Siddha Medicine: Its Basic Concepts
by Lalit Tiwari
Like Ayurveda, Siddha is also a traditional medical system of India. It is of Dravidian origin and has its entire literature in Tamil language. The basic concepts of the Siddha medicine are the same as those of Ayurveda. The difference is mostly in detail, Siddha being influenced by the local tradition with roots in the ancient Dravidian culture.
Its origin is also traced to mythological sources belonging to the Shaiva tradition. According to the tradition, Lord Shiva conveyed the knowledge of medicine to his wife Parvati. The knowledge was passed from her to Nandi and finally it was given to the Siddhas. The word Siddha denotes one who has achieved some extraordinary powers (siddhi). This achievement was related to the discipline of mind and its superiority over body, and was accomplished through both yoga and medicine. Thus siddhars (practitioners of Siddha) became the symbols of psychosomatic perfection and so the Siddha medicine became a combination of medicine and yoga.
The tantrik siddhi was thought of in different forms such as janmaja (due to birth), osadhija (due to some medical elixirs), mantraja (due to magical incantations), tapoja (due to penance) and samadhija (due to meditation). The tantriks endeavoured to attain the siddhis by several means, one of them was through the use of certain compositions of compounds of mercury, sulphur, mica and several other metallic substances.
According to tradition, there were 18 Siddhars (the person who has achieved some extra-ordinary powers): Nandi, Agasthiyar, Thirumular, Punnakkeesar, Pulasthiyar, Poonaikannar, Idaikkadar, Bogar, Pulikai isar, Karuvurar, Konkanavar, Kalangi, Sattainathar, Azhuganni, Agappai, Pumbatti, Theraiyar and Kudhambai, but the Agasthiyar (Agastya) was the topmost. He is regarded as the originator of the Siddha medicine and also of the Tamil language. He occupies the same position as Hippocrates in modern western medicine. In the period of Ramayana he seems to have settled in the South. Thus origin of every tradition in the South, including language and culture, is traced back to Agastya.
In the Siddha medicine system use of metals, minerals and chemical products is predominant. The use of metals started from the period of Vagbhata (6th Centaury AD). Alchemy actually has its origin in the Siddha system which was connected with the Tantrik culture, aimed at perfection of man not only at the spiritual level but also at the physical level. The use of human urine in medicine also started with the Tantrik culture and became popular in the medieval period.
The dates of most of alchemy texts are generally uncertain, but they belong possibly to a period between the 9th and the 18th Centuries AD, the period between the 10th and the 14th Centuries being perhaps the most flourishing one. Generally these texts come under the category of the rasasastra, signifying systematic treatments of the new knowledge and practices relating to the use of mercurial compounds and a host of other substance as medicine. The following are among the important rasasastra texts in Sanskrit: Rasahrdaya by Govinda Bhagavat, Rasaratnakara by Siddha Nagarjuna, Rasarnava (author unknown), Rasaratnasamuccya by Vagbhata, Rasaratnakara by Nityanatha Siddha, etc.
There are also some tantrik texts, which deal with alchemical ideas as part of their psycho-experimental-symbolic treatment for the tantrik goals and related practice. These texts are not only in Sanskrit language but also in other languages like Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, etc. About two hundred works in Tamil on the Siddha medicine having alchemical ideas. Of special importance are Amudakalaijnanam, Muppu, Muppuvaippu, Muppucunnam, Carakku, Guruseynir, Paccaivettusutram and Pannir-kandam by Agastya; Kadaikandam, Valalai-sutram and Nadukandam by Konganavar; Karagappa, Purva, Muppu-sutram and Dravakam by Nandisvar; Karpam and Valai-sutram by Bogar etc.
The name of Agastya and Bogar have been mentioned as the authors of alchemy works in Tamil language. The writings of Bogar contain a number of references to his contacts with China. Whether he was a Chinese who imparted alchemical knowledge to the Tamilians is a moot point.
The alchemical literature in Sanskrit is presented as a dialogue between Siva and Parvati in their different forms, of which perhaps the most significant are the forms of Bhairava and Bhairavi. Siva is also worshipped in the form of known as linga. In Tamil language lingam also means cinnabar (mercuric sulphide) also, and that cinnabar forms one of the constituents of a composition (astabandha) used during the installation of divine idols. Traditionally cinnabar is the source of divine energy and possesses the creative principles.
One of the Siddhars of Tamilnadu, Ramadevar, says in his work on alchemy (Cunnakandam) that he went to Mecca, assumed the name of Yakub and taught the Arabs the alchemical arts. It is significant that some of the purification processes and substances of alchemical significance are common to both Islamic and Indian alchemy.
Basics of Siddha Medicine
Generally the basic concepts of the Siddha medicine are almost similar to Ayurveda. The only difference appears to be that the Siddha medicine recognizes predominance of vatham, pitham and kapam in childhood, adulthood and old age respectively, whereas in Ayurveda it is totally reversed: kapam is dominant in childhood, vatham in old age and pitham in adults.
According to the Siddha medicine various psychological and physiological functions of the body are attributed to the combination of seven elements: first is saram (plasma) responsible for growth, development and nourishment; second is cheneer (blood) responsible for nourishing muscles, imparting colour and improving intellect; the third is ooun (muscle) responsible for shape of the body; fourth is kollzuppu (fatty tissue) responsible for oil balance and lubricating joints; fifth is enbu (bone) responsible for body structure and posture and movement; sixth is moolai (nerve) responsible for strength; and the last is sukila (semen) responsible for reproduction. Like in Ayurveda, in Siddha medicine also the physiological components of the human beings are classified as Vatha (air), Pitha (fire) and Kapha (earth and water).
Concept of Disease and Cause
When the normal equilibrium of three humors (vatha, pitha and kapha) is disturbed, disease is caused. The factors, which affect this equilibrium are environment, climatic conditions, diet, physical activities, and stress. Under normal conditions, the ratio between these three humors (vatha, pitha and kapha) is 4:2:1 respectively.
According to the Siddha medicine system diet and life style play a major role not only in health but also in curing diseases. This concept of the Siddha medicine is termed as pathya and apathya, which is essentially a list of do’s and dont’s.
In diagnosis, examination of eight items is required which is commonly known as astasthana-pariksa. These are:
1. na (tongue): black in vatha, yellow or red in pitha, white in kapha, ulcerated in anaemia.
2. varna (colour): dark in vatha, yellow or red in pitha, pale in kapha;
3. svara (voice): normal in vatha, high pitched in pitha, low pitched in kapha, slurred in alcoholism.
4. kan (eyes): muddy conjunctiva, yellowish or red in pitha, pale in kapha.
5. sparisam (touch): dry in vatha, warm in pitha, chill in kapha, sweating in different parts of the body.
6. mala (stool): black stools indicate vatha, yellow pitha, pale in kapha, dark red in ulcer and shiny in terminal illness.
7. neer (urine): early morning urine is examined; straw colour indicates indigestion, reddish yellow excessive heat, rose in blood pressure, saffron colour in jaundice and looks like meat washed water in renal disease.
8. nadi (pulse): the confirmatory method recorded on the radial artery.
Concept of Drugs
In Siddha medicine the use of metals and minerals are more predominant in comparison to other Indian traditional medicine systems. In the usage of metals, minerals and other chemicals, this system was far more advanced than Ayurveda. Siddhar Nagarjuna introduced the use of mercury and its compounds to the Ayurvedic system in later periods. The use of more metals and chemicals was justified by the fact that to preserve the body from decomposing materials that do not decompose easily should be used. The other reason perhaps was that the south Indian rivers were not perennial and herbs were not available all through the year.
The drugs used by the Siddhars could be classified into three groups: thavaram (herbal product), thathu (inorganic substances) and jangamam (animal products). The thathu drugs are further classified as uppu (water soluble inorganic substances or drugs that give out vapour when put into fire), pashanam (drugs not dissolved in water but emit vapour when fired), uparasam (similar to pashanam but differ in action), loham (not dissolved in water but melt when fired), rasam (drugs which are soft) and ghandhagam (drugs which are insoluble in water, like sulphor).
In herbal drugs, the Siddhars not only used herbs, which grow in the surrounding areas, but also herbs that grow in high altitudes of Himalayas. It is noteworthy that Siddhar Korakkar was the first to introduce Cannabis as a medicine; he used it as a powerful painkiller. They also used animal products as medicine, for example in mental diseases, peranda bhasma is used which is made of human skull bones and the skulls of dogs.
The drugs used in Siddha medicine were classified on the basis of five properties: suvai (taste), guna (character), veerya (potency), pirivu (class) and mahimai (action).
According to their mode of application the Siddha medicine could be categorized into two classes: (1) internal medicine and (2) external medicine.
Internal medicine was used through the oral route and further classified in to 32 categories based on their form, methods of preparation, shelf life, etc.
External medicine includes certain forms of drugs and also certain applications like nasal, eye and ear drops and also certain procedures like leech application.
According to their pharmaceutical preparations, Siddha medicine could be categorized into:
Kudineer churanam (decoction powder): It is a fine powder of drugs.
Chendooram: It is a red colour powder generally made of metallic compounds.
Chunnam: It is alkaline in nature.
Kalangu: It is based on mercury.
Karpams: It could be herbal or non-herbal in nature, made on a daily basis.
Karruppu: Mercury and sulphur are essentially present and its colour is dark black.
Legiyams and rasayanams: It contains ghee, honey and sugar, apart from herbal powder and juices.
Mathirai and vadagam: It is pills prepared from fine powdered paste.
Maappagu: It is flavoured medicinal syrup and contains generally aromatic herbs, honey and sugar.
Mezhugu, kuzhambu, kalimbu and mai: All of these categories have a waxy feel.
Ney: It is medicated ghee, which contains fat-soluble plant substances.
Pakkuvam and theenooral: It is herbal medicine with honey.
Parpam: It is prepared by the process of calcination.
Patangam: It contains mercury, camphor, etc.
Thailam: It is medicated oil; usually sesame seed oil, coconut oil, castor oil, etc are used in its preparation.
Theeneer: It is distilled essence, which contains volatile constituents of the drugs.
Mercury is used in five forms such as rasam (mercury), lingam (red sulphide of mercury), veram (mercury perchloride), pooram (mercury subchloride) and rasa-chinduram (red oxide of mercury). They are known as panchasutha.
In addition to drugs, pranayama and other disciplines of yoga are necessary for good health and longevity.
Concept of Treatment
The treatment in Siddha medicine is aimed at keeping the three humors in equilibrium and maintenance of seven elements. So proper diet, medicine and a disciplined regimen of life are advised for a healthy living and to restore equilibrium of humors in diseased condition. Saint Thiruvalluvar explains four requisites of successful treatment. These are the patient, the attendant, physician and medicine. When the physician is well qualified and the other agents possess the necessary qualities, even severe diseases can be cured easily. The treatment should be commenced as early as possible after assessing the course and cause of the disease. Treatment is classified into three categories: devamaruthuvum (Divine method); manuda maruthuvum (rational method); and asura maruthuvum (surgical method). In Divine method medicines like parpam, chendooram, guru, kuligai made of mercury, sulphur and pashanams are used. In the rational method, medicines made of herbs like churanam, kudineer, vadagam are used. In surgical method, incision, excision, heat application, blood letting, leech application are used.
According to therapies the treatments of Siddha medicines could be further categorized into following categories such as Purgative therapy, Emetic therapy, Fasting therapy, Steam therapy, Oleation therapy, Physical therapy, Solar therapy and Blood letting therapy, Yoga therapy, etc.
Concept of Physician
In Siddha system of medicine a physician should be spiritual and have an in-depth knowledge about normal/abnormal functioning of the three humors, capable of curing ailments, intelligent, truthful, confident, associated with the elite, capable of preparing high quality drugs with mastery over medical classes. According to Theraiyar (a siddha) in his Thylavarga churrukama, the physician should have pure thought and action, love for all human beings, a detailed knowledge about geographical seasonal variations, correct physical and mental state and dietary habits. Agasthiyar Sillaraikkovai further adds generosity, patience, untiring hard work, capability of overcoming greed, anger, knowledge about astrology and numerology as the qualities of a physician. He says that a physician should protect his patient like an eyelid, which protects the eyes and care as a mother who cares for her sick child.
A physician should not wear colourful dress, nor use silk, leather rope, cosmetics and should always move around in white dress, using only sandal paste as cosmetics. Theraiyar in his Thylavarka churukkam insists that a physician should clean his hands many times and have bath after examining a patient.
Varma branch of Siddha medical system
This branch of Siddha medicine that is being practiced in pockets of Tamilnadu and Kerala is called Varma. This branch of science deals more with traumatology and accidental injuries than the internal injuries where no immediate symptoms are visibly seen. There are about a hundred vital points, which are either junctions of bones, tendons or ligaments or blood vessels, and are called varma points.
The concepts of Siddha medicine system are similar to Ayurveda, but in the Siddha medicine the use of metal and minerals is predominant. Pulse reading and urine testing are important features of the Siddha medicine. Pulse reading was considerably developed by the Siddhas and was used in diagnosis and prognosis of diseases. Putting oil drops on the surface of urine and observing their movement was used to conduct urine examination. Besides, smell, colour, deposits, etc are also observed. Thus the Siddha system is basically a regional variant of Ayurveda, conditioned by the local Tamil culture and tradition.
Kandaswamy, Pillai N. 1979. History of Siddha Medicine. Madras.
Narayanaswami, V. 1975. Introduction to the Siddha System of Medicine. Madras.
Notes on Siddha Medicine System from the Internet.
Sharma, P.V. 1992. Siddha medicine. In History of Medicine in India (Ed.) P. V. Sharma. New Delhi: The Indian National Science Academy. Pp. 445-450.
Subbarayappa, B. V. 1971. Chemical practices and alchemy. In A Concise History of Science in India (Eds.) D. M. Bose, S. N. Sen and B. V. Subbarayappa. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy. Pp. 315-335.