About Hinduism and India

There was no trace of Allopathic science or Homeopathy prior to tenth century AD anywhere in the world.  In contrast India possessed comprehensive medical literature and had several luminaries on her panel who contributed to the development of Medical Science in the World. Besides mythological physicians Dhanwantri and Sushain, the great names in Indian medicine were those of Sushruta in the fifth century BC and Charaka in the second century AD. They were World’s first Physicians and Surgeons.

The origin of Medical Science 

Medicine has been the oldest Indian science. Puranic descriptions relate Ayurveda to have been brought to this world by celestial physician Dhanvantri during churning of the ocean. The text was then handed over to the Prajapati (king) for training of physicians and putting the same in to use for public welfare. Thus in India, state had been directly concerned with the health of the subjects, creation and preservation of healthy environment, and maintaining high standard of sanitation at public utilities. Segregation of the contaminated was also a part of this drive.

The records of Indian medicine begin with the Arthava Veda; where a list of diseases with their symptoms can be found. Appended to the Atharva-Veda is the Ayur-Veda, a treatise exclusively dedicated to the Science of Longevity. The ancient Hindus had carried the science of medicine, like other sciences, to a very high degree of perfection.

Sushruta – Father of Surgery

Sushruta wrote in Sanskrit a system of diagnosis and therapy whose elements had descended to him from his teacher Dhanwantari. His book dealt at length with hygiene, surgery, obstetrics, diet, bathing, drugs, infant feeding and medical education. His treatise is in six parts and is still in use as a reference book. For the detection of the 1120 diseases he enumerated, Sushruta recommended diagnosis by inspection, palpitation, and auscultation.

Sushruta is known to be the Father of Surgery.  He performed surgical operations to treat cataract, hernia, and also Cesarean. He brought into use 121 surgical instruments, including lancet, sounds forceps, catheters, rectal and vaginal speculum. The surgical instruments were sufficiently sharp and capable of dividing a hair longitudinally.

Despite Brahmani-cal prohibitions he advocated the dissection of dead bodies as indispensable in the training of surgeons. He was the first to graft upon torn ear portions of skin taken from another part of the body. He can be rightly called the Father of Rhinoplasty also, since the surgical reconstruction of the nose-descended into modern medicine

Regarding Digestive system and development of body Sushruta has written:

रसाद्रक्तं ततो मांसं मांसान्मेदः प्रजायते। मदेसोSस्थि ततो मज्जा मज्जायाः शुक्रसम्भ्वः।। (सुश्रुत)

(It means – Whatever is consumed by humans, it is carried to stomach for digestion and turned into juice, after five days the juice turns into blood, after another five days flesh is made out of blood. The process of conversion is continued after every five days to produce meda, bones, marrow, semen and finally Ojas; that gives shine to the body. Semen is transparent and is a sticky substance. It is known as Rajas in females with red color. The entire process from digestion to conversion takes thirty days and four hours). Thus out of 40 Sear ( sear is unit of measure that equals to 1.6 kilograms) intake of food only one sear of blood is formed – and out of one sear blood only two tolas of semen is formed. It is for this reason that Observation of BrahmacharyaYama is stressed in Hindu way of life.

Sushruta had laid elaborate rules for preparing an operation and his suggestion that the wound be sterilized by fumigation is one of the earliest known efforts at antiseptic surgery. Sushruta’s work refers to surgery and operations which are considered difficult even in modern times.

Charka – precursor of Hippocratic Oath

Charaka authored Charaka Samhita. It is an encyclopedia of medicine, which is also being used in India. His work is divided into eight books, describing various diseases and their treatment. As a precursor of Hippocratic conception, he prescribed Diksha to his followers. His advice to his students contained the gist of professional ethics:

“If you want success in your practice, wealth and fame, and heaven after your death, you must pray every day on rising and going to bed for the welfare of all beings and you must strive with all your soul for the health of the sick. You must not betray your patients, even at the cost of your own life. You must not get drunk, or commit evil, or have evil companions. You must be pleasant, of speech and thoughtful, always striving to improve your knowledge”.

Rishi Atreya

Atreya (500 BC) held that the parental seed is independent of the parent’s body, and contained in itself, in miniature, the whole parental organism. He recommended examination for virility as a prerequisite for marriage in men. He supported the Code of Manu that warned against marrying mates affected with tuberculosis, epilepsy, leprosy, chronic dyspepsia, piles, or loquacity.

Above all he prohibited marriages within the same ‘Gotra’. The ancient prohibitions adopted by Hindu society were not based on blind faith or conservative attitude of the society but on scientific reasoning. Even the modern medical science cannot contradict the parental effect on off springs that had been explained in Manusamruti as under:-

क्षेत्रभूता स्मृता नारी बीजभूतः स्मृतः पुमान्। क्षेत्रबीजसमायोगात्संभवः सर्वदेहिनाम्।।

विशिष्टं कुत्रचिद्बीजं स्त्रयोनिस्त्वेव कुत्रचित्। उभयं तु सनं यत्र सा प्रसूति प्रशस्.ते।। (मनु स्मृति 9- 33-34)

(Female is like a soil and Male is identical to the seed. Life comes into existence due to the combination of seed and soil. Either could be important, but when both are equally balanced, the off springs born are the best.)

बीजस्य चैव योन्याश्च बीजमुत्कृष्ट मुच्यते। स्रवभूप्रसूतिर्हि  बीजलक्षणलक्षिता।

यादृशं तृप्यते बीजं क्षेत्रे कालोपपादिते। तादृग्रोहति तत्तस्मिन्बीजं स्वैर्व्याञ्जतं गुणैः।। (मनु स्मृति 9- 35-36)

(Between the two, seed is more important than the soil. All living beings have dominant qualities of the seed. Whatever kind of seed is sown in the soil at appropriate time, the plant shall possess characteristics of the seed.)

इयं भूमिर्हि भूतानां शाशवती योनिरुच्यते। न च योनिगणान्कांशि्चद्बीजं पुष्यति पुष्टिषु।।

भूमावप्येककेदारे कालोप्तानि कृषीवलैः। नानारुपाणि जायन्ते बीजानीह स्वभावतः।। (मनु स्मृति 9- 37-38)

(Soil is the source of all kinds of produce, but if different seeds are planted in the same field, the individual plants that will come up shall have the characteristic of seed.)

Medical Literature

Besides Atharva Veda and Ayurveda the following texts are also included in ancient Medical Literature:-

  • Panini’s Grammar Ashtadhyaihas listed several ailments that indicate that 350 BC Indian diagnostic system was fully developed. Another treatise Amarkosha in Sanskrit has listed all the body parts.
  • Vaghata authored a Medical Text in poetic as well as prose format in 625 AD.
  • Bhava Mishra authored a comprehensive text in 1550 AD in which he explained blood circulatory system in detail. This text was written a century prior to Western expert Harvey. Bhava Mishra has also suggested use of Mercury for curing syphilis. This disease was imported to India through the Portuguese from Europe during fifteenth century.
  • Narayana Sukta explains the anatomy of human body as well as functioning of Heart.
  • Malini Shastra by Shiranga Rishi explains about Jada (un-Aware) and Chetanya (Aware) bodies.
  • Garuda explains the properties of several anti-poisonous medicines that can be used.

System of Treatment

According to Chinese Historian Yuan Chwang, the treatment in Indian system followed a period of fasting for seven days. Normally the patients were cured merely due to the fasting. Smaller quantity of medicine was prescribed if necessary. The dose of medicine was gradually increased if required as a last resort. Some of the treatments were:-

  • Diet, special baths, inhalation, urethral and vaginal injections were also given where necessary. Indian practitioners possessed vast knowledge about antidotes of poison.
  • Both Sushruta and Charaka mention the use of medicinal liquors to produce insensibility to pain. In 927 A.D. two surgeons trepanned the skull of a king, and made him insensitive to the operation by administering a drug called Sammohini. Taking of the pulse was described in a treatise dating 1300 A.D. Urinalysis was a favorite method of diagnosis.
  • Vaccination was unknown to Europe till eighteenth century, but it was practiced in India as early as 550 AD as apparent from a text attributed to Dhanwantari that reads

“…Take the fluid of the pock on the udder of the cow…upon the point of a lancer, and lance with it the arms between the shoulders and elbows until the blood appears; then, mixing the fluid with blood; the fever of the small-pox will be produced…

  • Smallpox inoculation is an ancient Indian tradition. Preventive inoculation against the smallpox went from India to China during 11th century AD. This inoculation process was practiced by Brahmins in India, but during 1803-04 the British government banned it since most of the Europeans objected to inoculation on theological grounds.

Practice of untouchables developed out of hygienic reasons. Hindus were aware about the existence of invisible agents that transmitted disease. Many of the laws of sanitation were based on germ theory of disease. Personal attention was therefore given to hygiene, cleanliness of the body, and purity of diet in India.

Code of Ethics

Last but not the least, the practice of medicine, like all other sciences, was regulated by a code of social ethics. A physician (Vaidya) was to be devoted to the service of the sick. Sage Manu has suggested several measures for eradication quackery in Manumamruti. Even before Charaka’s Diksha, there is reference in epic Ramayana, where Sushain, the personal physician of Ravana, treated Lakshamana on the battlefield. No action was taken against Sushain for helping the rival camp. That depicts the height of professional ethic and commitment to the purpose of medicine.

Chand K Sharma

(Next: Splashes – 38/72 – Ancient Medical Infrastructure)


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