Western medical science holds that illness has several potential causes. Failing to digest food properly is one such cause. Stress on the body and its organ systems is another. A third is failure to obtain proper nutrition or fluids. Aging is considered a contributing factor in the breakdown of the bodily systems and reduction of the ability to withstand stress and external attack. But the primary cause that Western medicine recognises nowadays is due to the influence of germs — bacteria and viruses — that are separate life-forms that attack the body and, when they gain a foothold, begin to break down or take over its functioning to the detriment of the individual.
For an individual, if the basic needs of the body are being met and there is not excess stress, the primary function to defeat the impact of germs is assigned to what is called the immune system which marshals defenses to destroy the invading life-forms. A powerful force, such as a pandemic overwhelms the immune system easily and thus, causes large numbers of people to fall ill.
If we now look at the view from the side of Ayurveda we see that a being who stays in balance, eats nourishing food and keeps everything attuned, operating from a sattwic level, tends to stay healthy for the most part. An excess of rajas causes overstrain and an eventual falling back into tamas, and it is tamas, the weakness, ignorance and darkness in the body that manifests illness. Food plays a large role in this, so that tamasic foods, that have lost their virtue of nourishment, will tend to weaken and lead the individual toward illness.
Sri Aurobindo points out that illness comes from outside, creates a vibration or suggestion for the being, and if accepted, this suggestion can turn into illness. There is no essential conflict here with the idea that the vibration is carried by some physical form, whether bacteria or virus, and that it is the acceptance of the vibration, through a weakness or failing of the inner resistance (immune system) that can lead to the manifestation of the illness. Sri Aurobindo goes on to point out that the body tends to respond to these suggestions and particularly if a fear or panic arises, the opening in the vital sheath creates more opportunity for illness to arise.
It is possible, with this understanding, for an individual to withstand even virulent disease, and there are instances where people have gone into an epidemic, treated numerous people dying from the illness, and walked away without themselves becoming ill. This points to a mechanism outside of a purely mechanical action of a virulent germ attacking a physical body.
It is also possible to recognise that various mantras, various practices of Hatha Yoga, various breathing techniques and a strong action of will can help the practitioner create a virtually impenetrable wall of force to protect the body from the attack. Even without specific techniques, some individuals who are sensitive can ‘feel’ the pressure or onset of an illness and push it away. In some cases, they may use an herb or medicine to aid in the process as that helps convince the physical consciousness that something is being done. As a side note, research shows the powerful positive effect of what is called the ‘placebo effect’ which is the use of a non-active physical support, such as a pill, to convince the mind and the body that they will withstand or throw off the illness. A considerable portion of the benefit attributed to a pharmaceutical drug has been shown to actually be produced through the placebo effect, and people have been healed through such mechanisms.
Sri Aurobindo observes: “Attacks of illness are attacks of the lower nature or of adverse forces taking advantage of some weakness, opening or response in the nature, — like all other things that come and have got to be thrown away, they come from outside. If one can feel them so coming and get the strength and the habit to throw them away before they can enter the body, then one can remain free from illness. Even when the attack seems to rise from within, that means only that it has not been detected before it entered the subconscient; once in the subconscient, the force that brought it rouses it from there sooner or later and it invades the system. When you feel it just after it has entered, it is because though it came direct and not through the subconscient, yet you could not detect it while it was still outside. Very often it arrives like that frontally or more often tangentially from the side direct, forcing its way through the subtle vital envelope which is our main armour of defence, but it can be stopped there in the envelope itself before it penetrates the material body. Then one may feel some effect, e.g., feverishness or a tendency to cold, but there is not the full invasion of the malady. If it can be stopped earlier or if the vital envelope of itself resists and remains strong, vigorous and intact, then there is no illness; the attack produces no physical effect and leaves no traces.”
Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Illness, pp 318-322