Dr. Robert Svoboda is the first Westerner ever to graduate from a college of Ayurveda and be licensed to practice Ayurveda in India. During and after his formal Ayurvedic training he was tutored in Ayurveda, Yoga, Jyotish, Tantra and other forms of classical Indian lore by his mentor, the Aghori Vimalananda. He is the author of more than a dozen books including Prakriti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution and the Aghora series, which discusses his experiences with his mentor during the years 1975 – 1983.
Aghora: At the Left Hand of God is an enthralling description of his guru Vimalananda’s experiences, and the wisdom of the ancient discipline of Aghora. The second volume – Aghora II: Kundalini – describes Aghora as a "super tantra", a Path of Devotion to the Great Mother Goddess Kundalini, here manifesting with the name and image of the Goddess Tara. In the third volume, Aghora III: The Law of Karma, Dr Svoboda writes about his guru’s fascination with the Bombay racetrack as a metaphor for the game of life, intertwining them together.
In these books, Dr Svoboda describes his guru as an Aghori, so one can’t help wondering if there are any such ascetics anymore? Dr Svoboda says that he has no idea if there are any people like his mentor or his mentor’s ‘Junior Guru Maharaj’ any more. Dr Svoboda met Junior Guru Maharaj (whom he just calls “Guru Maharaj”) many times. His samadhi lies to the west of Visakhapatnam, very near the Simhachalam temple. That temple is dedicated to Lord Narasimha, but as Dr Svoboda says, “it is an unusual shrine as the image is actually a combination of Varaha and Narasimha.”
Dr Svoboda says there are certain things that only happen in India. One of such things is that Guru Maharaj, whose full name was Sri Ram Vishwambhar Das Ji and who was known by many as “Jatala Sadhu”, possessed a certificate from the Archaeological Survey of India (which Svoboda saw several times). The certificate declared that Ram Vishwambhar Das was found in the year 1905 during an excavation of a temple in Puri district, a temple that had collapsed 200 years earlier. Jatala Sadhu was found in a state of jiva samadhi, and an expert from Puri had to be brought to bring him down out of his samadhi, after which he lived on Earth for another 88 years. As Dr Svoboda says, “He was a most extraordinarily unusual human being, and people like this have lived in India for thousands of years. Most likely there are still people like him, but they are still hidden. If you want to do any serious sadhana, especially nowadays, you have to go out of your way to find someplace where no one is going to bother you.”
Dr Svoboda then recounted his interactions with a sadhavi originally from Mangalore who lived for many years in Tapovan, above Gaumukha, which is above Gangotri. “She even used to spend winters up there, completely snowed in, with only a bag of rice and a bag of daal. The only reason that she eventually came down from Tapovan was because people had heard about her and they kept coming to Tapovan to bother her and this interrupted her sadhana. Such people were coming to her just from the perspective of kutuhalata (curiosity) instead of from the perspective of Jijñāsā, a sincere desire to learn. This is why good sadhakas usually avoid the public.”
Clearly, his mentor Sri Vimalananda and these sadhakas have had a profound impact on Dr Svoboda. He says the influence Vimalananda had was so profound and so lasting that it's hard to come up with one thing in his teaching that was most important to me. But I would have to say, if I had to come up with one thing, it would be the lesson that when you are trying to make spiritual progress, you have to carve out your own niche.” Vimalananda belonged to a hereditary Baniya family and his sampradaya was the Pushti Sampradaya of Mahaprabhu ji Vallabacharya. His mother and father, however, were devotees of Sri Thakur Haranath, a Bengali saint, and Vimalananda himself became an Aghori. “Vimalananda,” Svoboda informs us, “always liked to say that he did not believe in sampradaya but rather in sampradaha, in complete incineration. He would tell everyone to burn down everything that is getting in your way of perceiving reality with the greatest possible clarity. So, taking that advice I have exposed myself to many different sampradayas. I have focused chiefly on reality rather than any one particular sampradaya and it has certainly been, for me at least, the best way to move forward.”
After being ritually initiated into the Pokot tribe of northern Kenya as its first white member in June 1973, Dr Svoboda moved to India, where he lived from 1973-80 and 1982-86, receiving his Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery (Ayurvedacharya) from the University of Poona in 1980. In his final year of study at the Tilak Ayurved Mahavidyalaya he won all but one of the University of Poona’s awards for academic excellence in Ayurveda, including the Ram Narayan Sharma Gold Medal.
CSP interviewed him during his stay at Vaidyagrama recently. He says his connection to AVP and Coimbatore goes back to a 1983 conference on Asian systems of medicine, held in Mumbai, when he met Vaidya Krishna Kumar, then head of AVP. Krishna Kumar invited him to come visit, and Dr Svoboda did so the very next year. Dr Svoboda says that even then he was interested in Ayurveda not just for treating others but also for enhancing his own personal health, as he believes strongly in "ātmānaṃ satataṃ rakṣet”, that one should always take good care of oneself. He has accordingly been undergoing annual Ayurvedic treatments for general health and rasayana purposes since 1985. Initially he would visit Vaidyaratnam in Ollur-Thaikkattussery which is south of Thrissur. Then he started going to Shreedhari, which is east of Thrissur, and since Vaidyagrama’s inception he has been going there.
Prior to undertaking his education in India, he said that he had to shed his “Western aloofness” to embrace a more direct-contact kind of exploration of Ayurveda to provide a better picture of its complete reality. Each traditional Indian knowledge system has its own list of pramanas, which are means by which knowledge can be gained. Ayurveda recognizes four pramanas, listed in order of which should be regarded as most reliable. The first is pratyaksha, which indicates personal experience, and literally means prati-aksha or “that which is in front of your eyes”. Pratyaksha means direct perception of a thing.
However, as Dr Svoboda comments, what we experience via our sense organs is not really ‘reality’. Instead it is a representation of reality that our senses present to us as being ‘reality’. He comments, “Therefore Vimalananda ji was very fond of saying to people, ‘anubhava siddha karo!’ Refine your anubhava, your experience, perfect it, really make it siddha. Develop it so that you really are sure that the experience you're having is an accurate experience.”
The second approach to validation is anumana. “Anumana means inference. The traditional example of inference is, ‘Yatra yatra dhumah, tatra tatra vahnih’ – wherever there's smoke, there's fire. Even if you can't directly perceive fire, if you can directly perceive smoke, something that comes from fire that always comes from the fire and never appears without fire, then you can be sure that fire is somewhere nearby.”
The third method is upamana, meaning analogy, a comparison that focuses on the similarities between two things. The most common example of upamana in Ayurveda is how the methods of dhatu poshana (nutrition of the dhatus) are described. Having done his undergraduate degree in chemistry in the US before coming to India, Dr Svoboda was clearly excited by the complex theories offered by Ayurveda to explain natural phenomena. These theories, which have for centuries been the subject of debate by various commentators, offer useful ways of looking at physiological processes via analogies.
One theory is the Ksheera Dadhi Nyaya, which proposes that one dhatu (tissue) is completely converted into another dhatu, just as milk (ksheera) is completely converted into dahi or yoghurt (dadhi) when a little yoghurt is added to the milk. Another theory is the Kedara Kulya Nyaya, an agricultural example, which compares the flow of water within the furrows in a field to the flow of nutrients within our circulatory system. A third theory is the Khale Kapota Nyaya, which compares the collection of grains by pigeons according to their needs to the selectivity of tissues in selecting the nutrients that they require.
The fourth pramana in Ayurveda is aptavakyam or aptopadesha, which means the testimony of experts. “If you can't figure anything else out, you can still go to someone who is an expert and request them to comment on something that lies within their realm of expertise. This is the least reliable pramana, because no human is infallible. But it is better than nothing. Moreover, whenever you can identify more than one pramana that applies to a question you can naturally be more confident of your conclusion, just as triangulation helps to pin down particular locations on Earth.”
This is particularly important today, says Dr Svoboda, when perception is often more unreliable than ever before: “A lot of what we see today is extremely untrustworthy as we move further into ‘deep fake reality'. We now see more and more of reality’s superficial aspects instead of its deeper truths. In this context there is one factor that is generally not considered but that I personally believe is utterly essential to take into account. With regard to pratyaksha most people believe that the eye is the source of visual perception, when in reality the eye only takes in light. What we see is actually the result of complex calculations performed in the brain’s visual cortex, calculations that are then interpreted by the faculty of pashyanti, which is pre-verbal. The word pashyanti comes from a Sanskrit root that means “to see”. Pashyanti, which manifests at the Manipura, is the source of intuition. Back in the days of the Vedas Ayurveda was not learned or taught in the language that we associate it with today. Instead the rishis perceived reality directly, and communicated their knowledge through pashyanti. That is the kind of pratyaksha that is really reliable.”
One major concern today is the passing off of ancient Indian practices as modern discoveries. Asked about a recent article in Scientific American which mentions pranayama but focuses on breathing exercises to promote cardiac coherence, Dr Svoboda replied, “At least the article mentions pranayama; other articles that describe breathing techniques often fail to acknowledge their ultimate source. Here again, the emphasis is on the most superficial layer of human existence: the physical body. Sadly, this is required today, for so many, many people have no idea whatsoever of how to properly breathe. Human beings have one muscle for breathing, which is the diaphragm, the large muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen. Too many people, though, try to breathe with their intercostal muscles, whose only job is to open the rib cage to permit more air to enter your lungs. When you mainly breathe with your intercostal muscles instead of with your diaphragm, those tiny muscles get tired out easily, making you breathe more shallowly, which will make you start to become anxious, which may even lead to a panic attack. My hope is that as people re-learn these basic principles of good health they will become more interested in the many more principles that Ayurveda and our other classical Indian sciences have to offer to the world.”
Sadly, even in India doctors trained in modern medicine are taught that Ayurveda is obsolete. As Svoboda observes, “Modern science tends to ignore simple solutions and focuses only on sophisticated remedies because they can be more easily commercialised. It is easier to make money selling pills than it is to teach people to breathe properly! As Bhartrhari sardonically observed long ago, ‘sarve gunaah kaanchanmashrayanti” – all good qualities are located in wealth. Even in the past most ordinary people had more value for money than for learning; back then it was gold, now it is cryptocurrency, that is the only difference.”
The difference between modern medicine and Ayurveda, Dr Svoboda says, is that modern medicine does not have a concept of health except to equate health with “absence of disease”. In contrast, the absence of disease, or arogya, is only the first of three definitions of health in Ayurveda. “The second definition is svastha, which means “being established in oneself”. Sushrutha, the famous Ayurveda surgeon, wrote, “sama dosha sama agnischa sama dhatu mala kriyaaha | prasanna atma indriya manaha svastha iti abhidheeyate’. This means that to be healthy from a physical point of view you require “sama dosha, sama agni, sama dhatu, sama mala, sama kriya”, which means that you should enjoy homeostasis, meaning that all your physiological processes should be in balance with one another. And to be healthy from the non-physical perspective, “prasanna atma indriya manaha'' – your mind, sense organs and atma should be prasanna.”
Samata (equanimity) and prasannata (tranquillity, satisfaction) are not the same. Dr Svoboda says that today what people perceive will make them prasanna very commonly makes the body vishama or out of balance. “This is because they believe that only through sensory indulgence can they become prasanna. But a focus on sensory indulgence tends to create upadha, allurement or enticement, which leads you into becoming dependent on something external to you which you then believe will make you happy. The one thing that can make you both healthy and tranquil is to have a healthy relationship with something that is inside you, namely your own prana.”
One of the real deficiencies of modern medicine, he adds, “is that it believes there is no such thing as prana, when in fact every human being can experience their own personal prana, can learn to circulate it in the body, and can learn to monitor it. When you monitor your prana you are monitoring the state of your own health. People keep looking outside for the source of good health when it is within each one of us.”
“The ancient tradition of Bharata Varsha is that one should be able to identify reality internally and then “consider how best to represent that reality externally. Now everything is inverted and people are trying to do everything externally and ignore everything internally. It is not surprising that the result is a lot of trouble to individuals and to society alike,” laments Dr Svoboda.
Ayurveda offers a third definition of health which is sukha. The definition of Ayurveda in the Charaka Samhita, he points out, is “hitaahitam sukham duhkham ayustasya hitaahitam maanam cha tacca yatroktam ayurvedah sa ucyate.” “The first part is the most important: hitaahitam sukham duhkham. Ayurveda focuses on understanding what will to promote (hita) sukha and what will not promote (ahita) dukkha. Su means good and kha means space (aakaasha). When all the spaces around you, internal and external, exist in a relatively harmonious condition, then you can say that you are enjoying sukha.”
He adds that sukha does not mean pleasure, instead it means being in a state “where things are as they should be according to you and your personal dharma. Everyone should have either a parent, a mentor or guru to assist in comprehending personal dharma. If you don't know your dharma, you will not know how best to proceed in your life. As the Gita tells us,“swa-dharme nidhanaṁ śhreyaḥ para-dharmo bhayāvahaḥ” – it is better to die following your own dharma than to try to follow some other dharma. Trying to live a life that is not appropriate for you is bhayāvahaḥ, terrifying. And when there is terror, there will be aggravation of vata, which will prevent your prana from keeping you healthy. When prana is obstructed, agni will become weak. Then instead of creating healthy rasa you will instead become filled with ama, with toxins, and then you will fall ill and lose your satisfaction in life. Modern medicine has no concept of any of this, and so it is foolish to consider modern medicine to be a fully integrated system of health and healing.``
Dr Svoboda mentions sama dhatu and how everything has to be in homeostasis for an individual’s body to function well and for that person to be healthy. Varsha Venkatraman asks him about his courses on the microbiome related to Ayurveda and about the gaps in modern science, and research on the microbiome that Ayurveda can fill. Dr Svoboda says that to begin with, modern medicine’s method of identifying active principles and their attempt to find a single cause that creates one effect does not always work. The basic variety of treatment in Ayurveda is yukti vyapashraya chikitsa, physiological medicine, which is based on the awareness that all conditions are created from many different causes coming together. In Ayurveda the word yukti is defined as bahu-karana-yoga-ja, “created from the union of many causes.”
The problem with modern medicine is that it declares a virus or bacteria or something similar to be ‘the’ cause of the disease while ignoring the environment in which the disease grows. Ayurveda teaches that health and disease alike are chiefly created by the conjunction of four factors: rtu, kshetra, bija and rasa.
“Rtu sandeeshu vyadayoh jayante - diseases get created at the junctions of seasons. When your internal environment is not well aligned with your external environment, that provides an opportunity for a disease to arise. Kshetra means “field”. In general your kshetra is your body, but in the context of pathology any location in your body that has kha vaigunya, any place where your channels of circulation and communication have lost their good qualities and have become functionally effective, becomes the kshetra in which the disease will grow. Bija is the seed, maybe a microbe, maybe a thought, whatever it is that starts to grow there and produces the illness when it is nourished by toxic rasa, or ama, which can be physical, mental, emotional, spiritual or a combination of these. Ama rasa can also be created by actual poisons, including heavy metals.
For a physical disease to be created there must be kha vaigunya, an organ or other body part that has been so damaged that prana cannot properly circulate within it, which will prevent agni from being properly enkindled, which will pollute rasa further, which will nourish the disease. It is only when all these factors come together in a particular way that a disease will be created.
Until just a few years ago modern scientists believed that our microbiomes had very little to do with our health. Only now are modern scientists starting to realise that an individual human being is not just human but rather has to be understood as a community of species, a community in which very particular relationships have been established and must be maintained in order for health to be preserved. These relationships must also possess samataa or balance if the microbiome is to function properly and if the individual is to be healthy.”
Working with the microbiome is also part of yukti vyapashraya chikitsa. “Modern medicine,” says Dr. Svoboda, “has a very primitive understanding of Ayurveda’s second type of treatment, sattaavajaya, or “overcoming the thinking mind”, and it has no concept whatsoever of Ayurveda’s third type of treatment, daiva vyapashraya chikitsa, which uses puja, homa, tarpana and other types of rituals to exert effects on the subtle body and to interact with the non-physical realities of the astral world.”
Going forward, Dr Svoboda says that a substantial number of modern scientists will be unable to understand the microbiome at all, because they will be “unwilling to let go of their drishti or their perspective of how things work. There will be others who will realise that the paradigm of modern medicine is simply not working because it is so limited to the material world. In Ayurveda, we do not always tell a patient that everything will be great, but we always sincerely believe that something can be done for the patient, because faith is the main thing that causes people to get well.”
Dr Svoboda maintains that while pills, manipulations and surgery can be valuable interventions, faith is the most important healing factor by far, because it activates the placebo effect and it connects our awareness to prana, the source of life. There are two common words in Sanskrit for faith. The first is vishvasa, which literally means “special breathing”. This indicates aligning your breath with your life purpose and your determination to improve and get well. This alignment permits prana to enliven you. The other word for faith is shraddha, which comes from the root hrt, from which we get the word hrdaya, which means heart. Only when you put your heart into your actions, when you become emotionally invested in getting well, are you likely to actually get well.``
Faith and belief in recovery can be severely challenged when a person has mental health issues. Dr Svoboda refers to Ayurvedic texts that talk about unmada which is often translated as mania. “But it can also refer to any kind of fixed idea that you grab hold of. To treat it the text recommends that you start at the beginning, by breathing properly, eating properly, establishing a healthy daily routine, and the like. Of course if a person is not able to focus on anything at all it may be difficult to get them to focus even on eating properly and breathing properly, but we must try. We can ask them to focus for short periods of time, starting on their breath, and then add practises in a step-by-step fashion. The whole principle of being able to live successfully in life is to be able to identify what needs to be done at a particular moment and to attempt to do it.”
Smt Vijayalakshmi Vijayakumar asked Dr. Svoboda about the difference between the approach to healing in Ayurveda and modern medicine in today’s times, and how Ayurvedic practitioners are adapting to a changed world.
Dr Svoboda replied that even in the 1970s when he was studying Ayurveda in Pune there was a divide between those who supported Shuddha Ayurveda and those who supported Mishrita Ayurveda. Those who supported Shuddha Ayurveda maintained that Ayurveda should serve as the basis of the medical system and that life-giving therapies could be added when classical Ayurvedic treatments were insufficient. Those supporting Mishrita Ayurveda believed that modern medicine was the valid approach to medicine and that whatever was useful in Ayurveda should be taken out of the Ayurvedic context and integrated into modern medicine. Dr Svoboda commented that this divide remains even today, and added that unfortunately, nowadays, most students of Ayurveda no longer have the same degree of exposure to true experts that he did.
He says that it is a situation where sadly “there is much focus on trying to make Ayurveda more allopathic instead of trying to really understand and work with the system. A better approach would be to try to integrate your thinking processes into your own personal darshana, your way of seeing the world, and then try to understand the tenets of modern medicine, which can be very useful.”
Finally, when asked if any aspect of Ayurveda will in the years to come win a Nobel Prize for either medicine or chemistry, Dr Svoboda said that would require those on the selection committee to expand their own perspectives on medicine. “While I certainly think it's quite possible, I don't see that happening in the next 10 years or even 20 years. People must first realise that the paradigm of modern medicine has gone as far as we can go with it. I don't see that there is anything in modern medicine that can or has that same perspective on reality that either Ayurveda or Chinese medicine, so I think it's going to require a paradigm change among modern scientists.”
He adds that modern people in general will need to change their way of thinking if they are to understand Ayurveda, and that Ayurveda itself will need to learn how to explain itself better so that modern people can understand it. “We all need to be thinking more in terms of multifactorial causation, and more in terms of gunas of qualities and attributes. Modern medicine is all about quantity. The number of beats of the pulse is important, but are the characteristics of the pulse that cannot be expressed in numbers. The number of times a minute that a person breathes is significant, but often not as significant as the quality of the breathing. Ayurveda is all about quality. It’s all about appreciating, understanding and utilising guna dharma.”
(Cover picture and interview courtesy Vaidyagrama, Coimbatore)