From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

Significance of Atreya

  • According to Mahabharata, the great teacher of Kāyā-cikitsā or medicine is Kisna Atreya.
  • The Caraka Samhita, one of the great literary works on medicine purports to be the final embodiment of Atreya's teaching.
  • Every chapter opens with the words spoken by the worshipful Atreya.
  • Agnivesa and other disciples are greatly attached to him and honor him to be of supreme veneration.
  • He is the first systematic teacher of the science of medicine after it was brought from Indra and imparted to the galaxy of sages by Bharadwaja. 

Transmission of Medical Knowledge

Despite the absence of a specific mention of the transmission of the science from Bharadwaja to Atreya, the fact implied was quite strong that the authors omitted the statement of the obvious. The Atreya began teaching medicine to his disciples. Cakrapini, the commentator, is emphatic on this point and contradicts the conclusion of some identifying the Atreya with Bharadwaja who learnt the Ayurveda from Indra.

For the latter disposition, mistake is made by some for the description in Caraka in the chapter on Rasayana, where Atri is said to have received the knowledge directly from Indra. But that pertains only to Rasayana. Hence we cannot generalize it to the whole science of Ayurveda.

Influence of Atreya

Vagbhata and Bhavamisra refer to Punarvasu or the son of Atri as approaching Indra and learning the Science of medicine from him. This Atreya is one of the great sages, expert in the sciences and spiritual knowledge. He was the one held in high esteem is evident from the prefixed title to his name 'Bhagawan'. This is a title that only the very greatest of sages of supreme spiritual attainment may hope to obtain. The qualifications or merits that entitle one to this honor are set forth thus.

'He is to be known as Bhagawan' who is possessed of the knowledge of creation and dissolution of the world and of the birth and death of creatures and also of science both material and spiritual.

Atreya was thus among the elite of the sages, adept in all the sciences and mature in spiritual wisdom and a teacher especially of the science of medicine. Though versed in all the eight branches of the Science of Life he devoted this treatise entirely to the medicine and referred his disciples to other teachers and treatises when resort to surgical and other special procedures were in demand.

"This is the domain of the surgeons", is a remark one finds when there are indications for surgical remedies. We do not attempt to expatiate on them, as that belongs to the province of specialists. Thus Atreya is a specialist in Medicine[1] and specially therapeutics and a popular verse in vogue assigns excellence in each department of medicine to each one of the four expert teachers and writers on the medical science.

Different Names of Atreya

Madhava is unrivaled in diagnosis, Vagbhata in general principles of medicine, Susruta in surgery and Caraka in therapeutics. Atreya is also known as Punarvasu or Punarvasu Atreya. In the Caraka Samhita, the word Punarvasu is used as a synonym for Atreya. The beginning line of every chapter contains the words which told more about the Atreya and ends the chapter in the recapitulation of the subject of the chapter. Sometimes other synonyms like Punarvasu, Candrabhaga or Krsna Atreya are used thus making it clear that Bhagawan Atreya was also known by his other names.

It is possible that the epithet Punarvasu may be significant of Atreya due to being born during the dominance of the constellation of that name. Such method of nomenclature we find at many places in those days e. g. warrior Arjuna of the Pandavas was also called Phalguna from the constellation of that name under the influence of which he was born.

Epithet Punarvasu

We find that in later days the royal physician of Sri Harsa was known as Rasayana Paunarvasava. This appellation may mean that he was either a descendant of Punarvasu, or one versed in the science of medicine propounded by Punarvasu. Considering that those versed in surgery were known as Dhanvantariyas, Dhanvantari being the first propounder of the Science, it is probable to conclude that the experts in the science of medicine propounded by Punarvasu were known as Paunarvasavas.

Caraka Samhita's Version

The Caraka Samhita does not say explicitly that Atreya learnt the science from Bharadwaja, but it just mentions that Bharadwaja had brought the sacred wisdom from Indra, imparted it to the sages Marici and others, among whom Atreya was one. Then Atreya taught this holy science of life to his disciples for the ultimate benefit of all creatures.

According to the Caraka Samhita, Atreya is the son of Atri. Though the term Atreya might apply either to the son of Atri, his near descendants, to a disciple of Atri or even to one of the clan of Atri, yet as he is referred to as the son of Atri, it may be fairly concluded that the Atreya we are concerned with, is the first son of Atri.


  1. It means Kāyā-Cikitsā.
  • The Caraka Samhita published by Shree Gulabkunverba Ayurvedic Society, Jamnagar, India