Pramana: Ayurveda Sources and Resources

Indic Book Club’s Shri Abhinava Agarwal hosted a lively talk by Dr. Nimin Sreedhar, regaling the audience with his storytelling of the history of Ayurvedic Literature.

An overview of Ayurveda Literature: Video https://youtu.be/tbmoYCrRfws

History is what one generation finds worthy in a previous generation. --Jacob Burkhardt, Swedish historian

Dr. Nimin set the stage for a recounting of Ayurvedic texts by first defining the history of intelligence and writing. The history of the evolution of human intelligence, can be witnessed in the Ayurvedic Literature. That’s the documented evidence of what our forefathers found relevant to note down and carry forward to the next generation.

History of Writing: There were 4 civilizations coming up with their own scripts. 

  • Sumeran
  • Egyptian
  • Chinese
  • Latin American

And then, there was the Indus Script, in the Harappan script. Now, scholars are attaching a timeline of about 5500 BCE. We don’t know if it was a fully formed script. Brahmi script is heavily influenced by the Indus Script; it can also be connected to Dravidian languages such as Tamil. 

The focus of Dr. Nimin’s talk was on authors, the nature of their writing, and books that have survived.

Dr. Nimin explained that Ayurveda is considered a Prokta knowledge: it had an oral tradition transfer methodology long before it was written. Even orally, it was arranged in an organized manner.

In the 1890s, Daath Mahmood, an Afghani dacoit, killed a Scottish officer. Hamilton Bauer, who was the British officer in charge of the region then, went on a pursuit from Kashmir to the Sino-Russian border of NE China to capture Mahmood. One night while Bauer was camping, a hawker came into his camp. Bauer found amongst the antiques, a manuscript, which he sent to the Asiatic Society. No one could decipher it, so a famous linguist found it interesting. They identified it as Gukha-Brahmi, which was “in vogue in the 5th century”. By 1907, they interpreted it as what is now known as Bauer Manuscript. The content of 56 pages had been written by 4 scribes, and included parts of the Charaka Samhita, known in Ayurveda. It was the oldest Indian text found until date. 

After that, more interest was placed on finding Indian manuscripts. It resurfaced many texts which were not in use. This incident fast-forwarded the entire process of uncovering the books, and we owe a great deal of gratitude to this! 

In those days, writing a book or a Tantra or Samhita, required one to be fully established and acknowledged by one’s teacher or master, who would evaluate the book-- almost like a PhD Dissertation of today! One example is the Jivaka. When he first postulated his findings, it was not readily accepted in the scientific community. He was told he was not old enough or maybe not wise enough. So he had to become “Riddha Jivaka”: first take a dip in a river, then spend time and rework his texts. The process was not easy, and it wasn’t for everyone.

Authors often vouch on truth. They observed, validated, and seen in practice. Only after being fully convinced, they would write, because anyhow, writing itself was an innovative expression that was, at the time, a new means of documenting, treated with utmost respect. This again, is a very scientific methodology, used today as “peer review”.

Timeline: 1800 BCE

From the scripts, we can propose that our written texts started around 1,800 BCE. That’s our starting point. Without entering the mythological aspects, Shri Nimin explained that the Brahma Samhita was written by the person who compiled all the knowledge of Ayurveda: Lord Brahma himself. It has over 1 Lakh verses, divided in 1,000 chapters. We don’t have any references to the Brahma Samhita, so we can only believe that some of our verses, such as the Mrytyunjaya Mantra, Aditya Mantra, originated from Brahma. 

We believe that Brahma taught everything to Prajapati, however, in some references, we hear that the student is Bhaskara (Author of Bhaskara Samhita, and Jnana Bhaskaram). A lot of this treatment is  Nevertheless, the important aspect to note is the transfer of medical knowledge from one generation to the next. This can be seen in other cultural literature as well: Egyptian, Greek, and so forth. In some instances, there is even a similar character to Brahma written about in their texts. So perhaps this was a global event that was witnessed by many great souls across the world. 

The next point in the timeline is about Lord Shiva. There are several books attributed to Shiva, including the Ayur Grantha, written in the Treta Yuga; and innumerable other books such as Rudrayamana Tantra, Saiva Siddhanta, and so forth. Of course, authors then may have given a pen name of sorts-- based on the Gothram or other characteristics. It’s not also important to know who the author was. Daksha was also a critical person in the transfer of Ayurvedic knowledge, though there are no major literary pieces attributed to him. Bhaskara is the father of Ashwini Kumars, and Daksha taught Ayurveda to them. It is well-known throughout Indian literature, about the miraculous healing they would do. It might seem to be sci-fi, but it is plausible that they were doing prosthetics, reviving life, and curing leprosy and reattaching severed body parts, because we know that modern science can do this now! 

Ashwini Kumaras wrote several texts: Chikitsa Sara; Ashwini Samhita; Madiya Nidhana; and so forth. Ashiwini Kumaras taught Indira. 

At this junction, Indira brought Ayurveda to the humans. Upto this point, they were celestial beings in heaven, using this. 

In Charita Sahmita, there was a committee of Rishis, lead by Bharadwaja, and he learned from Indira and brought it back. But others say that it was that all of the Rishis going together to Indira. It may not matter at this point, how the exact story went. There is at least 1 book attributed to Bharadwaja: Bharadwajayam. One chapter is still available. Another book called Peshadakalpa, which has a commentary by Venkatesa. Markandeya, a student of Bharadwaja, is said to have a lifespan of 12 years, did a lot of penances, and then gained life years. He is also said to have taken Amrita Taila, which prolonged his life. 

In other texts, Viswamitra, the fiery sage from the Bala Kanda of the Ramayana times, is identified as a medicine man. Now comes Sushruta, who is Viswamitra’s son. Viswamitra and Bharadwaja, and even Vasistha, who is said to have written Vasishta Samhita is also quoted in some of our Ayurvedic texts. 

Timeline: 1000 BCE

Atreya: Son of Atri and Chandrabhava, in the time period of AgniVesha (1000 BC). He also contributed a book, with about 4000 chapters. 

Agnivesha was the disciple of Atreya. Other disciples have also written texts, but this was the magnum opus of Atreya’s academy. It was worked on by Charaka in the 2nd Century CE; Dridabala also worked on it in the 4th Century. 

Then there is Nimi, who could be King Janaka himself. He has written Vaidya Sandeha. Kashyapa: He is a predominant guru on pediatrics. But the manuscripts have not been preserved well, 

Narada wrote Haathu Lakshana. The book is about doshas and nadi prakriti. It makes a lot of sense, because Narada knew people, what they thought, what triggered them, etc. There are several verses and concepts also attributed to him, so Narada is still alive! 

It is clear to see that our Rishis were not masters of one trade, but perhaps masters of many or all! They were knowledgeable in multi-disciplines of Indian philosophies and sciences. That’s because the foundations and principles of all are the same, and there is a lot of communication happening between the texts. They refer to each other, just as we in the academic world, might reference other texts, to provide a setting or foundation, or validity and purpose to the text.

Books are dated based on the reference they make to different events, people, linguistics, etc. Look at Ravana: The Ravana on Ayurveda is poles apart from the Ravana we all think about from Ramayana. Can you imagine his knowledge on pediatrics, wherein he wrote the Kumara or Bala Tantra?!! He also wrote Arka Prakasha and Nadi Pratiksha, with issues such as opium, syphilis, etc. So scholars feel it was only from the 16th century, and attributed to Ravana, not written by him. 

Parasara is considered one of the original authors of 8, of medical literature, according to Kashyapa Samhita. Kaushika, Vyasa, and Markandeya are others. 

Timeline: 2nd Century CE

Now, coming to Charaka, who has authored Charaka Samhita. Though the author’s identity is still under speculation, it is believed that it was a traveler, based on the way the documents were compiled. The writing is also similar to Atharva Veda narration style. Charaka is said to be an incarnation of Adi Sesha, to work on Agnivesha’s work. Charaka has also be identified by several others, including the Chinese. Chinese have translated a Buddhist text “Tripitaka”, and in it, there is a mention of “Terilokiya” or “Charaka”, which addressed the Royal Physician of Kanishka, the Kushana King from Peshawar in modern-day Afghanistan. So that is how we arrive at 2nd century CE, for this great text being compiled.

There are supposedly 12,000 verses in Charaka Samhita, but today we only have 10,000. Chakrapani Datta has divided the verses or sutras. There are several chapters that are like a dialogue of a class between Atreya and Agnivesha, which makes it a very interactive and engaging text to study. There is a reference from a later book that says “Everything in the world is found in Charaka Samhita; if it’s not in Charaka Samhita, it doesn’t exist”. This shows the true comprehensive nature of the Ayurvedic text. 

The text is very popular, and dozens of people have given commentary on it as well. Chakrapani’s work (in 11th century) also commented on Charaka Samhita and learned from it.

Disclaimer: This discussion leaves out several other important texts and specializations of Ayurveda in its literary works, such as Rasa Shastra, Mikantus, modern day work, etc. 

When looking at Ayurveda Literature, we have to also look at modern work: Priyamvrata, Sarma, and academic journals and magazine publications. 

Dr. Nimin invited the audience to “be bombarded by the fact that there is an ocean of literature in this field of Ayurveda!” Maybe they are not published, as we have manuscripts of several of them. 

Question: Is Ayurveda therapy also effective for sports performance? 

Answer: If sports is viewed as a physical activity, and there is a trauma at that time, you can administer Ayurvedic treatment for the same. We are trying to make our classical Ayurveda students trained in sports medicine, sports therapy, and trauma care, so that they can be relevant to such patients. There is a growing Sports Ayurveda segment.

Question: Can you explain more on Bharadwaja’s work in Ayurveda?

Answer: Bharadwajiyam is the major text by Bharadwaja; and Peshajakalpa, whose commentary by Venkatesh is available. However, a guru is best known by his students. One of Bharadwaja’s students is Dhanvantari himself. While completing the course, he married the three daughters of Ashwini Kumars, and became more focused on earthly life, becoming the King of Kashi. Sushruta is a father of surgery, and learned from Dhanvatari. 

Ahimsa and Vegetarianism 

Ms. Sweta Raghunathan, a writer, represented the Motilal Publishing house, started by stating that the owner, RP Jain, has advocated a lot for vegetarianism and ahimsa in eating habits, as healing foods.

Once upon a time, there were 2 storks and 2 crabs, who were playing a game of Hide-and-Seek. But, in their minds, they were actually thinking of eating each other! A sage passed by, and could sense what they were thinking. He asked the storks “What are you doing?” 

“We are pretending to play a game, but actually we want to eat those crabs!” they gleefully replied. 

“But do you know, the crabs are thinking the same thing???” the sage posited. 

The storks became worried, and asked the sage’s advice. The sage advised, “Give up all thoughts of violence and you will not be harmed”. 

Similarly, the sage went to the crabs and convinced them not to eat the storks. Because of this, the storks and crabs became friends and lived together on the beaches! 

India’s history of non-violence is truly remarkable. Faith traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism all preach and practice ahimsa. Yoga’s very core is ahimsa. The Ramayana starts with a story of a pair of birds who are hunted, and one is killed. The other one grieves, and Valmiki curses the hunter with a sloka. Vedas talk about the cow as a mother; it also talks about dogs. Gods descend in animal avatars. In India, animals are part of history, religion, and culture. 

Ahimsa helps with a harmonious relationship with nature. It is important for fitness, animal rights, and planetary health. Vegetarianism is a familial custom in many cultures of India. Even medical experts, political activists, and philosophers around the world began spreading vegetarianism after Europeans came to India and learned about Ahimsa. Studies show the impact of vegetarianism on physical health.