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BRIEF HISTORY OF MEDICINE IN ANCIENT INDIA

Ancient India was a wealthy nation in terms of knowledge, wisdom and wealth.

MEDICINE

Sentinel Digital Desk

Dr Mukul Chandra Bora

(The writer is Director, Dibrugarh University Institute of Engineering & Technology. He can be reached at drmukulcbora@gmail.com)

Ancient India was a wealthy nation in terms of knowledge, wisdom and wealth. Different researchers across the globe have now recognised the power of our ancestors in different sectors of Science and Technology which were required for the health and wealth of the human population across the globe. Several medical professional have also reported the esteemed status of medicine and medical science of ancient India. The Medical practice of ancient Indians are many thousands of years old and took back to the remote antiquity of the Indian system of medicine. Since the earliest times, India has achieved the highest regards from the entire world and the glory of romance and a veil of splendour cast a mystic spell upon all the achievements of this great motherland. India achieved excellence in ancient times starting from art or science, or poetry or philosophy, in religion or mythology, in commerce or manufacture. The Western philosophers starting from Dr Johnson, have traced the beginning of their civilization from Ancient Greece and Rome and were regarded as the key to their knowledge and foundation of all sciences but if an impartial student of history were to trace the stream which brought nurture to the thoughts of Greece and Rome to its source, he would no doubt be surprised to find India at the very fountainhead irrigating and fertilizing the rest of the world's with its culture, commerce and civilization.

The Hindus i.e., the ancient Indians which were usually reported in all ancient books and literature, have possessed the oldest literature of the world were found in the hymns of the Rig Veda wherein a history of the Arya's of the ancient world from prehistoric times. Mr B. G. Tilak, an oriental scholar, after careful and patient research into the astronomical references recorded in the old literature has concluded that the oldest period in the Aryan civilization dates back from 6000 to 4000 B.C., which he calls the Pre-Orion period. The great German Historian, Professor Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeren calculates that the space of 6,042 years has elapsed from Dionysius (an Indian King) to Chandragupta and the Megasthenes, the envoy of Alexander, discovered chronological tables at Palibothra or Patliputra, the residence of this king, which contains a series of 153 Kings with all their names, from Dionysius to Chandragupta, and the duration of every one of their reigns, together amounting to 6,451 years, which would place the reign of Dionysius nearly 7,000 years B.C., which is about 1,000 years before then the oldest king found on the Egyptian tables of Manetho who reigned 5,867 years B.C.

Egypt was one of the oldest colonies of Ancient India and this colonization was seen in Persia too and had taken place before the great war of Mahabharata. This could have been found not only in the language of Greece but also in philosophy, religion, subtle turn of intellect, rivers and mountains, and above all the mysteries of India proved the colonization from India. Count Bjornstjerna (A Swedish General) says, "the civilization of the Hindus gradually extended itself in the west to Ethiopia, to Egypt, and Phoenicia; in the east to Siam, to China, and Japan; in the south to Ceylon, to Java, and Sumatra; in the north, to Persia, to Caldaea, and Colchis, whence it came to Greece and Rome and at length to the remote abode of the Hyperboreans".

The Medical system of the Indians is as old as their civilization and has laid the foundation in other countries of the world. There was no record of health healing art were available from prehistoric times in such a continuous way together with a complete record of development for so many centuries. It starts from the Vedic period i.e., 4000 to 2500 B.C., we can trace the rudiments of medicine rising in two or three tiny streams from the slopes of the Himalayas. (a) The early hymns of the Rig Veda make mention of medicinal plants and herbs, and the hygienic properties of water, air and vegetables. (b) The juice of the Soma plant is praised as the amrita (ambrosia), and medicine for a sick man, and gold and lead are spoken of as the elixir of life. (c) Brahma, the chief of the godhead, seeing the suffering of mankind, hands down the Ayurveda (the science of life) to Surya the Sun, who, like Phoebus, or Apollo of the Greeks, was regarded as the fountain of medical knowledge.

The Dhanvantari whom we regarded as the divine physician, was the father of Hindu medicine similar to that of Aesculapius of Greeks and is said to have brought amrita (the drink of immortality) and taught Science of Surgery to Sushruta. The Agnivesha wrote a book on ophthalmology and Harita compiled Harita Samhita, a standard treatise on medicine, containing a description of the circulation of blood in human bodies. Ayurveda is the most ancient system of Indian medicine which is gaining importance now in India.

In the last part of the Vedic period, Indians attained a high degree of knowledge and wisdom due to which they were cultivated medicine, surgery, materia medica (medical material/substance), and chemistry. The ancient Indian kings were accompanied by the surgeons to the battlefield and they used surgical instruments to extract foreign bodies and dress the wounds. The art of healing was no longer confined to Brahmin priests but it was entrusted to a class of humans called Vaidya who specialized in medicine or surgery.

During the Epic Period (2500 to 1400 B.C.) the Indian civilization continued to achieve all its magnificent features of knowledge and wisdom and there was a physician attached to every court whose duty it was to look after the health of the king. Some surgeons undertook major operations on the battlefield and schools of philosophy were there to teach the pupils of medicine and surgery. Dissection and vivisection were practised; and chemistry was brought into practical use by the development of chemical arts, such as bleaching, dyeing, calico printing, tanning, soap and glass making, etc. The classical books of Charaka and Sushruta were completed which in turn became the groundwork for succeeding Indian writers for many centuries.

During Pre-Buddhist Period (1400 to 500 B.C.), the Vedic sutras and philosophic systems were developed which were later attracted the philosophers of Greek viz., Pythagoras, who visited the Surman's of India and then took back the Indian philosophy and medicine and later embodied in their schools.

Indian Medicine has gained momentum during the Buddhist Period (500 B.C. to 600 A.D.) due to banned on the sacrifice of animals and the dissection of dead animals. The pilgrims who came to India from different parts of the world and has returned with the manuscripts of Indian literature and Medicine and later translated them to their languages. King Asoka was the greatest supporter of Indian medicine and has established Hospitals (Medical Houses) for men and animals in the north and western parts of India. These medical houses were provided with all sorts of instruments and medicines, consisting of mineral and vegetable drugs. The different subjects which were taught in the curriculum of Indian Medicine systems are summarised as below:

Hygiene: The ancient Indians were paid the highest attention to the hygiene, diet and regimen of the body and the ancient Hindu Shastras contain a sanitary code and Manu, the great law-giver, was one of the greatest sanitary reformers the world has ever seen. The daily practice of early rising, cleansing the teeth, anointing the body, and bathing, exercise, shampooing, and rubbing the body became part of their religious duties. Two meals a day and food took sparingly, to rise from meals with the stomach partly empty, rinsing the mouth before and after meals, chewing of the pan which contains aromatics and spices to stimulate gastric juice and remove foetor from the mouth, were part of their daily system containing sound physiology.

Chemistry (Rasayana): In the Vedic period chemistry was known as Rasayana which were mainly used for fluid extracts and vegetable decoctions, and became merged into alchemy when the vegetable drugs were supplanted by mercury and metallic preparations. The Chemistry of ancient India made gradual progress from the time of Charaka and Sushruta and the ancient Indians have the knowledge to prepare sulphuric acid, nitric acid, and muriatic acid (Hydrochloric acid); the oxides of copper, iron, lead (of which they had both the red oxide and litharge), tin and zinc; the sulphuret of iron, copper, mercury, antimony and arsenic; sulphate of copper, zinc and iron, and carbonate of lead and iron. It is worth mentioning that the Sushruta describes making caustic alkali from the ashes of plants, the originality of which very much struck M. Berthelot, is proof of the high degree of perfection the Hindus achieved in scientific pharmacy at such an early age. The use of firearms was found in the early age of Indian history and as per Professor Wilson, the rockets are of Indian invention. It is to be noted that the Varahamihira gives several preparations of cement, "strong as a thunderbolt," used in the temple architecture of the Buddhist period. The Vasavadatta and the Dasukumara Charita of 6th century A.D. mentioned the preparation of coagulated mercury; a chemical powder to bring deep sleep.

Pathology: This is one of the subjects where ancient Indians were taught as a part of health systems wherein it was taught that our body is composed of five elements viz., wind, fire, water, earth and ether-having their respective qualities of dryness, sharpness, fluidity, heaviness and lightness. It was believed that the harmonious action of all the elements and their qualities constitute good health and any imbalance lead to illness. The ancient Rishis of India went thoroughly into the diagnosis of a case and were guided by the patient's appearance, eye, tongue, skin, pulse, voice, urine, and faeces. The examination of the pulse was considered the most important of all, and for this purpose, the radial artery at the wrist was chosen. It is most striking to note the similarity of the description of the pulse as found in the ancient Sanskrit treatises and the doctrine of the theory of the pulse as taught by Galen, who had derived his knowledge from the works of the ancient Indian physicians. They treated leprosy successfully; their cures of snakebites astonished Alexander and the Greek physicians who accompanied him. Their attention to diet, fasting and temperate life cut short many a disease in its infancy. They treated almost every ailment by first prescribing purgatives; and intermittent fevers by arsenic, skin eruptions by arsenic and mercury. Their ideas and treatment of consumption seem very modern. They attributed the cause of consumption to excessive grief, great fatigue, a diminution of mental and bodily strength, violent exercise, excessive venery, and treated it with animal food, ghee (clarified butter) of goats and sheep, with barley, prepared barley, flour and rice with animal broths, a mixture of ghee, honey and pepper, garlic, fumes of turpentine and pine, &c., and recommended the patient to live in the same room with goats. The treatment of many other diseases besides consumption is similar to that of the West.

Anatomy: The Hindus were the first to practise the dissection of the human body. Both Charaka and Sushruta insist that the knowledge of practical anatomy is essential to being a practitioner. The body to be dissected was first washed, placed in still water in a moving stream for seven days and then taken out and each layer examined before being removed, beginning with the skin. Charaka gives 306 bones and Sushruta 300 in the human body (the difference is in the counting of the cartilage with the bones), 500 muscles, of which 400 are in the extremities and the remainder in the trunk and head, 107 articulations, 210 joints, 68 movable and 142 immovable, 8 forms of joints, 900 ligaments, of which 600 are in the extremities, 230 in the trunk and 70 in the neck and head. The Hindus believed that from the navel all the blood vessels proceed and that it is the principal seat of life (Prana). Sushruta enumerates 40 principal vessels with 700 branches; 10 contain wind (hence artery means carrier of air), 10 bile, 10 phlegm, and 10 blood. Blood nourishes all the other essential parts of the body.

Digestion and Circulation: The Hindus held that the food we eat goes down by the action of bi-motor force (Prana Vayu) into the gullet and stomach, where it becomes mixed up first with gelatinous mucus, which has a saccharine taste, and then acidulated by the further action of digestive juice (evidently gastric juice), and goes down the pitta says (duodenum), into which bile comes down from the liver, and then into the small intestine. There the bile acts on the Chyme (the pulpy acidic fluid which passes from the stomach to the small intestine, consisting of gastric juices and partly digested food)and converts it into Chyle. The essence of chyle from the small intestine is driven by the bi-motor force (PranaVayu) along with the dhamni trunk. (the thoracic duct) first to the heart and then to the liver, where the colouring matter in the bile acts on the essence of chyle and imparts to it a red pigment, transforming it into the blood.

The circulation of the blood was well understood by Charaka, Sushruta, Dalvana, Bhanumati, etc., as we read that "the heart which receives and then sends down the Chyle through the Dhamanies and gets it back transformed into blood." To them, the circulation of the Chyle (a milky fluid containing fat droplets which drain from the lacteals of the small intestine into the lymphatic system during digestion) was identical with the circulation of the blood, as they argued that Chyle or rasa is blood without the colouring ingredient. Harita, who is older than Sushruta, in describing anaemia as caused by swallowing clay, says, "The -clay thus eaten blocks the lumen of the several veins and stops the circulation of the blood." Bhavamisra, who was centuries older than Harvey, quotes another author thus: "Blood by circulating through its vessels fills the Dhatus well, causes perception, and performs other functions (of nourishing and strengthening)."

The highest and admirable works of ancient Indian physicians was the brain surgery that was performed on the King Bhojao f Dhar or Dhara-Nagara (977 A.D.) was suffered from severe pain in the head which baffled all medical treatment. The condition of the King was so critical that two brother physicians arrived in Dhar at that time and then after careful examination they have considered an operation was necessary to make him cure and accordingly under the influence of Sangyaharana or Samohini (an anaesthetic) they trephined the skull, removed from the brain the real cause of the complaint, closed the opening, stitched the wound and applied a healing balm. The art of surgery began to be neglected after the death of Buddha, and medicine after the great country was conquered by different peoples of the world including Europe to India. But by that time, Hindu medicine had accomplished its task, and though practically dead, it lives in the younger civilizations of other nations and other countries. Like the other branches of science, Indian medicine was permeated with the spirit of philosophy and religion and the Brahma was the first physician, and Atma (soul) was of supreme importance. The love of philosophy and metaphysical speculations by ancient Indians often clouded their rational conclusions, but their keen observation of Nature and by the bedside of the patients made them great diagnosis and treatment. Their fertile imagination soared so high that it often outran reason; but they prescribed a strict regimen, simple life and mental rest to their patients; while they directed them to the source of all peace-the basis of all cure and the want of which the cause of all disease. If the West had a little more of the spirit of philosophy and faith of the East, it would have saved her many a disappointment and many a false conclusion with which her path of research is so thickly strewn. It would give her a wider outlook, a larger vision so that she could look beyond the material and physical bases of life to those hidden forces and agencies for the cause and treatment of disease. So from the above discussion and the history, we may conclude that the Medicine and Health Science of ancient India was at esteemed high and if we can rediscover this ancient science the entire human and humanity will be greatly relieved from the woes and worry caused by the modern day's health issues and we may have a healthy world in future.

Sources:

1. A Short Account of the Antiquity of Hindu Medicine, 1927

DAVID C. MUTHU M.D., M.R.C.S, L.R.C. P. (LOND)

2. THE HISTORY OF MEDICINE IN INDIA AND BURMA, M.S. Rao

3. History of Medicine, by T. A. Wise, Vol. I

4. History of Aryan Medical Science,

5. History of Indian Shipping, R. Mookerji,

6. History of Hindu Chemistry, by Sir P. C. Fay, Vol. II, p. 280.

7. History of Aryan Medical Science, p. 189.


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