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Updated on August 31, 2010



                Ancient Indian medicine has a hoary past and traces its origin to more than 2500 to 3000 years. Some of the pioneers were legendary figures, and not much is known about them, for they believed that their work was more important than the projection of their self.  This hub therefore has the limitation of not being able to probe each one of them in detail and is just a small attempt to compile a capsule history of these pioneers of Ayurveda.


                They were the physicians of SWARGA or heaven. They are believed to have learnt Ayurveda from PRAJAPATHY, the lord of all creatures. Their powers of healing were so great they were able to restore youth to the ancient sage CHYAVANA. In the RIG VEDA there are passages which reveal their medical skills in curing blindness, sterility, leprosy and performing surgical operations. It is said that they learnt from sage DADICHI ‘MADHU VIDYA’ which is the science of restoring dead to life. CHIKITSA SARA TANTRA and ASWINI SAMHITA are two of their seminal works.


                Deified as a Vedic deity who was the physician of the Gods he is considered to be the foremost exponent of Ayurveda. But historians believe that the real DHANWANTHARI was one of the nine gems of the court of King Vikramaditya.


                ATREYA is considered foremost of the great teachers of Ayurveda. He is supposed to have imparted the secrets of Ayurveda to six disciples by name AGNIVESA, BELA, JATHUKARNA, PARASARA, HARITA and JATHUKARNA. Amongst them AGNIVESA is remembered for this treatise ‘AGNIVESA TANTRA’.


                Surgery rarely associated with Ayurveda had its votaries too. DIVODASA who was also the King of Kasi was a pioneer in this. His main disciples were AUPADHINAVA, AOURABHARA, BHOJA, GOPURAKSHITA, POUSHKALAVALA and SUSRUTA. Amongst them SUSRUTA was the most famous and was the author of ‘SUSRUTHA SAMHITA’ a unique work focused mainly on surgery. In this work ther are descriptions of surgical operations and instruments needed to perform the same.  He classified surgical operations into eight kinds and describes 101 types of blunt instruments and 21 sharp instruments used in surgery. The Susruta Samhita has six main divisions they are:

1.       Sutra Sthana

2.       Nidhana Sthana

3.       Sarira Sthana

4.       Chikitsa Sthana

5.       Kalpa Sthana

6.       Uthara Sthana

                Two systems of Indian philosophy had influenced Ayurveda. The NYAYA school of thought laid the logical foundations and VAISESHIKA its metaphysical aspects. But the heterodox school of Indian philosophy viz. Jainism and Buddhism too contributed to its growth. In fact Taxila one of the great universities of ancient India influenced by Buddhism was a prominent centre of medical education. The other important seat of learning was Kashi or modern day Benares.

                One of the most prominent alumini of Taxila was JEEVAKA (6th century BC) a disciple of Bhikshu  Athreya. He was a personal physician of Buddha and after he embraced Buddhism built monasteries which later became hospitals. The other three great celebrities were CHARAKA SUSHRUTA and VAGHBATA who were the three major writers on Ayurveda.  In fact they are called the BRIHATRAYI (The ‘Great Three’ of Ayurveda. Nothing much is known about CHARAKA but he has been immortalized by his work ‘CHARAKA SAMHITA’. According to CHARAKA’S own admission he received the materials of his work from AGNIVESHA, to whom they were delivered by ATREYA.  The CHARAKA SAMHITA was translated to Arabic by the end of the 8th century.


Charaka Samhita has eight sections and 120 chapters which contains about 8,400 metrical verses. These 8 sections are:

  • Sūtra sthāna (30 chapters)
  • Nidana sthāna (8 chapters)
  • Vimana sthāna (8 chapters)
  • Sarira sthāna (8 chapters)
  • Indriya sthana (12 chapters)
  • Chikitsa sthana (30 chapters)
  • Kalpa sthana (12 chapters)
  • Siddhi sthana (12 chapters).


                VAGHBHATA is remembered for his two great classics ASHTANGA HRUDAYA and ASTANGA SAMGRAHA. The treatises have been called ASHTANGA because of the eight limbs or sections of Ayurveda. Incidentally ASHTANGA in Sanskrit means ‘eight’. These sections include the following:

  • Kaayam (Internal Medicine for body treatment),
  • Salyam (surgery),
  • Bala (Gynaecology and Pediatrics),
  • Rasaayana (Rejuvenation therapy),
  • Vajikaran (Aphrodisiac therapy),
  •  Damshtram (Therapy for snake bite), Toxicology etc.

                No write up on Ayurveda would be complete without any reference to NAGARJUNA. Apart from his contribution to Ayurveda this great Buddhist scholar was also an alchemist. He is credited to have invented the alloying of metals, extraction of copper and the use of metallic oxides in medicine.


                AMARASHIMHA who was immortalized by his treatise AMARAKOSHA was another great pioneer of Ayurveda. This treatise is traditionally associated with Sanskrit vocabulary and has been described as “the oldest vocabulary hitherto known and one of the most celebrated vocabularies of classical Sanskrit”. One of the oldest English commentaries was done by Colebrook and its French translation by Deslongchamps.  AMARASIMHA’s major contribution has been the study of human anatomy and the compiling of synonyms of various drugs.  AMARASIMHA was one of the nine gems of the court of KING VIKRAMADITYA but historians are divided in their opinion on when he lived. Wilson places him in the 1st century BC and Lessen about the middle of 3rd century AD. There are others who opine that he lived much later.


                Pathology was another area of interest in ancient India. The person who pioneered this area of study was MADHAVAKARA in his manuscript ‘MADHAVA NIDHANAM’ also known as Roga Viniscaya , is it more popularly known as is counted as the first among the LAGHU TRAYI (the lesser triad) of Ayurvedic literature.  The earliest translation of Madhava Nidana, was into Arabic by the scholars of the court of Caliph Harun-al-Radhid of Persia who ruled between 768-809 A D. The Second translation to Italian was done by Mario Vallauri in 1913 and into English by G J Meulendbeld  in 1974 .


                An interesting aspect of ancient Indian medicine was the importance given to veterinary science. In an agrarian society its importance was obvious and the person who laid the foundation of Indian veterinary science was SALIHOTHRA. His seminal work ‘SALIHOTHRA SAMHITA’ contains details of treatment of horses and other animals and consists of nearly 12,000 verses.  It elaborated on the body structures of different races of horses, and identified the structural details by which one can determine the age of a horse. He is reported t have written two other treatises too named ASVA PRASHNA and ASVA LAKASHANA SHASTRA. SALIHOTHRA has been translated into Persian, Arabic, Tibetan and English and it  describes equine and elephant anatomyphysiologysurgery and diseases with their curative and preventive measures


Susrutha samhita
Susrutha samhita
salihotra samhita
salihotra samhita
surgical instruments
surgical instruments


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