The Origin of Ayurveda in the main Samhitas of Ayurveda

Source: Jay Boyle Company    jayboyle(at)pobox.com 


The Caraka Samhita, Sutrasthana 1.2-40, tells the story of medicine in this way. The powerful ascetic Bharadvaja, desirous of longevity, came

to Indra, the protector and lord of the gods, to obtain the science of medicine. Indra had previously received the entirely of Ayurveda from the twin horsemen healers, the Ashvins, who got it from Prajapati, the Lord of Beings, who in turn obtained the whole of the science from Brahma, the creator of the universe.


The text continues to explain how medicine was brought to humankind.


When disease began to disturb humans in their religious practices, great ascetic sages, who were receptacles of the knowledge of Brahman and full of sympathy for all beings, gathered on an auspicious side of the Himalayas to discuss the problem of human disease and its solution. The religious practices that were inhibited by disease were those observed by most pious Sannyasis and included austerities (tapas), avoidance of unwholesome thoughts and actions (upavasa), study of the Veda (adhyayana), celibacy before marriage (brahmacarya), and religious observances (vrata).


These holy men posited that a physical state devoid of disease was the proper condition in which to pursue the caturvarga or four aims of life, viz. righteousness (dharma), prosperity (artha), sensual and mental enjoyment (kama), and final release from the round of rebirths (moksa).


The stale of disease, on the other hand, destroyed this condition, as well as welfare and life, thus making disease the greatest obstacle in life. The ascetics began to meditate on what to do about the problem of disease. With their divine eyes, they saw Indra, their protector, who could explain to them the proper means to

remove disease.


Next, the sages sent one of their number, Bharadvaja, to Indra, glowing like fire in the midst of the gods and sages, to obtain the proper means to remove disease. Indra then imparted Ayurveda to Bharadvaja in small quarter verses. He explained that Ayurveda, previously understood by Brahma, consisted of three principles (trisutra): aetiology (hetu), symptomatology (linga), and knowledge of therapeutics (aushadhajnasa), and that this medicine was the best way to secure well-being for both the healthy and diseased alike.


The mention of these three principles points to an early codification of Ayurveda and reveals a concrete approach to dealing with the problem of disease in humans. First, determine the cause of the disease and it symptoms, and then prescribe an appropriate remedy. The threefold paradigm reflects a distinctly practical approach to curing, and bears a general resemblance to the Buddhist doctrine of the Four Noble Truths (i.e., suffering, its cause, its ending, and the means to end it). It is possible. therefore, that the system of medicine based on these three principles was not originally a brahmanic inspiration.  Bharadvaja then quickly comprehended the three principles Ayurveda and passed them on in their entirety to the assembled sages. The sages with their divine eyes saw that medical epistemology according to the categories (padarthas) of Vaisheshika. They noticed that a proper framework for understanding medicine contained similarities (samanya), differences (vishesha), properties (guna), substances (dravya), actions (karman), and inheritances (samavaya).


After coming to know this, they followed the prescriptions of medical science and attained the highest well-being and imperishable life. Here the steady hand of brahmanism was painting Ayurveda with the recognisable colours of Hindu philosophy.


An abrupt introduction of the name Punarvasu Atreya at this point in the narrative story suggests an addendum to the story. Out of friendliness and compassion for all beings,  Punarvasu Atreya expounded Ayurveda to his six disciples (Agnivesa, Bheda, Jatukarna, Parasara, Harita, and Ksarapani) who immediately comprehended the words of the sage. Agnivesa  as the first to compose a work on Ayurveda because his mind was best attuned to the science. After him, works were composed by Bheda and the others. Both the great sages and the gods were pleased with the works which were now established on earth for the benefit of all beings. This completes the mythological account of the transference Ayurveda from the gods to the humans. Agnivesa is given special mention because his treatise was eventually redacted by Caraka and Drdhabala into what is now the Caraka Samhita.  The knowledge of medicine was given to Punarvasu Atreya, who was introduced into the story as the key figure providing the link between gods and humans. The Caraka Samhita never tells us who gave medical knowledge to Atreya, so we are left to wonder if it came directly from the god Indra or via  Bharadvaja.


A later text, the Ashtangahrdaya Samhita (states that it came directly from Indra). If indeed this is the way the later tradition understood the transmission process, what significance did Bharadvaja have in this early account. Cakrapanidatta, says that Indra gave Ayurveda to several sages, one being Bharadvaja and another being Atri, who passed it on to his son Atreya.



 Susruta Samhita [Sutrasthana 1.1-21), the second of the classical medical treatises of early Ayurvedic literature, which has surgery as its special emphasis., presents the origins of Ayurveda as expounded by Dhanvantari, the patron deity of surgical medicine. This account has even more of a mythic flavour than that

found in the Caraka Samhita, and is non unlike the stories in the  Puranas.


Once, when Lord Divodasa Dhanvantari, King of Kasi (Banaras), was residing in his hermitage, his sages approach him and said: "Lord, there is trouble in our minds concerning peoples' suffering from various ailments and injuries because of different physical, mental, and external diseases. Even though well cared for,

they behave helplessly and cry out in agony. In order to relieve their misery and to enable them to remain healthy, we desire to hear your teaching on Ayurveda, for it provides the ultimate well-being of people in this world and in the next."


In Susruta, as in Caraka, the reason for the teaching of medicine was to eliminate human suffering caused by disease. The notion of removing human physical and mental pain is and a sentiment of fundamental compassion for all living beings might well have sprung from the ancient ascetic principle of ahimsa, "not desiring to do harm to any living thing ".


Dhanvantari proceeds to explain that Ayurveda is a subdivision of the Atharvaveda, that it was composed in one hundred thousand verses, and arranged into one thousand chapters by Lord Brahma before he created the world. However, because of the short life span and limited intellect of humans, Dhanvantari reduced

Ayurveda to the eight parts, viz. major surgery (shalya), supraclavical surgery (shalakya), general medicine (kayacikitsa), demonology (bhutavidya), paediatrics and obstetrics (kaumarabhrtya), toxicology (agadatantra), use of organic elixirs (rasayanatantra), and the science of fertility and virility (vajikaranatantra). These are the classical eight limbs (angas) of Ayurveda.  


The principal source of Ayurveda here again is the god Brahma who is rather a transmitter than an originator. As a subdivision of the Atharvaveda and Rg Veda (Ayurveda is an Upaveda of Rg Veda!) , one of the four Vedas, medicine is situated firmly among the Vedic sciences.  A version of the Vedic myth of the severed head is appropriately recounted in this context. "The head of the sacrifice was cut off by god Rudra. Thereupon, the gods approached the twin horsemen healers, Ashvins, and said, 'You Lords are the best among us. You two must rejoin the head of the sacrifice.' The two said, 'Let it be so.' Then for their sake, the gods

propitiated Indra with a portion of the sacrificial offerings, and the head of the sacrifice was joined by those two." This story is found in slightly altered but popular version in the Bhagavata Purana(4.2-7).


Here again the Veda is invoked to authenticate surgery .


Next follows the account of the transmission of medicine from the gods to humans. Brahma first explained Ayurveda to Prajapati who transmitted it to the Ashvins. Indra learned it from the Ashvins, and Dhanvantari got it from Indra. Dhanvantari taught it to Susruta and others for the well-being of all humans. As in the Caraka

Samhita an unbroken transmission is offered for the Susruta Samhita, and thereby fixing it too in the mainstream of brahmanic orthodoxy. Unlike Caraka however, Susruta gives a flawless transmission.


Dhanvantari concludes the mythical story by saying, "I am Dhanvantari, the first god to remove old age (jara), disease (ruja), and death (mrtyu) from the gods. I have come forth in this world to teach major surgery and the other parts of Ayurveda."