History of Ayurveda

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Revision as of 14:32, 12 March 2018 by Deval Sancheti (Talk | contribs) (Origin of Life)


The mists of the time have rolled over the beginnings of most of the efforts of Man in the realms of thought and humanistic arts and sciences. Medicine is inevitably shrouded in mystery from its beginning. As per George Eliot's words:
The greatest benefactors of the world are hidden from the ken of history.

The greatest of our inventors and discoverers remain unsung and unnamed. Who knows the first maker of the wheel? Or as Cardinal Newman asks:

"Who was the first cultivator of the corn? Who first tamed and domesticated the animals whose strength we use and whom we make our food? Or who first discovered the medicinal herb, which from the earliest times have been our resource against diseases? If it was mortal man who thus looked through the vegetable and animal worlds, and discriminated between the useful and the worthless, his name is unknown to the millions whom he had thus benefited.

Discovery of Medicinal Arts

Citing the above posers, Edward Berdoe in his 'Popular History of Medicine' and Cardinal Newman has framed their question about which any satisfactory answer is quite unlikely. All the medicinal herbs were not discovered by a single person. No man looked through the vegetable and animal worlds and discriminated between the useful and the worthless. All this has been the work of ages and is the outcome of the experience of thousands of investigators. The medical arts have played an important part in the development of our civilization.

There is a hypothesis that medicine can never be traced to definite human origins. This has led the great compilers of the medical tradition in India, rightly to design medicine to divine origin. Beyond a certain degree of progress and evolution, all thought is essentially revealed, for it emerges from the domain of the sub-conscious of super-conscious. Hence all knowledge is either inherent or coeval with life or must be ascribed to super-human benefaction. The compilers of Ayurveda have therefore rightly held that the healing science is without beginning and the first promulgation of the science was by the gods and the best among mortals besought the gods and obtained and treasured the beneficial lore.

Thus with the history of medicine being a terra incognita to everybody, a comprehensive view of the evolution of medicine has yet to be written. For the historians of medicine in the west have not recognized fully the part played by India in the evolution of the medical science. Hence it would be interesting and advantageous to trace the origin of medicine in general and of its origin in India in particular.

Origin of Life

Since the repugnance to pain is an innate characteristic of life, it can be deduced that medicine is co-eval with life itself. Thus the medical historian must go back to the origin of life, but this is beyond the scope of human intellect due to lack of the evidence for that. We can only exclaim with the Rsi Drghatamas of the Rgveda who beheld life in its formless design.

We get blood n breath from the sources available on earth but the question is that from where do we get the spirit that informs these elements? Who has gone to the ultimate Knower of all the things to put the question? Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation? The Gods are later than this world's production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?

Modern science which has shifted the atom in the universe and drawn its dragnet through immensities of sidereal space is no wiser when it comes to the primal birth-mystery of life. The only vital difference is that where the ancient seer saw in the emergence of life the fulfillment of a divine plan, the man of science is aware of an accident so irrelevant in the cosmic context of its occurrence, that it can have no bearing on the scheme of things. To the modern scientists then no less than to the Vedic seer the first appearance of life and intelligence upon this planet remains the twin mysteries of creation.

As per Atreya

Ayurveda which is concerned with both these masteries is inclined to view them as having had no beginning in time and thus the question of when and how life and intelligence came into being is discountenanced, says Atreya,

There was no time when either the stream of life or the stream of intelligence did not flow.

He then goes on to argue that as life has thus existed throughout all time and has always been aware of itself, it follows that Ayurveda which is but the tradition embodying this knowledge, has enjoyed an Antiquity as immense as life itself. The knowledge of healing therefore, has come down as an eternal tradition but an eternal tradition does not mean an immutable tradition. To Atreya who takes the dynamic view of reality, the whole world is being reconstituted every moment. Knowledge is no exception and we have already noticed he refers to it as a Stream".

Thence, the knowledge of healing has come down as an eternal tradition but an eternal tradition does not mean an immutable tradition. To Atreya who takes the dynamic view of reality, the whole world is being reconstituted every moment, knowledge is no exception.

Thus, the continuity of tradition which Ayurveda has enjoyed is the continuity of growth not of mere survival, There is nothing in it of the "closed dogma" revealed once for all to the saints and admitting of no further modification. On the contrary, Atreya explicitly declares that Ayurveda has no limits and it is capable of indefinite expansion.

He exhorts the student to be diligent in the acquisition of knowledge from whatever source available, since to the intelligent man the whole world is his teacher. It is impossible to trace this continuity of medical tradition to its source. Reason and revelation is no less than sorcery and superstition which have contributed to its flow, has run parallel to the stream of life. If it carried the silt of age-old superstitions, is it not also luminous with the light of the spirit?

Other Beliefs

Whether we believe with the ancients that medicine has descended from heaven, being a gift of the gods or with the moderns that it has slithered up its way from the abysmal ooze of superstition and only now stands blinking in the sun, depends on our view of the origin and destiny of human life. It is certain that it has shared the same cradle as life and is destined to the same immortal end.

As per Caraka Samhita

The Caraka Samhita, in accordance with the other ancient works, recalls the tradition of the heavenly descent of medicine. Since it maintains that the science of life has co-existed with life this only means that if his pursuit of healing, man has received heavenly guidance from time to time. One such occasion was the bestowal of Ayurveda by Indra, the chief of the gods, on Bharadwaja who had been deputed to bring it down to earth by the assembly of sages who met on the auspicious slopes of the Himalayas. This constitutes the beginning of the historical era of medicine. The circumstances attending this bringing down of the Ayurveda to earth by Bharadwaja as related in the introductory part of the Caraka Samhita are worth recalling.

lt is said that when diseases first seriously assailed the lives of righteous people, the merciful sages taking pity on them met together on the auspicious slopes of the Himalayas to find out a way to overcome these impediments in their pursuit of the good life. The book mentions several of these sages by name and it would seem that this first historic assembly was representative of the wise men not only of India but of the greater India of that day and of the neighboring countries. The assembled sages after much deliberation decided that help could come only from Indra, the king of the immortals, who had received the science of life from the divine Aswins. But who was there so enterprising, determined and ready enough to seek out the king of the immortals in his celestial court and obtain from him the science of life There was an uneasy silence when this challenge went round and it was sage Bharadwaja known for his mighty austerities, that at last, breaking the spell, offered to go on the great quest.

How he meets the king of the celestials in his blazing court and having received from him the coveted lore of life, returns to the waiting sages, makes picturesque reading in the Caraka Samhita. The science of life or Ayurveda thus enters on its earthly career and to sage Bharadwaja goes the credit of first promulgating it on earth. But first' here means as already pointed out, first in that age or epoch, for Caraka is emphatic on the point that the science of life is beginning-less and has existed for all time. When we read the full story of this descent of Ayurveda to the earth as described in Caraka, the following facts are easily seen to characterize the historical truth regarding the systematic emergence of the medical science even in that far off day of antiquity in our history. And one is not surprised very much, when one remembers that the spirit of that age was one of dedication to logic, the very foundation of science.

  1. In that age, there took place a great conference of learned sages of India and of the neighboring lands in order to find out a solution for the serious problem of disease which had assailed humanity then.
  1. On finding that the necessary knowledge for combating the situation could be had from a far away land, they planned to depute a worthy member to acquire the much-needed wisdom.
  1. Bharadwaja who stood up offering to undergo the tribulation of travelling far and acquiring the science was chosen. He returned and described it before the selected gathering of the sages. Though they were satisfied with the great message of hope and relief, being practical men, they first put it to the test by actual experimentation on themselves as well as on others. When they were assured of the practical efficacy of the science they accepted it as a system.
  1. Then, they invited six outstanding scholars to classify and compile all the data pertaining to drugs and disease collected in various parts of the country and to embody them methodically and systematically in one complete treatise. When these six compilations were ready they were placed before a committee of selected judges. They decided that Agnivesas compilation was the best of them. They declared it before the world as the authoritative text of the medical science.
  1. This is the first historical record, perhaps in the whole world, of systematizing the medical knowledge, knowledge that had come down, till then, as a living tradition traced either from a divine, origin or from the findings of the deep thought and meditation of sages or from the instinct, experiment and experience of generations of humanity.

This in brief is the story of Ayurveda in its transition from its legendary to its historical epoch and we shall content ourselves now in facing its mundane history as it passed from master to pupil and from the learned men of each age to their successors.

History allows of being evolved either on chronological or ideological or biographical lines. As for chronology, ancient Indian history of which Ayurveda is a part, does not afford much scope. But ideologically Ayurveda, following the lines of the general concepts of life, may be classified and described in its several stages of development in the light of metaphysical concepts of matter and life. But the last method viz, biography seems best suited for our present purpose.

It has been rightly said that history is the biography of outstanding individuals in each age and this is even more true with the history of medicine Though the men living in each age are to be counted in millions, it is only given to a handful of men to play vital roles in the drama of life and provide food for the historian. Even so, in medicine, the lives and activities of outstanding men like Bharadwaja, Atreya, Caraka, Susruta and Vagbhata and others in India, as of Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Aristotle, Galen, and a few others in Greece and Rome, constitute the history of ancient medicine in India and in the West respectively. In all, ancient history, whether of medicine or of the arts or of political life, the multitude remains passive spectators, with a few important and dynamic individuals holding the reins of the chariot of national life.

Where popular institutions and life have not developed into active and self conscious functioning, the biographical method of history is the only true method to adopt and we shall proceed now to discuss and ascertain with as great a degree of certainty as possible, the lives and accomplishments of the leaders of medical thought ever since the science descended to the earth and began its terrestrial career as a rational system of healing for the protection and prolongation of life. For Caraka, this great science is a positive one intended for attaining long life.

Bharadwaja, the mighty ascetic, in search of the science of longevity approached Indra, having deemed him, the lord of the immortals, worthy of suit. Viewing the career of Ayurveda as a terrestrial science according to the Caraka Samhita, Bharadwaja is certainly the father of medicine in Ayurveda. He is the Indian Prometheus that brought the fire from gods and bestowed it on mankind. He is said to have brought the sun-fire to the earth. At any rate the fire of the healing science that bestows the warmth of good health, happiness and long life is certainly the gift to mankind he brought from the king of the gods. Our history, naturally enough begins with the inquiry into the nature and times of this greatest among sages.


  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore