Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Medicine Men of Ancient India

 One day one of my friends – a truly argumentative North Indian – went on fighting with me on Bengal caste system, more specifically about the Baidya caste. I felt the main problem in bridging our respective understanding of non-Brahmin literary castes (like Kayasth) was the absence of a specialized caste for doctors in North India. Perhaps – my knowledge of Indian caste system is limited – there is no equivalent of Baidyas in the rest of India. Outside Bengal, it was mainly the Brahmins, who practiced Ayurveda. On another occasion, recently my wife (another North Indian) was really surprised to know that my gotra is Dhanvantari. Again I do not know whether most Baidyas in Bengal have this particular gotra but any one remotely interested in Indian myths would recall Dhanvantari was the person, who received the knowledge of medicine from Brahma and was deified as the God of medicine.
Ayurveda – literally the knowledge of long life was known to Indians from around the second millennium BC. For the first time we find mention of a separate branch of knowledge to deal with medicine in the Atharvaveda, which was compiled sometime between 1500 and 1000 BC. It is believed that the great text of Sushruta Samhita was written sometime around 700-800 BC and the great surgeon performed his miraculous surgeries before 800 BC! The earliest dated manuscript – Bower Manuscript is however from the third or fourth century AD. We have a tendency to gush over hoary heritage but even a cursory look at the Sushruta Samhita would confirm the tremendous progress made by ancient Indians in medicine. The book was organized in 184 chapters and gave details of more than 1100 diseases. Details given about human anatomy confirms that there was no taboo on dissection. The book contains details of more than 700 medicinal plants but more than that it provides details of mineral and animal preparations – in the 16th century, the
great pioneer Paracelsus (after his extensive tour of Asia) became the first doctor in Europe to use minerals in medicine.

Sushruta, more than anything else is known as the father of surgery – I find it simply mindboggling that he knew about most of the regular surgical methods used by allopathic doctors till around 1950. These include all types of fracture management, caesarian section, plastic surgery and hold your breath, cataract surgery.  He used a special curved needle – called Jabamukhi shalaka to push cataract out and then used to soak the operated eye in warm butter! A British surgeon Joseph Constantine Carpue spent 20 years in India at the beginning of the 19th century to learn plastic surgery methods described by Sushruta. Among the methods he leant was a procedure called rhinoplasty - how to use a flap of skin taken from forehead (or other part) to reconstruct a nose. In the western world, Carpue performed this surgery for the first time in 1815 – since then it is known as Carpue’s operation. Rhinopasty across the world is still done in the same method as described in Sushruta Samhita. This is just about Sushruta Samhita, equally if not more impressive is Charaka Samhita (written during the Maurya period) and various other texts.
At least for 3500 years, Vaidyas have served the society across the sub-continent. They tried to find locally available cure for every deadly disease and tried to treat every individual patient differently – something allopathy is trying to do now at much higher level through gene profiling and tracking family medical history. Arab conquest of Sind (712 AD) facilitated transfer of Indian knowledge to the Middle East. Both the physicians at the court of Khalifa Harun Al Rashid in Bagdad were Hindu doctors from Sindh. Sushruta and Charaka Samhita were translated into Arabic by 8th century AD, travelled to Spain and Sicily – two entrepots of knowledge for Christian Europe – and put to practice by Italian doctors.
In the last two hundred years, allopathic medicine has progressively reduced the role of Ayurvedic doctors. Till my great grandfather, all the men in my family practiced Ayurveda. None of his sons or grandsons showed any interest in his vocation. My great grandfather used to practice in Murshidabad and Barddhaman. I used to be a regular visitor to a house at Sealdah in central Calcutta, where my friend’s great grandfather used to earn his living as an Ayurvedic doctor. None in his family also showed any interest to preserve his knowledge.
But the greatest contribution of generations of Ayurvedic doctors has been to instill a sense of well being in our daily routine and in our kitchen. When we eat or avoid a particular substance at a given season or time, we silently pay respect to all those progeny of Dev Dhanvantari, even if we never visit any Vishagacharya any more or disagree on the origin of Baidya sub-caste.

PS: Well, I must admit I know nothing about Ayurveda, my purpose was to tell an interesting story about this great tradition. I am really happy that so many of you felt interested about the subject. Ayurveda Unravelled by Sharadini Dahanukar and Urmila Thatte (National Book Trust) is a good book to begin with. For my Bengali friends, there is a whole series called Chironjib Banausodhi by Kabiraj Shibkali Bhattacharya (Ananda Publishers) - I have just flipped through some of the volumes, it is rich in information but to what extent tested in a modern lab I have no idea. There are also a number of books now in English mainly from Kerala on pharmaceutical side of Ayurveda.
Central Council for Ayurveda and Siddha is the official research body for sarkari research effort in India, even though their output seems quite limited so far
Important texts are supposed to be preserved in National Instt of Medical Heritage in Hyderabad-
another decent site (at least looks to me) -
In recent years people have become more interested in Ayurveda - but unfortunately more emphasis has been on the wellness side (Ayurvedic spa etc) of it. In comparison, Chinese traditional medicine has received far more serious research interest. The World Health Organization (WHO) accredits Ayurveda as a medical science, even adapting its definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being" - therefore it would be in the interest of the entire mankind if doctors/pharmacists/researchers take it up more seriously.