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Ayurveda: the Traditional Indian Medicine

Ayurveda: the Traditional Indian Medicine System and its Global Dissemination
by D. P. Agrawal & Lalit Tiwari

In this essay we introduce the ancient Indian medicine system (Part I) and also describe its global dissemination (Part II). Through Buddhist monks the Ayurveda spread to Tibet and China. So many Chinese scholars visited India and even studied in the ancient Indian universities. After Alexander’s invasion, the contacts with the Greek and Persian worlds got intensified. In medieval times, during the period of the Arab Caliphs, the Arab world became a hub of international science and medicine. In its institutes, like the medical academy at Jundishapur, both Greek and Indian savants taught and translated major medical works. We would therefore go into greater detail about the Indo-Arab contacts during this period in the Part II.

Part I

Probably all life forms are afflicted with disease. Disease is the basic problem faced by humans too since prehistoric times. Evidence for the existence of well-organised system of medicine in India can be traced back to the archaeological remains of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, from where even Silajit has been reported. Ayurveda is the oldest Indian indigenous medicine system, probably with its roots in the Indus Civilisation. In the Vedic period, the Osadhisukta of the Rigveda is the oldest documented knowledge about plants and herbal medicines.

The term Ayus means duration or span of life, veda means unimpeachable knowledge. The common translation of the Ayurveda is ‘science of life’. In his book Kris Morgan says that literally Ayurveda means ‘science of longevity’, but because of its divine origin, it is also called the ‘medicine of the God’. Tradition says that Brahma (the creator) was the divine source of this science, which was brought into existence before the creation of mankind. The knowledge was passed from him to the god Daksapati, then to the two celestial physicians (the twin Asvina Kumaras), later to Indra the god king, and finally to Bharadvaja, the semi-divine sage. Such traditions need not be taken literally but they only indicate the great antiquity of Ayurveda.

Literary Evidence

The earliest-recorded knowledge about Ayurveda is found in the Rigveda and the Atharvaveda, both of the second millennium BC. The Atreya Samhita is perhaps the oldest medical book in the world; it survives from Taksashila University, going back to the mid-I Millennium BC. The Atharvaveda lists eight divisions of Ayurveda: internal medicine, surgery of head and neck, ophthalmology, surgery, toxicology, psychiatry, paediatrics, gerontology or science of rejuvenation and the science of fertility. At about 500 BC in the University of Banaras, Susruta, a surgeon, who developed the operative techniques of rhinoplasty (plastic surgery), wrote the Susruta Samhita, which describes a highly developed surgery. The physician Caraka revised and supplemented the Atreya Samhita; his book, the Carak Samhita is a vast work on internal medicine.

Susruta Samhita: According to Susruta Samhita the purpose of Ayurveda is not only to cure illness and affliction but also to preserve health and ensure a long happy life. Susruta Samhita deals specially with the therapeutic branch of Ayurveda. It contains one hundred and twenty chapters, distributed in five divisions: Sutrasthana (fundamental postulates cover 46 chapters), Nidanasthana (pathology, covers 16 chapters), Sarirasthana (embryology and anatomy cover 10 chapters), Cikitsasthana (medical treatment covers 40 chapters), Kalpasthana (toxicology covers 8 chapters) and Uttaratantra (specialized knowledge covers 66 chapters) respectively.

Caraka Samhita: Caraka Samhita is an exhaustive work on medicine. It is said that Caraka’s original was the Samhita of Agnivesa, a disciple of the medical sage Atreya. Long passages in the Caraka Samhita are in the form of questions and answers between Atreya and Agnivesa. Caraka is a class title of a school of physicians, existing from Vedic times and also the personal title of a physician in the court of King Kaniska. (There is no unanimity about Caraka’s date yet). The subject matter of the Caraka Samhita has been divided into 8 sections and 120 chapters. The total number of chapters (120) probably refers to the maximum life span (120 years) of man because the ultimate object of treatise is to promote longevity.

More then 600 drugs of animal, plant and mineral origins are used in the Caraka and about 650 in the Susruta Samhita. Susruta mentions more then 300 different operations employing 42 different surgical processes and 121 different types of instruments. The Samhitas divide Ayurveda into 8 different branches: Salyatantra (surgical knowledge), Salakyatantra (treatment of diseases of the ears, nose, eye, tongue, oral cavity and throat), Bhutavidya(knowledge of mental diseases, supernatural origins diseases), Kaumarabhrtya (care of children and infantile disorders), Agadatantra (toxicology), Rasayanatantra (syrup, tonic knowledge) and Vajikaranatantra (knowledge of virility).

Ayurveda deals with the medical subjects like genetics, gynaecology, aetiology, surgery, physiology, biology, diet, ethics, personal hygiene, social medicine, allied subjects like animal biology, botany, cultivation, pharmacognosy, chemistry, cosmology, etc.

Ayurvedic Concept of Ideal Health

According to the philosophical concepts on which Ayurveda is based, all bodies – material, living, conscious and unconscious – are evolved out of Prakrti (the ultimate ground) by the subtle influence of the Purusa, the absolute or the primal self conscious principle and every component of the human organism is created out of the tattvas (fundamental compounds) as evolved out of the Prakrti. When all the eleven indriyas (mind, the five sense organs and the five organs of motion and action), the three dosas (the air, radiant energy and water), the agni (digestive fire), the malas (excretions), the kriyas (like sleep, elimination, respiratory, etc.) and the seven dhatus (elementary stuff) are in normal state and in equilibrium then the health is in an ideal state. The main aims of Ayurveda include maintenance of this equilibrium, and its repair in case of any imbalance and derangement. Ayurveda attempts this process by the application of all spiritual and material resources available to man.

Philosophy of Ayurveda

There is a remarkable theory in Ayurveda to the effect that man is a miniature form of the universe, a ‘microcosm’ of the macrocosm. The material contents of man and universe are constituted of the same five primal elements: prthvi (solid component to both), apas (the liquid), tejas (the radient energy, body heat, digestive fire), vayu (air), and akasa (the orifices and empty spaces inside the body).

Ayurvedic Definition of Health

In Ayurvedic medicine, health is defined as soundness of sarira (body), manas (mind) and atman (self). Each of these must be nurtured if the individual is to have good health.

Concept of Disease

Ayurveda is basically a humoural medical system and conceives of three essential humours, which cause disease if they become imbalanced. These three humours are: vata (air), pitta (bile) and kapha (phlegm), occasionally in the surgical tradition a fourth humour – blood – was also added.

VayuVayu is self-begotten, eternal, all pervading and all-powerful in its action and control over all space. It controls the creation, growth and disintegration of all living organisms. According to location and functions it is of five types: prana vayu (maintain the breath, transmit food), udana vayu (vocal sound, song, speech are depend upon it), samana vayu (causes digestion), vyana vayu (causes perspiration) and apana vayu (causes the downward movement of stool, urine, semen and menses).

PittaPitta is the cosmic fiery principle. It is responsible for the creation in the body of heat, energy, all forms of radiant energy, pumping action of heart, skin temperature, vitality of blood. In the body, pitta is of five types: ranjaka pitta (colour producing fire), pacaka pitta (digestive fire), sadhaka pitta (motion giving fire), alocaka pitta (vision giving fire) and bhrajaka pitta (lustre giving fire).

KaphaKapha supplies the placid and cooling principles to the body. According to location and function kapha is of five kinds: kladaka (supply mucous to the system), avalambaka (transport the blood fluids), vodhaka (tasting agent), tarpaka (irrigating agent) and slesmaka (binding agent).

Vyadhis (diseases) are caused by derangement of one or more of the three humours and also blood. According to Samhitasvyadhi (diseases) may be four types: agantuja (extraneous), sarira (internal), manasa (mental) and svabhavika (natural).

Concept of Treatment

Direct observation is the most remarkable feature of Ayurveda but some times it is correlated with metaphysics. Samhitas accept this view and write that of all types of evidence, the most dependable ones are those that are directly observed by the eyes. In the Ayurvedic viewpoint successful medical treatment depends on four factors: the physician, substances (drug or diets), nurse and patient. Samhitas described these four factors properly. These four factors are the main mechanisms of Ayurveda. It describes four essential qualities of medical factors, physician, drugs or substance, nursing attendant and patient respectively. The qualifications of physician are: clear grasp of the theoretical content of the science, a wide range of experience, practical skill and cleanliness. Qualities of drugs or substances are: abundance, applicability, multiple use and richness in efficacy. Qualifications of the nursing attendant are: knowledge of nursing techniques, practical skill, attachment to the patient and cleanliness. And the essential qualifications of patients are: good memory, obedience to the instructions of the doctors, courage and ability to describe the symptoms.

Influence of Ayurveda on East and West

By 400 AD, Ayurvedic works were translated into Chinese; by 700 AD, Chinese scholars were studying medicine in India at Nalanda University. Indian thought, as well as influencing Chinese spirituality and philosophy through Buddhism, greatly influenced Chinese medicine and herbology through Ayurveda. In 800 AD, Ayurvedic works were translated into Arabic. In 16th century Europe, Paracelsus, who is known as the father of modern Western medicine, practiced and propagated a system of medicine, which borrowed heavily from Ayurveda. In the following discussion, we would take a global view of Ayurveda.

Part II

Below we discuss the spread of the Indian medicinal knowledge to other parts of the world.

India has had cultural and trade relations with Mesopotamia, Gulf countries and Iran even in the III Millennium BC. Seals of Bahrain type have been found in Lothal, a Harappan town in Gujarat. With the Arab countries India’s scientific and cultural relationship goes back to prehistory. During the medieval times such relations intensified a great deal.

No doubt Alexander’s annexation of Gandhara region led to closer ties between Greece and India, but the mutual contacts go beyond to the Persian kings (Cyrus, Darius etc) of mid-I millennium BCE. These Persian kings employed both Greek and Indian scholars and physicians. Quoting Fillozat, Sharma (1992) suggests that both Plato and Hippocrates were influenced by Indian thought and concepts. Indian Wootz steel was equally popular with the Persian kings for both its hardness and rust-free properties (Tripathi 2001).

Contacts with China and Tibet

India was in contact with China even during the Kushana times. Bahlika was an important centre where traders from China, India and West Asia met and exchanged ideas and goods. During the Gupta period the links between India and China were firmly established. Chinese scholars like Fahiyan, Ywan Chwang, and Itsing were great cultural ambassadors between the two countries. The University of Nalanda, established during the reign of Kumaragupta, attracted a large number of scholars and students from China. Several Ayurvedic texts were translated into Chinese (Sharma 1992).

The Bower Manuscript (mss), which is named after its discoverer, Lieutenant H. Bower, was found in 1890, in Kuchar, in Eastern Turkestan, on the great caravan route of China. It was then sent to Colonel J. Waterhouse, who was then the President of Asiatic Society of Bengal where the famous Indologist Hoernle edited it. Detailed studies of the mss indicated to Hoernle that the writers of Parts I-III and Parts V-VII were Indian Buddhist monks. The mss is written in Indian Gupta script. The use of birch-bark for writing shows that they must have come from Kashmir or Udyana. Hoernle thinks that they passed the mss into the hands of the writer of Part IV, who would seem to have been a native of Eastern Turkestan, or perhaps of China. But the ultimate owner of the whole series of manuscripts, Yasomitra, must have held a prominent position in that monastery. For this collective manuscript was contained in the relic chamber of the memorial stupa at the Ming-oi of Qum Tura, built in his honour. The large medical treatise called Navanitaka forms the second part of the Bower mss dated to about the second half of the fourth century AD. The Chinese medicine system has several parallels with the Indian system. The Chinese concept of Ying and Yang is comparable to Indian Prakriti and Purusa. So also the five basic elements of the Chinese and Indian systems are similar. It seems that the pulse reading system in India was derived from the Chinese.

The Tibetan and Indian medicine systems too had close relations. The most popular Tibetan medical text is Rgyud bzi (meaning Catus-tantra, four treatises). It was based on Amrta Hrdaya Astanga Guhyopadesa Tantra. In the 8th Century AD Vairochana, a Tibetan scholar, translated it into Tibetan (Dash 1992). The Tibetan medicine system was greatly influenced by Ayurveda, but it is an integral part of Buddhism. Their materia-medica could provide many cures for the obstinate and incurable diseases.

Contacts with West Asia

Rhazes (865-965 AD) and Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (980-1037 AD) were great scholars of Arabic medicine who influenced the global medical literature for a long time. The canon of Avicenna was translated into Latin in the 12th Century AD and was a textbook in European medical institutes for long. We will therefore go into greater detail into the scientific relations between the Indian and Arab worlds.

The names of several Indian products such as Indian sword, Indian spices and aloes-wood are often found even in pre-Islamic poetry. Names of the Indian drugs, like Kafur (Karpüra), Misk (Muska), Zanjabil (Srhgavera) and ud(Aguru) etc. occur even in the holy Qur’an and Prophet’s traditions (Ahadith-i-Nabawi). Probably the Arabic words like FanizTütiaNarjilBish and Sandal have probably been derived from Sanskrit language. Varma (1992) in his detailed article, “Indo-Arab Relations In Medical Sciences”, gives several well-documented instances of such contacts.

Abu Sa’id, a companion of the Prophet, has related that an Indian Raja had sent an earthen jar containing dried ginger (Zanjabil) to the Prophet and he distributed it among all his companions to eat and that he also got a piece. Al Tabari, the author of the first comprehensive Arabic book, entitled ‘Firdaus-ul-Hikmat‘ (Paradise of Wisdom) (c.850 AD) mentions, “If a person takes seven pieces of Zanjabil (dried ginger) in the form of jam, particularly prepared in honey, for seven days in a month for some time, he would be protected from phlegmatic ailments like paralysis, rheumatism, etc., it would also sooth the stomach. It is a help in old age. Due to its medicinal properties, its use is very common not only in food preparations but also in Unani medicine and Ayurveda. The Prophet used to burn Aloes-wood (‘Ud-Hindi) with camphor. Said the Prophet, ‘In Aloes-wood, there are seven remedies’. As a snuff, it is good for the disease called al-Ghudrah. It is also efficacious for cases of pleurisy.”

Several Indian tribes like Jats (Zutt) had settled down in Arabia even before the beginning of Islam and they were well-versed in different branches of ancient Indian traditional medicine. Many if them, such as Tantric medicine, and were using their clinical proficiency to cure the patients. Even some of the Indians are also said to have been in the company of the Prophet. The beloved wife of the Prophet was cured by an Indian Jat physician of Medina. It is also recorded that Harith bin Kalada, the trusted Hakim of the Prophet, studied in the medical school of Jundishapur (in Khuzistan, in South-West Iran) where Indian vaidyas and philosophers also taught sciences including medicine. At the end of his studies and before returning to Mecca, Harith travelled through India in search of more information about different branches of Indian Medicine. It is also mentioned that an Indian physician, Birzantin Hindi had migrated to Yemen and settled there presumably during Anusherwan’s reign (530-580 AD). He had a fair knowledge of Indian Medicine and specialized in treating different diseases by administering Indian herbs particularly hemp (Cannabis indica Linn). He is responsible for introducing Indian hemp for curing various ailments and got the name and fame due to new mode of treatment in that area.

Zubayr (1960) says that a Chinese monarch sent a gift in the form of a book to the first Ummayyad Caliph (660-680 AD). The book contained some secrets and wisdom regarding Indian medicine, alchemy and astronomy. The same book was received by his grand son, Abu Hashimn Khalid bin Yazid, who used to take keen interest in the acquisition of scientific knowledge from different countries. It is therefore believed that he might have extracted and assimilated a considerable material on medical sciences and on other subjects of Indian origin. It is stated that after conquering Sindh, ‘Abdullah bin Sawwar ‘Abdi (667 AD), the Governor of Sind, sent a number of rare gifts to the Caliph on behalf of the Raja Gigan (Qiqan). Al Tabari (c. 850 AD) mentions that the Indian hair dye (al-Khidab ul-Hindi) was also exported to Arabia and was very popular with the Arabs due to its peculiar quality for retaining the bright dark texture of the hair for minimum period of about a year. It was also used by the Arab caliphs like Hashim bin ‘Abdu’l Malik (742 AD). In this context, Al Tabari mentions, “Many persons had told me about a wonderful thing for retaining black texture of hair for ever, quoting their ancestors. According to them, the buccal sucking of one piece of black chibulic myroba1 of Kabul (famous Indian drug) daily, continuously for one year was advised to retain permanent black texture of hair”.

All the ‘Abbasid caliphs from al-Mansur (754-773 AD) to al-Mutawakkil (847-886 AD) were patrons of arts and sciences. Al-Mansur, the second ‘Abbasid caliph, received embassies from Sindh, one of which included some Indian pandits who presented him two Indian books on astronomy; the Brahmasiddhanta and the Khandakhadyaka, which by the orders of the caliph were translated into Arabic by Ibrahim al-Fazari (786-806 A.D). Caliph Harun al-Rashid’s (763-809 AD) is well known for his literary and scientific interest. He established his famous Bait-ul-Hikmat (House of Wisdom), a combination of library, academy and translation bureau which in many respects, proved to be the most important educational centre since the foundation of the Alexandrian museum in the first half of the third century BC. When the Arabs realized the high quality and value of Ayurveda as well as Indian culture, they got interested in translation of Indian medical and other scientific works from Sanskrit into Arabic. Thus works of Caraka-samhita and Susruta-samhita etc. were rendered into Arabic. The Arabic translation of these samhitashighly impressed the Arabs. They assimilated an enormous material in their Tibbi medical treatises.

The Barmecide (Barmaki or Barmak, after the Sanskrit word Pramukh, high priest) rose to the most influential position during the ‘Abbäsid period, particularly in the reign of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. As a physician Barmak’s claim to fame is the pill which was named after him (Habb-i-Barmaki). It was recommended by Ibn Sina (980-1037 AD) and later Hakims and a perfume which was widely used by prostitutes. Yahya bin Khalid, the Barmecide (c. 805 AD), the vizier of the Caliph Mahdi and the tutor of Harun al-Rashid, sent an Arab scholar to India to study and bring the Indian drugs and herbs etc. Yahya also invited Indian vaidyas and philosophers westwards so that he might learn from them. Once Harun al-Rashid was afflicted with a serious disease and could not be cured by his own physicians, so he sent for Manaka (Mankhaor Minikya) with precious gifts. He came to Baghdad and cured the Royal patient and the caliph granted him handsome pension and bestowed upon him great wealth.

Manaka was proficient in Ayurveda and other Indian sciences and had a sound knowledge of Indian and Persian languages. He was deputed as Chief of the Royal Hospital at Baghdad and translated several books from Sanskrit into Persian or Arabic language. Ibn Dhan (Dhanya or short form of Dhanvantari?) was another competent Indian vaidya who lived at Baghdad at the same time when Manaka was there. He was called there by Yahya bin Khalid, the Barmecid vizier and was appointed as the Director of his (Barmecid) hospital at Baghdad. At his behest, Ibn Dhan also rendered a few Sanskrit texts into Persian or Arabic Language. Saleh bin Behla was another competent practitioner of Ayurveda, though he does not seem to have any official position. He is known to have cured Ibrahim bin Saleh of apoplexy, though he was declared dead by the Caliph’s own physicians. After the advice of Säleh, the royal patient was removed out of his coffin, bathed and put in his usual dress. Then the Indian vaidya ordered to bring a blowing pipe and blew some snuff prepared of Kundush (Verartilum album) with the instrument into his nose. After about ten minutes, all of a sudden, his body quivered and he sneezed, sat in front of the caliph and kissed his hands. The caliph was much impressed by the clinical acumen of Indian doctor and rewarded him handsomely.

Düban was the last and fourth Indian vaidya who was mentioned by Maulana Shill Nu mani, the well-known Indian orientalist, in one of his scholarly monographs entitled ‘A1-Ma’mun’. Duban, the Indian learned vaidya, was sent by an Indian Raja to the court of Caliph al-Ma’mun’ at Baghdad. It seems clear that Burzoe, the well-known minister of Nausherwan (530-580 AD) came to India at the command of his king to collect more information on Indian arts and science. He brought Indian scientists and experts of Ayurveda along with the books on different subject of India. Most of them were deputed to impart Indian medical education. Other scholars were appointed for rendering scientific books in Pehlavi language in the medical academy and translation bureau of Jundishapur. Beside the abovementioned four well-known Indian vaidyas there must have been several other Indian medical men at Baghdad; but no information is available about them.

The Arab scholars were also acquainted with some other Indian vaidyas and masters of other allied sciences. These are:

I. Kanka (Ganga) was one of the most learned Indian scientists who also knew the healing art and drug sciences. According to some Arab writers, Kanka was accepted by all the Indian savants to be the greatest authority in astronomy in ancient India. He was probably the author of the following books: (a) Kitab-ul Namudar fil-‘Amar (The book of horoscopes of lives); (b) Kitab-ul Asrãri’l Mawalid (The book of the secrets of births): (c) Kitab-ul Qiranat (The book of conjuctions); Kabir wa Saghir (Major and Minor); (d) Kitab fi ‘llm-ul-Tibb (The book on medical science); (e) Kitab fi’lm- Tawahhum (The book on mania); and (f) Kitab fi’l Ahdathi’Alamii fi l’Qirdn (The book on the incidents that may happen in the world under certain conjunctions of stars).

II. Sanjhal was the most learned man of India who wrote a book on nativity entitled, Kitab-ul-Mawalid (book of nativities).

III. Shanaq (Cãnakya) was one of the ablest vaidyas of India. He had versatile knowledge of various branches of science and philosophy. He excelled in astronomy and occupied a high position in the courts of Indian kings of his time. Varma thinks that Shanaq al-Hindi is to be identified as Canakya, Candragupta’s minister, also called Kautilya. It is known to have been translated into Persian from an Indian language by Manaka. Then, it was rendered into Arabic from the Persian by Abu I (9th cent. AD). Shanaq was known to be author of the Fihrist, Ibn al-Nadim, and also of other books on the conduct of life, the management of war, and on cultural studies. His works mentioned by Ibn abi Usaibi’ya are on the stars, lapidary crafts, and one on veterinary medicine.

Abu Hatim of Balkh who translated books from Persian into Arabic is known only as a contemporary of Manaka and a translator who worked for Yahya bin Khalid the Barmecide. Another translation of Shànaq’s work was carried out by al-‘Abbãs ibn Sa’id al-Jauharil, a contemporary of al-Ma’mün, and a well-known Islamic astronomer and commentator on the Elements of Euclid. Shãnaq divided his book into five chapters. The first deals mainly with poisons; the second is on veterinary science; the third is on astronomy; the fourth book was meant for the guidance of a certain king; the fifth is the book of nativities.

Besides the above ancient Indian scientists, there are many others mentioned by Ibn Nadim and Ibn abi Usaibi’ya, but it is not possible to identify them definitely. The following names of the Indian scientists have been mentioned:(1) Bakhar (2) Raha (or Raja)(3) Dahir (4) Saka (5) Aikab (6) Zankal (7) Jabari (8) Indi (9) Jahar (10) Ankü (11) Manjhal. Qazi Athar Mubarakpuri has further added these names: (1) Vaidya Behla (2) Qalbarqal (3) Khãtif Hindii. They were also invited by Yahya bin Khãlid, the Barmecide, during Harun al-Rashild’s time.

The following Indian medical works were rendered into Arabic from Sanskrit or Hindi during the Abbasid Caliphate:

(1) Caraka-samhita was translated into Persian (Pehlavi) probably by Manaka Hindi and then it was rendered into Arabic by Abdu Habin; (2) Susruta sanhita (susrud); Astanghrdaya; Nidana; Siddhyoga; the book of poisons; the book on treatment of pregnant women; the book on female diseases; the book on snake bites and incantations; there are other books on intoxicants, diseases, drugs etc.

Caliph Harun ‘al Rashid used to levy heavy taxes on various kinds of Indian articles including spices and drugs. Caliph al-Ma’mun (813-33 AD) was also interested in different sciences. So he brought many scientists to his court from Jundishapür which had a large number of Indian scientists who had brought their sciences and wisdom from Indian subcontinent. After his return from India, Ibrãhim bin Fazârun brought a lot of information about Indian drugs and Ayurveda, its teaching and texts. Among the gifts sent by Indian Rajas to the Caliph al-Ma’mün, there was a special mat made of dragon’s skin, which when used for sleeping or sitting purpose, was supposed to prevent and cure pulmonary tuberculosis or phthisis. Indian kings used to send rare and wonderful Indian gifts to Arab caliphs, which consisted of aloe-wood, musk, camphor, dried ginger, kostos, amber, fresh myrobalan of Kabul and precious stones.

Firdaus-ul-Hikmat (Paradise of Wisdom) was composed by Abu ‘Ali bin Rabban al-Tabari (c. 850 AD). Al-Tabari has divided the book into a number of discourses. Its last and fourth discourse has discussed the different branches of ancient medicine (Tibb-i-Vaidik) and is in 36 chapters. Its first chapter starts with the genesis of Ayurvedic medicine as follows, “When I was about to complete this book, I thought it fit to add another discourse to it, with separate chapters describing the merits of medical works of Indians and their reputed medicaments. I hope it will increase the knowledge of the student because when he comes to know where these two great nations (Greeks and Indians) agree and where they differ, he will naturally come to know the advantages and disadvantages of Hindu medicine. Out of these topics which I have written here very many things agree with what the Greek Hakims have mentioned, but most of the things do not.”

Regarding the origin and transmission of Ayurvedic medicine, Al-Tabari further adds, “They say that, in remote antiquity, the earth was always bright, fertile, clean and its five fundamental sources or elements i.e. Mahabhuta’s natures were moderate. These were counted as five, with the addition of a kind of air, i.e. Ether (Akash) to the other four, namely (1) Earth (2) Water (3) Air and (4) Fire. The people lived in harmony and love with each other. They had no greed, anger, jealousy or anything else which made their body and soul sick. But, later on, when jealousy arose among them, when they became greedy, they needed to find out the tricks and means to hoard up the riches,…grievances, scheming, weariness, causing pain to others, corrupted the community”. Al-Tabari’s account is however ambiguous and misleading on the subject and does not correspond with the modern texts of Caraka-samhita. This may be due to the fact that Al-Tabari’s studies were presumably based upon the defective Arabic translation of Caraka-samhita by ‘Al bin Zain of Tabaristan rendered during the days of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. The Atreya School of Medicine believes that the first mortal who received the Ayurvedic Medicine was Bharadvãja. But the South Indian traditions credit Rsi Agastya, popularly known as Kundamalai Siddhar, to have been the first mortal to receive Ayurvedic science from the gods.

Among the simple and compound medicaments, al-Tabari described (1) Jauz Hindi (cononut); (2) Tamar Hindi (tamarind); (3) Ud ‘Hindi (aloewood); (4) Mileh Hindi (Indian salt); (5) Kammun Hindi (Indian cumin); (6) Shitraj Hindi (Indian lepidium); (7) Qust Hindi(Costus indica); (8) Halelaj (chebulic myrobalan); (9) Balalaj (belleric myrobalan); (10) Amlaj (Emblic myrobalan); (11) Saddhij Hindi (Malabathrum indica) etc. Hirq-ul- Dhahab(calces/bhasma of iron, silver and gold) apart from other medicaments of Indian origin. It is presumed that this is the first Arabic comprehensive book which contains the description of Ayurvedic medicine along with the mode of calces preparation of different metals. Another prescription used for improving memory was to take some pieces of al-Wajj (VacaCalamus asiaticus) dipped in cow butter-oil in a green container for some time and then burned in a heap of barley for not less than twenty days. The medicine thus prepared should be taken in dose of one small piece daily. According to an Indian scholar, a member of his family used it for some time and his memory was so sharpened that he recollected those incidents of his life which had happened fifty years ago and were forgotton by him.

In addition to references to Shanaq, abstracts from other Indian books on poisons were borrowed and assimilated by Ibn Wahashiya (9th cent. AD) in his Arabic text, entitled Kitab ul-Sumüm wa’l-Tiryaqat (book of poisons and their antidotes). Reference was also made to two Indian experts on the subject, Tammashah and Bahlindad and their medical treatises, in his Arabic work. Another Indian vaidya, called Bal, Nai or Tai, depending on the missing dots, is mentioned in the medical literature, but his treatise is not extant now-a-days.

Abu Bakr Muhammad bin Zakariya al-Rãzi (850-923 AD), the well-known and distinguished pupil of al-Tabari, also quoted the Indian Ayurvedic works in many of his medical treatises particularly in his al- Hawi.

The famous Ibn Sinã (980-1037 AD), the Prince of Physicians, wrote the Canon of medicine (al-Qanun-fil-Tibb), which has been used for the centuries as the authoritative text on Unani medicine. It is comprised of five parts. In this text, Ibn Sinã expresses his indebtedness to the Indian doctors and quotes verbatim from Ayurvedic treatises on leeches and combination of various articles of food. He says that (a) Sour things and fish are not be taken with milk, otherwise various types of diseases including leprosy may occur. In their opinion, curd should not be taken with radish nor bird’s meat and flour of roasted barley with milk and rice. Similarly, fat-oil stored in copper utensil should not be used for cooking purpose. Kababs barbecued on charcoal of castor-wood should not be eaten; (b) According to Indian vaidyas, some leeches are poisonous.

Ibn Sinã described about 792 simple drugs in his a1-Qãnun. Among these 49 have been stated as of Indian origin. Out of these Avicenna designated several of Indian origin but their identity can not be ascertained. In Kitab ul-Saidana fi’l- Tibb (Book of Pharmacology in medical science) Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973-1051 AD) referred to the skill and wisdom of the Indian physicians and the marvellous cures which they achieved by using aconite to cases of haemorrhoids.

It may be concluded that the Arabs developed great respect and love for Indian medical scholars and its products as is evident from many historical references and panegyrics (Qasida) composed in reply to the carping of a critic by an Arab of Indian origin, Abu Dila’ Sindhi (c. 9th cent. AD). We would like to conclude this section with his words:

“When Indian and its arrows were admired in the battlefield my friends disliked it, but this was not proper;

By my life, it is a land where, when rain falls, it turns into pearls and ruby for those who have no ornaments;

From here come musk, camphor, amber and aloe-wood, and various kinds of perfumes for those who require them;

Here grow all kinds of sweet-smelling substances and nutmeg, and andropogonnadus;

Here are found ivory and jaiphal, and aloes-wood, and sandal and here is found in abundance the mineral Tutia;

Here are found the lions, the leopards, the elephants and the bears

And here are found the cranes, and the parrots and the peacocks and the pigeons;

And here grow the coconut tree and the ebony tree and the pepper plant;

And here are made the unparallel swords which need not be polished, and the lances which when wielded, large armies are routed;

Who can deny the excellence of such a land except a fool?”


Today, Ayurveda is increasingly popular because it speaks of those elementary concepts of (1) contact with nature, (2) holism, and (3) we are what we eat. Ayurveda forms an integral part of the daily regimen of hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Its principles are utilized not only to treat persons who are ill but also to prepare a balanced meal and to construct a harmonious environment. Ayurveda brings to life the concepts of preventive health care and health promotion. The goal of Ayurveda is to help the individual discover a personal knowledge of living.

Sources and Further Reading

A1-Biruni, Abu Rayhan. 1973. Al-Saidana fi’l-Tibb (Arabic). Rendered into English by Hk. Muhd. Said, Hamdard, Karachi, Pakistan. Pp. 6,8.

Al-Suyuti, Jalal-ul-Din. 1962. Tibb-ul-Nabi (Arabic). Rendered into English by C. Elgood, Osiris, vol. Quartum Decimum, Bruges (Belgium), p.100.

A1-Tabari, Abu’1 Hasan Ali bin Sahi Rabban (c. 850 AD). Firdaus-ul-Hikmat (Arabic); edited by M.Z. Siddiqi, Berlin (W. Germany), 1928, p. 105.

Bates, Don. (Ed.) 1995. Knowledge and the Scholarly Medical Traditions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chattopadhyaya, D. 1982. Case for a critical analysis of the Carak Samhita. In Studies in the History of Science in India (Ed. D. Chattopadhyaya). Vol. 1. New Delhi: Editorial Enterprises.

Dash, Bhagwan. 1992. Tibetan Medicine. In Sharma, P.V. History of Medicine in India. New Delhi: INSA.

DeWoskin, Kenneth J, 1983. (trans.). Doctors, Diviners, and Magician of Ancient China: Biographies of Fang-shih. New York: Columbia University Press.

Elgood, C. 1951. Medical History of Persia and Eastern Caliphate. Cambridge: Cambridge University. Press. p. 80.

Gordon, B.L. 1960. Medieval and Renaissance Medicine. London (U.K.), pp. 88, 133.

Hoernle, A. F. R. 1909. The composition of the Caraka-Samita in the light of the Bower Manuscript. Reprinted in Studies in the History of Science in India. 1982. Vol. I. (Ed) Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya. New Delhi: Editorial Enterprises. Pp. 141-174.

Jaggi, O.P. 2000. Medicine in India: Modern Period. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Kuriyama, Shigeshi. 1999. The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine. New York: Zone Books.

Lloyd, G.E.R. 1996. Adversaries and Authorities: Investigation into Ancient Greek and Chinese Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Majumdar, R. C. 1971. Medicine. A Concise History of Science in India. New Delhi: The National Commission for the Compilation of History of Science in India, INSA. Pp.213-174.

Morgan Kris. Medicines of the Gods. Oxford: Mandrake. Pp. 209-236.

Needham, Joseph, Lu Gwei-djen and Nathan Sivin. 2000. Science and Civilisation in China. Vol. 6, Part VI: Medicine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ray, P, H. N. Gupta and M. Roy. 1980. Susruta Samhita: a Scientific Synopsis. New Delhi: Indian National Commission for History of Science.

Sharma, P.V. 1997. Development of Ayurveda from antiquity to AD 300. In Science, Philosophy and Culture (eds) D.P. Chattopadhyaya and R. Kumar. New Delhi: PHISPC.

Shet Pankaj. 1995. On the Internet.

Siddiqi, M. Z. 1959. Studies in Persian and Arabic Medical Literature, Calcutta, pp. 31-43.

Singh, R.H. 1997. Medical Techniques. In Bag, A.K. (Ed.). History of Technology in India. New Delhi: INSA.

Tripathi, Vibha. 2001. The Age of Iron in South Asia – Legacy and Traditions. New Delhi: Aryan Books International.

Verma, R.L. 1992. Indian-Arab relations in medical sciences. In P.V.Sharma (Ed.) History of Medicine in India. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy. Pp. 465-484.

Zubayr, Rashid bin, Qazi.1960. Kitab-ul-Zakha’ir wal Tuhuf (Arabic), Kuwait, P. 10.

For general history of medicine see:

Erwin Ackerknecht, A Short History of Medicine, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982); Charles Singer and E. Ashworth Underwood, A Short History of Medicine, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951 [vol. 1] and 1961 [vol. 2]; Arturo Castiglioni, A History of Medicine, 2d ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947); Max Neuburger, History of Medicine, 4th ed. (Philadelpia: W.B. Saunders, 1929); Benjamin Lee Gordon, Medicine Throughout Antiquity (Philadelphia: F.A. Davis, 1949); John Hermann Bass, Outlines of the History of Medicine and the Medical Profession, trans. H.E. Handerson (New York: J.H. Vail, 1889).