Sponsored By: Infinity Foundation

Medicine and Life Sciences in India

Review: Medicine and Life Sciences in India. Subbarayappa, B. V. (Ed.) 2001. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. Pp: 771. Price not given.
by D.P. Agrawal & Lalit Tiwari

Of late the West is veering round to the Alternative Medicine Systems, as allopathy has failed to cure the serious diseases afflicting mankind. No wonder that the global herbal trade has peaked to about $60 billion and is growing at the rate of 10% annually. India has very ancient medicine systems, both in the literate and the folk traditions, and gradually their worth is being recognised globally.

Diseases are the bane of humankind ever since its advent on this planet. Humans have been fighting against a variety of diseases since prehistoric times. Eventually humans developed indigenous local systems of medicine. Indian medicine system is very ancient. Right from the Indus Valley Civilization, the evidence for the existence of a medicine system can probably be traced from the archaeological remains of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. The Harappan people used plant drugs, animal products and minerals. Silajatu (Silajit) has been found in excavation, which indicates that it might have been used by the Indus people. For the First Millennium BC, there are plenty of medical treatises like Charak SamhitaSusrut Samhita, etc. Since ancient times India had trade and cultural contacts with other countries of the world. Through Indian merchants and Buddhist monks, medical knowledge was transmitted to other countries. India and West Asia had an active exchange of ideas and commodities since early times. Through Buddhist monks the Ayurveda spread to Tibet and China also. The relationship of India with the Arab world dates back to great antiquity. The Arabic people had great interest in translation of Indian medical books like Charak SamhitaSusrut Samhita, etc into Arabic language. Thus Indian medicine contributed to the foundation of the Unani and Tibb medicine systems. In medieval times Indian doctors were heading the Arab hospitals and the academics their academies. The Arabs also transmitted Indian science to Europe, though often it was mistaken as original Arab contribution. Indian thought and concepts of medicine influenced the Greeks too.

Subbarayappa has done a great service by editing this valuable volume on Indian medicinal and life sciences. The book adds another feather to his crown. He has already edited several volumes on History of Science and Technology. Though in any such volume, which is a collection of essays, maintaining uniformity of standard is a difficult task. If some essays are excellent and some only mediocre, it is perhaps expected. The editor’s introductory essay, “A Perspective” is very perceptive and a grand review of the field.

This edited book is part of the Project on the History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization (PIHSPC). The aim of the project is to discover the main aspects of Indian culture and present them in an integrated manner. Since our culture has influenced, and has been influenced by, the neighbouring cultures of West Asia, Central Asia, East Asia and South-East Asia, attempts have been made here to trace and study these influences in their mutuality. It is well known that during the last three centuries, the European presence, both political and cultural, in India has been very pervasive.

The coverage of this volume encompasses various aspects of Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha systems; their comparative overview; yoga; folk medicine; an appraisal of the Indian pharmaceuticals; Indian medicines in the colonial period; and the traditional knowledge of plants and animals; besides an introductory perspective on traditional medicine.

The general editor of this book series is D. P. Chattopadhyaya. For the PHISP, B. V. Subbarayappa, who is the Honorary Professor at the National Institute of Advance Studies, Bangalore, has edited this book. He has edited/authored ten books on History of Science in India.

The book contains 22 articles on the themes of the traditional medicine system and life sciences.

The first paper “Vedic Medicine: Some Aspects” is presented by Mira Ray. She describes the Vedic medicine into three parts: 1. religious, 2. plants and 3. diseases. Under religious aspects she covers: first, certain cosmic concepts like Dyaus (the creator or primeval father) and Rta (the cosmic law); second, fire (Agni); and third, Soma (food). In Appendix 1 she describes few Vedic diseases and their Vedic herbal treatments and in Appendix 2 she discusses some important Vedic passages related to diseases and treatments.

Next two articles are on “Foundational Ideas of Ayurveda” and “The Concept of Sarira (Human Body)” written by B. G. Gopinath and I. P. Singh, respectively. Gopinath presents a philosophical study of Ayurveda in his lengthy article. And Singh deals with the ancient Ayurvedic concepts of human body. He describes the classification of the human body according to Charak and Susruta Samhitas. In the last few pages of his article he also deals with the ancient view of human physiology.

Ayurveda has its eight well-developed broad clinical specialities, namely Kayacikitsa (internal medicine), Salya Tantra (surgery), Salakya Tantra (Ophthalmology and ENT), Kumarabhrtya (Paediatrics, Obstetrics and Gynaecology), Agada Tantra (Toxicology), Rasayana (Geriatrics and Nutrition), Vajikarana (Virility), and Bhuta Vidya (Psychiatry and Demonology). Next five articles are based on these branches of Ayurveda. In his article R. H. Singh deals the KayacikitsaKayacikitsa is the discipline, which deals with systematic sarvanga samsrta diseases, which involve whole organisms. The meaning of kaya is k= kapha, a = agni or pitta and y = gati or vayuKayacikitsa attempts first to eliminate the cause of the disease (nidana parivarjana) and strengthen the body to allow self-cure by the restoration of balance or dhatu samya i.e. prakrti sthapana. Next article is based on Salya Tantra, named “Surgery in Ancient India: Its Evolution and Progress” by N. K. Pattanshetty. He describes the fundamental concept of ancient surgery, ancient surgical instruments, surgical procedures, etc based on the Salya Tantra.

Salakyatantra, one of the important branches of Ayurveda, has the second place in the Susruta Samhita and a major portion of Uttaratantra of this text is devoted to this speciality. Salakya is defined as a branch concerned with the diseases of the part above the shoulder, i.e., the ear, eye, mouth, nose etc. Manjusha Rajagopal deals with the Salakyatantra in her article. She describes the anatomy of Salakyatantra such as dental diseases, nasal disorders, eye disorders, etc.

P. V. Tewari deals with one of the most important branches of Ayurveda, viz., KanmarabhrtyaPrasutitantra (obstetrics), striroga (gynaecology) and balaroga (neonatology and paediatrics) have been described under the Kanmarabhrtya. Tewari describes very broadly each branch of Kanmarabhrtya in his article named “Kanmarabhrtya (Obstetrics, Gynaecology, Neonatology and Paediatrics)”.

In the next article Jayaprakash Narayan summarises the Rasayana (Rejuvenation) and Vajikarana (Virilization) branches of Ayurveda. He described the importance of Rasayana and Vajikarana as health promoters in his article.

Rasasastra is one of the important branches of Indian medical system. It began to develop in its own way with its alchemical roots during the 7th to 8th century AD, although it could now be regarded as an extension of theRasayana (rejuvenation) and Vajikarana (virilization) branches of Ayurveda. The main objective of the Rasasastra is to keep the body healthy, strong and full of life for a long time by improving the bodily resistance power as well as maintaining the equilibrium of the dhatus (body tissues), i.e. dhatu samyata. In the next article Damodar Joshi describes the Rasasastra in a very beautiful way. He discusses the principles of Rasasastra, and describes the process of making dhatu bhashma with the help of some sketch diagrams.

The next article is written by Syed Zillur Rahman and is based on the Unani medicine system. In his descriptive article, he describes the origin, history, principles and fundamentals of the Unani medicine system. And in his second article he deals with the historical background of Indian Hakims. The following article by Altaf Ahmed Azami is again based on the Unani system of medicine. Its titled, “Unani Medicine: Hakims and their Treatises”. He describes the development of Unani medicine system, and the famous Hakims of India.

B. V. Subbarayappa explains the origin and fundamentals of Siddha medicine system in his informative article. This system of medicine is totally based on alchemical practices. Subbarayappa mentions the diagnostic methods and therapeutic principles of Siddha medicine system and also presents a list of plants and minerals, which are used for preparation of the Siddha drugs.

“Yoga: Its Nuances and total Health” is the next article of this book presented by R. K. Pandey. According to the editor, the author has made a conceptual and incisive presentation of yoga and its holistic approach towards total health, intentionally leaving out the details about the asanas and associated aspects relating to the promotion and maintenance of health.

S. K. Mishra summarises and compares the Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha systems of medicine in his article. In his 38-page article he describes these three medicine systems and their principles. In this article, we can get fundamental information about Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha systems in very simple manner.

Next two articles entitled, “The Spread of Ayurveda Outside India” and “The Interaction of Indian Medicine and Modern Medicine” are written by Rangesh Paramesh and Tom Patterson, respectively. Paramesh describes how Ayurveda was transmitted to the rest of the world. According to the writer, “among the early civilizations in antiquity, only three – Greece, India and China – developed full systems of representation of physiology and pathology, although there were rich medical works in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia also. According to the numerous documents now recovered, an ancient Mesopotamia Medical Manual, possibly dating back to the Hammurabian period (c.2000BC), contains many medical concepts, which reappear in changed but unmistakable forms of Indian Ayurveda………..” Tom Patterson, in his article describes the developmental interaction of Ayurveda (up to 16th century – 20th century), to the rest of the world. He also compares Ayurveda with other medical systems. This article is very informative for the student of history of science.

Next article is based on indigenous pharmaceuticals on India, named “Indigenous Pharmaceuticals: The Articulation of Modernity and Tradition in India” by Maarten Bode.

Sathyanarayana Bhat presents a very lucid paper, “Folk Medicine in India” in this edited volume. No doubt that Ayurveda has evolved from the folk medicine. In his article he summarises the data on traditional herbalists, healers, snakebite healers, kitchen medicine, traditional midwifery, tribal medicinal practices, etc.

“Plant Science” is the next article of this book by S. Sundara Rajan. He describes the Ayurvedic and Vedic plants. The main attraction of this article is the discussion on ancient classification of plants, like Manu’s classification,Charak’s classification, etc. He also summarises ancient ecology; including forest ecology, horticulture, anatomy, physiology, genetics, plant pathology, agriculture etc in his very informative article.

Next article is based on the ancient veterinary science by M. K. Sridhar, entitled “Animal Science and Tradition”. He describes the ancient literary veterinary knowledge, classification of animals, animals in Indian traditions, animals in Indian numismatics, animals in arts, architecture, and sculpture, etc in his very interesting article.

Rajesh Kochhar presents the last article of this book on the elusive and controversial Soma plant, named “The Rgvedic Soma Plant”. And at the end of this book Mira Ray and B. V. Subbarayappa present the general bibliography of medicine, plants and animals.

At the end, we would like to recommend that it’s a very useful book for those interested in the history of medical science, Ayurveda, botany, zoology and the other systems of medicine, and a must for the student of History of Science and Technology.