A Brief History of Indian Medicine and Surgery.


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

Hindu MEDICINE was at the acme of its glory in the time of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. To the court of every chief, great or small, was attached a physician, who was treated with great respect. There were Army Surgeons and Court Physicians. The work of the former was similar to that performed by the army surgeon of the present day. The Court physician used to wait upon the king every morning, and was the custodian of his health.

Sushena was the name of the principal army surgeon of Rama in his war with Ravana, king of Lanka, and Valmiki makes mention of a particular Vaidya, who was Rama's personal physician. A similar practice is noticed in the time of the great war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The army surgeons were fully equipped with the ​necessary medical and surgical appliances (Bhishmaparva, Ch. 120). Duryodhana, the Chief of the Kurus, when pierced with arrows, was made by his surgeons to sit in a tub filled with medicated water, under which he was freed from the missiles lodged in his flesh (Mahabharat, Ch. 84).

Both the conflicting armies had distinguished surgeons on their staff. Veterinary science seems to have been highly cultivated long before that period. Nala, a remote ancestor of the Pandavas, is described as a most accomplished horse-trainer, and as possessing a thorough knowledge of all matters relating to the horse.

Nakula, one of the five Pandavas, was an expert in the veterinary science on which he has written several works, his "Ashva-chikitsa" being still extant. The science of treating elephants, bullocks and other domestic animals, was and is still known in India. Some are of opinion that Vagbhata, the celebrated author of "Ashtangahridaya," flourished in the time of the Mahabharata, and that he was the family physician of the Pandavas.

In the time of Buddha (b.c. 543), Indian medicine received the greatest support and stimulus, and surgery was allowed to languish. For Buddha and his followers would not permit ​the dissection of animals. They put a stop to animal sacrifice, in which a knowledge of anatomy was indispensable, and substituted models of dough. Buddha, however, established hospitals for men and beasts all over the country and the institution of Pinjrapoles (Animal Hospitals), so peculiar to India, owes its origin to him.

Contribution to Greek medicine

The science continued to nourish down to the advent of the Greeks in India (b.c. 327). Arrian, the Greek historian, in describing the condition of India at the time of the invasion of Alexander the Great, refers to a curious fact, which reflects no small credit on the Hindu physicians of the day. Alexander had in his train several proficient Greek physicians, but these had to confess their inability to deal with cases of snake-bite, very common in the Punjaub. Alexander was therefore obliged to consult the Indian Vaidyas, who successfully treated these cases.

The Macedonian king was so struck with their skill that, according to Nearchus, he employed some good Vaidyas in his camp, and desired his followers to consult these Indian physicians in cases of snake-bite and other dangerous ailments. In face of the fact that the European toxicologists are still in search of a ​specific for snake-poison, the Indian physicians who lived some 2200 years ago might well be proud of their skill. It is very likely that on his homeward march Alexander, or Sikander as he is called in India, took with him a few professors of Hindu medicine. This supposition receives some support from the early history of Greek medicine.

There is a great similarity between the origins of the Greek and Indian medicine. Both the systems claim to be divinely inspired. The divine physicians Ashvins, the twin sons of the Sun, bear a close analogy to the divine twins Apollo and Artemis, who cured and alleviated the sufferings of mortals, and who derived their birth from Zeus, or the "God of Light." Hippocrates, the most celebrated physician of ancient Europe (b.c. 460), believed the art of medicine to be the production of the Divine Being and it is curious to note that the Greeks, the Indians, and all the ancient nations of the world, have ascribed all kinds of knowledge, including that pertaining to the mysteries of life, disease, and death, to a superhuman agency.

In the opinion of some writers, Hippocrates acquired his knowledge of medicine in India. The teaching of Pythagoras (b.c. 430), the founder of the Healing Art ​among the Greeks, is essentially Indian. He is said to have acquired his medical knowledge from the Egyptians, who, as will be shown further on, had borrowed their art from the Indians. Enfield, in his History of Philosophy, says that Pythagoras learnt his doctrine from Oriental philosophers, meaning the Hindus. His philosophy bears such a striking resemblance to that of Buddha, that Mr Pocock, in his India in Greece, identifies him with "Buddhagurus" or Buddha. If he borrowed his philosophy from India, he may easily have borrowed the science of medicine from the same source.

Plato and Hippocrates both believed in humoral pathology, and taught their pupils that the diseases in the body were caused by four humours, — blood, bile, phlegm, and water. The fact, however, that the three humours of the body are referred to in the Rig Veda (i. 34, 6), establishes the priority of the Indian system beyond all doubt. As for the Grecian physician Galen, who made himself famous at Rome in the second century of the Christian era, it has been said before that he adopted some of the fundamental principles of the Hindu medical science in his works.

From these similarities one would be justified ​in concluding that either the ancient Indians have copied their system of medicine from the Greeks, or the Greeks have derived theirs from the Indians. There is no internal or external evidence to support the first inference. For the Indians are a more ancient nation, and their medical books are older than any yet discovered on the surface of the earth. They are acknowledged on all hands to be thoroughly conservative, and as such have a natural repugnance to borrow.

Sir William Hunter justly observes that Religion and Philosophy have been the great contributions of India to the world. As regards philosophy in general, Mr Colebrooke, in the Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. I., has reason to assert that "the Hindus were teachers and not learners." All the important sciences have taken their birth in India. It does not stand to reason, therefore, to suppose that the science of medicine could have been borrowed from the Greeks, who themselves have lost all vestiges of that science, which is being practised at the present day all over India more or less in its original form.

Professor Weber, who is never known to be partial to the Indians, asserts in his History of Indian Literature that "there is ​no ground whatever to suppose that Sushruta borrowed his system of medicine from the Greeks on the contrary, there is much to tell against such an idea." The Indian books on medicine do not contain any technical terms which point to a foreign origin. Dr Hirschberg of Berlin, in a learned paper, adds, with regard to certain surgical operations, that "the Indians knew and practised ingenious operations, which always remained unknown to the Greeks, and which even we Europeans only learnt from them with surprise in the beginning of this century." Professor Diaz of the Konigsberg University, clearly detects the principles of Indian medicine in the Greek system. Even those who talk eloquently of the antiquity of Greece withhold from her the credit of originality in regard to her medical science, and opine that the Greeks were indebted to Egypt for their knowledge of medicine.

Influence upon Egyptians

The ancient Indians believe Egypt (Misra) to have been colonised by the Indians. Proofs are given in support of the belief, which it is beside our purpose to dilate upon here. Suffice it to say that the Tantrik deity Nila-shikhandi (black-crested), an incarnation of Rudra, is recorded to have first ​taught the Nilatantra (a mystical religious doctrine known to the Indians) in Egypt, the river Nile probably deriving its name from him. It is also stated that "in the reign of Vishva-mitra, a certain king named Manu-vina, being excommunicated by Brahmans, emigrated with all his companions, passing through Arya (Iran or Persia), Baria (Arabia), and Misra (Egypt)."

According to the Mahabharata, the four sons of Yayati, who were cursed by their father, migrated to the West, and became ancestors of some of the Mlechha tribes, and the name "Misra" (mixed) probably owes its origin to this circumstance. Sir William Jones, in the Reports of the Royal Asiatic Society, is led to believe that Egypt must have been in remote ages colonised by the Indian ancient Indians and writers like Major Wilford consider the "Mishra-sthan" of the Purans to be no other than "Misra," the ancient name of Egypt.

There is, on the other hand, no record of the Egyptians having ever migrated into India. Such circumstantial evidence has led some European writers — Louis Jacolliot among others— to affirm that if Egypt gave civilisation to Greece and the latter bequeathed it to Rome, Egypt herself received her laws, arts, and sciences from India. ​There is nothing in the Egyptian medicine which is not in the Indian system, and there is much in the elaborate Indian system that is wanting in the medical science of Egypt.

Contribution to Arabic medicine

It has been shown already that the Arab merchants took many medicinal drugs from India in the early part of the Christian era. It requires no great effort to prove that India has contributed greatly to the Arabic system of medicine. The Arabian physician Serapion (Ibn Serabi), in his well-known treatise upon Medicine, often quotes Charaka, who is named "Sharaka Indianus" in the Latin translation.

Avicenna, better known by the name of Aflatoon in India — the name has become synonymous with a "learned man" among the Hindus — flourished in the ninth century, and was the most celebrated physician of Bokhara. While describing the Indian preparation of Trifala (the three Myrobalans) in his work, he quotes the opinion of Charaka and other writers with great respect. Another Arabian physician, Rhazes (Al Rasi), who is said to have lived long before the two preceding physicians, in treating of the properties of dry ginger and other drugs, transcribes passages from the work of an Indian writer whom he calls "Sindhi- Chara,"

This Sindhi - Chara ​appears to be no other than the celebrated Vagbhata of Sindh, who was in his time known as a second Charaka or Chara — the syllable "Ka" making no difference, as in words like "bala" and "balaka," both meaning a child. The great works of Charaka and Sushruta were translated into Arabic, under the patronage of Khalif Almansur, in the seventh century. The Arabic version of Sushruta is known by the name of "Kelale-Shaw-shoor-al-Hindi." These translations, in their turn, were rendered into Latin. The Latin versions formed the basis of European medicine, which remained indebted to the eastern medicine down to the seventeenth century.

In the reign of King Vikrama (b.c. 57) Indian medicine was in the heyday of its glory. The ruler was a great patron of learning, and his court was made brilliant by the nine learned men, known as the "Nine Gems," a physician named Dhanvantari being one of them. It may be well to mention here that there have been several persons bearing the name of Dhanvantari, which is generally applied to an accomplished physician. The "gem" referred to as adorning Vikrama's court was the author of an elaborate work on Materia Medica, called Nighantu. ​

A recorded case of brain surgery

But perhaps there was no period in the history of Indian literature and science in which so liberal a patronage was given to learning in general, and to poetry and medicine in particular, as in the reign of King Bhoja of Dhar (a.c. 977). It was a golden age of Hindu literature. The king was a learned man himself, and is the reputed author of a treatise on medicine and other works. Pandit Ballala, in his Bhoja-prabandha, or a collection of literary anecdotes relating to King Bhoja, describes an interesting surgical operation performed on the king, who was suffering from severe pain in the head.

He tried all medicinal means, but to no purpose, and his condition became most critical, when two brother physicians happened to arrive in Dhar, who, after carefully considering the case, came to the conclusion that the patient would obtain no relief until surgically treated. They accordingly administered a drug called Sammohini to render him insensible. When the patient was completely under the influence of the drug, they trephined his skull, removed from the brain the real cause of complaint, closed the opening, stitched the wound, and applied a healing balm. They are then related to have administered a restorative medicine called Sanji- ​vini to the patient, who thereby regained consciousness, and experienced complete relief.

This incident clearly shows that brain-surgery, which is considered one of the greatest achievements of modern science, was not unknown to the Indians. This is not a solitary instance. Jivaka, the personal physician of Buddha, is recorded to have practised cranial surgery with the greatest success. There are on record successful cases of abdominal section also. Thus it will be seen that the ancient Hindus performed operations regarded as "triumphs of modern surgery." Sammohini served the purpose of chloroform, but there is hardly a drug in the modern Pharmacopoeia corresponding with Sanjivini, which no doubt minimised the chances of "deaths under anaesthetics" that at present sometimes occur.

Medieval period

During the Mahomedan rule (a.c. 1001-1707), the Indian medicine began to show signs of decay. The reason is obvious. No art or science can flourish without the moral and material support of the government of the day. The Mahomedan conquerors brought with them their own Hakeems or doctors. The whole country was in an unsettled condition, not suitable for carrying on scientific investigations. The ​Hakeems were an intelligent set of people. They unreservedly made use of some of the best and most effective Indian drugs, and incorporated them in their works.

Among the important works written by the Hakeems may be mentioned Al Fazl Advich, by Noorudeen Mahomed Abdulla Shirazee, personal physician to the Emperor Shah Jahan (a.c. 1630). This work gives the names and properties of drugs sold in the Indian Bazaars Madan-us-shifa-i Sikandar, by Beva bin Khas Khan (a.c. 1512), and Tuhfat-ul-Muminin, by Mahomed Momin, are compilations of the various Arabic and Sanskrit authorities on the science of medicine. Mahomed Akbar Arzani, court physician to Aurungzebe (a.c. 1658) in his Karabadine Kaderi, transcribes bodily many useful prescriptions from Sanskrit medical treatises. This shows that even in its decline the Hindu medicine was able to command respect from its Mahomedan rival.

Indian medical science showed signs of revival during the time the Peshwas were in power (a.c. 1715-1818). The Peshwas came of high Brahman lineage, and they did all in their power to encourage indigenous learning and scholarship. All the learned men of the country were attracted ​to their court and liberally treated. Some of the recent works on Medicine, mostly compendiums of larger treatises on the subject, were written during this period.

The power of the Peshwas was overthrown by the English, and from the fall of the Marathas dates the decline of the native medical art, which lost all its material support. The English came with a pre-conceived notion that the Indian medicine was quackery, and the Hindu works on the subject a repository of sheer nonsense. They established medical schools and colleges — an inestimable boon, no doubt — but looked upon the healing art of the land with supreme contempt. The Indians, on the other hand, with a natural dislike for everything foreign, supposed amputation and dressing of wounds to be the Alpha and Omega of the Western medical science.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Source: Chapter 11, 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.

Translate the Page