Ancient Writings on Hindu Medicine


H.H. Sir Bhagvat Singh Jee

|| Index || Chapter 1 || Chapter 2 || Chapter 3 || Chapter 4 || Chapter 5 || Chapter 6 || Chapter 7 || Chapter 8 || Chapter 9 || Chapter 10 || Chapter 11 || Concluding Remarks || Bibliography

AS has been stated in the preceding chapter, the Hindus believe that, like all their other sciences, the science of Medicine has been revealed to them. Yajur Veda, Chapter V., speaks of God as "Prathamo Daivyo bhishak," i.e., the "first Divine Physician," "who drives away all diseases." Another Vedic verse addresses Him as "Bhishaktamam tva bhishajam shrnnomi"[1] which means, " I hear Thou art the best among physicians." Elsewhere He is styled "the depositary of all sciences, and physician for all worldly ills." Brahma, or the first member of the Hindu triad, was the first to propound the Healing Art.

He composed the Ayur Veda, consisting of one hundred sections (adhyayas) of one hundred stanzas (shlokas) each. This sacred medical work treats of the subject of life, describes ​the conditions tending to prolong or shorten life, dwells on the nature of diseases, their causes and methods of treatment. It is the oldest medical book of the Hindus, and is divided into eight parts or tantras. These are : —

  1. Shalya — Surgery. This includes the methods of removing foreign bodies, of using surgical instruments, of applying bandages, and of treating various surgical diseases.
  2. Shalakya — Treatment of diseases of parts situated above the clavicles, such as the diseases of the eyes, nose, mouth, ears, etc.
  3. Kaya-chikitsa — General diseases affecting the whole body, such as fever, diabetes, etc.
  4. Bhoot-vidya — Demoniacal diseases. This chapter describes the means of restoring by prayers, offerings, medicines, etc., deranged faculties of the mind supposed to be produced by demoniacal possession.
  5. Kaumara-bhritya — Management of children — comprising the treatment of infants and the diseases they are subject to. ​ 6. Agada — Antidotes for poisons — mineral, vegetable, and animal.
  6. Rasayana — Treats of medicines preserving vigour, restoring youth, improving memory, and curing and preventing diseases in general.
  7. Vajikarana — Describes the means of increasing the virile power by giving tone to the weakened organs of generation.

Brahma taught Ayur Veda to Dakshprajapati, who in turn expounded it to Ashvini Kumars, "the twin sons of the Sun." The twin brothers wrote important works on medicine and surgery, and were the divine physicians. Many hymns in the Rig Veda are addressed to these twin gods, from which it appears that medicine and surgery were fully appreciated by the ancients, and held in high esteem by them. Some of the wonderful operations performed by them are also recorded. A legend in the Rig Veda thus describes their skill : A certain sage named Dadhyanchi had learnt the science of Brahma-vidya from Indra under an interdiction not to teach it to any one else, the preceptor threatening to cut off his pupil's head in case of any infringement of the compact.

The Ashvins, anxious to learn the ​science from that sage, hit upon the following plan. They, by undertaking to preserve him from the wrath of Indra, prevailed on the sage to communicate his knowledge to them. Then, with his consent, they took off his head, replaced it skilfully with that of a horse, and acquired the wished-for knowledge. Indra, when he came to know that Dadhyanchi had broken the con- tract, struck off the sage's equine head. The Ashvins, being exceedingly proficient in surgery, rejoined the original head that had been carefully preserved. The feat excited universal approbation. But some of the fastidious gods took exception to the mode of learning adopted by the Ashvins. The cutting off one's preceptor's head, though with the best of intentions, was denounced as an atrocious act and as a consequence, the Ashvins were outcasted by the gods for the unpardonable sin, and refused admittance to their share in the sacrificial rites.

The brothers then had recourse to a sage named Chyavana, who, though very old and decrepit, had newly married Sukanya, a young and charming daughter of king Sarayati. The physicians prescribed him an electuary, which soon freed him from his decrepitude, restored him his health, youth, and vigour, ​and prolonged his life (Rig Veda, i. 117, 13). The recipe is still known by the name of "Chyavana Avaleha." The sage, out of gratitude, promised the Ashvins to intercede in their behalf, and to secure to them the continuance of the libation of Soma at the sacrifices. He induced his father-in-law, king Sarayati, to perform a sacrifice. When the time for distributing the libation arrived, Chyavana offered to the Ashvins the share due to them. Indra took umbrage at this, and was going to hurl his thunderbolt at the sage's head when he found his arm suddenly paralysed.

The Ashvins cured Indra of his paralysis, and by dint of their skill and knowledge soon got themselves re-admitted into caste, and obtained their usual share of sacrificial food. These physicians are also given credit for joining again the head and body of Yajna, son of Ruchi, which were severed by Rudra. In the ancient Sanskrit writings we often read of battles between the Devatas and Asuras. In cases of broken legs, the surgeons used to substitute "iron-legs" — Ayasin-jangham — (vide Rig Veda, i. 116, 15), and to furnish artificial eyes in place of those plucked out (Rig Veda, i. 116, 16); arrows lodged in the bodies of the warriors were skilfully ​extracted, and their wounds promptly dressed by the army surgeons. The Ashvins are reputed to have given new teeth to Poosha, new eyes to Bhagdeva, and to have cured Chandramas of consumption. These and many other wonderful cures effected by them raised them not only in the estimation of their compeers but also of the lord Indra, who became desirous of studying the Ayur Veda, and learnt it from them.

Indra taught the science to his pupil Atreya, who wrote several works bearing his name, among which might be mentioned his "Atreya Samhita," in five parts, containing 46,500 verses in all. Atreya is one of the oldest authorities on Hindu Medicine, and several later writers have based their treatises on his work. He imparted his knowledge, among others, to Agnivesha, Bheda, Jatukarna, Parashara, Kshirapani and Harita, all of whom have distinguished themselves as authors of medical works that have been handed down to posterity. Agnivesha's "Nidananjana," or treatise on Diagnosis, is still admired. "Harita Samhita" is a standard book, which appears to have been dictated by Atreya in reply to Harita's questions for each chapter ends with the words, "Said by Atreya in answer to Harita," Some ​are led to believe that "Atreya Samhita" and "Harita Samhita" are identical. This does not seem to be correct. For the well-known author of "Bhavaprakasha" quotes several verses from Atreya which are not found in Harita.

Charaka, an early medical writer, gives the origin of the healing art upon the earth as follows : —

Once upon a time some distinguished sages happened to meet on the Himalaya mountains, among them being Agasti, Ashvalayana, Asita, Badarayana, Balikhya, Bharadvaja, Chyavana, Devala, Dhaumya, Galava, Garga, Gautama, Gobhila, Harita, Hiranyaksha, Jamadagni, Kamya, Kankayana, Kapinjala, Kashyapa, Katyayana, Kaundinya, Kushika, Langakshi, Maitreya, Markandeya, Narada, Parashara, Parikshaka, Pulastya, Sankhya, Sankritya, Shakuneya, Shandilya, Sharaloma, Shaunaka, Vaijepaya, Vaikhanasa, Vamadeva, Vasishtha, Vishvamitra, and many others. All of them were well versed in philosophy and practised religious austerities. The subject of their conversation was the "ills that flesh is heir to." They began to complain : "Our body, which is the means of attaining the four aims ​of life, viz., virtue, worldly pursuits, pleasure, and liberation, is subject to diseases which emaciate and weaken it, deprive the senses of their functions, and cause extreme pain. These diseases are great impediments to our worldly affairs and bring on premature death. In the face of such enemies, how can men be happy ? It is necessary therefore to find remedies for such diseases." They turned to sage Bharacl- vaja, and thus addressed him : —

"O sage, thou art the fittest person among us : Go thou to the thousand-eyed Indra, who has systematically studied the Ayur Veda, and by acquiring from him the knowledge of that science free us, sage, from the scourge of diseases."

"So be it," said the sage who at once went to Indra and thus accosted him : —

"O Lord, I have been deputed by the parliament of sages to learn from you the remedies for the direful diseases that afflict mankind. I pray you, therefore, to teach me the Ayur Veda."

Indra was pleased with the object of his mission, and taught him the Ayur Veda in all its parts. Bharadvaja recounted the precepts he had acquired to the other sages who had deputed ​him, and with the knowledge of the science they were able to live long in health and happiness.

No history of the earliest writers on Medicine in India would be complete without a mention of Charaka and Sushruta, who are considered by the natives to be the highest authorities in all medical matters. Charaka is said to have been an incarnation of Shesha — the Serpent-god with a thousand heads — who is supposed to be the depositary of all sciences, especially of medicine. It may be parenthetically noted here that the serpent in all ages has received divine honours, and from the remotest antiquity has been held in the greatest veneration as an emblem of wisdom and immortality by the Egyptians, Greeks, and other ancient nations as well as by the Hindus. "Serpents were sacred to AEsculapius, the Grecian god of the medical art, because they were symbols of renovation, and were believed to have the power of discovering healing herbs" (Dr Smith).

The hierophants of Egypt styled themselves the "Sons of the Serpent-god," as the serpent was the emblem of wisdom and eternity. Ophite-worship was prevalent among the Jews 2000 years B.C. The fifth day of the month of Shravana (which falls in the rainy season) is to this day held by ​the Hindus as sacred to the serpent, which is worshipped either alive or in effigy by every mistress of a family. For it is believed that leprosy, ophthalmia, and childlessness are the punishment of those who in former lives, or in the present one, may have killed a snake, and that it is only by serpent-worship that these penalties can be averted. Charaka, the son of Vishudha, a learned Muni, flourished during the Vedic period. Some believe him to have been born at Benares 320 years B.C. He was the greatest physician of his day, and his "Charaka Samhita" is still held to be a standard work on Medicine.

Sushruta, on the other hand, dilates more on Surgery than on Medicine. His work "Sushruta" is therefore held in high esteem by native Vaidyas as an authority on Surgery. Both the works are compendiums of the Ayur Veda. Sushruta was a son of Vishvamitra, a contemporary of Kama. With his father's permission, Sushruta and his seven brothers went to Devodasa, king of Benares, to study Medicine. As Charaka is believed to be an incarnation of the Serpent-god, so is Devodasa believed to be an incarnation of Dhanvantari, the divine physician, recovered from the ocean along with thirteen other Ratnas ​(gems) which had been lost in the Deluge.

Dhanvantari is said to have come out of the ocean with a cup of Amrita, or the beverage of immortality and he takes in India the place occupied by AEsculapius amongst the Greeks. Having learnt Ayur Veda from Devoclasa or Kashiraja, as he is otherwise called, Sushruta and his companions returned home and wrote independent works on Medicine and Surgery. But Sushruta excelled them all. His work was translated into Arabic before the end of the 8th century a.c. It has been translated into Latin by Hepler and into German by Vullers. Charaka was also translated from Sanskrit into Arabic in the beginning of the 8th century, and "his name repeatedly occurs in the Latin translations of Avicenna, Razes, and Serapion" (Hunter). He was posterior to Agnivesha, for he states that he received the materials for his book from that learned sage, whose work he re-cast.

The next authority on Hindu Medicine is Vagbhata, who flourished about the second century before Christ. He was an inhabitant of Sindh, in Western India. In his work called "Ashtanga-hridaya," he acknowledges the assistance derived from the writings of Charaka, Sush​ruta, Agnivesha, Bhela, and others who had gone before him. He also wrote another work called "Ashtanga-Sangraha," on which Pandit Aruna- datta wrote a commentary. Vagbhata's style is very clear and concise, and throws much light on several obscure passages in his predecessors' works. A popular couplet describes Vagbhata, Sushruta, and Atreya as the three great medical authorities for the three Yugas — Kali, Dvapara, and Krita respectively. Among the students of Hindu Medicine the three writers are known by the name of "Vridha Trayi," or the "Old Triad."

Coming nearer to our period we meet with the name of Madhava or Madhavacharya, who wrote several works embracing almost all branches of Hindu learning. He was born in Kishkindha, now called Golkonda, in Southern India, and was Prime Minister to Raja Vira Bukka of Vijayanagar, in the 1 2th century. He was a brother of Sayana, the author of the great Commentary on the Rig Veda, to which work Madhava is said to have contributed. Besides the "Sarva-darshana-sangraha," or dissertation on the six schools of Hindu philosophy, and the scholia on the four Vedas, styled "Madhava Vedartha Prakasha," the "Panchadashi" (on Vedantic philosophy), "Mad​hava Vritti" (on Grammar), "Madhava Nidana" (on Medicine), "Kala Madhava" (on Astronomy), "Vyavahara Madhava" (on Hindu Law), "Achara Madhava" (on the usages of the Brahmanas), and "Shankara Digvijaya" (Life of Shankaracharya) are some of his numerous works. In his medical work our author dwells exclusively on the diagnosis of diseases. He has treated the subject so well that his authority on this branch of Medical Science is held to be indisputable. The native doctors are often heard to repeat this Sanskrit stanza : —

Nidane Madhavas shreshthas,
Sutrasthane tu Vagbhatas :
Sharire Sushrutas proctas,
Charakas tu chikitsake.

It means : Madhava is unrivalled in Diagnosis, Vagbhata in Principles and Practice of Medicine, Sushruta in Surgery, and Charaka in Therapeutics. In his old age Madhava became an ascetic, and assumed the name of Vidyaranya ('forest of learning').

The next celebrated writer on Hindu medicine is Bhava Mishra, author of the "Bhava Prakasha." This physician lived in 1550 A.C, and was considered to be the best scholar of his time ​in Madra Desha (in North-West of India), "a jewel of physicians and master of the Shastras." In his work he summarises the practice of all the best previous writers on Medicine. The clearness of his style and the excellence of his arrangement have thrown a flood of light on many obscure and disputed passages of the ancient writers and his important compilation marks the last revival of Ayur Vedic literature among the Hindus.

The work is highly esteemed by native doctors in all parts of India as an invaluable treatise on Hindu medical science. It is considered a thesaurus of useful information gleaned from the vast field of medical literature of the past. In the time of Bhava Mishra, India had commenced to come into contact with some of the European nations, notably the Portuguese, who were attracted to India by commercial pursuits. A syphilitic disease, in which hands and feet are affected, was common among the Portuguese. Bhava Mishra treats of this affection at length under the name of Firanga Roga, i.e., Portuguese disease. The absence of a corresponding Sanskrit term, and the name ("Firanga Roga") given to the malady, would suggest that it was introduced into India by the Portuguese.

Bhava Mishra describes three stages of the ​disease, namely Bahya (external), Abhyantara (internal), and Bahirantara (exter-internal). The disease in its first stage is curable in the second, when the joints become involved, it is cured with difficulty while in its third stage, when it spreads both externally and internally, the affection is pronounced as altogether incurable. One afflicted with the malady becomes lean and weak, his nose sinks down, his gastral fire becomes dim, and his bones turn dry and crooked. Mercury, catechu, Spilanthes oleracea, and honey in certain proportions, are recommended as a remedy. Other recipes are also given. Bhava Mishra was the first to make mention of certain medicinal drugs of countries other than India. For instance he mentions

"Badakshani Naspasi," i.e., "Amrita," fruit of Badakshan.

"Khorasani Vacha," i.e., Acorus Calamus of Khorasan

"Parasika Vacha," i.e., Acorus Calamus of Persia

"Sulemani Kharjura," i.e., date fruit of Suleman.

Bahava Mishra was an inhabitant of Benares, where he is said to have had no less than four hundred pupils. ​ Then followed Sharngdhara, son of Damodara, who wrote a treatise bearing his name. The work is divided into twenty-five chapters, and is very popular in Western India. Smaller works like "Vaidyamrita" by Bhatta Moreshvar, son of Bhatta Manek (a.c. 1627), "Vaidya Jeevana" by Lolimbraja (a.c. 1633), "Bopadeva Shataka" by Bopadeva, son of Keshava, "Vaidya Vallabha" by Hasti (a.c. 1670), "Chikitsa Sangraha" by Chakradatta, "Chikitsanjana" by Vidyapati, and others, are frequently consulted by the native practitioners.

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Suggestions for Further Reading

Source Chapter 2, A Short History Of Aryan Medical Science By H.H. Sir Bhagvat Singh Jee, K.C.I.E. M.D., D.C.L., Ll.D., F.R.C.P.E. Thakore Saheb Of Gondal With Ten Plates, London Macmillan And Co., Ltd. New York : The Macmillan Company 1896. This was previously edited by Rajasekhar, 1961, and was reformatted and reorganized for the web edition by Jayaram V in 2019. The title of the work has also been changed to A Short History Of Indian Medical Science to reflect the current theories of the early history of India and adjoining areas.

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