Epilepsy was known in ancient times as “the sacred disease.” In 1997, Savir and Rabin, two psychiatrists at UCLA, explained how temporal lobe epilepsy could help define a neural substrate for religious experience. Now, there are many papers on the subject.
But, I was fascinated to discover what a most ancient medical text, had to say about the disease.
The Ayurvedic Charaka Samhita (400 BC) is the oldest existing Indian medical text and is fascinating for many reasons. For example, there it’s description of how the thirst for understanding was inspired not by the problems of the general Indian populace, but rather due to the needs of the “meditators” of that time.
“When people, who lived their lives for spiritual pursuits and observed austerity, self-analysis, studies, chastity, meditation and other spiritual activities, began to have diseases and disorders that hindered in spiritual pursuits, at that times, the great sages gathered in the Himalayan region motivated by compassion for righteous persons….gathered at this first ancient ayurvedic symposium.”
Charaka Samhita, Sutra Section, Ch 1/v.6-12.
Perhaps because of this origin, the Charaka Samhita takes a somewhat different stance than Ayurvedic texts that came later. It describes Life as fundamentally a field of intelligence. This field is both self-aware and is pure knowledge: both the Knower and the object of perception. It was this most subtle level of life - that is Consciousness itself, which was to be treated by the physician.
The Charaka Samhita contains abundant references to all aspects of epilepsy including symptomatology, etiology, diagnosis and treatment. Epilepsy is described as ‘apasmara’ which means ‘loss of consciousness.’ In Hindu mythology Apasmara is also a dwarf who represents both ignorance (avidya) and epilepsy.
It is Apasmara-Purusha, the dwarf-demon, who is crushed and killed by the right foot of Shiva during His Cosmic dance of creation and destruction. Apasmara was causing lots of problems for people. Apasmara, highly ignorant and a trouble maker, is said to be a symbol of the laziness, dullness, and evil feelings within each of us. It is also said that the people prayed to Shiva to save them from the demon’s bad deeds. Shiva appeared in the world and killed him. It is Shiva Nâtarâja: the divine dancer whose movements creates and destroys worlds. These movements are illustrated as mudras, sacred hand and foot positions. Shiva holds a damaru or small two sided drum which punctuates the rhythm in one hand. In the other hand he holds a flame, the symbol of knowledge. Yet another hand is in the mudra abhava or “lack of fear.”
So now all these little bells are going off inside my head. At least 3000 years ago Ayurvedic medicine was meant to treat the problems of meditators’ progress. Today, there is this debate about one problem cropping up in meditators – epilepsy. Yes, people never meditating get the disease. But, now evidence is accumulating that perhaps the path to enlightenment may involve some increased danger of kindling and seizure. Meditation is so central to the path, as central (one might say) as this image of Shiva and his Cosmic dance is to mythology. And what is this epilepsy ? - a demon, the ignorance (avidya) of our own egos. … Ahh, if only I’d gotten around to writing up my thoughts about laish avidya- the “remains of ignorance” we each retain after enlightenment… then avidya would be ringing a little bell with you too. And finally, how curious a balance Shiva maintains in his dancing. He brings a two-sided drum. Go banging on the old Yin/Yang. It is rhythm, synchrony, coherence that is needed to defeat the demon. And that is just what the meditator’s and epileptic’s EEGs are all about.