Talk:The Period of Atreya

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia


It would be a very interesting and engaging study to fix the date of Atreya. There is a certain preceptor Atreya, the teacher of Jivaka. The stories about Jivaka are found in the literatures of various countries where Buddhism flourished. This includes Tibetan, Burmese and Sinhalese versions which differ in many pouts as follows:

  • In the Tibetan Tales, we find that Atreya of Taksasila was the preceptor of Jivaka.
  • The Burmese version says that Jivaka went to Kasi and not to Taksasila for studies. They however differ on the point of Atreyas preceptorship to Jivaka. They say that Jivaka's preceptor was Disapramukha or Manakacarya or Kapilaksa.
  • In the Tibetan stories where Atreya is mentioned as the preceptor of Jivaka, we do not find any other epithet of Atreya. In one book the epithet Pingala is used for Atreya. Jivaka has never mentioned anywhere Atreya as his preceptor nor Agnivesa as his co-student. In the same way, Agnivesa never mentions Jivaka anywhere in his whole treatise. Jivaka went to study head surgery according to a Tibetan story, while Punarvasu Atreya was primarily a physician.

As per Caraka Samhita

In the Caraka Samhita, we find a reference about abdominal surgery but there is no mention of head Surgery at all. Thus the inference that Atreya was the preceptor of Jivaka, is based on flimsy grounds and even the acceptance of Atreya as the preceptor of Jivaka does not establish his identity with Punarvasu Atreya.

Some scholars suggest that he may be Bhiksu Atreya but as we shall see that Bhiksu Atreya was a contemporary of Punarvasu Atreya, even that theory is erroneous. The person referred to as Bhiksu Atreya in the text of Caraka is not the perceptor of Jivaka. The preceptor of Jivaka if he was at all an Atreya, he must be some other descendant of Atri.

Atreya's Period with Reference to Taxilla

Taksashila is mentioned with reference to Jivaka. There is no mention of Taksasila in Caraka, Bhela and Kasyapa Samhita though we find the names of Gandhara, Pancala, Kamalya, Kasi, Pancaganga etc. This inevitably leads us to the conclusion that Taxilla might not have been developed as a centre of learning in Atreya's period, Atreya must have flourished before Taxilla had become a reputed seat of learning. Analyzing the period of Taxilla will help us in concluding the period of Atreya or atleast come somewhere near to the Atreya's period.

  1. There is no mention of Taxilla in the Vedas or in the Upanisads.
  2. In the Uttarakanda or the supplementary portion of Ramayana, we find that Bharata conquers the country and his son Taksa is placed to rule over the conquered territory and hence it is called as Taksasila.
  3. Janmejaya's serpent sacrifice was performed at Taxilla.
  4. Taxilla becomes a famous seat of learning by the Seventh century B. C.
  5. Historical records place its glorious period from 700 B. C. to 500 A. D. attracting scholars from distant cities, e. g. Rajagrha, Kasi and Mithila.
  6. Jivaka, Brahmadatta, Kautilya, Patanjali, Vasumitra and Asvaghosa are scholars of Taxilla.
  7. The grammarian Panini mentions Taxilla.

From the above data, Atreya seems to have flourished before the glorious period of Taxilla. Now, the glorious period of Taxilla coincides with the times of the Buddha and as the Buddha period is placed, by historians in the 6th century B. C. we can say that Atreya flourished before the period of Buddha. Thus the Buddha-period becomes the terminus ad quem.

References as per Other Scriptures

In order to fix Atreya's period with degree of accuracy, one will have to establish the upper limit or the terminus a quo of Atreya's period. In the Caraka Samhita, we find references to Kampilya and Pancala. The former place is well known in Sukla Yajurveda, Taittiriya Brahmana and Maitrayaniya.

Pancala also seems to have been equally well known in the Veda, Brahmanas, Kathaka Samhita and the Upanisads. So, Atreya must have flourished during the period when Kampilya and Pancala were the well-known places. As these places were well-known in the Vedic, Brahmana and Upanisadic periods, we can say that Atreya must have flourished not later than this period.

Thus the Brahmana or the Upanisadic period is the latest time when Atreya must have systematized and preached the medical science. Having determined that Atreya flourished before the Buddhist period and during the Upanisadic period, we must try to narrow down the period between the terminus ad quem as much as possible.

Analysis on the period of Contemporaries

The study of the contemporaries of Atreya in order to attempt to fix their dates is bound to yield useful results. In the Caraka Samhita, we find from various references that Marica, Kasyapa, Varyovida, Marici and Kasyapa were contemporaries of Atreya. Marica and Kasyapa are mentioned as Rsis who attended the Himalayan conference along with Atreya.

Atreya, Marici and Varyovida meet in the same assembly and discuss. In this assembly, Marici gives the authoritative statement about the action of Pitta while Varyovida establishes the actions and qualities of normal and abnormal Vata. This shows that all these were contemporaries.

  • Marici Kasypa is quoted by Atreya as the propounder of the theory that the spirit is unthinkable as it is not the object of direct observation.
  • Varyovida is mentioned as the authority on Vata or Vayu. We see him as the propounder of the theory of the nutrient fluid being the source of both man and disease. He is the contemporary of Atreya as well as of Nimi of Videha. Varyovida attends this assembly met to discuss the categories of taste. Varyovida propounds the theory that there are six categories of taste. He is given the epithet of Rajarsi.
  • Among others who attended this assembly were Nimi of Videha and Kankayana, the physician from Bahlika.[1] Nimi is given the epithet of Raja.

These references in the Caraka indicate that Atreya, Marici, Kasyapa, Varyovida, Nimi of Videha and Kankayana of Bahlika flourished at the same period. If we can fix up with certainty the date of any one of them, the dates of all others can be decided by the process of synchronism. The contemporaneity of Atreya, Kasyapa and Varyovida is supported by Kasyapa Samhita also. Varyovida and Nimi propound their own theories about the classification of disease and the presiding Rsi Kasyapa gives the final authoritative decision in the matter.

In this assembly, Atreya Punarvasu, Bhela and Kasyapa meet together. Atreya Punarvasu and Bhela give their own theory and Kasyapa the master preceptor on Pediatrics, gives his decisive opinion on the subject. These references from Kasyapa Samhita also support the fact that Marici, Kasyapa, Punarvasu Atreya, Varyovida and Bhela were contemporaries and the Bhela Samhita corroborates the contemporaneity of Atreya and Kasyapa.

Textual References

In trying to fix the date of Atreya, internal evidence of the text will greatly help. In Caraka, we find that it enumerates three hundred and sixty bones in the human body. In the Susruta Samhita, we find that only three hundred bones are enumerated. But, Susruta was aware of the enumeration of bones to be three hundred and sixty in works anterior to it. Ayurveda speaks of three hundred and sixty bones but books on surgical science denote only of three hundred.

The commentator Dalhana says that Veda is used to signify Ayurveda and not the four sacred Vedas. This proves that Atreya is anterior to Susruta and the two systems differ with regards to the number of bones in the human body. This theory or fact of Atreya's priority to Susruta is supported by the great scholar Hoernle, although he ascribes to Atreya the period of Taksasila's glory. He tells about Susruta saying:

"He must have been acquainted with the doctrines of Atreya. With reference, for example, to the bones of the human body, he introduces his own exposition with a remark pointing out the difference between Atreya's system and his own in respect of the total number of the bones."

Besides this, there are clear indications in the Satapatha Brahmana, whoich is a post-Vedic work, that the author was acquainted with the doctrine of both Atreya and Susruta. The bones are the enclosing stones and there are 360 of these, because there are three hundred and sixty bones in a man. The marrow parts are the Yajusmati bricks, hence there are three hundred sixty of these and three hundred and sixty parts of marrow in man.

In Caraka we find there are fourteen bones in the breast. In Susruta this number is given as seventeen. Satapatha seems to have taken the number of breast-bones from Susruta. The anatomical comparisons quoted above show that at the time of Satapatha, both the medical schools, of Atreya and Susruta, were in existence and the author possessed some knowledge of their respective theories of the skeleton. As he had derived from Susruta regarding the presence of seventeen bones in the breast while according to Caraka the bones are only fourteen. While he derived the total number of 360 bones of the skeleton from Atreya, Susruta has only 300. In his choice of particulars from the two systems, he was guided by the requirements of his mystic theory of the fire-altar.

The author of the Satapatha Brahmana is Yajnavalkya who is said to have flourished at the court of Janaka, the famous king of Videha and contemporary of Ajatasatru. The latter, the celebrated ruler of Magadha, was a contemporary of the Buddha. His accession took place approximately in 554 B C. Accordingly, Yajnavalkya may be dated about 575 B. C. So the dates of Atreya and Susruta must be placed some time before that period and Atreya being anterior to Susruta, can be concluded to have existence at least in the seventh century B. C.

As per Atharvaveda

This date of Atreya is pushed back to further antiquity by the evidences found in the Atharvaveda. With an evidence of the very early date of both Atreya and Susruta, we have a rather significant passage in the Atharvaveda. It occurs in the tenth book, as a hymn on the creation of man, in which the several parts of the skeleton are carefully and systematically enumerated in striking agreement more especially with the system of Atreya as contained in Caraka's compendium. The date of the Atharvaveda is not exactly known, but it belongs to the most ancient or primary Vedic literature category of Indian books. It cannot be placed later than the eighth century B C. because references to it are found in secondary Vedic works, such as the Satapatha Brahmana above referred to.

The large portion of it which includes books I to XVIII admittedly belongs to a much earlier period, possibly as early as about 1000 B C. and the hymn in question is included in his older portion. Moreover, within that portion it belongs to a division of books VIII - XII, which bears a distinctly hieratic character. It thus takes us back to that pre-historic or the semi-mythical age of the medicine man who combined the functions of priest and physician. This period as already stated, is represented conspicuously by the great sage Bharadwaja and to him it actually ascribes the authorship of one of the hymns[2] of that hieratic division.

So the period of Atreya can be bracketed between the end of Atharva-period and the beginning of Satapatha-period. Let us see if the method of exposition and the language used are of any help to us in fixing the date. The main text of Atreya seems to have been composed during the Sutra period or the aphoristic period which appeared at the end of the Vedic period. The rise of this class of writings was due to the need of simplifying and shortening details of knowledge and experience got during the Vedic period in the whole country to a systematic shape. Due to this compressing into a compact form, it does not impose too much burden on the memory.

The main object of the Sutras was therefore to supply a short but comprehensive survey of the sum of these scattered details. For this purpose, the utmost brevity was needed, a requirement which was certainly met in a manner unparalleled elsewhere. The name of this class of literature points to its main characteristic and chief object viz., extreme conciseness. The prose in which these works were composed is such that the wording of the most laconic expression would often appear diffuse compared with it. Some of the Sutras attain to such a degree of terseness that the formulas cannot be understood without the help of elaborate commentaries. A characteristically aphoristic verse which defines the nature of a Sutra is here.

This is called a Sutra which has the least number of words, is unambiguous, synoptical, all-embracing, devoid of any superficial word and faultless.

The first section of Atreya Samhita is called Sutra-sthana. This Sutra style needed interpretation and commentaries and hence it was essential to study under a Guru who could interpret the Sutras. This is also one of the reasons why later on so many commentaries on this Samhita were written. Linguistic investigations tend to show that the Sutras are closely connected in time with the grammarian Panini, some of them appearing to be even anterior to him. Hence we shall now assign 7th to 2nd century B. C. as the chronological limits within which the Sutra literature was developed.

As per Satapatha Brahmana

Another evidence which leads us to place Atreya some time in the Satapatha Brahmana period is the assembly-system so often mentioned in his treatise. The philosophical disquisitions are the characteristic feature of the Brahmana period. It was a special function of the Brahma priest to give decisions on many disputed points that may arise in the course of a sacrifice and this he could not have done unless he was a master of ratiocination. Such decisions which may be likened to the chairmans ruling in a modern assembly are scattered through the ancient Brahmanas and are collected together as so many deductions in the Purva Mimansa aphorisms of Jaimini.

These arguments form a prominent feature in the later books of Satapatha Brahmana. The leader of these is Yajnavalkya who is regarded as the chief authority, like Atreya in the Caraka Samhita.

As per Brhadaranyak Upanishad

In the Brhadaranyakopanisad which forms the concluding portion of the last book named Aaranyaka of both the recensions of Satapatha Brahmana, the second part of the Upanisad consists of four philosophical discussions in which Yajnavalkya is the chief speaker. Out of these four, the first is a great disputation in which the sage proves his superiority over nine successive interlocutors. The second discourse is the dialogue between king Janaka and Yajnavalkya. The third discourse is another dialogue between them. The fourth is the discourse between Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi.

In the 10 th chapter of Sutra-sthana there is depicted a dialogue between the main speaker Atreya and Maitreya. Atreya gives a warning at the end thus:

One who knows the differential diagnosis between curable and incurable diseases and also the right application, will not fall into such erroneous mode of thinking as Maitreya and others did.

In the 12th chapter of Sutra-sthana the discourse is among the Rsis, Kusa Sankatyayana, Kumarasira Bharadwaja, Kankayana Bahlika, Badisa Dhamargava, Varyovida Rajarsi, Marici, Kapya, and Atreya. Each of them discusses one aspect of the subject and Atreya, the presiding sage, links all the aspects in one Integrating form. In chapter 25th of Sutra-sthana, Kasipati Vamaka approaches the assembly of Rsis for the solution of a question. Pariksi, Maudgalya, Saraloma, Varyovida. Hiranyaksa, Kausika, Kusika, Bhadrakapya, Bhardwaja, Kankayana, Bhiksu Atreya, each of them propound their own theory and insists tenaciously on its acceptance. The presiding sage Atreya exhorts all of them to be more rational and scientific and gives his authoritative decision on the subject.

Similarly, in chapter 26 th of Sutra-sthana, nine sages meet and each propounds their own theory in the discourse on the categories of taste. Finally, the learned Atreya expounds giving the decision in the matter.

Those who advance arguments and counter-arguments as if they were final authorities, never arrived at any conclusion, going round and round like the man who sits on the oil press. In the 3rd chapter of Sarira-sthana, there is a discourse between Bharadwaja and Atreya. Elaborate rules and regulations about the conduction of such meetings are given in great details in the Vimana-sthana chapter VIII.


Reviewing the matter and manner of these discourses and the importance attached to such meetings, one feels that Atreya's treatise must have been composed during the period when such disquisitions were the prevalent system of establishing the final truth in a matter of dispute. Thus Atreya's period coincides with the Satapatha period. Taking into view the internal and external evidence supported by historical consistency we can conclude to place Atreya in a period not deflecting much on either side of the 8th century B. C but certainly not later than 7th century B. C.


  1. Bahlika is present day Balkh.
  2. It refers to the twelfth of the tenth book.
  • The Caraka Samhita published by Shree Gulabkunverba Ayurvedic Society, Jamnagar, India