Mandala Of Indic Traditions
Scientific Exchanges Between Ancient Tibet and India
by D.P. Agrawal & Lalit Tiwari
It is interesting to note that east-to-east mutual technological exchanges
among Asian nations were quite frequent in the past.† The Silk Road must have
played a significant role in the spread of early technologies.† For example,
the Bower Manuscript (mss), which is named after its discoverer, was
found in 1890 in Kuchar, Turkistan in a Buddhist monastery on the great caravan
route to China.† The large medical treatise called Navanitaka forms the
second part of the Bower mss. The date of that mss falls in the second
half of the fourth century AD.† It is believed that Buddhist monks played a
significant role in the transmission of medicinal and metal technologies among
the Asian countries.
Tibet was in a unique position to receive such knowledge both from China and
India.† In India, Ayurveda is the elite medicine system, which is already systematized
and documented.† But it derived its materia medica from the still older folk
medical systems.† For example, the Himalayan Medicine system knows more than
a thousand herbs of potent medicinal value.† Almost three-fourths of it constituted
the Ayurvedic materia medica.† Many of the herbs have different uses in tye
Ayurvedic and Himalayan systems. The Tibetan system seems to be a unique and
very effective amalgam of the indigenous Himalayan and Ayurvedic traditions.†
It appears to be a harmonious blend of both the Desi (Lesser) and Margi (Greater)
Indian Traditional Medicinal Systems, as well as its own indigenous system.†
In the 7th Century AD, a deliberate attempt was made in Tibet to combine the
Indian, Greek, and Chinese medicine systems with the local traditions.
History of Tibetan Medicine System
The Tibetan medicine seems to be a creative combination of the Indian medical
traditions, which it imported with Buddhism from India, and many forms of Chinese
medicine.† These multiple layers of medical knowledge and traditions merged
with pre-Buddhist Shamanic traditions and have continued to develop up to the
present as a thriving and highly effective indigenous medical system.† The Himalayan
System also has a Shamanic component, which will be discussed below.† The philosophical
basis of Tibetan medicine is rooted in Buddhism.† Thus, the Buddhist medical
system is more than merely the study of anatomy, physiopathology, and pharmacopoeia.†
It is also a guide to 'right living' and involves the spiritual aspects of healing
The ancient religion of Tibet was known as Bon.† Some scholars trace
back the Tibetan system to thousands of years before Christ.† Chebur Trishe,
the second son of Shenrab Meo, the founder of the Bon religion, found
a medical text at Shanshung, near mount Kailash.† The Buddhists believed that
Buddha (567 BC) taught medicine to one and all, in the Royal Palace at Udiyana
in India, where the test was compiled in Sanskrit from the original Marying
or Shanshung Yiggen language, a variation of present day Tibetan
language.† The 28th King of Tibet, Lhathothori Nyantsen, introduced the medical
science along with Buddhism by inviting two Indian physicians, Vijay Gajay and
Billa Gazema from Bodh Gaya, in Bihar.† A son of Vijay Gajay, Dungyi Tharchok,
learnt the system from his father and became the first personal physician of
the King.† This established the medical practice based on Buddhist teachings.†
It is said that Emperor Songtsen Gampo (617-650 AD), the most powerful ruler
of Tibet, invited three famous medical scholars: Rishi Bharadwaj from India,
Hsuan-Yuan Huang-ti from China, and Galenos from Rome. They jointly compiled
seven volumes of the medical treatise, Mijigpe Tson-ja.†
In the 7th century, King Songsten Gampo adopted Buddhism in Tibet.† He was
responsible for the international medical conference in Tibet, inviting physicians
from India, China, Nepal, Byzantium, and Persia to translate their medical texts
into Tibetan. The ideas exchanged and knowledge imparted became the foundation
of what is now considered one of the oldest complete medical systems in Tibet.†
The king sent Prime Minister Thon-mi-Sam-bho-ta to India in 645 AD to learn
both secular and religious literature.† He translated a number of Indian works
in the Tibetan language.† In the Tibetan medicine system the most popular medical
text is called Rgyud bzi (lit. Catus-tantra, a compendium of four
treatises).† According to the introductory paragraph in this work, the title
of its Sanskrit origin was "Amrta Hrdaya Astanga Guhyopadesa Tantra."†
Actually, in the 8th century AD a Tibetan scholar, Vairocana, studied this work
from Candranandana of India and translated this into Tibetan.
Philosophy of Tibetan Medicine System
The Tibetan medicine system is essentially based on the Buddhist philosophy.†
According to them the universe is composed of four basic elements:† sa
(prithivi-mahabhuta), chu (jala mahabhuta), me (agni
mahabhuta), and rlun (vayu mahabhuta).† But in Ayurveda the
fifth element akasa is also present.† The Tibetans also believed that
the individual is an exact replica of the macrocosm.
The definition of the physician is one who heals all pain and practices medicine
to promote good health.† According to the Tibetan medicine system, "The
doctor is responsible for healing the disease. Giving advice is also up to the
doctor. The patient is responsible for the causes and must curb them to maintain
/ restore their health."
Drugs and Diet in Tibetan Medicine System
As in Ayurveda, in the Tibetan medicine system also believes that a person
suffers from diseases when there is a change (beyond a certain limit) in the
equilibrium of Nes pas (dosas) and Lus zuns (dhatus).†
Drugs and food prescribed by the physician depend on taste and are of six types:
sweet, sour, saline, bitter, pungent, and astringent.
The Tibetan systemís use of ingredients also bears close resemblance to the
Himalayan System.† The Tibetan medicine mainly depends on herbal products although
many animal products such as musk, bear-bile, cow-bile, and different types
of milk, minerals, and metals are also used.† Medicine is administered in the
form of decoction, powder, pills, syrups, oils, wine, butter, or ash.† The medicine
may be constituted of a single herb or a hundred of them.† For example, a medicine
called Agar 35 (Agar sonya) has 35 different kinds of herbs.†
The physician is expected to be knowledgeable in the herbs, their characters,
their potent effects, and their synergy.
The Ayurvedic system was well organized and reduced to writing and therefore
was easy to incorporate in the Tibetan System, through the exchange of scholars
and translation of texts.† But there seem to be some common elements between
the Himalayan and Tibetan systems.† During their journeys the Tibetan scholars
and monks must have come across the Himalayan folk physicians too.
Lets have a brief look at the Himalayan Medicinal System.
Himalayan Medicine System
The Himalayas have a great wealth of medicinal plants and traditional local
The Indian Himalayan region alone supports about 18,440 species of plants (Angiosperms:
8000 spp., Gymnosperm: 44 spp., Pteridophytes: 600 spp., Bryophytes: 1736 spp.,
Lichens: 1159 spp. and Fungi: 6900 spp. of which about 45% are having medicinal
The Traditional Himalayan Medicine System (THMS) was a folk tradition and was
transmitted through the word of mouth across the generations.† They treat both
humans and animals using traditional methods.† They generally employ herbal
products like resin, bark, and root, as well as soils, minerals, animal products,
and tantric (Shamanic) practices.
The Himalayan people use magico-religious therapies, like the Tibetans whose
medicinal system is also basically based on Shamanic practices.† Among the magico-religious
therapies the Himalayan people practice Jagar, Thau-dham, Bhabhuti,
and Tantra-mantra to placate the local gods and supernatural powers.†
The mystic-priest, with the help of hymns, drives the spirit away.† Before leaving
the patient, the spirit may ask for some rice and pulse or for the sacrifice
of a cock, pig, or goat.
Thus the Tibetan medicine is an amalgam of the Ayurvedic medical tradition,
the Himalayan System, and many forms of Chinese medicine.† These different ingredients
of medical knowledge and traditions merged with the pre-Buddhist Shamanic traditions.
Like Ayurveda, the Tibetan medicine system is more a way of healthy living than
merely a system of treatment of diseases.† They developed many new concepts
of health, disease, and treatment in addition to the ones used in Ayurveda.†
Their materia medica is a vast collection of many life saving drugs.
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