David Frawley

Ayurvedic Healing: A Comprehensive Guide

Review by Eric R. Dorman, 2009

Ayurvedic Healing: A Comprehensive Guide, 2nd Revised and Enlarged Edition. By David Frawley. Lotus Press, 2000. 458 pages. $22.95.

Any author attempting to write a book on Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of medicine, does so in the face of immense resistance from the academy. Its vague textual tradition, seemingly primitive methods of practice, and strong acceptance among new age audiences tend to stigmatize Ayurveda so that neither the medical nor religion fields have much interest in its presentation, let alone its promotion. It would seem especially odd, then, that David Frawley, a figure already blacklisted by anthropologists for his theories on the origins of Aryan civilization in India, would be the person to produce a comprehensive book on Ayurveda that might just make academic inroads. Without ever mentioning any of Frawley's controversial anthropological views, Ayurvedic Healing: A Comprehensive Guide offers a well-written reference on the subject of ancient Indian healing that could appeal to both interested laypersons and specialists alike.

Ayurvedic Healing serves two purposes: to present Ayurveda as a useful system of medicine and to describe the exact science of that system. In executing these purposes, Frawley straddles the line between textbook and self-help guide. The underlying premise of the book is simple: Frawley believes that humanity is on the verge of a paradigm shift in the field of medicine toward a more holistic approach, and that the methods of Ayurvedic healing are at the forefront of this shift. Integration, moderation, and balance are the key concepts that pervade Ayurvedic Healing, which reads much like an Indian text is its systematic, repetitive structure. Interspersed between the descriptions of Ayurveda, Frawley places pointed social commentary on modern lifestyles, medicine, and psychology, particularly when it comes to the hyperactive tendencies of the West. He writes, “We are caught in a process of expending energy but not of renewing it.” (60) Frawley avoids modern medical terminology and definitions altogether, instead preferring to focus on the more subtle structures and causes prescribed by Ayurvedic thought. By the end Frawley mostly accomplishes his two purposes, falling short only in the realm of scholarly research and the usual pitfalls associated with the study of Ayurveda, such as attempting to rationally and empirically legitimize astrology and gem therapy.

Frawley structures the book in three parts: Ayurvedic living, Ayurvedic treatment of disease, and Ayurvedic formulations (specific recipes for herbal remedies, etc.). Part I takes care of Frawley's first purpose while Parts II and III take care of the other. Part I establishes the basic concepts of Ayurveda and its context within Indian thought. First and foremost are the three doşas (life-forces), which are the fundamental principles of a person's entire being, and the six tastes, which are correlational principles that classify just about everything that can be taken in or applied to the body. Once these concepts are in place, the book features a self-test to determine one's doşic constitution, an important part of determining which Ayurvedic treatments and therapies are appropriate for a given person. Here Frawley presents the key Ayurvedic notion that no single treatment will have the same result for every individual, a striking contrast to the worldview of modern medicine. It follows that the next section, Ayurvedic examination of disease, focuses more on determining the imbalance of an individual's doşas rather than naming a specific condition. Frawley finishes up Part I with three methods of preservation and prevention of disease: life regimens, diets, and therapies. Ayurveda states that one's life should be one of balance, frequent sattvic practices, and moderation, considering all aspects of one's being and thus emphasizing an integral worldview. The corresponding diet should also function mainly to balance one's physical makeup, keeping in mind the variations of individuals and their respective dietary needs. Finally, in the realm of preventative medicine, Frawley describes certain Ayurvedic therapies that allow the practitioner to reduce ama (toxins) and subsequently rebuild general nutrition. Descriptions of these therapies include a well-organized and detailed presentation of pańca karma, a procedurally delicate and physiologically severe cleansing of the body. Part I of Ayurvedic Healing alone could serve as a sufficient introduction to the subject and its thorough explanations help to make sense of the final two parts.

Parts II and III can be taken together as a detailed elaboration upon the specifics of the Ayurvedic system set up in Part I. Part II covers the Ayurvedic treatment of disease in which Frawley states that the goal “is to provide a comprehensive yet simple method for treating disease through understanding the underlying doşic imbalance.” (135) The following two hundred pages dive deeply into Ayurvedic treatments for just about every general disease one can think of, divided into the regions of the body or the general nature of the disease. Frawley starts with the digestive system, the main source of dietary intake and thus the source for much of the body's imbalance. Next comes diseases of the respiratory system, which are mostly concerned with prāņa (breath); diseases of the circulatory system, including the heart, which is considered the seat of consciousness in much Asian thought; diseases of the urinary and reproductive systems; and miscellaneous conditions including youth and old age. Frawley ends Part II by discussing Ayurvedic psychology. This section takes on a very important role in the book because it establishes the integral nature of Ayurvedic healing as care for the body-mind unit. While Frawley's dabbling in some of the woollier elements of Ayurveda detract from this main thrust, a subtle reading of these latter sections epitomize the worldview he attempts to establish. Part III can simply be summed up as a reference cookbook for the herbal remedies, mantra therapies, etc. discussed in Parts I and II.

Ayurvedic Healing is a monumental work that mostly accomplishes Frawley's goals in a well-constructed argument and a systematic approach which includes and intrigues the reader. On the structural level, Frawley does a masterful job with the sheer volume of material at hand. His writing is clear, simple and straightforward while still remaining thorough. Certain innate complexities of Ayurveda, such as sweet taste being both sattvic and a major causer of ama, are explained eloquently and laid out visually in simple charts throughout the book. His organizational skill comes through on the whole as the book is arranged in an effective pedagogical manner from start to finish. On the content level, Frawley serves his purposes well by maintaining certain motifs throughout the book. From the very first page Frawley sets the book within the Hindu tradition, providing enough information about the tangential topics of Hinduism to be helpful and periodically relating an aspect of Ayurveda to verses from classic religious texts. In effort to truly make Ayurveda relatable to the outside reader, he consistently includes comparisons with Chinese and Western herbal medicines. Additionally helpful are the occasional cross-cultural musings such as the inclusion of Christ in a section on meditation (74) and a recipe for making Indian buttermilk with American ingredients. (150) Central notions like the integral nature of Ayurvedic medicine - the body-mind cohesion - and the variety of human compositions never disappear for longer than a paragraph or two, grounding the abundance of detail in the coherent character of the Ayurvedic worldview. Above all else, the strength of Ayurvedic Healing is its comprehensiveness. The material within Parts II and III are invaluable to the study of Ayurveda from both a scholarly and personal perspective.

Where Frawley's book falls short is not so much in the pure content at hand, but in a few rough patches of presentation that simply cannot stand up to academic rigor. Structurally speaking, the same aspects that make Ayurvedic Healing a great reference source make it a tedious read. Inclusion of even more charts might help smooth out some of the repetitive spots of the text. On the content level, so much of this book could be enhanced and legitimized with the occasional footnote. While Frawley does cite several Hindu texts, he hardly cites from the purely Ayurvedic texts like the Caraka Samhitā and Astāņga Hrdaya. Such a lapse weakens his points and taints the work with an ill-informed sense of Indian perennialism. Frawley also has a bad habit of making counterintuitive qualitative claims and referencing medical studies that prove his Ayurvedic view without giving any citation whatsoever. When making the claim, for example, that studies have shown mercury to be nontoxic under certain circumstances (381), one badly needs a source. Finally, it must be stated that even though Ayurvedic Healing is a treasure trove of useful and relevant information, Frawley has written a book that exists on the fringes of scholastic research, often turning directly into a new age guide. The “fuzziness” and vagueness of some aspects of the book, which would be perfectly suitable in a personal theological or self-help piece, will (unfortunately) keep Ayurvedic Healing from mass acceptance in scholarly circles.

The immensity of Ayurvedic material and the preexisting vitriol for any attempt at studying it are enough of a deterrent for anyone who wishes to make their mark on the academic community. Yet David Frawley has made a valiant effort with Ayurvedic Healing. Frawley's presentation is solid, coherent, and contributive to the greater knowledge base both in religious studies and medicine. While topics such as astrology and gem therapy are so very difficult to present in the mainstream, these aspects of spiritual healing are simply part of the system; one cannot pick and choose parts when studying a whole. Therefore, even with the shortfalls of Frawley's work, the underlying integral philosophy and suggestions for a new paradigm of medicine are paramount to progress in the field of spirituality, medicine, and health. In all, it is a very effective introduction to a subject that warrants more scholarly eyes.