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Characteristics of Medical Text Books in Ancient Times

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

The problem of selecting suitable text books out of a maze of a bewildering number of books worried the venerable university heads equally as it worries the present modern text book committees. In those days meticulous care was taken for the selection of text books as it is evident from the denotations cited in Caraka Samhitā.

Qualities of a Book[edit]

Many treatises of medicine are current in the world. From among these, one should choose the treatise having the following qualities:

  • Popular
  • Approved by wise men
  • Comprehensive in scope
  • Held in esteem by those who are worthy of credence
  • Equally suitable for understanding of the three grades of student[1]
  • Free from the faults of repetition revealed by a seer
  • Arranged in well-made aphorisms
  • Should have commentary and summary
  • Well authenticated
  • Should not from vulgar and difficult words
  • Rich in synonyms
  • Possessing content which can be related to traditional essence
  • Concerned mainly with determining the true nature of things
  • Relevant to the theme
  • Having arrangement of topics in proper manner
  • Rapidly elucidating
  • Enriched with definitions and illustrations

Ratification of a Book[edit]

The selection, sanction and authorization of the test books was entrusted to a committee of learned professors who hear and verify the contents of the whole text book and then approved the one which was the best. The approval rested purely on the merit of the quality of the topics incorporated in the text book. They declared it as approved and only then the book became an authoritative text book in the country.

Inception of Pharmaceutical Literature[edit]

Punarvasu, moved by compassion towards all the creatures, bestowed the science of life on his six disciples.

  1. Agniveśa
  2. Bhela
  3. Jatukarṇa
  4. Parāśara
  5. Harita
  6. Kśarapāṇi

Agniveśa became the foremost compiler of the science due to his excellent understanding of the preachings. Thereafter the rest of the sages made their own compilation of the science and read them out to Ātreya and the assembly of the sages. The sages having listened to the presentation of all the subject, rejoiced acclaiming that the science had been truly presented. All the sages exhorted the authors praising together their compassion for creatures.

This ovation, echoed with joy by all creatures in the sky, resounded throughout the three worlds. The winds blew salubriously, all the quarters expanded with radiance and divine showers of blossoms descended. Thereafter the goddess of enlightenment, understanding, achievement, memory, genius, resolution, eloquence, forgiveness and compassion entered into Agniveśa and the rest. The compilations of these disciples which were thus approved by the great sages obtained acknowledgment in the world for the well-being of the multitudes of living beings.

Significance of The Medical Literature[edit]

The Samhitās were prepared in such a way that they served as a complete work of reference to the students of ordinary intellect while they gave impetus for further research and progress by showing the line of research to the highly intellectual students. This is quite adequate for the mediocre for the practical purpose of treatment and for the highly intelligent who are proficient in the art of inference from innate qualities. It served as a guiding principle for the comprehensive knowledge of drugs.

The advancement of science needed specialization of the various branches. The books written on the specialized branches gave a detailed information of that particular branch and a general overview in a concise form of the other medical branches. Every branch evolved its technical terms and the knowledge of this terminology was essential.

Regulations for the Students[edit]

Student were expected to study the prescribed book intensively. Comprehensive study of it would enable him to understand other books with greater ease. One who had acquired a good grasp of even one branch of this science was able to acquire an understanding of the other branches as well, on account of his knowledge of general principles.

If the student studied the whole work, understood it well and made use of it constantly, he was sure to have a successful career in life which would be in the interests of the patient as well as himself. Besides, the physician-to-be was required to study all these sciences under the expert guidance of professors of those sciences. One should study the topics contained in other sciences also for some definite reason, which was included in the text.

One who studied only one science does not acquire the real knowledge. Hence a physician should be well versed in different sciences. Equal importance was given to the theoretical as well as practical knowledge. One who is well versed in the science but inadept at practice gets confused when facing a patient. While one who is an expert in practical work but devoid of theoretical knowledge of the science, is not revered and gets death-punishment from the king. Both such persons are inexpert, unable to perform their duties and have only partial knowledge of the subject.

Continuous Amendments In The Books[edit]

Thus although the text books were complete, comprehensive and encyclopedic, there was a continuous need to update it. These books were redacted or further specialized in a different groups at intervals as demanded by the exigencies of time and place. New theories were examined and experimented and then incorporated in the books.

Thus a number of redactions and commentaries were written to include and interpret the progressive knowledge in theory and practice of the science. Agniveśa-tantra was redacted twice, once by Caraka and then again by Dṛḍhabala. Śuśruta Samhitā and Kaśyapa Samhitā have also undergone redactions. At the end of the golden period of Ayurveda, the progressive spirit deemed to decrease due to disturbed political conditions, learning defense as an occupation for the patrons of learning and the general descent of the morale of people.

Books from Vāgbhatta[edit]

Vāgbhatta of Sind, who flourished about 7th century A.D., however tried to bring the two prominent branches of medical science, medicine and surgery together in one concise volume. Each of them is not comprehensive enough with regards to the treatment of all diseases. Whole life of a man passes away in studying each and every treatise with constant application and as the authors of treatises mention the same thing again and again, some topics are sometimes specially mentioned.

Vāgbhatta composed a treatise called Astāṅga Hṛdaya, which while presenting a summary of Caraka and Śuśruta with gleanings from Agniveśa. Bhela and Harita brought the subjects up-to-date. He introduced a number of new drugs and made valuable modifications and additions in the surgery. He did all this in spite of strong opposition from orthodox school. Astāṅga Hṛdaya signifies the descriptions in 8 parts. It contains 7,414 verses in 120 chapters.

He also wrote another work called 'Astāṅga-Saṅgraha'. Vāgbhatta's style is very clear and concise. He brings to notice several obscure passages in his predecessors works. He was subsequently considered as great as Caraka and Śuśruta. A popular couplet gave him the place of honor in Kaliyuga, just as Caraka and Śuśruta had it in Kṛtayuga and Dwāpara respectively. They had a poetic yet an impressive way of recognizing the merits of Vāgbhatta. Among the students of medicine, the three are known by the name of:

  1. Vṛddha
  2. Trava
  3. Old Triad

They were the redactors of Caraka, Śuśruta and Kaṣyapa as well as epitomizer Vāgbhatta, though they believed in the sanctity of the basic. Principles of the text were always alert to make progressive additions in the text, required according to time and place and were always ready to assimilate the useful things from whatever source available.

As per Caraka[edit]

Caraka in unequivocal terms state that:

The entire world is the teacher to the intelligent and foe to the unintelligent ones. Hence, knowing this well, one should listen and act according to the words of instruction of even an unfriendly person, when they are worthy and bring fame to you and long life and are capable of giving strength and prosperity.

Contribution of Other Ṛṣis[edit]

For the sake of gaining knowledge, Ṛṣis took the trouble of going to foreign countries as Bhāradwāja did. Bhāradwāja the mighty ascetic, in search of the science of Longevity approached Indra. The ancient Ṛṣis valued knowledge to such an extent that they honored Mlecchas as Ṛṣis and assimilated knowledge received from them.

The Mlecchas or the Yavanas who are well versed in this science were respected like Ṛṣis. The true progressive spirit in compiling new text books can be inferred through the statements of Vāgbhatta. If the literary works of the ancient Ṛṣis alone were worthy of interest then the question is that why other worthy saints pursued this including Bhela, Caraka, Śuśruta and others. Therefore it is right that a good work should always be accepted.

Orthodox culture seemed to be strongly prevalent in the times of Vāgbhatta as he condemns the obscurantism and anti-progressive spirit in strong terms exasperatedly. Oil, ghee and honey are respectively wholesome and curative of Vāta, Pitta and Kapha. What difference will be in the result if it is prescribed by Brahmā or any other person created by Brahmā.

Compilation of Medical Textbooks[edit]

Dṛḍhabala, Vāgbhatta, Mādhava, Sarngadhara and Bhāvamiśrā, after assimilating all the worthy books, compiled their volumes on medical science. The concepts mentioned by Dṛḍhabala and Vāgbhatta gives full conception of the principles which governed the compilation of the medical text-books.

They added seventeen chapters in the section on Therapeutics and also the two Sections of Pharmaceutics and Success in the Treatment in entirety, by culling his data from various treatises on the science. Thus, this treatise is not deficient either in respect of diction or in respect of content. It is free from any blemishes besetting scientific treatises. Nothing is written in the books which is not in the circumference of the authority of traditional doctrine. The interpretations and compositions of this work are same; only the arrangement is changed for the sake of conciseness.

Treatise of Astānga-Saṅgraha[edit]

Consulting all the main treatises, the treatise of Astāṅga-saṅgraha is compiled in various sections and chapters. It is free from improper prolixity, omission and repetition. It contains the tripartite science of life viz:

  1. Etiology
  2. Symptomology
  3. Medicament

These sections elucidates all the information for that particular topic of medical science and desists from the controversial points between the difference in thoughts of the book and other treatises. It is a composition just befitting the spirit of the Ayurveda age. A compilation is acknowledged if everything is described in details. If any point is left, the significance of comprehensiveness is lost.


Astāṅga-saṅgraha is abreast especially when it comes to the assimilation of the topics from many treatises. So it is impossible that any topic was left out from Saṅgraha. No one can reach to the depth of Ayurveda. But this treatise has the best comprehensive knowledge of the diseases and drugs in the whole universe.

Astāṅga-hṛdaya is neither too concise nor too copious. It is compiled, based on the extract of the essence of all the subjects scattered in various treatises. One should evaluate this treatise on Ayurveda for the betterment of mankind. The same principles guided the later authors in their compilations. Though each book was written on a special branch, the basic knowledge of all other branches was given in a concise form in each book.


  1. Three grades refer to very intelligent, moderate and slow type of students.
  • The Caraka Samhita published by Shree Gulabkunverba Ayurvedic Society, Jamnagar, India


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