Ayurveda, the most ancient and important system of medicine in India,  is important to modern natural medicine proponents(1) because it regards preserving health and curing diseases as fundamental in providing meaning to our lives.
For thousands of years it has been modified based on newer information but efforts have long been made to reconstruct a more authentic version of this treatise and its content and to assess the originality of the different versions of the text, which was written in Sanskrit.  

A group wants to make a renewed effort to explore Ayurveda - which was copied, rewritten and amended, which intentionally and unintentionally gradually changed the original message - piece by piece through analyzing the existing manuscripts.

They're doing it in, of all places, Austria.

And they're doing is using, of all things, evolutionary biology.

The chosen document is the so-called Carakasamhita: what historians regard as the most ancient and important of Ayurvedic treatises. It is arranged in eight volumes which address different areas and subjects of medicine. The complexity and size of this written work require an incremental analysis of the individual sections so a Vienna-based team of scientists is looking at the individual chapters of the third volume of the Carakasamhita, the Vimanasthana, and the fourth volume, the Sarirasthana.

The project leader, Prof. Karin Preisendanz, Director of the Institute for South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the University of Vienna, explains the role of the chapters being studied: "These sections in particular actually deal with fundamental topics in Ayurvedic thinking. Knowledge about human anatomy, embryology, pathology and the natural healthy state was written down in them, as well as thoughts about and ways of realizing a full lifespan."

Initially passed down through oral tradition, the subsequently written records of the Carakasamhita were repeatedly copied in the course of nearly two thousand years of history, leading to changes in the wording, which means that today, there are diverging manuscripts.

Ayurvedic treatises are stored between two wooden boards and wrapped in cloth
Traditionally, some of the most ancient and important Ayurvedic treatises are stored between two wooden boards and wrapped in cloth.  Shelves with bundles of manuscripts, Howrah Sanskrit Samaj, Howrah, West Bengal.  Credit: Karin Preisendanz

It is not known which parts of these "mutated texts" reflect the original way of thinking most accurately, but Preisendanz and her team believe evolutionary biology and its ability to analyze the evolutionary relationships of different species using cladograms, may provide the answer. Branching diagrams with two bifurcations in each branch allow biologists to trace the common origins of different organisms based on a comparison of characteristics and they have adapted it for the purpose of studying the Carakasamhita.

Computer-aided analyses help determine the common source of the different versions of the text. Based on the analyses and using methods of textual criticism, they say their project goal,   the reconstruction of a version of the Carakasamhita that is closer to its original form, can be realized.

Preisendanz believes it is also important to amend this "archetypical version" or "critical edition" with detailed insight into the analytical methods used and the transmission history of the work. This "critical edition" will then allow for content-related studies with regard to the history of Indian medicine, philosophy, religion and culture, as reflected in the Carakasamhita. 

The University of Vienna has a more than 100-year long tradition of philological-historical research focusing on South Asia. Three earlier projects from 2001 onwards, also headed by Preisendanz, produced new resources, such as the largest digital archive of manuscripts of Sanskrit medical works in the world, which the current project will continue to build on and supplement. 

University of Vienna regards itself as a leading center of critical editions and translations of ancient Indian Sanskrit writings and this project is funded by the Austrian Science Fund.


(1) Homeopathy proponents have taken to claiming that homeopathy and natural medicine are the same thing.  That is the kind of marketing skullduggery homeopathy has always been famous for but do not be fooled.