A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

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

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


When the different elements of matter in conjunction with the subtle body are associated with the self, they have the appearance of a little lump of mucus (kheta-bhūtd) with all its limbs undifferentiated and undeveloped to such an extent that they may as well be said not to exist as to exist.

Suśruta remarks that the two main constituents of the body, semen and blood, are respectively made up of the watery element of the moon (saumya) and the fiery element (āgneya) ; the other elements in atomic particles are also associated with them, and all these mutually help one another and co-operate together for the formation of the body[2].

Suśruta further goes on to say that at the union of female and male the heat (tejaḥ) generated rouses the vāyu , and through the coming together of heat and air the semen is discharged[3]. Caraka, however, thinks that the cause of discharge of semen is joy (harṣa)[4]. The semen is not produced from the body, but remains in all parts of the body, and it is the joy which causes the discharge and the entrance of the semen into the uterus[5]. Thus he says that, being ejected by the self as joy (harṣa-bhūtenātmanodīritaś cādkiṣṭhitaś ca), the semen constituent or the seed, having come out of the man’s body, becomes combined with the menstrual product (ārtava) in the uterus (garbhāśaya) after it has entrance thereinto through the proper channel (ucitena pathā). According to Suśruta the ejected semen enters into the female organ (yonim abhiprapadyate) and comes into association there with the menstrual product[6]. At that very moment, the soul with its subtle body comes into association with it and thus becomes associated with the material characteristics of sattva, rajas and tamas, and godly (deva), demonic (asura), and other characteristics.

Caraka, referring to the question of the association of the soul with the material elements, says that this is due to the operation of the soul acting through the mind-organ (sattva-karaṇa)[7]. Cakrapāṇi, in commenting on the above passage, says that the self (ātman) is inactive; activity is however attributed to the soul on account of the operative mind-organ which is associated with it. This, however, seems to be a compromise on the part of Cakrapāṇi with the views of the traditional Sāṃkhya philosophy, which holds the soul to be absolutely inactive; but the text of the Caraka-saṃhitā does not here say anything on the inactivity of the soul; for Caraka describes the soul as active (pravartate) as agent (kartṛ) and as universal performer (viśvakarman), and the sattva is described here only as an organ of the soul (sattva-karaṇa).

In the first month, the foetus has a jelly-like form (kalala)[8] ; in the second month, the material constituents of the body having undergone a chemical change (abhiprapacyamāna) due to the action of cold, heat and air (śītoṣmānilaiḥ), the foetus becomes hard (ghana). If it is the foetus of a male child, it is spherical (piṇḍa); if it is of a female child, it is elliptical (peśī); if it is of a hermaphrodite, it is like the half of a solid sphere (arbuda)[9]. In the third month five special eminences are seen, as also the slight differentiation of limbs. In the fourth month the differentiation of the limbs is much more definite and well manifested; and owing to the manifestation of the heart of the foetus the entity of consciousness becomes also manifested, since the heart is the special seat of consciousness; so from the fourth month the foetus manifests a desire for the objects of the senses. In the fifth month the consciousness becomes more awakened; in the sixth intelligence begins to develop; in the seventh the division and differentiation of limbs become complete; in the eighth, the vital element (ojas) still remains unsettled, and so, if a child is born at this time, it becomes short-lived[10].

Caraka, in describing the part played by different material elements in the formation of the body, says that from the element ākāśa are formed sound, the organ of hearing, lightness (lāghava), subtleness of structure (saukṣmya) and porosity (vireka); from vāyu (air) are formed the sensation of touch, the organ of touch, roughness, power of movement, the disposition of the constituent elements (dhātu-vyūhana), and bodily efforts; from fire, vision, the organ of vision,digestion,heat,etc.; from water, thesensation of taste and the taste-organ, cold, softness, smoothness and watery characteristics; from earth, smell, organ of smell, heaviness, steadiness and hardness. The parts of the body which are thus formed from different material elements grow and develop with the accession of those elements from which they have grown[11]. As the whole world is made up of five elements (bhūta), so the human body is also made up of five elements[12].

Caraka maintains that the senses and all other limbs of the body which grow before birth make their appearance simultaneously in the third month[13]. When, in the third month, the sense-organs grow, there grow in the heart feelings and desires. In the fourth month the foetus becomes hard, in the fifth it gets more flesh and blood, in the sixth there is greater development of strength and colour, in the seventh it becomes complete with all its limbs, and in the eighth month there is a constant exchange of vital power (ojas) between the mother and the foetus. The foetus being not yet perfectly developed, the vital fluid passes from the mother to the foetus; but, since the latter cannot retain it, it returns to the mother[14].

Cakrapāṇi, commenting on this, says that such an exchange is only possible because the foetus is still undeveloped, and the foetus, being associated with the mother, serves also as the mother’s vital power (ojas) ; for otherwise, if the ojas went out altogether from the mother, she could not live.

There is a good deal of divergence of opinion as regards the order of the appearance of the different limbs of the foetus. Two different schools of quarrelling authorities are referred to by Caraka and Suśruta.

- Thus, according to Kumāraśiras and Śaunaka the head appears first, because it is the seat of the senses;
- according to Kāṅkāyana, the physician of Bālhīka, and Krtavīrya the heart appears first, because according to Krtavīrya (as reported in Suśruta) this is the seat of consciousness (cetanā) and of buddhi and manas;
- according to Bhadrakāpya (as reported by Caraka) the navel comes first, since this is the place where food is stored,
- and according to Pārāśara (as reported in Suśruta), because the whole body grows from there.

- According to Bhadra Śaunaka (as reported by Caraka) the smaller intestine and the larger intestine (pakvāśaya) appear first, since this is the seat of air (mārutādhi-ṣṭhānatvāt);
- according to Badiśa (as reported by Caraka) the hands and feet come out first, because these are the principal organs, and according to Mārkaṇḍeya (as reported by Suśruta), because they are the main roots of all efforts (tan-mūlatvāc ceṣṭāyāḥ);
- according to Vaideha Janaka (as reported by Caraka) the senses appear first, for they are the seats of understanding (buddhy-adhiṣṭhāna);
- according to Mārici (as reported by Caraka) it is not possible to say which part of the body develops first, because it cannot be seen by anyone (parokṣatvād acintyam);
- according to Subhūti Gautama (as reported by Suśruta) the middle part of the body (madhya-śarīra) appears first, since the development of other parts of the body is dependent on it (tan-nibaddhatvāt sarva-gātra-sambhavasya);
- according to Dhanvantari (as reported by both Caraka and Suśruta) all the parts of the body begin to develop together (yugapat sarvāṅgābhinirvṛtti), though on account of their fineness and more or less undifferentiated character such development may not be properly noticed, as with the parts of a growing bamboo-shootor a mango fruit (garbhasyasūkṣmatvān nopalabhyante vaṃśāñkuravat cūta-phalavac ca)[15].

Just as the juicy parts and the stone, which are undifferentiated in a green mango at its early stages, are all found clearly developed and differentiated when it is ripe, so, when the human foetus is even in the early stages of development, all its undifferentiated parts are already developing there pari passu , though on account of their fineness of structure and growth they cannot then be distinguished.

Referring to the early process of the growth of the foetus, Suśruta says that, as the semen and blood undergo chemical changes through heat, seven different layers of skin (kalā) are successively produced, like the creamy lay ers(santānikā) formed in milk.

  1. The first layer, one-eighteenth of a paddy seed (dhānya) in thickness, is called avabhāsinī ;
  2. the second, one-sixteenth of a paddy seed, lohitā ;
  3. the third, one-twelfth of a paddy seed, śvetā;
  4. the fourth, one-eighth, is called tāmrā;
  5. the fifth, one-fifth, vedinī;
  6. the sixth, of the size of a paddy seed, rohiṇī ;
  7. the seventh, of the size of two paddy seeds, māṃsa-dharā.

All these seven layers of skin come to about six paddy seeds, or roughly one inch. This is said to hold good only in those places of the body which are fleshy. Apart from these seven kalās of skin there are also seven kalās between the different dhātus.

A dhātu (from the root dhā , to hold) is that which supports or sustains the body, such as

Lymph (kapha), bile (pitta) and excreta (puriṣa) have also to be counted as dhātus. These kalās, however, are not visible; their existence is inferred from the fact that the different dhātus must have separate places allotted to them, and the kalās are supposed to divide the layer of one dhātu from another and are covered with lymph and tissues (snāyu)[16].

  • In the first kalā, known as the māṃsa-dharā, the veins, tissues, etc. of the flesh are found;
  • in the second, the rakta-dharā, is found the blood inside the flesh;
  • in the third, called the medo-dharā, there is the fat which is found in the abdomen and also between the smaller bones[17].
  • The fourth kalā is the śleṣma-dharā, which exists in the joints;
  • the fifth is the puriṣa-dharā, which exists in the intestine (pakvāśaya) and separates the excreta;
  • the sixth and the seventh are the pitta-dharā and the śukra-dhorā.

Suśruta thinks that the liver and spleen are produced from blood, pupphusa (lungs) from the froth of blood, and uṇḍuka (a gland in the colon ?) from the dirt of blood (śoṇita-kitta-prabhava). The best parts (prasāda) of blood and lymph are acted upon by bile, and vāyu works in association therewith; by this process the entrails,rectum and bladder are produced; and, when the heating process goes on in the abdomen, the tongue is produced, as the essence of lymph, blood and flesh. The air, being associated with heat, enters the flesh and changes the currents, the muscles (peśī) are differentiated, and by the oily part of fat the vāyu produces the veins (śirā) and tissues (snāyu).

From the essential part of blood and fat the kidneys (vṛkka) are produced, from the essential part of flesh, blood, lymph and fat the testicles, and from the essence of blood and lymph the heart, which is the centre of the dhamanis through which flows the current of life (prāṇa-vahā). Underneath the heart on the left side there are the spleen and the pupphusa, and on the right side the liver and the klōma (right lung?), and this is particularly the place of consciousness. At the time of sleep, when it is covered with śleṣman having a superabundance of tamas , the heart remains contracted.

The foetus grows through the chyle of the mother and also through the inflation of the body of the foetus by air[18]. The navel of the body is the heating centre (jyotiḥ-sthāna), and the air, starting from here, continues to inflate the body.

It must be borne in mind that a foetus is the product of several causes operating jointly. A defect of any particular limb at birth is due to some defect in that part of one or more of the operating causes through the influence of which that particular limb was produced. The cause of foetal development is not a question of organs or limbs which were absolutely non-existent: they already existed, in the potential form, in the causes operating jointly. The joint causes did not produce something absolutely new, but their joint operation helped to actualize all that was already inherent in them. Of all the joint causes the self remains unchanged in all changes of the body. The changes of pleasure and pain or such other characteristics as are considered to be due to the soul are really due either to sattva or manas, or to the body[19].

Cakrapāṇi, commenting on this, says that the fact that a soul may take its birth as this or that animal does not imply that the soul is liable to change (paramātma-vikārā na bhavanti) ; for such a change is due to the excessive preponderance of sattva, rajas or tamas, which are in reality due to virtue and vice, which in themselves are but the characteristics of mind

(sattva-rajas-tamaḥ-prabalatā-rūpa-vikāraja-manojanya-dharmādharma-janyāny eva)[20].

There are three kinds of morbid elements (doṣa) of the body, viz. vāta, pitta and śleṣman , and two morbid elements which affect the mind (sattva), viz. rajas and tamas. By the disorder of the first three the body becomes diseased, and by that of the second two the mind becomes affected. These, however, will be dealt with more fully later on.

Footnotes and references:


In the Garbha Upaniṣad, the date of which is unknown, there is a description of foetal development. Its main points of interest may thus be summarized: the hard parts of the body are earth, the liquid parts are water, that which is hot (uṣṇa) is heat-light (tejaḥ), that which moves about is vāyu, that which is vacuous is ākāśa.

The body is further said to depend on six tastes (ṣaḍ-āśraya),

  1. sweet (madhura),
  2. acid (amla),
  3. salt (lavaṇa),
  4. bitter (tikta),
  5. hot (katu)
  6. and pungent (kaṣāya),

and it is made up of seven dhātus of chyle (rasa), blood (śoṇita) and flesh (māṃsa).

From the six kinds of rasa comes the śoṇita,

  1. from śoṇita comes māṃsa,
  2. from māṃsa comes fat (medas), from it
  3. the tendons (snāyu),
  4. from the snāyu bones (asthi),
  5. from the bones the marrow (majjā),
  6. from the marrow the semen (śukra).

By the second night after the union of semen and blood the foetus is of the form of a round lump called kalala,
at the eighth night it is of the form of a vesicle called budbuda,
after a fortnight it assumes the form of a spheroid, piṇḍa;
in two months the head appears,
in three months the feet,
in four months the abdomen, heels and the pelvic portions appear,
in the fifth month the spine appears,
in the sixth month the mouth, nose, eyes and ears develop;
in the seventh month the foetus becomes endowed with life (jīvena saṃyukto bhavati),
in the eighth month it becomes fully developed.

By an excess of semen over blood a male child is produced,
by the excess of blood a female child is produced,
when the two are equal a hermaphrodite is produced.

When air somehow enters and divides the semen into two, twins are produced. If the minds of the parents are disturbed (vyākulita-mānasaḥ), the issue becomes either blind or lame or dwarf.

In the ninth month, when the foetus is well developed with all its organs, it remembers its previous birth and knows its good and bad deeds and repents that, on account of its previous karma, it is suffering the pains of the life of a foetus, and resolves that, if it can once come out, it will follow the Sāṃkhya-yoga discipline. But as soon as the child is born it comes into connection with Vaiṣṇava vāyu and forgets all its previous births and resolutions.

A body is called śarīra, because three fires reside in it (śray ante), viz. the

  1. koṣṭhāgni,
  2. darśanāgni
  3. and jñānāgni.

The koṣṭhāgni digests all kinds of food and drink,
by the darśanāgni forms and colours are perceived,
by the jñānāgni one performs good and bad deeds.

This Upaniṣad counts the cranial bones as being four,
the vital spots (marman) as being 107,
the joints as 180,
the tissues (snāyu) as 109,
the śirās, or veins, as 700,
the marrow places as 500,
and the bones as 300.


Suśruta-saṃhitā, lu. 3. 3.


Ibid. hi. 3. 4, Nirnaya-Sāgara edition, 1915. Ḍalhaṇa, commenting on this, says,

sukha-lakṣaṇa-vyāyāmajoṣma-vitīnaṃ vidrutam anilāc cyutam”


Caraka-saṃhitā, iv. 4. 7.


Cakrapāṇi, commenting on Caraka-saṃhitā, iv. 4. 7, says that “nāṅgebhyaḥ śukram utpadyate kintu śukra-rūpatayaiva vyajyate,” i.e. the semen is not produced from the different parts of the body, but it exists as it is and is only manifested in a visible form after a particular operation (Suśruta, 111. 3. 4).


As Palhana interprets this, the female organ here means the uterus; thus Palhana says,

yones tṛitīyāvartāvasthita-garbhaśayyām pratipadyate” i.e. the semen enters into the third chamber of the female organ, the place of the foetus. The uterus is probably considered here as the third chamber, the preceding two being probably the vulva and the vagina.


Sattva-karaṇo guṇa-grahaṇāya pravartateCaraka-saṃhitā, IV. 4. 8. Cakrapāṇi rightly points out that guṇa here means material elements which possess qualities —guṇavanti bhūtāni. The word guṇa is used in all these passages in the sense of material entity or bhūta. Though guṇa means a quality and guṇin a substance, yet the view adopted here ignores the difference between qualities and substances, and guṇa, the ordinary word for quality, stands here for substance (guṇa-guṇinor abhedopacārāt —Cakrapāṇi, ibid.).


Ḍalhaṇa explains kalala as siñghāna-prakhyam.


On the meanings of the words peśī and arbuda there is a difference of opinion between Ḍalhaṇa and Gayī. Thus Gayī says that peśī means quadrangular (catur-aśra) and arbuda means the form of the bud of a silk cotton tree (śālmali-mukulākāram).



Suśruta-saṃhitā, in. 3. 30.


Caraka-saṃhitā , iv. 4. 12.


evam ayaṃ loka-sammitaḥ puruṣaḥ—yāvanto hi loke bhāva-viśeṣās tāvantaḥ purttṣe, yāvantaḥ puruṣe tāvanto loke (Caraka-saṃhitā, iv. 4. 13). In ibid. iv. 3, it is said that the foetus gets its skin, blood, flesh, fat, navel, heart, kloma, spleen, liver, kidneys, bladder, colon, stomach, the larger intestines, and the upper and the lower rectum from the mother, and its hair, beard, nails, teeth, bones, veins and semen from the father; but, however this may be, it is certain that the development of all these organs is really due to the assimilation of the five elements of matter. So the development of the human foetus is, like the development of all other things in the world, due to the accretion of material elements.


Ibid. iv. 4. 14.


mātur ojo garbhaṃ gacchatiti yad ucyate, tad-garbhauja eva mātṛ-sambaddhaṃ san mātroja iti vyapadiśyate.
      Cakrapāṇi, iv. 4. 24.


Suśruta-saṃhitā, in. 3. 32 and Caraka-saṃhitā, iv. 6. 21.


The kalā is defined by Vjrddha-Vāgbhata as

yas tu dhātv āśayāntareṣu kledo ’vatiṣṭhate yathāsvam uṣmabhir vipakvah snāyu-śleṣma-jarāyu-cchannaḥ kāṣṭha iva sāro dhātu-sāra-śeṣol ’patvāt kalā-saṃjñaḥ
      (Aṣṭāṅga-sarrtgraha, Śārīra, v).


The fat inside the smaller bones is called medas, whereas that inside the larger ones is called majjā, or marrow, and the fat of pure flesh only is called vapā, or fat.


Suśruta-saṃhitā, in. 4. 57.


nir-vikāraḥ paras tv ātmā sarva-hhūtānāni nirviśeṣa-sattva-śarīrayos tu viśeṣād viśeṣopalabdhiḥ.
iv. 4. 34.


Cakrapāṇi’s commentary, Caraka, iv. 4.

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