A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1932 | 241,887 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of practice of medicine in the atharva-veda: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the fourth part in the series called the “speculations in the medical schools”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 4 - Practice of Medicine in the Atharva-veda

As we have said above, there is evidence to show that even at the time of the Atharva-Veda the practice of pure medicine by professional medical men had already been going on. Thus the verse II. 9. 3, as explained by Sāyaṇa, says that there were hundreds of medical practitioners (śataṃ hy asya bhiṣajaḥ) and thousands of herbs (sahasram uta vīrudhaḥ), but what can be done by these can be effected by binding an amulet with the particular charm of this verse[1]. Again (II. 9. 5), the Atharvan who binds the amulet is described as the best of all good doctors (subhiṣaktama). In VI. 68. 2 Prajāpati, who appears in the Ātreya-Caraka school as the original teacher of Āyurveda and who learnt the science from Brahmā, is asked to treat (with medicine) a boy for the attainment of long life[2]. In the Kauśika-sūtra a disease is called liṅgi, i.e. that which has the symptoms (liṅga), and medicine (bhaiṣajya) as that which destroys it (upatāpa).

Dārila remarks that this upatāpa-karma refers not only to the disease, but also to the symptoms, i.e. a bhaiṣajya is that which destroys the disease and its symptoms[3]. In the Atharva-Veda itself only a few medicines are mentioned, such as jaṅgiḍa (XIX. 34 and 35), gulgulu (XIX. 38), kuṣṭha (XIX. 39) and śata-vāra (XIX. 36), and these are all to be .used as amulets for protection not only from certain diseases, but also from the witchcraft (kṛtyā) of enemies. The effect of these herbs was of the same miraculous nature as that of mere charms or incantations. They did not operate in the manner in which the medicines prescribed in the ordinary medical literature acted, but in a supernatural way. In most of the hymns which appear as pure charms the Kauśika-sūtra directs the application of various medicines either internally or as amulets.

The praise of Atharvan as physician par excellence and of the charms as being superior to all other medicines prescribed by other physicians seems to indicate a period when most of these Atharvaṇic charms were used as a system of treatment which was competing with the practice of ordinary physicians with the medicinal herbs. The period of the Kauśika-sūtra was probably one when the value of the medicinal herbs was being more and more realized and they were being administered along with the usual Atharvaṇic charms. This was probably a stage of reconciliation between the drug system and the charm system. The special hymns dedicated to the praise of certain herbs, such as jaṅgiḍa, kuṣṭha, etc., show that the ordinary medical virtues of herbs were being interpreted on the miraculous lines in which the charms operated. On the other hand, the drug school also came under the influence of the Atharva-Veda and came to regard it as the source of their earliest authority. Even the later medical literature could not altogether free itself from a faith in the efficacy of charms and in the miraculous powers of medicine operating in a supernatural and non-medical manner.

Thus Caraka, VI. i. 39 directs that the herbs should be plucked according to the proper rites (yathā-vidhi), and Cakrapāṇi explains this by saying that the worship of gods and other auspicious rites have to be performed (maṅgala-devatārcanādi-pūrvakaṃ) ; in VI. 1. 77 a compound of herbs is advised, which, along with many other virtues, had the power of making a person invisible to all beings (adṛśyo bhūtānāṃ bhavati) ; miraculous powers are ascribed to the fruit āmalaka (Emblic Myrobalan), such as that, if a man lives among cows for a year, drinking nothing but milk, in perfect sense-control and continence and meditating the holy gāyatrī verse, and if at the end of the year on a proper lunar day in the month of Pauṣa (January), Māgha (February), or Phālguna (March), after fasting for three days, he should enter an āmalaka garden and, climbing upon a tree full of big fruits, should hold them and repeat (japan) the name of Brahman till the āmalaka attains immortalizing virtues, then, for that moment, immortality resides in the āmalaka ; and, if he should eat those āmalakas , then the goddess Śrī, the incarnation of the Vedas, appears in person to him (svayaṃ cāsyopatiṣṭhantī śrīr vedavākya-rūpiṇī, VI. 3. 6). In VI. 1. 80 it is said that the rasāyana medicines not only procure long life, but, if they are taken in accordance with proper rites (yathā-vidhi), a man attains the immortal Brahman.

Again in VI. I. 3 the word prāyaś-citta (purificatory penance) is considered to have the same meaning as auṣadha or bheṣaja. The word bheṣaja in the Atharva-Veda meant a charm or an amulet which could remove diseases and their symptoms, and though in later medical literature the word is more commonly used to denote herbs and minerals, either simple or compounded, the older meaning was not abandoned[4]. The system of simple herbs or minerals, which existed independently of the Atharva-Veda, became thus intimately connected with the system of charm specifics of the Atharva-Veda ; whatever antagonism may have before existed between the two systems vanished, and Āyurveda came to be treated as a part of the Atharva-Veda[5]. Prajāpati and Indra, the mythical physicians of the Atharva-Veda, came to be regarded in the Ātreya-Caraka school as the earliest teachers of Āyurveda[6].

Bloomfield arranges the contents of the Atharva-Veda in fourteen classes:

  1. Charms to cure diseases and possession by demons (bhaiṣajyāni) ;
  2. Prayers for long life and health (āyuṣyāṇi) ;
  3. Imprecations against demons, sorcerers and enemies (ābhicārikāni and kṛtyā-pratiharaṇāni);
  4. Charms pertaining to women (strī-karmāṇi);
  5. Charms to secure harmony, influence in the assembly, and the like (saumanasyāni) ;
  6. Charms pertaining to royalty (rāja-karmāṇi);
  7. Prayers and imprecations in the interest of Brahmins;
  8. Charms to secure property and freedom from danger (pauṣṭikāni);
  9. Charms in expiation of sin and defilement (prūyaścittāni) ;
  10. Cosmogonic and theosophic hymns;
  11. Ritualistic and general hymns;
  12. The books dealing with individual themes (books 13-18);
  13. The twentieth book;
  14. The kuntāpa hymns[7];

of these we have here to deal briefly with 1, 2, 3, 4 and 9, more or less in the order in which they appear in the Atharva-Veda.

A.V. I. 2 is a charm against fever (jvara), diarrhoea (atīsāra), diabetes (atimūtra), glandular sores (nāḍī-maṇa); a string made of muñja grass is to be tied, the mud from a field or ant-hill is to be drunk, clarified butter is to be applied and the holes of the anus and penis and the mouth of the sore are to be aerated with a leather bladder and the charm is to be chanted. The disease āsrāva , mentioned in this hymn, is explained by Sāyaṇa as meaning diabetes (mūtrātisāra)[8].

I. 3 is a charm against stoppage of urine and stool (mūtra-purīṣa-nirodha). Along with a chanting of the hymn the patient is to be made to drink either earth from a rat’s hole (mūṣika-mṛttikā), a pūtikā plant, curd, or saw-dust from old wood, or he is to ride an elephant or a horse, or to throw an arrow; a fine iron needle was to be passed through the urinal canal. This is probably the earliest stage of what developed in later times as the vasti-kriyā[9].

I. 7 and 1. 8 are charms for driving away evil spirits, yātudhānas and kimīdins , when a man is possessed by them.

I. 10 is a charm for dropsy (jalodara): a jugful of water containing grass, etc. is to be sprinkled over the body of the patient.

I. 11 is a charm for securing easy delivery.

I. 12 is a charm for all diseases arising from disturbance of vāfa, pitta and śleṣman — fat, honey and clarified butter or oil have to be drunk. Head-disease (śīrṣakti) and cough (kāsa) are specially mentioned.

I. 17 is a charm for stopping blood from an injury of the veins or arteries or for stopping too much hemorrhage of women. In the case of injuries a handful of street-dust is to be thrown on the place of injury or a bandage is to be tied with sticky mud[10].

I. 22 is a charm against heart-disease and jaundice—hairs of a red cow are to be drunk with water and a piece of a red cow’s skin is to be tied as an amulet. It is prayed that the red colour of the sun and the red cow may come to the patient’s body and the yellow colour due to jaundice may go to birds of yellow colour.

I. 23, which mentions kilāsa or kuṣṭha (white leprosy) of the bone, flesh and skin and the disease by which hairs are turned grey (palita), is a charm against these[11]. The white parts are to be rubbed with an ointment made of cow-dung, bhṛṅga-rāja, haridrā indravanmī and nīlikā until they appear red. The black medicines applied are asked to turn the white parts black.

I. 25 is a charm against takman, or fever—the patient has to be sprinkled with the water in which a red-hot iron axe has been immersed. The description shows that it was of the malarial type; it came with cold (śīta) and a burning sensation (śoci). Three types of this fever are described: that which came the next day (anyedyuḥ), the second day (ubhayedyuḥ), or the third day (tṛtīyaka)[12]. It was also associated with yellow, probably because it produced jaundice.

II. 9 and 10 are charms against hereditary (kṣetrīya) diseases, leprosy, dyspepsia, etc.[13] Amulets of arjuna wood, barley, sesamum ^nd its flower had also to be tied when the charm was uttered[14].

II. 31 is a charm against various diseases due to worms. The priest, when uttering this charm, should hold street-dust in his left hand and press it with his right hand and throw it on the patient. There are visible and invisible worms; some of them are called algaṇḍu and others śaluna\ they are generated in the intestines, head and heels; they go about through the body by diverse ways and cannot be killed even with various kinds of herbs. They sometimes reside in the hills and forests and in herbs and animals, and they enter into our system through sores in the body and through various kinds of food and drink[15].

II. 33 is a charm for removing yakṣman from all parts of the body.

II. 7. 1 is a charm for removing all hereditary (kṣetrīya) diseases; the horn of a deer is to be used as an amulet.

III. 11 is a charm against phthisis (rāja-yakṣman)— particularly when it is generated by too much sex-indulgence; the patient is to eat rotten fish[16],

IV. 4 is a charm for attaining virility— the roots of the kapittha tree boiled in milk are to be drunk when the charm is uttered,

IV. 6 and 7 are charms against vegetable poisoning—the essence of the kṛmuka tree is to be drunk,

V. 4 is a charm against fever (takman) and phthisis; the patient is to take the herb kuṣṭha with butter when the charm is uttered[17],

V. 11 is a charm against fever[18],

V. 23 is a charm against worms—the patient is given the juice of the twenty kinds of roots[19],

VI. 15 is a charm for eye-diseases; the patient has to take various kinds of vegetable leaves fried in oil, particularly the mustard plant[20],

VI. 20 is a charm against bilious fever (śuṣmiṇo jvarasya); it is said to produce a great burning sensation, delirium and jaundice,

VI. 21 is a charm for increasing the hair—the hair is to be sprinkled with a decoction of various herbs,

VI. 23 is a charm against heart-disease, dropsy and jaundice,

VI. 25 is a charm for inflammation of the glands of the neck (jgaṇḍa-māla)[21].

VI. 85 is a charm against consumption (rājay-akṣman);

VI. 90 for colic pain (śūla)[22];

VI. 105 for cough and other such diseases due to phlegm (śleṣmā);

VI. 109 for diseases of the rheumatic type (vāta-vyādhi[23]).

VI. 127 is a charm for abscess (vidradha), phlegmatic diseases {valāsa) and erysipelatous inflammation (visarpa).

Various kinds of visarpa in different parts of the body are referred to. Heart-disease and phthisis are also mentioned[24]. There are said to be a hundred kinds of death (mṛtyu) (A.V. viii. 5. 7), which are explained by Sāyaṇa as meaning diseases such as fever, head-disease, etc. Several diseases are mentioned in ix. 18—first the diseases of the head, śīrṣakti, śīrṣāmaya, karṇa-śūla and visalpaka, by which secretions of bad smell come out from the ear and the mouth, then fever proceeding from head troubles with shivering and cracking sensations in the limbs. Takman, the dreaded autumnal fever, is so described. Then comes consumption; then come valāsa, kāhābāha of the abdomen, diseases of kloma, the abdomen, navel and heart, diseases of the spine, the ribs, the eyes, the intestines, the visalpa, vidradha , wind-diseases (vāṭīkāra), alaji and diseases of the leg, knee, pelvis, veins and head.

Bolling, in his article on diseases and medicine (Vedic) in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics , makes the following remark concerning the theory of the origin of diseases.

“To be noted however is the fact that the Hindu theory of the constitution of the body of three elements, bile, phlegm and wind, does not appear in early Atharvan texts. Vātī-kṛta-nāśanī of vi. 44. 3 cannot be urged as proof to the contrary, as it means, not destructive of (diseases) produced by the wind in the body vātī-kṛta-nāśanī ), but destructive of that which has been made into wind. Evidently, from its association with diarrhoea, it refers to wind in the intestines.”

This does not seem to me to be correct. The phrase which Bolling quotes is indeed of doubtful meaning; Sāyaṇa takes it as being composed of two words, vātī (healer by aeration) and kṛta-nāśanī (destroyer of evil deeds which brought about the disease). But, however that may be, there are other passages on the subject, which Bolling seems to have missed. Thus in 1. 12. 3 diseases are divided into three classes, viz. those produced by water, by wind, and those which are dry— yo abhrajā vātajā yaś ca śuṣmaḥ[25]. The phlegm of the later medical writers was also considered watery, and the word abhraja probably suggests the origin of the theory of phlegm, as being one of the upholders and destroyers of the body. The word vātaja means, very plainly, diseases produced by wind, and the pitta, or bile, which in later medical literature is regarded as a form of fire, is very well described here as śuṣma , or dry. Again in vi. 109 we have pippalī as vātī-kṛtasya bheṣajīm. The context shows that the diseases which are referred to as being curable by pippalī are those which are considered as being produced by wind in later literature; for “madness” (kṣipta) is mentioned as a vātī-kṛta disease.

The word śuṣma comes from the root “śuṣ” to dry up, and in slightly modified forms is used to mean a “drying up,” “burning,” “strength,” and “fiery.” In one place at least it is used to describe the extremely burning sensation of delirious bilious fever, which is said to be burning like fire[26].

My own conclusion therefore is that at least some Atharvaṇic people had thought of a threefold classification of all diseases, viz. those produced by wind, those by water, and those by fire, or those which are dry and burning. This corresponds to the later classification of all diseases as being due to the three doṣas, wind (vāyu), phlegm (kapha or śleṣma) and bile (pitta).

Apart from the ordinary diseases, many were the cases of possession by demons and evil spirits, of which we have quite a large number. Some of the prominent ones are

  • Yātudhāna,
  • Kimīdin,
  • Piśāca,
  • Piśācī,
  • Amīvā,
  • Dvayāvin,
  • Rakṣaḥ,
  • Magundī,
  • Alitnśa,
  • Vatsapa,
  • Palāla,
  • Anupalāla,
  • Śarku,
  • Koka,
  • Malimluca,
  • Palijaka,
  • Vavrivāsas,
  • Āśreṣa,
  • Rkṣagrīva,
  • Pramīlin,
  • Durṇāmā,
  • Sunāmā,
  • Kukṣila,
  • Kusūla,
  • Kakubha,
  • Śrima,
  • Arāya,
  • Karuma,
  • Khalaja ,
  • Śakadhūmaja,
  • Uruṇḍa, 
  • Matmata,
  • Kumbhamuṣka,
  • Sāyaka,
  • Nagnaka,
  • Taṅgalva,
  • Pavīnasa,
  • Gandharva,
  • Brahmagraha, etc.[27]

Some of the diseases with their troublous symptoms were (poetically) personified, and diseases which often went together were described as being related as brothers and sisters. Diseases due to worms were well known, in the case of both men and of cattle. There were also the diseases due to sorcery, which played a very important part as an offensive measure in Vedic India. Many of the diseases were also known to be hereditary (kṣetrīya). From the names of the diseases mentioned above it will be found that most of the diseases noted by Caraka existed in the Vedic age.

The view-point from which the Vedic people looked at diseases seems to have always distinguished the different diseases from their symptoms. Thus the fever was that which produced shivering, cold, burning sensation, and the like, i.e. the diagnosis was mainly symptomatic. In addition to the charms and amulets, and the herbs which were to be internally taken, water was considered to possess great medical and life-giving properties. There are many hymns which praise these qualities of water[28]. The medicinal properties of herbs were often regarded as being due to water, which formed their essence. Charms for snake poisons and herbs which were considered to be their antidotes were in use. Scanty references to diseases and their cures are found sparsely scattered in other Rg-Vedic texts and Brāhmaṇas. But nothing in these appears to indicate any advance on the Atharva-Veda[29] in medical knowledge.

Apart from these curatives there were also the already mentioned charms, amulets and medicines for securing long life and increasing virility, corresponding to the Rasāyana and the Vājī-karaṇa chapters of Caraka and other medical works. We cannot leave this section without pointing to the fact that, though most diseases and many remedies were known, nothing in the way of nidāna , or causes of diseases, is specified. The fact that there existed a threefold classification of diseases, viz. abhraja, vātaja and śuṣma , should not be interpreted to mean that the Vedic people had any knowledge of the disturbance of these elements operating as nidānas as they were understood in later medical literature. The three important causes of diseases were evil deeds, the sorcery of enemies, and possession by evil spirits or the anger of certain gods.

Footnotes and references:


Śataṃ yā bheṣajāni te suḥasraṃ saṃgatāni ca śreṣṭham āsrāva-bḥeṣajaṃ vasiṣṭhaṃ roga-nāśanam.

(Oh sick person! you may have applied hundreds or thousands of medicinal herbs; but this charm is the best specific for stopping hemorrhage. A.V. vi. 45. 2.) Here also, as in 11. 9. 3, the utterance of the charm is considered to be more efficacious than the application of other herbs and medicines. Water was often applied for washing the sores (vi. 57. 2).


Cikitsatu Prajāpatir dīrghāyutvāya cakṣase (vi. 68. 2).


Dārila’s comment on the Kauśika-sūtra, 25. 2.


The A.V. terms are bheṣajam (remedy), bheṣajī (the herbs), and bheṣajīḥ (waters). The term bhaiṣajya appears only in the Kauśika and other sūtras and Brāhmaṇas . Bloomfield says that the existence of such charms and practices is guaranteed moreover at least as early as the Indo-Iranian (Aryan) period by the stems baeṣaza and baeṣazya (mañthra baeṣaza and baeṣazya; haoma baeṣazya), and by the pre-eminent position of water and plants in all prayers for health and long life. Adalbert Kuhn has pointed out some interesting and striking resemblances between Teutonic and Vedic medical charms, especially in connection with cures for worms and fractures. These may perhaps be mere anthropological coincidences, due to the similar mental endowment of the two peoples. But it is no less likely that some of these folk-notions had crystallized in prehistorictimes, and that these parallels reflect the continuation of a crude Indo-European folklore that had survived among the Teutons and Hindus. See Bloomfield’s The Atharva-Veda and Gopatha-Brāhmaṇa, p. 58, and Kuhn’s Zeitschrift fūr vergleichende Sprachforschung, xm. pp. 49-74 and 113-157.


The Atharva-Veda itself speaks (xix. 34. 7) of herbs which were current in ancient times and medicines which were new, and praises the herb jaṅgiḍa as being better than them all— na tvā pūrva oṣadhayo na tvā taranti yā navāḥ.


A.V. vi. 68. 2— Cikitsatu prajāpatir dīrghāyutvāya cakṣase ; ibid. xix. 35. 1— Indrasya nāma gṛhṇanto ṛṣayaḥ jaṅgiḍaṃ dadan (The ṛṣis gave jaṅgiḍa, uttering the name of Indra). This line probably suggested the story in the Caraka-saṃhitā, that Indra first instructed the ṛṣ}s in Āyurveda. See ibid. xi. viii. 23— yan mātatī rathakrītam amṛtaṃ veda bheṣajaṃ tad irtdro apsu prāveśayat tad āpo datta bheṣajam. The immortalizing medicine which Mātali (the charioteer of Indra) bought by selling the chariot was thrown into the waters by Indra, the master of the chariot. Rivers, give us back that medicine!


Mr Bloomfield’s The Atharva-Veda and Gopatha-Brāhmaṇa, p. 57.


Bloomfield says that āsrāva means atīsāra or diarrhoea (ibid. p. 59). The same physical applications for the same diseases are directed in A.V. 11. 3. Āsrāva denotes any disease which is associated with any kind of diseased ejection. Thus in II. 3. 2 Sāyana says that āsrāva means atīsārātimūtra-nādī-vraṇādayaḥ.


Pra te bhinadmi mehanaṃ vartraṃ veiantyā iva evā te mūtraṃ mucyatām bahir bāl iti sarvakam

(I open your urinal path like a canal through which the waters rush. So may the urine come out with a whizzing sound — A.V. t. 3. 7).

All the verses of the hymn ask the urine to come out with a whizzing sound.





The word kṣetñya has been irregularly derived in Pānini’s rule, v. 2. 92 (kṣetriyac parakṣetre cikitsyaḥ). Commentaries like the Kāśika and the Pada-mañjarī suggest one of its meanings to be “curable in the body of another birth” (janmāntara-śarīre cikitsyaḥ), that is, incurable. I, however, prefer the meaning “hereditary,” as given by Sāyana in his commentary on A.V. 11. 10. 1, as being more fitting and reasonable.


Yakṣman is also counted as a kṣetrīya disease (11. 10. 6).


11. 31. 5. I have adopted Sāyana’s interpretation.


vii. 78 is also a charm for inflammation of the neck (gaṇḍa-mālā) and phthisis (yakṣma).


Kuṣṭha was believed to be good for the head and the eyes (v. 4. 10).


Gāndhāra Mahāvr§a, Muñjavān, and particularly Bālhīka (Balkh), were regarded as the home of fever; so also the country of Aṅga and Magadha. It was accompanied by cold (iīta) and shivering (rūraḥ). It was often attended with cough (kāsa) and consumption (valāsa). It attacked sometimes on the third or fourth day, in summer or in autumn (śāraḍa), or continued all through the year.


This is one of the few cases where a large number of roots were compounded together and used as medicine along with the charms.


Some of the other plants are alasālā, silāñjālā, rñlōgalasālā.


Also vii. 78, w’here apacit appears as a name for the inflammation of the neck (gala-gaṇḍa). Three different types of the disease are described. Apacit is at first harmless, but when it grows, it continues more to secrete its discharges, like boils on the joints. These boils grow on the neck, the back, the thigh-joint and the anus. See further vi. 83, where conch-shell is to be rubbed and applied. viii. 83 is also a charm for it. Blood had to be sucked off the inflamed parts by a leech or an iguana (gṛha-godhikā).


A piece of iron is to be tied as an amulet.


Pippatī is also to be taken along with the utterance of the charm. It is regarded as the medicine for all attacked by the diseases of the wind (vātī - kṛtasya bheṣajīm). It is also said to cure madness (kṣiptasya bheṣajīm).


Cīpudru is a medicine for valāsa. Cīpudrur abhicakṣaṇam (vi. 127. 2).


Compare also vāṭīkārasya (ix. 13. 20).


vi. 20. 4. For other references where the word śuṣma occurs in more or less modified forms see 1. 12. 3, in. 9. 3, iv. 4. 3, iv. 4. 4, v. 2. 4, v. 20. 2, vi. 65.1, vi. 73. 2, ix. 1. 10, 20, ix. 4. 22, etc.


See 1. 28. 35, 11. 9, 11. 14, viii. 6. The last passage contains a good description of some of these beings. There were some good spirits which fought with evil ones and favoured men, such as Piṅga, who preserved the babe at birth and chased the amorous Gandharvas as wind chases cloud, viii. 6. 19, 25 says that sometimes the higher gods are also found to bring diseases. Thus Takman was the son of Varuna (vi. 96. 2) and he produced dropsy (1. 10. 1-4, 11. 10. 1, iv. 16. 7, etc.). Parjanya (rain-god) produced diarrhoea, and Agni produced fever, headache and cough.


apsu antar amṛtam apsu bheṣajam (There is immortality and medicine in water—i. 4. 4). See also 1. 5. 6, 33, 11. 3, 111. 7. 5, iv. 33, vi. 24. 92, vi. 24. 2, etc.


For a brief survey of these Rg-Vedic and other texts see Bolling’s article “Disease and Medicine (Vedic)” in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics.

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