Why is the path eightfold? An influence of Ayurveda

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The path factor of right livelihood has always seemed somewhat superfluous to me, since whatever work or livelihood one performs is already included in the factor of right action. Is there a reason, perhaps, that there are specifically eight factors?

I think so. I think the eightfold path has eight factors because it is a reference to ancient ideas about Ayurvedic medicine. Wikipedia says: “The earliest classical Sanskrit works on Ayurveda describe medical science as being divided into eight components (Skt. aṅga). This characterization of the physicians’ art as the teaching found in ‘the medicine that has eight components’ (Skt. cikitsāyām aṣṭāṅgāyāṃ चिकित्सायामष्टाङ्गायाम्) is first found in the Sanskrit epic, the Mahābhārata.”

These eight components of Ayurveda are in fact mentioned right at the start of Chapter 1 of the Sushruta Samhita, the oldest Ayurvedic text. I consider it extremely likely this idea of an eightfold treatment was known to the Buddha.

The similarity is clear:

  • cikitsāyām aṣṭāṅgāyāṃ = eightfold treatment
  • āryāṣṭāṅgamārga = noble eightfold path

The Pāli word for cikitsāyam (‘treatment’) is tikicchā. Now consider AN10.108, Tikicchaka Sutta. It mentions the three “humors” of air, bile, and pleghm that are a major aspect of Ayurvedic medicine, so there clearly is an Ayurvedic influence in this text. The Buddha tells the audience that purgatives of this kind of treatments sometimes work, but sometimes fail. But one “noble purgative” always works:

“And what is the noble purgative that works without fail? For one of right view, wrong view is purged. And the many bad, unskillful qualities produced by wrong view are purged. And because of right view, many skillful qualities are fully developed. For one of right thought, wrong thought is purged. … For one of right speech, wrong speech is purged. … For one of right action, wrong action is purged. … For one of right livelihood, wrong livelihood is purged. … For one of right effort, wrong effort is purged. For one of right mindfulness, wrong mindfulness is purged. … For one of right immersion, wrong immersion is purged. … For one of right knowledge, wrong knowledge is purged. … For one of right freedom, wrong freedom is purged.

This is the tenfold “path”, not the eightfold path. But the actual practicable factors of these ten are just the first eight. The latter two are the outcome of the path; or, in the analogy, the state of health.

Analogies to medicine are made in many other places in the Pāli canon. The Buddha is called a doctor, suffering a disease, nibbāna health, and craving a poison.

The Vimuttimagga and Visuddhimagga also quite famously compare the four noble truths to a structure found in medicine: the disease, pathogen, health and cure. This is not reflected by any Pāli sutta, but an Āgama sutra contains these ideas, though ordered somewhat differently. See Ānalayo - “Right View and the Scheme of the Four Truths in Early Buddhism − The Saṃyukta-āgama Parallel to the Sammādiṭṭhi-sutta and the Simile of the Four Skills of a Physician.”

In this scheme the treatment is the eightfold path, just like I’m suggesting. But I think the idea can be expanded further: the eightfold path has eight parts because it is analogous to the eightfold treatment of Ayurveda. I think it is possible that the Buddha did this on purpose.

It could also explain why right livelihood is included, which does seem to not be much different from right action.

We may also consider that, while nowadays Ayurveda by most of us may be seen as “alternative medicine”, in the Buddha’s days it would probably have been the main medicine. For its time it was also extremely advanced and developed, it seems, and probably well respected. In light of this, the Buddha suggesting that he was a real doctor, that he had a real medicine, I find quite inspiring.


Interesting. I also remember having read in a book by Gombrich that DO with its 12 factors echoed, in its structure, some previous teachings.

This reminds me of the idea that Newton’s description of the rainbow in terms of seven colors is also quite arbitrary and apparently due to the fact that he liked the number seven, probably for its biblical associations.

With all good wishes for the next vassa😊

You’re probably referring to Playing With Fire by Joanna Jurewicz. It’s been quite influential, Gombrich picked up the ideas from there. I’m not convinced by it myself, but that’s a different topic.

Thanks, Stef!

OK! Bye all. :wave:

History of Ayurveda text is more recent:

" The dating of this work to 600 BCE was first proposed by Hoernle over a century ago,[145] but has long since been overturned by subsequent historical research. The current consensus amongst medical historians of South Asia is that the Suśrutasaṃhitā was compiled over a period of time starting with a kernel of medical ideas from the century or two BCE and then being revised by several hands into its present form by about 500 CE.[2][20]"



I think the path can be essentially just one path: Seeing-knowing the five aggregates/the sense-spheres as they really are as anicca, dukkha, anatta (or anicca, dukkha, suñña, anatta), according some of the SN/SA suttas.

Yoga philosophy as propounded by Patañjali is also called aṣṭāṅga-yoga (eightfold yoga).


Danger of Ayurvedic medicines:

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I see right action and right livelihood as quite distinct.

Livelihood may come from inheritance, donation etc, which are not actions taken by the concerned individual. Thus, while selling weapons is not right action, and accepting donation is a right action, accepting donation from proceeds of arms business would not be right livelihood.*
Living off a quarry where underpaid children or political prisoners mine minerals for our batteries would not be right livelihood even if I had just inherited it, i.e. made no action.
This is just my ‘common sense’ understanding I’ve never thought I’d need to get confirmed textually. (until now). Am I wrong?

*) If this is correct, it might logically follow that a monastery should examine whence do its benefactors’ money/foods originate. I’d expect that this is probably not enjoined in the canon nor a matter of present concern - or is it? Curious…


My Goodness, I didn’t expect to find the name of my university teacher to be quoted here! :slight_smile:

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Saying the Noble Eightfold Path is a result of Ayurveda’s influence is like saying the Buddhist concept of Nirvana was a result of Hindu Influence. Both statements are anachronistic because both the Noble Eight fold path and the concept of Nirvana precedes any Brahmanical/Hindu counterpart.

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Ideas always precede texts. Ayurvedic ideas could have existed long before they were written down. Remember that the Pali canon also wasn’t written down at the time of the Buddha, but only much later.

The suttas contain clear references to Ayurvedic ideas and practices. I haven’t read it in much detail but this paper concludes that a specific medical passage in the Vinaya contains “a well-established ayurvedic medical tradition” and “we can safely conclude that the crystallisation of the classical system of Indian medicine was already well under way by that time.”

Also, the three humors are exactly the same.

If the three humors and detailed treatments where known at the time of the Buddha, the eightfold treatment, being an essential part of Ayurveda, was probably known as well.

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The suttas themselves (apart from the Vinaya) contain no reference to the Ayurvedic system. The Buddha characteristically based his ideas on the observable elements with the practical application of how they interact, such as fire, earth, and water in pottery, metalwork, and other crafts.

The eight limbs of yoga is the clear basis transformed and changed into the noble eightfold path as happened with many other Hindu ideas (which the Buddha opposed as irrational), used only as a vehicle the populace was already familiar with to sell the idea. This is why he is revered as a skilled teacher.

In the very first sutta of the Digha Nikaya is this list of medical-treatment related terms, and the same/similar terms are found in prominent Āyurvedic texts such as the Suśruta-saṃhitā, Caraka-saṃhitā & the Aṣṭāṅgahṛdaya-saṃhitā:

  1. vamanaṃ - (snehopayaugikaḥ svedo vamane ca virecane - Suśrutasaṃhitā)
  2. virecanaṃ - (apakvaṃ vamanaṃ doṣān pacyamānaṃ virecanam - Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasaṃhitā)
  3. uddhaṃvirecanaṃ ( ajīrṇinaḥ śleṣmavato vrajatyūrdhvaṃ virecanam - Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasaṃhitā)
  4. adhovirecanaṃ - ( adhaḥpravṛttaṃ vamanairūrdhvagaṃ ca virecanaiḥ - Suśrutasaṃhitā)
  5. sīsavirecanaṃ - ( āsthāpanaṃ vidhivadatra virecanaṃ ca kuryānmṛdūni śirasaśca virecanāni - Suśrutasaṃhitā)
  6. kaṇṇatelaṃ ( karṇatailagate śrotravaiguṇyaṃ śophavedane - Suśrutasaṃhitā
  7. nettatappanaṃ ( netre tarpaṇa vad yuñjyācchataṃ dve trīṇi dhārayet - Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasaṃhitā)
  8. natthukammaṃ ( kaṭphaladravantīviḍaṅgācūrṇaṃ nastaḥkarma śirorogaharam - Arthaśāstra)
  9. añjanaṃ ( sauvīram añjanaṃ nityaṃ hitam akṣṇos tato bhajet - Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasaṃhitā)
  10. paccañjanaṃ ( pratyañjane ca srotojaṃ rasakṣīraghṛte kramāt - Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasaṃhitā)
  11. sālākiyaṃ ( tadyathā śalyaṃ śālākyaṃ kāyacikitsā bhūtavidyā kaumārabhṛtyam - Suśrutasaṃhitā)
  12. sallakattiyaṃ ( śalyākṛtiviśeṣāṃś ca sthānānyāvekṣya buddhimān - Suśrutasaṃhitā)
  13. dārakatikicchā - (bhinnagārāśrayā devī dārakaṃ pātu pūtanā - Suśrutasaṃhitā)
  14. mūlabhesajjānaṃ - ( mūlāhārāś ca ye tebhyo bheṣajavyaktiriṣyate - Suśrutasaṃhitā)
  15. anuppadānaṃ ( āyuṣkāmadinartvīhārogānutpādanadravāḥ - Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasaṃhitā)
  16. osadhīnaṃ paṭimokkho ( auṣadhīnāṃ viśiṣṭānāṃ tapasaśca niṣevaṇāt - Suśrutasaṃhitā)

This is not the only sutta where such terms are present. In MN75, is a brief description (the paragraph is quoted below) of an anecdote about a physician who is fetched to treat with medications a person who is unable to see - where the terms are again very similar to terms used in āyurveda - such as bhisakkam (bhiṣak = physician), sallakattam (śalyahartā = surgeon), bhesajjaṁ (bhaiṣajya = medicine), vejjo (vaidya = doctor) etc.

“Seyyathāpi, māgaṇḍiya, jaccandho puriso; so na passeyya kaṇhasukkāni rūpāni, na passeyya nīlakāni rūpāni, na passeyya pītakāni rūpāni, na passeyya lohitakāni rūpāni, na passeyya mañjiṭṭhakāni rūpāni, na passeyya samavisamaṁ, na passeyya tārakarūpāni, na passeyya candimasūriye. Tassa mittāmaccā ñātisālohitā bhisakkaṁ sallakattaṁ upaṭṭhāpeyyuṁ. Tassa so bhisakko sallakatto bhesajjaṁ kareyya. So taṁ bhesajjaṁ āgamma na cakkhūni uppādeyya, na cakkhūni visodheyya. Taṁ kiṁ maññasi, māgaṇḍiya, nanu so vejjo yāvadeva kilamathassa vighātassa bhāgī assā”ti?

So I would be a lot more circumspect about claiming that there was no āyurveda before the time of the Buddha (or in the suttas).


The subject under discussion is Ayurveda related to Theravada religious practice, not as used by physicians. As stated the general populace was familiar with Hindu systems.