Celebrating Light: Understanding Culture in Ayurvedic Medicine

At about 3am around this time last year in India, I was abruptly awoken to the sound of what I later found out to be local (yes, very local) fireworks. 3am-excitement is hard to contain when it’s your New Year and you have a celebration awaiting you which draws on so many stories and traditions inherent to your culture and to your identity.  Identity is also integral to any system of medicine or healing, even biomedicine, and as Diwali is upon us, it is interesting to consider at least some of the cultural aspects of Ayurvedic Medicine in order to evoke a better understanding of its meaning and application.

photo credit: Travel Plan India, Rajasthan Travel

This year, October 26th marks the first day of Diwali, otherwise known as the “festival of lights” which celebrates the triumph of good over evil and the lifting of spiritual darkness with the light of hope.  Diwali is a festival for which the date upon which it falls is determined by the luno-solar Hindu calendar (meaning that the date indicates both the moon phase as well as the time of the solar year) which originates from the Vedanga Jyotisha, an Indian text on the “science of lights” or “spiritual bodies”.  Jyotisha (Vedic Astrology), like Yoga Philosophy, is considered to have arisen parallel to and to be interconnected with Ayurvedic Medicine.  All three systems hold their roots in ancient scriptures known as the Vedas, which include passages that date back as far as 6,000 BCE.

Modern-day India claims a very extensive history to the culture that still exists today.  One remarkable aspect of India’s culture today is that it still remains very traditional, with the average Indian taking pride in his traditional culture even with all the effects of globalization that are normally strong enough to sway the roots of a culture, plant new seeds, and take firm ground.

Ayurveda is even more traditional, largely because of the practices that it encourages as a way to maintain health. For example, integral in ensuring that health is maintained and preventative measures for imbalance are carried out to the greatest extent possible, Ayurveda encourages “swasthavrutta” or “healthy behavior”.  Healthy behavior includes not only guidelines for how to carry out one’s day such as what are the best herbs to maintain oral health (which have been shown by recent research to be significantly more effective than commercial toothpaste for maintaining tooth and gum health) but also what emotions and behaviors to cultivate.  For instance, in addition to respecting all people and maintaining a broad-minded view, it is especially important to respect teachers, elders, saints, and parents.  That this behavior is followed is evident in everyday life: in an Ayurvedic hospital or college, as a gesture of respect, the students rise when their “sir” or “madame” enters the room.

There are several aspects of Diwali which are in line with Ayurvedic principles.  The celebration includes all manners of festivities, including offering gifts of sweets to friends and family and the performing of religious rituals, or pujas, to the gods.  With Diwali falling at the end of October, the seasons are slowly beginning to change and Hemant, one of the two cold seasons, is setting in.  Many of those celebrating Diwali (and even those not) would be happy to hear that it is at this time that the eating of heavy sweets is encouraged in order to strengthen the body (sweet tastes are associated with building strength, with both qualities being associated with Kapha- the bioenergy of stability and strength).  Ayurveda also recognizes the benefit of performing rituals to the gods given that some illnesses are of a spiritual nature, due to one’s karma, or that they may help to ease the mind, and therefore help to create more balance in a state of imbalance.  In other words, the power of the mind and the spirit are given recognition and are very much interconnected with the functioning of the body.

For those of us on the other side of the world, what can we draw from this?  One is that culture is integral with a medical system and this is helpful to keep in mind as a mechanism of awareness when it comes to assessing a state of individual or communal health.  If you are interested in Ayurved, it is beneficial to understand some of the culture involved so as to better understand how to apply it in the culture and environment that is particular to you.  Beyond this, it is beautiful to celebrate light.

Yesterday I gave a presentation on Reiki and Stress Management and I suppose my way of celebrating the first day of Diwali, though no where near traditional, was to speak about light- the communication network in the body which functions with the signaling of biophotons; the creation of the earth’s electromagnetic field through lightning, with which our brain waves can become synchronized under certain states of consciousness; and how to cultivate awareness and compassion through the heart (which claims the largest electromagnetic field of the body) as a way to manage and ease stress.  Light is everywhere, inside and out, if only you look for it. …Let your eyes light up- celebrate.  It’s good to be alive.