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Pharmacology in Ancient India.

Updated on April 13, 2015

Pharmacology in Ancient India.

Drugs have been in use from times immemorial both for relief of pain and other symptoms and in the treatment of disease. And early man has looked for them in fields, forests, oceans and on hill tops.

The earliest known record of drugs is to be found in the sacred Vedic texts . But a great deal more is found in other Indian texts like the Kautilaya Arthashastra, the Samhitas, the Ashtang Hriday, and the Ashtang Sangrha, the large number of books on Ras Shastra and lastly the numerous Sighantus. The earliest repository is the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda mention 260 herbals.

The Vedas, beside the medicinal plants, recommend the use of other medicinal agents such as metals (Iron, copper, gold and antimony), and products of animal origin such the organs of animals, blood, urine, deer horn and conch shell. Rasayans which are restoratives and tonics and Vajikarans which are drugs for improving sexual performance in the male, also receive prominent mention in the Vedas. Among other measures used in therapeutics are physical agents like water, fresh air, heat and sun’s rays and psychotherapeutic incantations and charms. In the Vedas the remedial agents are described singly and mised into complex arcaniums by the physicians themselves. This is in contradistinction to the complex formulations readymade and listed in the Samhitas and the Nighantus. The age of the Vedas has been and continues to be a Subject matter of controversy among scholars. It is, however, certain that they were compiled somewhere between B. C. 5000 and B. C. 2500 and are older than the Chinese herbal (about 2000 -B. C.), the Egyptian Papyrus Ebers (1500 B. C.), the Greek herbals of Hippocrates and Aristotle (about 300 B. C.) and the herbal of Galen (1st century 4. D.).

Before we pass on to the great Samhitas, the Charak and the Sushruta, it will be of interest to devote a few lines to Kautiyas famous classic. There is mention in the text of 330 herbals. Kautilya was said in his early days to be a student in the University of Taxila. It is said he was later on a teacher in the same university. He made use of the science of toxicology and described a great many of the known toxic agents. He also described the use of Vish Kanyas by monarchs and their advisers. He has described the signs and symptoms of poisoning and its prevention and treatment. He has further described post-mortem examination of those suspected of having died from poisoning including examination of food material from the stomach of such individuals. The bodies are recommended to be preserved in oil before the performance of the post mortem examination.

Out of the six Samhitas compiled by the pupils of Punarvasu Atreya (Sixth century B.C), only Charaka Samhita has come to us in good shape. Agnivesh, Bhel, Jatukaran, Prashar, Hareet and Ksharpani pupils of Punarvasu Atreya, each of them according to his capacity imbibed the teaching and reduced it to writing. The one compiled by Agnivesh and re-ediled by Charaka in the first century A. D., and by Dridhbal in the first part of the 4th century A. D. has come down to us as Charaka Samhita. The others, with the exception of Bhel Samhita which has come to us in a mutilated and perhaps altered form, are completely lost.

Charaka Samhita which is an encyclopedic work is divided like many other Ayurvedic texts into eight sections. The section on Sutra Sthan has 30 Chapters; of these the first four are devoted to general considerations and classification of drugs. The drugs are classified into fifty categories, each category having ten drugs some of which are listed under more than one category. The categories include among others, appetizers, purgative, anthelmints & emetics, anti-tussives, analgesics, antipyretics, sedatives, cardio-tonics, haematinics, diuretics etc. Chapter 27 is concerned with qualities of a large number of articles of diet, drugs, wines and waters. In the Sixth section, the Chikitsa Sthan or the section on therapeutics, there are again thirty chapters. The first chapter is devoted to Rasayans such as preparations from different species of myrobalans, the marking nut, iron, aindra and mineral pitch. Although the claims made for their vitalizing effects and life prolongation are fantastic, the regimens and the food advised would certainly do good to those who take the treatment. The second chapter on Vajikarans or aphrodisiacs describes the use of eggs, meats, and meat juices, testes of fish, birds and animals in numerous preparations. The best virilific pill, however, is a pretty woman, who returns the man’s love in an equal measure, is akin to him in mind, is pleased with his advances and enthralls all his senses with her excellence, approaching whom he gains confidence, seeing whom he gets greatly elated and uniting with whom in sex repeatedly, he remains yet unsatisfied. Such rich food, hormones like testes, wine and such women as recommended are as good aphrodisiacs today as they were in Atreya’s days.

Most of the remaining chapters in this section are devoted to treatment by drugs, of internal diseases. Chapter twenty-third deals with toxicology of drugs and with insect and snake poisoning. In chapter 24 are described the preparations, the action, and the stages of intoxication of alcohol. From the number of formulations for different kinds of wine and the way they are extolled, it appears that drinking was extremely common at the time the book was written, it appears that during this period of history, people in this country were full of zest for living: and knew very few taboos.

Sections seventh and eighth of Charaka are devoted to the discipline of pharmaceutics. Charaka Samhita according to most authorities is prior in time to the Sushruta Samhita. The latter is a surgical work and its teacher is Dhanvantari. The text is compiled by Sushruta. The medicinal flora of Sushruta differs from that of Charaka in one important respect. It covers the whole of India and not only the North West India as in the case of Charaka.

After the period of the Samhitas, two remarkable books were written during the reign of the Guptas. Both these books, the Ashtang Sangrah and the Ashtang Hriday are written by Vagbhat. The Hriday was written because the Sangrah was very voluminous. The language of both books is very literary and poetic. Verses 54-47 of the seventh chapter of the Chikitsa Sthan in praise of wine are unsurpassed in beauty of diction and hare no parallel anywhere in the world. Ashtang Sangrah and Hriday deal with greater number of drugs and topics than the Samhitas and are a successful effort in bringing the knowledge of the times up-to-date.

The period between 700 A. D. and 1200 A. D. is important link Indian mtaeria medica for two reasons. It is during this period that Ras Shastra or the preparations of mercury in the treatment of disease came to be developed. It is also in this period that the first systematized text on materia medica as distinct from a textbook of medicine which contained chapters on pharmacy and materia medica came to be written. Chakrapani Dutta who, about 1040 A. D. wrote numerous books on medicine including commentaries on Charaka and Sushruta Samhitas (Ayurved Dipika and Bhanumati) also wrote Chikitsa Sangrah and Dravaygun Sangrah. Dhanvantari Nighantu which describes 373 drugs probably belongs to the twelfth century. Other well known Nighantus are Madhavkar’s Ratnamala, Madanpal’s Madawinod (1374 A. D.) Narhari’s Raj Kighantu (1400 A. D.) and Bhava Prakash Nighantu (1550 A. D.).

Developments in Ras Shastra commenced in the seventh century and the ninth and tenth centuries A. D. sufficient progress was made. This is clear from a study of Siddhyog and Chakradutta. By the 16th Century A. D. according to Malik Mahmud Jayasi, it had reached its fullest development. The earliest text on Ras Shastra that is available is Nagarjun's Ras Ratnakar or Rajendra Mangal and belongs probably to the 7th or 8th Century. Some authorities ascribe it to the 11th Century A. D. Rashriday Tantra which is more detailed and comprehensive than Ras Ratnakar probably belonging to the same period. In the 12th and thirteenth centuries numerous texts, Rasarnva, Ras Churamani, Rasprakash Sudhakar, Rasendra Sar Sangrah, Raskalpa, Ras Sar etc., were written.

When one looks back to the progress made by western countries during the past 150 years, one is painfully concerned not only by India’s failure in this direction but actually by what may he called a position of regression from its relatively advanced state. India had the oldest and the best herbals and materia medica at this time. It was using biologicals and hormones for several thousand years before they made their appearance in the West. It was using metals in finely powdered form even in the Vedic times and preparations of mercury which was introduced in Europe by Paracelsus at a much later date, from the seventh century A. D. onwards. Fifty years ago, there were very few therapeutic agents of repute known to a practitioner of modern medicine. The physician of scientific medicine, although capable of making better diagnosis than his Ayurvedic counterpart, was not in a very superior position, so far as therapeutic help to the patient was concerned. But during the last 50 years the picture has completely changed. The scientific practitioner of medicine has hundreds of effective and useful drugs most of which have been synthetically produced. During this same period, only a few useful agents like ephedrine and reserpine have been added from the plant sources. What is intended to be conveyed is not that research in drugs of plant origin is unnecessary, but that research in the organic fields is less expensive, less laborious and more rewarding. In this country research in indigenous drugs need careful thinking and re-organization. There is great need to create chairs of indigenous drug research in properly staffed and equipped departments of pharmacology in the country.


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    • CaribeM profile image


      8 years ago

      Thanks for this VERY educative Hub. I agree with you a 100% that "The physician of scientific medicine, although capable of making better diagnosis than his Ayurvedic counterpart, was not in a very superior position, so far as therapeutic help to the patient was concerned." That's why I believe that the "scientific medicine" (or most aptly called, "Western medicine") must be complemented with non-Western knowledge (Indian, Chinese, African, Native-American, among others), particularly with its knowledge of pharmacopeia, and approach on prevention, rather than therapy.

      On the other hand, you stated or suggested that Veda's pharmacopeia even predates Chinese, maybe you can be more specific about that. As far as I know, Since the Xia Dynasty (c.21st-c early 17th century BC), Chinese produced alcohol to treat diseases. In the Shang Dynasty (c early 17-11th century BC) medical herb decoctions were produced. And, during the Western Zhou period (11th-771 century BC), professional doctors dealt with nutriology, internal medicine, traumatology and veterinary medicine, all with concoctions of herbal, wood, insects, stone, grains and fungus.

      Please excuse the length of this post, but it just the effect of your very fascinating and stimulating Hub.

      I have a question for you, although it goes beyond the scope of your article...maybe you can make a Hub about it ; ) Since which period the believe on the centers of energy, Chakras, appeared? What is the relationship between that "theory" and the development of Indian pharmacology?

      GREAT Hub!


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