alike.
4. Being a Westerner you are fortunate enough to have acquired this knowledge first-hand in India. In one of your books, « Aghora: at the left hand of god », you describe the story of a Hindu shaman, through the journey of Tantra. Could you explain the relation between Ayurveda and Tantra?
Robert Svoboda : At base, both Ayurveda and Tantra recognize that the Five Elements (earth, water, fire, air, space) form the material basis of embodied life, and that the mind exists as a kaleidoscope of permutations of the Three Gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas).
The basic difference between the two is that Ayurveda focuses on balancing the Elements and Gunas for the purpose of creating and maintaining happy, well-integrated living individuals, and Tantra focuses on purifying the Five Elements and aligning the Three Gunas for the purpose of better aligning human awareness with cosmic awareness.
5. This book has a great deal of information on a reality not perceivable by most humans, and the highly secret (and often misunderstood) practices of left-hand Tantra. May I ask you the difference between “right-handed” and “left-handed” Tantra ?
Robert Svoboda : More than one definition exists of the difference between “right-handed” and “left-handed” Tantra; for example, according to one tradition all rituals in “right-handed” Tantra are dedicated to a single deity, while in “left-handed” Tantra multiple deities are targeted.
The more common distinction between the two can be expressed best as the difference between practices that are based chiefly in sattva and those based chiefly in rajas and tamas.
Though both sets of practices seek to transcend the Three Gunas, the “right-hand” path does so while remaining safely within the realm of sattva, while the “left-hand” path seeks speedier, more intense progress by employing difficult-to-digest, replete-with-rajas-and-tamas substances and actions.
6. This book illumines us as to how this “dark side” is as valid a part of God and Creation as the “bright side » is. This can be something complex to conceive. Could you explain the beliefs and practices of the Left-Hand path?
Robert Svoboda : To me the specific details of the many and varied beliefs and practices of the Left-Hand Path are less important than the attitude you apply to them.
Serious Left-Hand practitioners often need to spend as much time (or more) carefully burning away the psychological “inflations” that accompany the influx of powerful shakti that accompanies successful Left-Hand sadhana as they do performing the sadhanas themselves.
Failing to do so can cause one to turn to the “dark side”, and become a black magician – which is sadly the fate of many who start out on the Left-Hand Path with the best intentions.
We know light only because there is also shadow; but the aim of the Left-Hand Path is not to learn how to live in the shadows, but rather how to bring the light of the Self into the shadowiest portions of the self.
7. You are also the author of a wonderful book « Ayurevda for Women », which provides practical advice on exercise, sleep, diet, beauty care, meditation and massage, sex and relationships, childcare, and menopause. As a woman « in progress », I need to thank you for that! So, according to you, why Ayurveda is particularly ideal for healing and empowering the female body, mind, and spirit?
Robert Svoboda : The average non-farmer human male could if he wished live his life, however unhealthily, with no appreciation whatsoever for the month, or “moonth”, the natural cycle created for us by the moon.
Every human female, however, learns the meaning of “month” early on and has her life conditioned by that cycle for many decades. A woman is therefore naturally empowered to directly feel within herself the multiple cycles of time as they influence substance and action, which permits her to experience Ayurveda’s understanding of life and its cycles in a particularly profound, intuitive way.
8. In « Tao and Dharma » you look at the connections and divergences in philosophy and praxis between the traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, examining side by side those two great systems of medicine and their traditional healing techniques. Could you explain the close relationship of both systems?
Robert Svoboda : Both Chinese and Indian medicine understand the internal life of an embodied being to be a reflection on a small scale of the life that exists outside us in the world of nature; both understand that only by paying adequate attention to and appropriately aligning with that external world can the inner world of the human being be happy and healthy.
Both salute prana (qi or chi, in Chinese) as the all-powerful life-force, and both understand that good health is dependent on the unobstructed movement of that life force throughout body and mind so that just the right amounts of heat and cold, wetness and dryness, and heaviness and lightness will manifest in just the right space at just the right moment.
These two systems understand life in fundamentally the same way, though they elaborate their understanding differently, guided by differences in their climate, terrain, and culture.
Thank you doctor !