Ayurveda: the Traditional Indian Medicine System and its Global Dissemination
by D.P. Agrawal & Lalit Tiwari
This essay provides an introduction to the ancient Indian medicine system
of Ayurveda and its rise in popularity throughout the world. This dissemination
began with the Buddhist monks who spread Ayurveda throughout Tibet and China.
Thus, many Chinese scholars visited India and even studied in the ancient
Indian universities. During the period of the Arab Caliphs in the medieval
times, the Arab world became a hub of international science and medicine.
In its institutes, such as the Medical Academy at Jundishapur, both Greek
and Indian savants taught and translated major medical works. Details about
the Indo-Arab contacts during this period will be discussed further in this
It is probably accurate to say that almost all life forms are afflicted with
some type of disease. Disease continues to be the most basic problem faced
by humans since the prehistoric times. Evidence for the existence of a well-organized
system of medicine in India can be traced back to the archaeological remains
of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. Ayurveda is the oldest Indian indigenous medicine
system. Its roots probably originate in the Indus Civilization.
The term Ayus means duration or span of life and the term veda
means unimpeachable knowledge. Ayurveda is commonly translated as the 'science
of life'. Author Kris Morgan says that Ayurveda literally means the '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. Brahma passed this knowledge to the god Daksapati,
who then passed it to the two celestial physicians (the twins Asvina and
Kumaras), later to Indra the god king, and finally to Bharadvaja,
the semi-divine sage. Such traditions need not be taken literally although
they do indicate the great antiquity of Ayurveda.
The earliest-recorded knowledge about Ayurveda is found in the Rigveda
and the Atharvaveda, both written in the second millennium BC. The
Atreya Samhita is perhaps the oldest medical book in the world; it
survives from Taksashila University, which dates back to the middle of the
first Millennium BC. The Atharvaveda lists eight divisions of Ayurveda:
internal medicine, surgery of head and neck, ophthalmology, surgery, toxicology,
psychiatry, pediatrics, gerontology or science of rejuvenation, and 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 the highly developed surgery. The physician
Caraka revised and supplemented the Atreya Samhita with his book Carak
Samhita, which 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
especially with the therapeutic branch of Ayurveda. It contains 120 chapters,
distributed into 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).
Caraka Samhita: Caraka Samhita is an exhaustive work
on medicine. It is said that Caraka's original work was entitled Samhita
of Agnivesa. Agnivesa was 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,
which existed in 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 probably refers to the maximum
life span 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
than 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 and diseases with supernatural
origins), Kaumarabhrtya (care of children and infantile disorders),
Agadatantra (toxicology), Rasayanatantra (syrup and tonic knowledge)
and Vajikaranatantra (knowledge of virility).
Ayurveda deals with medical subjects such as genetics, gynaecology, aetiology,
surgery, physiology, biology, diet, ethics, personal hygiene, social medicine,
allied subjects like animal biology, botany, cultivation, pharmacognosy, chemistry,
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. Every component of the human organism
is created out of the tattvas (fundamental compounds) as evolved out
of Prakrti. When all the eleven indriyas (the 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 a normal state
and in equilibrium, then one’s health is in an ideal state. The two main
aims of Ayurveda are maintenance of this equilibrium and its repair in case
of any imbalance and derangement. Ayurveda attempts these maintenance and
repair processes 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
(earth, solid component), apas (water, liquid), tejas (radient
energy, body heat, digestive fire), vayu (air), and akasa (orifices
and empty spaces inside the body).
Ayurvedic Definition of Health
In Ayurvedic medicine, health is defined as the soundness of sarira
(body), manas (mind), and atman (self). Each of these must
be nurtured if an individual is to have good health.
Concept of Disease
Ayurveda is basically a humeral medical system and conceives of three essential
humors, which cause disease if they become imbalanced. These three humours
are: vayu (air), pitta (bile), and kapha (phlegm). Occasionally,
in surgical tradition, a fourth humor, blood, was also added.
Vayu: Vayu 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. It has five
key functions: prana vayu (maintain the breath, transmit food), udana
vayu (vocal sound, song and speech depend upon it), samana vayu
(causes digestion), vyana vayu (causes perspiration) and apana vayu
(causes the downward movement of stool, urine, semen, and menses).
Pitta: Pitta is the cosmic fiery principle. It is responsible
for the creation of heat and all forms of radiant energy in the body. It
is also responsible for the pumping action of heart, the skin’s temperature,
and the vitality of blood. In the body, pitta is of five types: ranjaka
pitta (color producing fire), pacaka pitta (digestive fire), sadhaka
pitta (motion giving fire), alocaka pitta (vision giving fire),
and bhrajaka pitta (lustre giving fire).
Kapha: Kapha supplies the placid and cooling principles
to the body. 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
Vyadhis (diseases) are caused by the derangement of one or more of
the three humors and blood. According to the Samhitas, vyadhi
may be of four types: agantuja (extraneous), sarira (internal),
manasa (mental), and svabhavika (natural).
Concept of Treatment
Direct observation is the most remarkable feature of Ayurveda but sometimes
it is correlated with metaphysics. The 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 (diet
and drugs), the nurse, and the patient. The Samhitas described these
four factors properly. The physician should have the following qualifications:
a clear grasp of the theoretical content of the science, a wide range of
experience, the necessary practical skills, and cleanliness. The necessary
qualities of the drugs and/or substances are: abundance, applicability, multiple
uses, and richness in efficacy. The nursing attendant should be: knowledgeable
of nursing techniques, practically skilled, attached to the patient, and clean.
And the essential qualifications of the patient are: good memory, obedience
of the instructions given by the doctors, courage, and the ability to describe
Influence of Ayurveda on East and West
By 400 AD, Ayurvedic works were translated into Chinese and by 700 AD, Chinese
scholars were studying medicine in India at Nalanda University. Indian thought
greatly influenced Chinese medicine and herbology through Ayurveda. In 800
AD, Ayurvedic works were translated into Arabic. In the 16th century in Europe,
Paracelsus, who is known as the father of modern Western medicine, practiced
and propagated a system of medicine, which borrowed heavily from Ayurveda.
India’s cultural and trade relations with Mesopotamia, the Gulf countries,
and Iran date back to the third millennium BC. Seals of Bahrain have been
found in Lothal, a Harappan town in Gujarat. India's scientific and cultural
relationship with the Arabic countries dates back to prehistory. During the
medieval times such relations intensified a great deal.
No doubt Alexander's annexation of the 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-first 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
Contacts with China and Tibet
India was in contact with China even during the Kushana times. Bahlika was
an important center 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, which is named after its discoverer, Lieutenant
H. Bower, was founded in 1890 in Kuchar, Turkestan, on the great caravan route
of China. It was then sent to Colonel J. Waterhouse, who was then the President
of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, where the famous Indologist Hoernle edited
it. Detailed studies of the manuscript indicated to Hoernle that the writers
of Parts I-III and Parts V-VII were Indian Buddhist monks. The manuscript
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 manuscript into the hands of a native of Eastern Turkestan or China
who wrote Part IV. But the ultimate owner of the whole series of manuscripts,
Yasomitra, must have held a prominent position in that monastery. This collective
manuscript was contained in the relic chamber of the memorial stupa at the
Ming-oi of Qum Tura, which was built in Yasomitra’s honor. The large
medical treatise called Navanitaka forms the second part of the Bower
manuscript 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 also had close relations. The most
popular Tibetan medical text is Rgyud bzi (meaning Catus-tantra,
four treatises). It is 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 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 an extended period of time.
The names of several Indian products such as the Indian sword, the 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) occur even in the Qur'an
and the Prophet's traditions (Ahadith-i-Nabawi). Probably the Arabic
words like Faniz, Tütia, Narjil, Bish and Sandal
have probably been derived from Sanskrit language. Varma (1992) in his detailed
article, "Indo-Arab Relations in Medical Sciences", provides 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
who distributed it among all his companions to eat. 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) settled down in Arabia even
before the beginning of Islam and were well-versed in different branches of
ancient Indian traditional medicine. Many of them 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 wife of the Prophet was cured
by an Indian Jat physician of Medina. It is also recorded that Harith
bin Kalada, the Hakim of the Prophet, studied in the medical school of Jundishapur
(in Khuzistan, in South-West Iran) where Indian vaidyas and
philosophers also taught the sciences. At the end of his studies and before
returning to Mecca, Harith traveled through India in search of more information
about different branches of Indian medicine. It is also mentioned that an
Indian physician named 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 to cure various ailments and
received 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 secrets and
wisdom of Indian medicine, alchemy, and astronomy. The same book was received
by his grand son, Abu Hashimn Khalid bin Yazid, who took a keen interest in
the acquisition of scientific knowledge from different countries. It is therefore
believed that he might have extracted and assimilated a considerable amount
of material on medical sciences and other subjects of Indian origin. It is
stated that after conquering Sindh, 'Abdullah bin Sawwar' Abdi (667 AD), the
Governor of Sindh, sent a number of rare gifts to the Caliph on behalf of
Raja Gigan (Qiqan). Al Tabari (c. 850 AD) mentions that 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 forever, 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
All the 'Abbasid caliphs from al-Mansur (754-773 AD) to al-Mutawakkil (847-886
AD) were patrons of the arts and sciences. Al-Mansur, the second 'Abbasid
caliph, received embassies from Sindh, one of which included Indian pandits
who presented him with two Indian books on astronomy. These books, the Brahmasiddhanta
and the Khandakhadyaka, 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
center 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 and Indian culture, they got interested in translating
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 Samhitas highly impressed
the Arabs and they assimilated an enormous material in their Tibbi
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 Habb-i-Barmakim, which was named after him.
It was recommended by Ibn Sina (980-1037 AD) and later Hakims. 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
back the Indian drugs and herbs. Yahya also invited Indian vaidyas
and philosophers westwards so that he might learn from them. Harun al-Rashid
was afflicted with a serious disease which could not be cured by his own physicians.
He sent for Manaka (Mankhaor Minikya) who came to Baghdad and cured the royal
patient for which the caliph granted him a handsome pension and 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. Ibn Dhan (Dhanya or short form of Dhanvantari) was another
competent Indian vaidya who lived in 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.
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, even 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 his body quivered, he sneezed, he sat up in front of the caliph,
and he 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 was sent by an Indian Raja to the
court of Caliph al-Ma'mun' in 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 books on different subjects
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 the translation bureau of Jundishapur. Besides
the above mentioned four well-known Indian vaidyas several other Indian
medical men must have been at Baghdad although no information about them is
The Arab scholars were also acquainted with some other Indian vaidyas
and masters of other allied sciences. These are:
Kanka (Ganga): Kanka was one of the most learned Indian scientists
who also knew the art of healing 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 is 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); (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).
Sanjhal: Sanjhal was the most learned man of India who wrote a book
on nativity entitled, Kitab-ul-Mawalid (The Book of Nativities).
Shanaq (Canakya): Canakya 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 translated into Arabic by Abu I (9th Century 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 cultural studies. His works mentioned
by Ibn abi Usaibi'ya are on the stars, lapidary crafts, and on veterinary
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 Shanaq'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. Shanaq 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; and 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, and (11) Manjhal. Qazi Athar
Mubarakpuri has further added these names: (1) Vaidya Behla, (2) Qalbarqal,
and (3) Khatif 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:
Caraka-Samhita: Caraka-Samhita was translated into Persian
(Pehlavi) probably by Manaka Hindi and it was then rendered into Arabic by
Susruta-Samhita: Susruta Samhita (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.
Firdaus-ul-Hikmat: Firdaus-ul-Hikmat (Paradise of Wisdom) was composed
by Abu 'Ali bin Rabban al-Tabari (c. 850 AD). Al-Tabari divided the book
into a number of discourses. Its last and fourth discourse has discussed
the different branches of ancient medicine (Tibb-i-Vaidik) that 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 are (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) and (12) Hirq-ul-
Dhahab (calces/bhasma of iron, silver and gold). 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 pieces
of al-Wajj (Vaca, Calamus asiaticus) dipped in cow butter-oil
in a green container for some time and burn them in a heap of barley for at
least twenty days. The medicine thus prepared should be taken in a 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 had been
forgotten by him.
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 where a large number of Indian scientists had brought their
sciences and wisdom from the Indian subcontinent. After his return from India,
Ibrahim bin Fazarun brought a great amount of information about Indian drugs,
Ayurveda, its teaching and texts. Among the gifts sent by Indian rajas to
the Caliph al-Ma'mün was a special mat made of dragon's skin which, when used
for sleeping or sitting, 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.
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 (The 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, is mentioned
in the medical literature, but his treatise is not extant currently.
Abu Bakr Muhammad bin Zakariya al-Rãzi (850-923 AD), the well-known and distinguished
pupil of al-Tabari, also quoted 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 the combination of
various articles of food. He says that sour foods and fish should be consumed
with milk. The result of mixing such foods may lead to various types of diseases
such as leprosy. In their opinion, curd should not be taken with radish nor
bird's meat. Similarly, fat-oil stored in copper utensils should not be used
for cooking purposes. Kababs barbecued on charcoal of castor-wood should
not be eaten. According to Indian vaidyas, some leeches are poisonous.
Ibn Sinã described 792 simple drugs in his a1-Qãnun. Among these, 49 have
been stated to be 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 (The 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 marvelous cures which they achieved by using aconite to treat the cases
It may be concluded that the Arabs developed great respect and love for Indian
medical scholars and their 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 (9th Century AD). His following
word will conclude this section:
"When India 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 individuals
who are ill, but also to prepare balanced meals and construct harmonious environments.
Ayurveda brings to life the concepts of preventive health care and health
promotion. The ultimate 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),
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
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
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:
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).