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Origin and development of ayurveda (a brief history)



History of medicine is a fascinating subject as it is a saga of man's struggle against disease. As the civilization advances and as the disease pattern changes, the medical science also changes. Ayurveda is the system of medicine that evolved in India with a rationale logical foundation and it has survived as a distinct entity from remote antiquity to the present day. The fundamentals on which the Ayurvedic system is based are essentially true for all times and do not change from are to age. These are based on human actors, on intrinsic causes. The origin of Ayurveda is attributed to Atharva Veda where mention is made several diseases with their treatments. Later, from the 6(th) Century BC to 7(th) Century AD there was systematic development of the science and it is called Samhita period, when a number of classical works were produced by several authors and during this period there is evidence of organized medical care.
Ancient Science of Life, Vol. I, No.1, July1981, pages 1-7
V. Narayanaswamy
Former Professor,
College of Indian Medicine, Madras – India
Abstract:-History of medicine is a fascinating subject as it is a saga of man’s struggle against
disease. As the civilization advances and as the disease pattern changes, the medical science
also changes. Ayurveda is the system of medicine that evolved in India with a rationale logical
foundation and it has survived as a distinct entity from remote antiquity to the present day. The
fundamentals on which the Ayurvedic system is based are essentially true for all times and do not
change from are to age. These are based on human actors, on intrinsic causes. The origin of
Ayurveda is attributed to Atharva Veda where mention is made several diseases with their
treatments. Later, from the 6th Century BC to 7th Century AD there was systematic development
of the science and it is called Samhita period, when a number of classical works were produced
by several authors and during this period there is evidence of organized medical care.
Medicine is as old as life itself. The survival
of the species demands that simultaneously
with the appearance of disease, all living
things must have also evolved the means to
combat disease. The higher animals are
guided by instinct to seek remedies for
illness in plants and herbs. Man with his
superior intelligence must necessarily have
extended the scope of this search for
remedies. So if we discount the myth of a
Garden of Eden which man had to abandon
when he fell from grace, “the thousand ills
that flesh is heir to” must have afflicted man
from his birth and the dawn of medicine
must have synchronized with the dawn of
Every human society must have developed a
rudimentary system of medicine, whether
based on material medica or in spells,
incantations magic and rituals, which to us
in this advanced age may appear
meaningless. The progress from this
primitive stage to a regular system of
medicine has not been on the same lines
everywhere. The development of a system
of medicine depends on various factors; its
form and content are decided by the
civilization and the environment in which it
is born.
Early development of Ayurveda as a
complete System:
Ayurveda is the system of medicine that
evolved in India and has survived as a
distinct entity from remote antiquity to the
present day. It would be interesting to study
Present Address: 19, Tana street, Parasuwakam, Madras 600 007
the history of Ayurveda, trace its origin
along with other Indian Systems of sciences
and thoughts to assess its achievement and
its place in the corpus of world medicine.
The study of the genesis and evolution of
ideas in any sciences is always interesting
and often instructive. But it is not solely as
an intellectual exercise that the study of
Ayurveda is to be viewed. In spite of the
spectacular results achieved by modern
medicine, mainly through advances in the
physical, chemical and natural sciences,
there are vast areas of diseases which have
eluded its therapeutic ambit and the study of
a system of medicine that has stood the test
of time may have a fruitful contribution to
make in the overall alleviation of human
All primitive societies have had a collection
of remedies for common illnesses, evolved
through trial and error methods, accident or
by inspiration. But such remedies were
purely empirical, and not based on any
logical understandings of illness or of drugs.
As late as the 17th Century, Moliere, referred
to physicians as people, “who poured
medicines of which they know little into
bodies of which they know less”. The Indian
system of medicine, Ayurveda, was evolved
as a system with a rational and logical
foundation. That its basic concepts were not
re-examined in the light of the greater
understandings of the human environment,
that for centuries its methods of treatment
underwent little change, and that there have
been no addition to its literature for a long
time, are charges made against the systems
by its critics. It has to be admitted that after
the 8th century A.D no book of outstanding
merit was written and the literature from
then on upto about the 16th Century
consisted mainly of commentaries on the
original texts. The last perhaps among the
original books was Bhava Prakash, which is
about 400 years old.
The fundamentals on which the Ayurvedic
system of medicine is based are essentially
true for all times and do not change from
age to age. These fundamentals are based
on human factors on intrinsic causes, not
extrinsic causes. Civilization may change,
human habits may change, the environment
may change but humanity remains the same.
Changes in the environment, new modes of
living, new avocations, all might contribute
to certain modifications of a disease or the
appearance of new diseases. But disease
attacks the human hot, and as long as the
human being is very much the same as his
ancestor, the reactions to the disease, signs
and symptoms would be same. The methods
adopted to cure the disease may differ in
their form but not in their essential
It is said that the originators of the
Ayurvedic system of medicine did not base
their practices on the experimental method if
by this it is meant that there are no record of
studies in anatomy, physiology, pathology
and pharmacology, the criticism is not
without meaning. But the development of
surgery the classifications of disease, the
observations on signs and symptoms,
prognosis and the descriptions of the nature,
toxicity and therapeutic value of drugs as
described in the literature all clearly
demonstrate high level of knowledge which
would not have been possible for men
without the scientific approach. One thing
we should not lose sight of is the fact that
the men who gave the system to the world
were drawn from the highest intellectual and
spiritual hierarchy. Their motive was
compassion. Their purpose as to alleviate
human suffering and their recorded precepts
were for their disciples whom they trained
for the service of humanity. The emphasis
therefore in the texts is on the practical
aspects of medicine. It is also possible that
these great seers through the practice of
Yogic disciplines were endowed with the
faculty of intuition which helped them to
discover many truths. Students of chemistry
will be familiar with the famous observation
“Let us learn to dream; then perhaps we
shall learn the truth”. We see that the
experimental method has serious limitations,
especially in the world of medicine. A
medical journal of thirty years ago looks out
dated and obsolete today. The so-called
truths or findings given to the world
yesterday with a wealth of experimental
findings and statistical figures is
controverted today with evidence which is
no less impressive. While we should all
believe in progress, we should fight the
temptations to look on mere newness as a
virtue. Nor should we under-rate the
contributions made to human knowledge by
seers endowed with intuition or some
indefinable faculty that has enabled them to
perceive the truth far ahead of their time.
Medicine in the Vedas and Puranas:
References to medicine are found in the
earliest texts including the Vedas. The
legendary version of the origin of the
Ayurvedic system is that Brahma reminded
it to Prajapati, who handed it down to
Atreya Punarvasu etc. In the Rig Veda there
are reference to the first divine physician
Rudra and of how the Aswini Kumaras
cured Chyavana of senility. There are
number of Riks addressed to Marut, Vayu
etc, in which the reference to medicine is
unmistakable. Although such references are
found in the Rig Veda, as systematic and
comprehensive treatment of medicine is to
be found only in the Atharva Veda. The
Atharva Veda is considered to have
originated later than the Rig Veda, and
contains a description of diseases and the
cure of them. As an example, we might cite
the ancient view of the disease consumption.
It was characterized as a disease of not one
organ but of several organs, heart, lungs,
spleen, intestines, rectum, even of the bones
and marrow. This surprisingly modern view
appears in the form of a prayer the form in
which medical instruction appear in Vedic
literature. An even greater degree of
anatomical and other knowledge is
displayed in certain Upanishads
particularly in the Yogapanishads, which of
course belong to a later period than the
The tradition of medical knowledge is
further carried during the period of the
puranas. References to drugs, diseases and
health care are to be found in the epics.
Thus we see in the Ramayana, that expert
physicians attended on kings and they were
capable of preserving dead bodies. In the
Mahabharatha there are references to
surgeons attending on the wounded and the
disabled with all the appliances and
equipments in the battle field.
Beginnings of Systematic Development
We shall next consider the period when
systematic development can be said to have
taken place. This era is associated with a
few illustrious names, the first of whom is
Agnivesa. The Samhita written by him
which is classic which has survived to this
day has been made available to the world by
Caraka, a redactor. Historically it would
appear that during Caraka’s time the
Agnivesa Samhita has fallen into discuse or
partly perished, and Caraka undertook the
great task of restoring the work, filing up the
gaps and re-writing the parts of the work,
which had become obscure. This will be
evident from the subscription to each
chapter in which the author states that he has
redone the chapter (Pratisamakrita). The
work has undergone a further revision by
one Dridabala: at least the last 17 chapters
devoted to Cikitsa and the whole Kalpa and
Siddhi stanas have been re-written by
Dridabala as stated in the colophon of each
Caraka Samhita:
It is not known when Agnivesa lived. The
book is written partly in verse and partly in
prose and the language bears a resemblance
to that of the Brahmanas. The text is the
record of teaching by Atreya Punarvasu to
his students and Agnivesa was one of them.
Caraka is believed to have flourished in the
sixth century B.C. There is a Hindu
tradition that Caraka and author of
Mahabhasya on vyakarana patanjali, are one
and the same person. Many commentators,
Vijnana Bhiksu, sivadasa and Bhavamisra,
the author of the Bhavaprakasa, to name a
few, suibscribe to this opinion. The student
of early Sanskrit literature is often
confronted with some confusion in the
identity of names owing to their imprecise
use by commentators. It has to be admitted
that there is some uncertainty about the
identity of Caraka.
This however does not in any manner,
detract from the greatness of Caraka
Samhita. The popularity of the work
continues to this day. No Ayurvedic
physician of any repute would admit that he
has not studied Caraka. The work is a
complete compendium of medical
information, dealing with medical aspects,
as etiology, symptomatology, treatment and
medical care in health and in disease.
Susruta samhita:
Equal in importance to the Caraka Samhita
is another treatise called Susruta Samhita.
This work deals with surgical diseases, and
diseases of the special organs such as the
eye, ear etc. Just as by tradition Caraka
Samhita is ascribed to Atreya Punarvasu.
Susruta Samhita is ascribed to Dhanvantari
Susruta has recorded the precepts of this
puranic personage Dhanvantari, just as
Agnivesa has recorded those of Atreya
Punarvasu. The Dhanvantari of puranas is
said to be one of the avatars of Vishnu. A
historical personage by name Divodasa is
also known as Dhanvantari, being an
incarnation of Dhanvantari of Puranas. It is
more likely that the name of Dhanvantari
was given to Divodasa of Kasi who was a
celebrated physician Susruta Samhita like
the Samhita of Agnivesa, has undergone
recensions. It is generally believed that the
famous rasarcharya, Nagarjuna, re-edited the
book and that the Utterasthana, the last
portion of the book, was completely written
by him. This theory is based on Dalhana’s
statement in his commentary that Nagarjuna
re-edited (Pratisamskarna). There is also an
ambiguous reference from wich some critics
have inferred that originally Susruta samhita
consisted of only five cantos, and the sixth is
a later addition.
While enumerating the contents of the
chapters and the cantos. Susruta mentions
only 120 chapters in 5 cantos. There is no
reason why he should have restricted
himself to these numbers if the work really
consisted of 180 chapters in 6 cantos. The
66 chapters in Uttarasthana are therefore
evidently later additions by another author
just as the last 17 chapters of Caraka samhita
are additions by Dridhabala. The work was
intended to be a inclusion of medical
diseases would appear to be inconsistent
with this purpose. It is true that in ancient
systems of medicine, surgical and medical
diseases were not divided into water-tight
compartments, as they are found today. All
the same, there was some specialization;
Caraka remarks in many places; “Hereafter,
hand the patient over to the Surgeons”. It is
therefore quite possible that the sixth canto,
which deals mainly with medical diseases
and diseases of the eye, was not the work of
Susruta, but was added to the Samhita by
The age of Susruta is not known. It is
generally believed that Susruta lived
sometime around 600 B.C. Susruta Samhita
could have undergone several revisions, the
last of which was attributed to Nagarjuna
Rajatarangini places him in the 3rd century
B.C. The identity of Nagarjuna is also
shrouded in antiquity. There appears to
have been a number of physicians and
alchemists with the name Nagaruna.
Astanga Samgraha and Astanga Hridaya
Next in the chronological order appeared
another classical work, Vagbhata’s
Ashtanga Samgraha. Vaghbeta probably
belonged to the second century A.D. He has
summarized both Caraka and Susruta and
brought both medical and surgical diseases
within the compass of a single treatise.
Vagbheta follows the tradition of using both
prose and verse, though there is more of
verse than the prose in his work. From the
stand point of analytical classification
arrangement and exposition he excels other
writers. The Astanga samgraha is for this
reason more popular than other works
among students and practitioners in the
South. Vagbheta can claim to be the first
author to have begun the syncretic school of
bringing together information on all the
branches of medicines within the ambit of a
single work which as others he divided into
eight parts (Astanga), and called it as such.
The eight parts are general medicines,
paediatrics, mental diseases, diseases of
special sense organs, surgery, toxicology,
gerontology and aphrodisiac. Ayurveda is
the only ancient science where care of ole is
There is another important work, similar in
the name and content called Astanga
Hridaya. It is written entirely in verse and
its author also bears the name Vaghbeta.
The opinion is held by many that, both
Astanga Samgraha and Astanga Hridaya are
the work of one and the same person. The
method o presentation the classification of
the subject under various chapter and even
many of the Slokas are so strikingly similar
in both works, that this view may be correct.
After completing the first work, Samgraha
the author must have summarized it in verse
form and given it the name Hridaya.
There are no tow opinions about the
superiority of the book. Astanga Hridaya
over most other treatises. Brevity and
clarity of expression are the hall murk of this
Bhela Samita
Among the works of great aniquity must be
mentioned the Bhela Samhita. The main
point of interest about this work is that is
was probably written by a contemporary of
Agnivesa. It is modeled on the pattern of
Agnivesa Samhita. But it is a similar book
than the former. Another book which has
been published is Harita Samhita, which is
claimed to have been written by one Harita,
another contemporary of agnivesa. The
claim is incorrect and this Harita probably
belongs to later times.
Other Works:
Of lesser caliber than Caraka, susruta and
vagbheta, but no less worthy of attention to
the student of Ayurvedic medicine are
Madhavakara, Cakra data, Sarngadhrara and
Bhav misra. Madhavakara (8th Century
A.D.) comes first in the chronological order.
He has written Nidana which deals with
aetiology, diagnosis, pathology ad prognosis
of diseases. The work is not original but a
compilation from various earlier texts. Its
chief virtue is comprehensiveness.
Brndamadhava is a treatise on medicine.
(Brnda being the real name of the author)
which contains a number of Siddha yogas or
prescriptions which have been tried and
found useful.
Chakrapanidatta is wel-known not only as a
brilliant commentator of both Caraka
Samhita and portions of Susruta Samhita or
Cikitsa Sara samgraha. It is a treatise on
treatment which is widely read even to this
day. He has also written a book on material
medica with the title Dravya Guna
Samgraha Cakrapaidatta belongs to the
middle of the 11th Century A.D.
Cakrasadatta Samhita follows the order of
Madhava Nidana and Brndamadava. The
Cikitsa sara Samgraha and the Dravya Guna
samgraha have been the subject matter of
brilliant commentaries by the gifted author
Sivadasa Sena, who has clarified many
abstruse passages in the texts.
Sarangadhara who flourished in the 11th
Century A.D. has also written a Samhita. It
contains a number of useful prescriptions
and is very popular among practitioners all
over the country for its valuable definitions
of technical terms, called paribhasa.
Bhavaprakasa, the last and perhaps the best
work of the medevial age, is that of
Bhavamisra. The period from the 10th to the
16th Century A.D. is singularly unproductive
in the literature of Ayurveda. The stagnation
is attributed to foreign invasions and internal
turmoil. When Bhavamisra resumed the
traditions of writing he reviewed the
developments of the intervening period and
incorporated in his work various new
diseases and drugs. He is the first author to
refer to the disease, ‘Phirangaroga’ which
was evidently the contemporary name of
syphilis. The word ‘Phiranga’ denotes
Europeans in general and the Portugese in
particular, in many of the Indian languages.
The term ’Phiranga Roga’ must have come
into use to describe syphilis, as the disease is
believed to have been brought to India by
Europeans. Another new introduction in his
work is a chapter on Yakrt Pleehodhara,
enlargement of liver and spleen, which is
distinct from Yakrt and Pleehodhara
Bhavamisra included in his material medica
certain drugs of foreign origin, for example,
Chop Cheeni, (Madhusnuhi) the root
imported from China which is indicated in
“Phiranga Roga”. He also mentions opium
(ahiphena) and the method of its
preparation, as also camphor from China
and Parasika Yavani from Persia. He is the
first to mention the use of mercurial
compounds in the treatment of Phiranga
One important point that is illustrated by
Bhavamisraa is that Ayurvedic medicines
was not averse to adopting new theories and
ideas and had no hesitation including
medicines of other countries in its armoury.
The sole criterion for the selection of any
drug or method of treatment was its ultimate
benefit to the patient. With changes in the
environment as new diseases and conditions
appear, new remedies are also necessary.
Caraka himself has stated that if a truth is to
be taken even from an enemy for the good
of the patient, the physician should not fight
shy of doing so, Bhavamisra is a true
exemplar of progress.
The history of medicine in India is not a
history of uninterrupted development. The
science and art of medicine existed from the
vedic period and maintained a steady pace
of progress during the early centuries of the
Christian era. Thereafter, there was a
decline in creative activity but revisions and
commentaries of the earlier works continued
to appear till about the 10th Century. The
period from the 10th Century to the 16th
Century there was a great lull till the
appearance of Bhavaprakasha. There has
been no major contribution to Ayurvedic
literature after this new work.
The Organisation of Medical Care:
Side by side with the systematic
development of medicines in ancient India,
there was also organized medical help in the
form of hospitals and dispensaries, and a
certain measure of health propaganda.
During the Buddhist period, monks travelled
all over the country not only preaching
religion and philosophy and dispelling
ignorance, but also alleviating human
suffering King Asoka and his edicts are
famous. But even before Asoka’s time
evidence of organized medical care was seen
in Caraka Samhita. Vivid descriptions are
found about the location, building, personnel
and amenities of hospital-Aturalaya, a
maternity home, Sutikargriha, a nursery-
sisugriha and a pharmacy.
It should be remembered that Ayurveda is
not the science of health. Healthful living,
prevention of disease, personal and social
hygiene all come under its ambit, and not
merely the cure of diseases.
... The Sanskrit word Ayurveda can be translated as knowledge of life and longevity, and this is the practice of traditional Indian medicine followed all over the country. The fundamental concepts of Ayurvedic medicine are found in the Atharvaveda, written probably sometime in the second millennium BCE (Narayanaswamy, 1981). ...
... Fine powders of the metals, their sulphates, and other chemical formulations were recommended for several health conditions. Copper was also recommended to be used in the manufacture of such objects as tongue scrapers, nozzles of enema pods, and containers for materials used in pharmaceutical procedures (Narayanaswamy, 1981). ...
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...  Immunosuppressants-These are considered as intrinsically and operationally heterogenous class of drugs, concurrently dispensed in an amalgamation so as to cure several sorts of tissue/organ transplant dismissal and autoimmune disorder 17 . Furthermore, these agents can also be employed in the cure of infection connected hypersensitivity reactions, immunopathology, and autoimmune illness. ...
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... Ancient science and medicine like Ayurveda focus on the importance of diet to stay healthy. 8 In this study also, it was found that for remaining healthy the main emphasis given by the majority of participants was on taking a healthy diet and maintaining hygiene. It is also reflected by the high usage of products like ghee, butter, cornflakes, and nuts. ...
... Much of the world is still dependent upon the use of herbal medicines from these and other traditions for daily health needs. These treatments, found to be consistently effective, have become widely accepted as complementary health care treatments even in industrialized nations [3][4][5][6][7]. The interdisciplinary fields of ethnomedicine, ethnoveterinary medicine and ethnopharmacology investigate these and other long-standing written and oral ...
The use of medicines was long considered by Western schools of thought to be a a domain unique to humans; however, folklore/Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) from around the world suggests that animals have also long provided inspiration for the discovery of some medicinal plants used to treat humans and their livestock. Searching for medicinal knowledge from animals depends on the recognition of their ability to select and effectively use medicinal plants to prevent or actively ameliorate disease and other homeostatic imbalances. The interdisciplinary field of animal self-medication is providing scientific evidence for this ability in species across the animal kingdom and lends support to animal-origin medicinal plant folklore and recent ethnomedicinal information. Here, 14 case studies of purported animal-inspired plant medicines used by cultures around the world are presented together with ethnomedicinal and pharmacological evidence. Based on this evidence, the diversity and potential mode of self-medicative behaviors are considered. Over 20 animal species, including llama, sloth and jaguar in South America, reindeer and yak in Eurasia, langur and macaque in Asia, and chimpanzee, wild boar, porcupine and elephant in Africa, are linked to these case studies, representing a variety of potential preventative or therapeutic self-medicative behaviors. These examples provide an important perspective on what is likely to have been a much wider practice in the development of human traditional medicine. A role for animal self-medication research in the rejuvenation of old therapies and possible new discoveries of phytotherapies for human and livestock health is encouraged.
... A yurveda and Siddha are two important components of the traditional Indian medicine (TIM) with a documented history of around 5000-8000 years. 1,2 Many individuals in the Indian subcontinent use TIM as a complementary or alternative medical approach to managing their health due to the perceived safety of plant-based remedies. 3 The use has also been on the rise in Western countries. ...
Introduction: Ayurveda and Siddha are two important components of the traditional Indian medicine (TIM). The regulatory mechanisms have been insufficient, and heavy metal toxicity with TIM preparations continues to be a public health nuisance, putting integrated medicine practice in jeopardy. The current study was undertaken to review the potential health hazards of the heavy metal content in the TIM and formulate patient-safety recommendations for integrative medical practice. Materials and Methods: Systematic MEDLINE searches were performed using a combination of relevant MeSH terms and keywords, and case report/series of Ayurveda or Siddha-induced heavy metal toxicity, published in the previous two decades, were included. Risk of bias was assessed with the tool by Murad et al. Results: A total of 220 cases (51 case reports and 14 case series) were found (lead, n = 156; arsenic, n = 11; mercury, n = 47; thallium, n = 1; gold, n = 1; combination of heavy metals, n = 4) after screening for the inclusion and exclusion criteria. Among them, 169 (76.8%) had a low risk of bias, 113 (out of 135 [83.7%] analyzed) contained higher-than-permissible heavy metal content in the drug samples, and the majority showed elevated biological levels of the heavy metals in the body. Conclusion: The heavy metals in TIM are often the result of adulteration or improper manufacturing and prescribing practices, despite national and international guidelines recommending quality standards and protocols for preparing and dispensing TIM. We thus propose multipronged approaches and provide recommendations at various levels, including individual, institutional, national policy decisions essential to establish patient safety of TIM.
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Aconitum heterophyllum is a perennial herb native to the Western Himalayas and has been found distributed in Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Nepal. Roots of this plant have been found to show antidiarrheal, hepatoprotective, antipyretic antioxidant and carminative properties. Aconitine and atisine (alkaloids) are the marker compounds of A. heterophyllum which are used in commercial preparations. But increased consumption of this plant for medicinal preparation has led it towards extinction. Therefore, it has become essential to carry out extensive studies on trend of population, reproductive biology and alternative propagation techniques to support its conservation programes. Plant tissue culture of this plant can act as effective approach for large scale cultivation without destroying the natural resources for extraction of phytochemicals. Leh-Ladakh is the northern most of country with the adverse environmental conditions which are responsible for accumulation of secondary metabolites.
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