History of Indian Medicine (and Ayurveda)

by Shree Gulabkunverba Ayurvedic Society | 1949 | 162,724 words | ISBN-13: 9788176370813

The History of Indian medicine and Ayurveda (i.e., the science of life) represents the introductory pages of the Charaka Samhita composed of six large sections dealing with every facet of Medicine in ancient India in a Socio-Historical context. Caraka is regarded as one of the pioneers in the field of scientific healthcare. As an important final a...

Chapter 4 - The Story of Atreya

The great teacher of Kaya-cikitsita (kāyacikitsita) or medicine is Krishna Atreya according to the Mahabharata.

[Mahā. Śā. Pa. a-210.21]

The Caraka Samhita, the greatest of the works on medicine purports to be the final embodiment of Atreya’s teaching. Every chapter opens with the words ‘Thus spake the worshipful Atreya’.

Agnivesha and other disciples are greatly attached to him and hold him in supreme veneration. He is the first systematic teacher of the science of medicine after it was brought from Indra and imparted to the noble galaxy of sages by Bharadvaja.

The Caraka Samhita does not say explicitly that Atreya learnt the science from Bharadvaja, but it just mentions that Bharadvaja, having brought the sacred wisdom from Indra, imparted it to the sages Marici and others, among whom Atreya is one. We are then introduced to a situation wherein Atreya, the compassionate one, taught this holy science of life to his disciples for the ultimate benefit of all creatures. (Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 1.30)

Despite the absence of a specific mention of the transmission of the science from Bharadvaja to Atreya, the fact implied is so transparent that the authors omitted the statement of the obvious. The verse, opening with the word ‘thus’ (Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 1.30) is meant to convey this fact viz, in the manner foregone i.e. the sages including Atreya having learnt the science, then it so happened, that Atreya began teaching medicine to his disciples. Cakrapani, the commentator, is emphatic on this point and contradicts the conclusion of some identifying this Atreya with Bharadvaja who learnt the Ayurveda from Indra. For the latter, mistake is made by some in view of the description in Caraka in the chapter on Rasayana, where Atri is said to have received the knowledge directly from Indra, That pertains only to Rasayana and on a later occasion than the one described in the opening chapter and therefore does not apply to the question of the whole science of Ayurveda as it was taught by Indra to Bharadvaja and again by him to the sages of whom Atreya is one.

In this connection it is interesting to note that Vagbhata and Bhavamishra refer to Punarvasu or the son of Atri as approaching Indra at the head of a group of sages and learning the Science of medicine from him.

[Aṣṭāṅgasaṃgraha Sūtrasthāna 1.4]

[Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 1.3]

[Bhāvaprakāśa A. 1]

That this Atreya is one of the great sages, expert in the sciences and spiritual knowledge, and one held in high esteem is evident from the prefixed title to his name ‘Bhagavan’ (Bhagavān) 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 honour 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 as 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 specially of the science of medicine. Though versed in all the eight branches of the Science of Life he devoted this treatise entirely to medicine and referred his disciples to other teachers and treatises when resort to surgical and other special procedures were in demand.

[Carakasaṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 5.44]

“This is the comair of the surgeons”, is a remark one meets with when there are indications for surgical remedies.

[Carakasaṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 26.131]

“We do not attempt to expatiate on them here, as that belongs to the province of specialists.”

Thus Atreya is a specialist in Medicine (‘Kāya-Cikitsā’) 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.

Madhava is unrivalled in diagnosis, Vagbhata in general principles of medicine, Sushruta 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 opening line of every chapter contains always the words “thus spake the worshipful Atreya” and at the end of the chapter in the recapitulation of the subject of the chapter sometimes other synonyms like Punarvasu, the great sage, Candrabhaga or Krishna Atreya are used, thus making it clear that Bhagavan Atreya was also known by other names of his.

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 12.13]

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna? 13.100]

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna A. 11.65]

It is possible that the epithet Punarvasu may be significant of Atreya 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.

According to the Caraka Samhita, Atreya is the son of Atri for in many places he is referred to as the son of Atri. Though the term Atreya might apply either to the son of Atri or his near or distant descendants or to a disciple of Atri or even to one of he clan of Atri, yet as he is referred to as the son of Atri specifically, and also in view of the early times to which the situation pertains, it may be fairly concluded that the Atreya we are concerned with, is the direct son of Atri.

We find that in later days the royal physician of Shri Harsa was known as Rasayana Paunarvasava (rasāyana paunarvasa). This appellation of his 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.

Identity of Atreya with Punarvasu:

(1) The words Atreya and Punarvasu are used,; together in the Caraka Samhita.

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 12-13]

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 25-9]

Also thus in Kashyapa Samhita (kāśyapasaṃhitā):—


(2) ‘Atreya’ and ‘Punarvasu’ words are used as synonyms at the end of the chapters thus:

In Caraka Samhita—

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 12-17]

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 14-?1]

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 15-25]

There occur also in the Astanga Sangraha of Vagbhata—[Aṣṭāṅgasaṃgraha Sūtrasthāna 1-8]

[Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 1-3]

(3) ‘Punarvasu’ is used as a substitute of Atreya at the beginning of a chapter—

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 25-3]

Punarvasu is also mentioned as the preceptor of Agnivesha—

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 1-30]

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 13-3]

Besides, even the epithet of (Bhagavat) is given to Punarvasu. (The verse is quoted above Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 2?-3)

Krishna Atreya seems to be his most popular appellation. As we have seen, the Mahabharata refers to Krishna Atreya as the famous teacher of medicine. In the Caraka Samhita itself Atreya is often called Krishna Atreya

  1. Beginning: [Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 11.2];
    End: [Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 11.65]
  2. [Carakasaṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 28-156]
  3. [Carakasaṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 28-164]
  4. [Cakrapāṇi Carakasaṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 15.131 Ṭīkā]
  5. [Bhela Pṛ. 28 and Pṛ. 98]
  6. [Mahābhārata...]
  7. [Śrīkaṇṭhadatta and Śivadāsa...]

Also many of the tested recipes are named after him as commended of having been greatly favored by Krishna Atreya.

  1. [Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 11-65]
  2. [Carakasaṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 15-131]
  3. [Carakasaṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 16.71]
  4. [Carakasaṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 26-278]
  5. [Carakasaṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 28-156]
  6. [Carakasaṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 28-134]

There can, thus, be no confusion as regards the identity of the person known as Atreya with Krishna Atreya in the Caraka Samhita. For in. The chapter XI of Sutra sthana, we find the usual ‘worshipful Atreya’ in the initial lines and at the end in the resume he is referred to as Krishna Atreya. Thus Bhagavan Atreya, Punarvasu, Atreya end Krishna Atreya are the names of one single individual sage who is the teacher of the science of medicine in the Caraka Samhita.

To leave no scope for doubt on this point the following Will be useful..

Bhela, being a disciple of Atreya along with Agnivesha and others, refers to Atreya as Krishna Atreya in the Bhela Samhita.

[... Bhelasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 98]

There is a tantra or a treatise on Shalakya (śālākya) or ‘Surgery of the supra-clavicular parts of the body’ ascribed to Krishna Atreya. On this ground some are led to believe that there existed two persons of this name.

Shrikantha Datta (Śrīkaṇṭhadatta) in his commentary on Vrinda’s Siddhayoga states—


Similarly, Shivadasa (Śivadāsa) in his commentary ‘Tattva-Candrika’ (tattvacandrikā) while describing Dashamulashatapalaghita (daśamūlaśatapalaghṛta) quotes from Jvaradhikara (jvarādhikāra) of Cakradatta and cites the names of Gopura Rakshita (Gopura Rakṣita), Jatukarna (Jatūkarṇa), Caraka, Sushruta (Suśruta), and Krishna Atreya (Kṛṣṇa Ātreya). But both the above authors—Shrikantha Datta and Shivadasa, have raised the question of two personalities, Krishna Atreya the surgeon and Atreya the physician, but, while commenting on the line (“nāgarādyamida pūrṇai kṛṣṇātreyeṇa pūjitam | [?]”) they distinctly state (“kṛṣṇātreyaḥ punarvamu |”).

The commentator Shivadasa holds the view that Krishna Atreya and Punarvasu are one.

Even if Krishna Atreya appears to have given instruction on surgical matters it does not follow that he could not have been identical with Atreya Punarvasu, the teacher in the Caraka Samhita. He must have been acquainted with the whole of the Science of Life in all its eightfold ramifications, though he confined himself to Kayacikitsa or medicine, in his exposition before Agnivesha and other disciples. There is thus nothing to contradict the conclusion that there existed but one teacher known variously as Punarvasu, Atreya and Krishna Atreya.

He was also known as Candrabhagi (Cāndrabhāgi) or Candrabhagin (Cāndrabhāgin). The 13th chapter of Sutra-sthana in Caraka refers to the teacher by this name. Punarvasu is mentioned as seated amidst the Sankhya philosophers whom Agnivesha approaches for instruction and in the resume at the end of the chapter, the teacher is referred to as Candrabhagi. The commentator Cakrapani contents himself by saying that Candrabhagi is Punarvasu.

We are left to conjecture the derivations of this name for him, It may be, he is the son of Candrabhaga or a resident of the region named Candrabhaga. A tributary of the Indus was also known by that name Being resident on its banks, he might’have been known as Candrabhaga. The sister compilation to that of Agnivesha’r (Caraka Samhitā), namely the Bhela Samhita, supports this view that Atreya Punarvasu and Candrabhagi are one and the same person.

Thus we have the great sage Atreya, the teacher of medicine and preceptor to Agnivesha, Bhela and other disciples, bearing other names of Krishna Atreya, Punarvasu and Candrabhagi as all these names are applied to him in the Caraka Samhita as well as in the Bhela and Kashyapa Samhita and are supported by references to him in other books like the Mahabharata in similar contexts.

Beginning of the chapter:

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 13]


[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 13]

(1) [P. 30]

The verse in the Bhela Samhita is very significant as it combines the names of Candrabhaga and Punarvasu while referring to the teacher of medicine.

(2) [P. 30]

Nagnajit, the saintly king of Gandhara, giver of the path to gold, grasped the feet of Candrabhagi Punarvasu in obeisance, and inquired.”

Thus the verse provides us with a confirmation of the identity of Candrabhaga with Punarvasu and also offers a clue as to the period of his existence by mentioning the name of his disciple the king of Gandhara named Nagnajit.

In the Caraka Samhita there are mentioned as his contemporaries who participated in the discussions on various medical topics, the king of Kashi named Vamaka (Vāmaka) and Nimi the king of Videha. Thus, this leads us to the question of the period of Atreya in the chronicles of ancient Indian history.

The Period of Atreya

It would be a very interesting and engaging study to try to fix the date of Atreya. There is a certain preceptor Atreya, the teacher of Jivaka (Jīvaka). The stories about Jivaka are found in the literatures of various countries where Buddhism flourished Tibetan, Burmese and Sinhalese versions differ in many points. In the Tibetan Tales we find that Atreya of Takshashila (Takṣaśilā) was the preceptor of Jivaka. The Burmese version says that Jivaka went to Kashi and not to Takshashila for studies They however differ on the point of Atreya’s preceptorship to Jivaka. They say that Jivaka’s preceptor was Dishapramukha (Diśāpramukha) or Manakacarya (Māṇakācārya) or Kapilaksha (Kapilākṣa). Moreover, in the Tibetan stories where Atreya is mentioned as the preceptor of Jivaka, we do not find an other epithet of Atreya, In one book the epithet Pingala (Piṅgala) is used for Atreya.

Jivaka has never mentioned anywhere Atreya as his preceptor nor Agnivesha as his co-student. In the same way, Agnivesha never mentions Jivaka anywhere in his whole treatise. Jivaka went to study “head surgery” according to a Tibetan story, while Punarvasu Atreya was primarily a physician

In the Caraka Samhita, some mention of abdominal surgery is found but no reference at all to “head surgery. Thus the inference that Atreya was the preceptor of Jivaka is based on flimsy grounds, and even the acceptance of Atre ra as the preceptor of Jivaka does not establish his identity with Punarvasu Atreya. Some scholars suggest that he may be Bhikshu Ateya (Bhikṣu Ātreya) but as we shall see that Bhiksu Atreya was a contemporary of Punarvasu Atreya, even that theory is erroneous.

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 1.25]

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 25.24]

The person referred to as Bhiksu Atreya in the text of Caraka is not the preceptor of Jivaka. The preceptor of Jivaka if he was at all an Atreya, he must be some other descendant of Atri.

As we have seen above Takshashila is mentioned in connection with Jivaka, There is no mention of Takshashila in Caraka, Bhela and Kashyapa Samhitas though we find the names of Gandhara (Gāndhāra), Pancala (Pāñcāla), Kampilya, Pancaganga (Pañcagaṅga) etc. This inevitably leads us o the conclusion that Taxilla might not have been developed as a centre of learning in Atreya’s period, Atreya must have flourished before Taxilla nad become a reputed seat of learning.

Enquiry into the period of Taxilla will help us in fixing up the period, or at any rate the terminus ad quem of Atreya’s period.

1. There is no mention of Taxilla in the Vedas or in the Upanishads.

2. In the Uttarakanda (Uttarakāṇḍa) or the supplementary portion of Ramayana (Rāmāyaṇa). we find that Bharata conquers the country and his son Taksha (Takṣa) is placed to rule over the conquered territory and hence it is called Takshashila.

3. Janmejaya’s serpent sacrifice was performed at this place.

4.Taxilia becomes a famous seat of learning by the Seventh century B. C.

5. Historical records place its gorious period from 700 B.C. to 500 A.D. attracting scholars from distant cities, e.g. Rajagriha (Rājagṛha), Kashi (Kāśī) and Mithila (Mithilā), Jivaka (Jīvaka), Brahmadatta, Kautilya (Kauṭilya), Patanjali (Patañjali), Parshva (Pārśva), Vasumitra and Ashvaghosha (Aśvaghoṣa) are scholars of Taxilla.

6. The grammarian Panini mentions Taxilla From the above data Atreya seems to have flourished before the glorious period of Taxilla. Now, the glorious period of Taxilla coincides with the times of the Buddha and as the Buddha period is placed, by historians, in the 6 th century B. C. we can say that Atreya flourished before the period of Buddha. Thus the Buddha-period becomes the terminus ad quem.

In order to fix Atreya’s period with degree of accuracy, one will have to establish the upper limit or the terminus a quo of Atreya’s period. In the Caraka Samhita we find references to Kampilya and Pancala (Pañcāla). The former place is well known in Shukla Yajurveda (Śukla Yajurveda), Taittiriya Brahmana (Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa) and Maitrayaniya Kathaka Samhita (Maitrāyaṇīya Kāṭhaka-saṃhitā), while the latter also seems to have been equally well known in the Veda, Brahmanas and the Upanishads. So, Atreya must have flourished during the period when Kampilya and Pancala were well-known places. As these places were well-known in the Vedic, Brahmana and Upanisadic periods, we can say that Atreya must have flourished not later than this period.

Thus the Brahmana or the Upanisadic period is the latest time when Atreya must have systematised and preached the medical science. Having determined that Atreya flourished before the Buddhist period and during the Upanisadic period, we must try to narrow down the period between the termimis a quo and terminus ad quem as much as possible.

The study of the contemporaries of Atreya in order to attempt to fix their dates is bound to yield useful results. In the Caraka Samhita, we find from various references that Marica (Mārīca), Kashyapa (Kāśyapa), Varyovida (Vāryovida), Marici (Marīci) and Kashyapa (Kaśyapa) were contemporaries of Atreya.

(a) [Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 1-12]

Marica and Kashyapa are mentioned as Risis who attended the Himalayan conference in company with Atreya.

(b) [Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 12.9]

(c) [Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 12-11]

Here, as seen in the above passage, Atreya, Marici and Varyovida meet in the same assembly and discuss. In this assembly Marici gives the authoritative statement about the action of Pitta while Vaiyovida establishes the actions and qualities of normal and abnormal Vata. This shows that all these were contemporaries.

[Carakasaṃhitā Śārīrasthāna 6.21]

Here Marici Kashypa (Mārīci Kaśyapa) is quoted by Atreya as the propounder of the theory that the spirit is unthinkable it is not the object of direct observation.

The references pertaining of Varyovida are as follows.


Here Varyovida is mentioned as the authority on Vata or Vayu and he is in discussion with Marici and Atreya.

(b)[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 25.12-12]

Here we see him as the propounder of the theory of the nutrient fluid being the source of both—man and disease (rasaja vyādhayaḥ and rasajaḥ puruṣaḥ). He is the contemporary of Atreya as well as of Nimi of Videha.

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 26.4-5]

Varyovida attends this assembly met to discuss the categories of taste. Among others who attend are Nimi of Videha and Kankayana (Kāṅkāyana) the physician from Bahlika (Bāhlīka—Modern Balkh) Varyovida propounds the theory that there are six categories of taste. He is given the epithet of Rajarsi while Nimi is given the epithet of Raja.

These references in the Caraka indicate that Atreya. Marici Kashyapa, Varyovida, Nimi of Videha and Kankayana of Bahlika flourished at the same period. If we can fix up with certainty the date of any one of them, the dates of all others can be decided by the process of synchronism

The contemporaneity of Atreya, Kashyapa and Varyovida is supported by Kashyapa Samhita also.

[????? Sū. 28.2]

Varyovida and Nimi propound their own theories about the classification of disease and the presiding Rishi Kashyapa gives the final authoritative decision in the matter.

[Kāśyapasaṃhitā Siddhisthāna 1.11-12-13]

In this assembly Atreya Punarvasu, Bhela, and Kashyapa meet together Atreya Punarvasu and Bhela give their own theory and Kashyapa the master preceptor on Pediatrics, gives his decisive opinion on the subject.

These references from Kashyapa Samhita also support the fact that Marici Kashyapa, Punarvasu Atreya, Varyovida and Bhela were contemporaries and the Bhela Samhita corroborates the contemporaneity of Atreya and Kashyapa,


In trying to fix the date of Atreya, internal evidence of the text will greatly help. In Caraka we find that it enumerates three hundred and sixty bones in the human body—(... Carakasaṃhitā Śārīrasthāna 7.6). In the Sushruta Samhita we find that only three hundred bones are enumerated. But Sushruta was aware of the enumeration of bones as three hundred and sixty in works anterior to him.

[Suśrutasaṃhitā Śārīrasthāna 5.18]

“The professors of general medicine i.e Ayurveda, speak of three hundred and sixty bones but books on surgical science Shalya-tantra (Śalya-tantra) know only of three hundred.”

The commentator Dalhana says here:

“‘Veda’ is used to signify Ayurveda and not the four sacred Vedas.”

This proves that Atreya is anterior to Sushruta and that the two systems differ with regard to the number of holies in the human body. This theory or fact of Atreya’s priority to Sushruta is supported by the great scholar Hoernle, although he ascribes to Atreya the period of Takshashila’s glory Speaking about Sushruta he says, “He must have been acquainted with the doctrines of Atreya. With reference, for example, to the bones of the human body, he introduces his own exposition with a remark pointing out the difference between Atreya’s system and his own in respect of the total number of the bones.”

Besides this, there are clear indications in the Shatapatha Brahmana (Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa), a post-Vedic work, that the author was acquainted with the doctrine of both Atreya and Sushruta

[Śatapathabrāhmaṇa 10 A. 4-8]

“But indeed that fire-altar also is the body, the bones are the enclosing stones and there are 360 of these, because there are three hundred and sixty bones in man. The marrow parts are the Yajusmati bricks, for there are three hundred and sixty of these and three hundred and sixty parts of marrow in man.”

In Caraka we find (Carakasaṃhitā Śārīrasthāna 7.6) there are fourteen bones in the breast. In Sushruta this number is given as seventeen (Suśrutasaṃhitā Śārīrasthāna 4.19).

Shatapatha seems to have taken the number of breast-bones from Sushruta.

The anatomical comparisons quoted above show that at the time of Shatapatha, both the medical schools, of Atreya and Sushruta, were in existence and that the author possessed some knowledge of their respective theories of the skeleton. For he derived from Sushruta the allotment of seventeen bones to the breast while according to Caraka the bones are only fourteen, while he got the total of 360 bones of the skeleton from Atreya, Sushruta having only 300 In his choice of particulars from the two systems, of course, he was guided by the requirements of his mystic treatment of the fire-altar.

The author of the Shatapatha Brahmana is Yajnavalkya (Yājñavalkya) who is said to have flourished at the court of Janaka, the famous king of Videha, and contemporary of Ajatashatru. The latter, the celebrated ruler of Magadha was a contemporary of the Buddha His accession took place approximately in 554 B.C.

Accordingly, Yajnavalkya may be dated, about 575 B.C. So the dates of Atreya and Sushruta must be placed some time before that period, and Atreya being anterior to Sushruta, he can safely be placed at least in the seventh century B. C.

This date of Atreya is pushed back to further antiquity by the evidences found in the Atharvaveda. As evidence of the very early date of both, Atreya and Sushruta, we have a rather significant passage in the Atharvaveda. It occurs in the tenth book, as a hymn on the creation of man, in which the several parts of the skeleton are carefully and systematically enumerated in striking agreement more especially with the system of Atreya as contained in Caraka’s compendium. The date of the Atharvaveda is not exactly known, but it belongs to the most ancient, or primary Vedic literature of India. It cannot be placed later than the eighth century B C. because references to it are found in secondary Vedic works, such as the Shatapatha Brahmana above referred to. The large portion of it (books I to XVIII) admittedly belongs to a much earlier period, possibly as early as about 1000 B.C., and the hymn in question is included in this older portion Moreover, within that portion it belongs to a division (books VIII-XII) which bears a distinctly hieratic character. It thus takes us back to that pre-historic or the semi-mythical age of the medicine man who combined the functions of priest and physician. This period as already stated, is represented conspicuously by the great sage Bharadvaja and to him it actually ascribes the authorship of one of the hymns (the twelfth of the tenth book) of that hieratic division.

So the period of Atreya can be bracketed between the end of Atharva-period and the beginning of Shatapatha-period.

Let us see if the method of exposition and the language used are of any help to us in fixing the date. The main text of Atreya seems to have been composed during the ‘Sutra period’ or the aphoristic period which appeared at the end of the Vedic period. The rise of this class of writings was due to the need of reducing the vast and growing mass of details of knowledge and experience accumulated during the Vedic period in the whole of Aryavarta, to a systematic shape and of compressing them into a compact form which would not impose too great a burden on the memory, the only vehicle of all teaching and learning in those days, The main object of the Sutras was therefore to supply a short but comprehensive survey of the sum of these scattered details. For this purpose, the utmost brevity was needed, a requirement which was certainly met in a manner unparalleled elsewhere. The very name of this class of literature (Sūtra ‘thread’ or ‘clue’ from ‘siv’—to sew) points to its main characteristic and chief object viz., extreme conciseness. The prose in which these works were composed is such that the wording of the most laconic expression would often appear diffuse compared with it. Some of the Sutras attain to such a degree of terseness that the formulas cannot be understood without the help of elaborate commentaries.

A characteristically aphoristic verse which defines the nature of a Sutra is here.


“This is called a Sutra which has the least number of words, is unambiguous, synoptical, all-embracing, devoid of any superficial word and faultless.”

According to it, the compilers of grammatical Sutras delighted as much as in the saving of a short vowel as in the birth of a son ([...]).

The first section of Atreya Samhita is called Sutra-sthana. This Sutra style needed interpretation and commentaries and hence it was essential to study under a Guru who could interpret the Sutras. This is also one of the reasons why later on so many commentaries on this Samhita were written

Linguistic investigations tend to show that the Sutras are closely connected in time with the grammarian Panini, some of them appearing to be even anterior to him. We shall therefore probably not go far wrong in assigning 7th to 2nd century B.C. as the chronological limits within which the Sutra literature was developed.

Another evidence which leads us to place Atreya some time in the Shatapatha Brahmana period is the assembly-system so often mentioned in his treatise. The philosophical disquisitions are the characteristic feature of the Brahmana period. It was a special function of the Brahma priest to give decisions on many disputed points that may arise in the course of a sacrifice, and this he could not have done unless he was a master of ratiocination. Such decisions which may be likened to the chairman’s rulings in a modern assembly are scattered through the ancient Brahmanas and are collected together as so many deductions (tyāya) in the Purva Mimamsa (Pūrvamīmāṃsā) aphorisms of Jaimini (Jaiminī).

These tournaments of arguments form a prominent feature in the later books of Shatapatha Brahmana. The hero of these is Yajnavalkya who is regarded as the chief authority, like Atreya in the Caraka Samhita.

In the Brihadaranyakopanishad (Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad) which forms the concluding portion of the last book named Aranyaka (āraṇyaka) of both the recensions of Shatapatha Brahmana, the second part of the Upanishad (upaniṣad) consists of four philosophical discussions in which Yajnavalkya is the chief speaker. Out of these four, the first is a great disputation in which the sage proves his superiority over nine successive interlocutors. The second discourse is the dialogue between king Janaka and Yajnavalkya. The third discourse is another dialogue between them. The fourth is the discourse between Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi (Maitreyī).

In the Caraka Samhita we find the following discussions.

In the 10 th chapter of Sutra-sthana there is depicted a dialogue between the main speaker Atreya and Maitreya.

Atreya gives a warning at the end thus:—

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 10]

“One who knows the differential diagnosis between curable and incurable diseases, as also the right application, will not fall into such erroneous mode of thinking as Maitreya and others did”.

In the 12th chapter of Sutra-sthana the discourse is among the Rishis, Kusha Sankrityayana, Kumarashira Bharadvaja, Kankayana, Bahlika, Badisa Dhamargava, Varyovida Rajarsi, Marici, Kapya, and Atreya.

Bach of them discusses one aspect of the subject and Atreya, the presiding sage, links all the aspects in one integrating form

In chapter 25th of Sutra-sthana, Kashipati Vamaka approaches the assembly of Rishis for the solution of a question. Pariksi (Pārikṣi), Maudgalya, Sharaloma (Śaralomā), Varyovida (Vāryovida), Hiranyaksa (Hiraṇyākṣa), Kushika (Kuśika), Kaushika (Kauśika), Bhadrakapya (Bhadrakāpya), Bharadvaja (Bharadvāja), Kankayana (Kāṅkāyana), Bhikshu Atreya (Bhikṣu Ātreya), each of these propounds his own theory and insists tenaciously on its acceptance. The presiding sage Atreya exhorts all of them to be more rational and scientific and gives his authoritative decision on the subject.

Similarly, in chapter 26 th of Sutra-sthana, nine sages meet and each propounds his own theory in the discourse on the categories of taste Finally, the learned Atreya expounds giving the decision in the matter.

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 25]

“These who advance arguments and counter-arguments as if they were finalities, never in fact arrive at any conclusion, going round and round like the man who sits on the oil press. Therefore letting go this wordy warfare, apply your minds to the essential truth, but without dispersing the obscuring cloud (of passion) there can be no proper appreciation of the object that is to be known”.

In the 3 rd chapter of Sharira-sthana again, there is a discourse between Bharadvaja and Atreya.

Elaborate rules and regulations about the conducting of such meetings are given in great details in the Vimana-sthana chapter VIII.

Reviewing the matter and manner of these discourses and the importance attached to such meetings, one feels that Atreya’s treatise must have been composed during the period when such disquisitions were the prevalent system of establishing the final truth in a matter of dispute. Thus Atreya’s period coincides with the Shatapatha period.

Taking into view the internal and external evidence supported by historical consistency we are led to place Atreya in a period not deflecting much on either side of the 8th century B.C. but certainly not later than 7th century B.C.

Atreya, as a teacher

As a teacher of medicine, Atreya is of a very high order judged from the methods he adopted to instruct his disciples and of the arrangement and classification of the subjects and medical concepts. All the parallel treatises such as those of Kashyapa, Harita and Bhela, refer to him as the accredited teacher and authority on medicine.

It is therefore necessary that we learn of the methods of instruction he pursued in achieving this supremacy as a teacher.

At the beginning of each lesson, he categorically announces the definite subject he proposes to expound. Then, often it happens that the disciples headed by Agnivesha put inquiring questions in order to spot-light the salient points of the subject proposed. And the teacher while expounding these salient points covers the whole field of the proposed subject. Occasionally, there are intelligent interjections by Agnivesha asking for clarification on points, as for example, when the teacher commends the real physician as against the quack, Agnivesha asks, “How are we to know the real physician from the quack?” and a most impressive delineation of the difference between the quack and the real physician is given by Atreya ([Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 29]). Again after proposing the subject to be expounded, the various disciples or the sages and learned men assembled about the teacher, are invited to offer their individual views. The great discussions on the subject of Vata and of Rasa are supreme examples of this kind. After listening to the views of each of the learned men participating in the discussion, Atreya sums up his opinion which is sometimes categorically offered and sometimes elaborated by arguments and illustrations Though in later days there obtained in India the Socratic method known as teacher-disciple dialogues ([...]) yet Atreya’s cannot be called such a method. It is in its form more ancient and related to the Brahmanical method of discission. Only, it is milder in spirit without the bravado and vehemence that characterises the part played by exponents like Yajnavalkya in the debates conducted under the patronage of king Janaka. There is a true spirit of inquiry and a desire for discovering and accepting the truth on a subject is transparent in these discussions, but no desire to assert oneself and score a victory in debate. This became the spirit of a later day though it was condemned by Atreya as unworthy of good men (Car. Vim. VIII.22-23)

[Carakasaṃhitā Vimānasthāna 8.22-23]

“In a hostile debate, one should speak supported by reason and skill and never object to statements backed by authority. The hostile debate, which is serious, enrages some people.

And there is nothing that an enraged min may not do or say, and wise men never commend a quarrel before an assembly of good men”

Throughout, in these discussions, Atreya conducts himself with great dignity, composure and understanding. He listens to the expositions of the different views of the scholars assembled and after duly weighing them, gives out his own considered opinion which is invariably accepted as final by the assembly Occasionally he warns his disciples against the error fallen into by any of the disputants, as for example he warned his disciples and others present against “falling into the same error as did Maitreya and others like him on the question of treatment and non treatment being equal in their results”

He warns against clinging to an argument ([pakṣasaṃśraya?]) also.

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 25.26-27]

The spirit of reverence with which his disciples approach him as he is seated amidst sages and scholars including occasionally the learned rulers of neighbouring kingdoms or foreign scholars and the finality his discussions acquire in the discussions among these sages and scholars, and also the shifting scene of such assemblies from the northern Himalayas to the eastern part like Kailasa and the southern plains of Kampilya are indubitable indications of the popularity, wisdom and supremacy among his contemporaries, of Atreya as a teacher of medicine.

Besides, for us the significance lies in the stamp of methodical and scientific exposition, he imparted to the mass of medical lore that perhaps lay till then in amorphous heap of drugs and data. The stage of rational or scientific medicine began with Atreya. Though the concept of the three controlling forces of the body as of the universe is contained in the Vedic literature, it is to Atreya that medicine owes its full elaboration of the Tridosha (Tridoṣa) concept in a consistent method and based on a logic of elemental combinations and physico-chemical transmutations. With the theory of taste and its influences on metabolic and physiological functions and its application in therapeutics, the concept of the Rasa, Guna (guṇa), Virya (vīrya) and Vipaka (vipāka) and Prabhava (prabhāva) of drugs, Medicine passes from the empirical stage to a scientific stage, based and supported on bio-physical and bio-chemical concepts.

Though Caraka and Dridhabala may be given credit for the present arrangement of the various sections and the order of the chapters etc, yet the essential rationale running through the entire length of the treatise and the basic concepts and generalisations on drug, disease-factors and methods of therapeusis, belong to Atreya and have been kept intact and perhaps have been embellished by details of illustration by the redactors

The rational spirit of the teacher is so strong that even maladies which admitted of a religious or demoniac origin and were actually believed to be such by others, were put down by Atreya as due to purely physical and physiological causes and to volitional transgression, and were exhorted to be treated like other diseases. While describing Insanity, Atreya lays down that neither the gods nor the demons have anything to do with it and must be known to result from wrongful behaviour and must be countered by suitable remedies.

[Carakasaṃhitā Nidānasthāna 8.19]

“Neither gods nor the Gandharvas, neither the goblins nor the demons, nor aught else, torment the man who is not tormented of himself.”

It is remarkable that in similar fashion does Hippocrates of Greece explain ‘epilepsy’ which till then was named a ‘sacred disease’. He says, “It is thus with regard to the disease called sacred. It appears to me to be no wise more divine nor more sacred than other diseases but has a natural cause from which it originates like other affections. The cause is no longer divine but human”.

It is therefore natural to surmise that the time of Atreya coincides with that in which the general tendency in Indian life aud thought became rational, when inquiry into the original causes of things was initiated and pursued i.e. in the Upanisadic or the Brahmana period, that succeeded the age of revelation and intuition to which the Veda belongs. Thus in the heyday of Indian speculative thought, Atreya taught his elaborations of the theory of drug and disease and ushered in the age of scientific medicine. He gave it the framework of a metaphysic of medicine, a basement of theory that could sustain the elaborate edifice of pathology and therapeutics so minutely evolved and completed at a time when humanity in general was still cradled in its infancy as regaids scientific thought and practice. Succeeding the glowing demi-god Bharadvaja, who brought down the beneficient lore from the king of the gods, Atreya stands supreme among the teachers of the Science of Life among men, a teacher conspicuous for sweet reasonableness, breadth and comprehensiveness of wisdom as of vision and clarity of definitions, and above all, expert in the correlating of drug to disease. He is thus supreme as a therapeutist and has earned the immortal name of being the originator of medicine. Atreya is a name, immortal in Indian medicine and will remain so as long as the science of life is studied and practised in the light and spirit of his principles and basic theory.

His attachment to reason and the happy results flowing from scientific understanding as against fads and unreasoned faith, which make for ignorance, is borne out by his exemplary definition of knowledge and happiness.

[Carakasaṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 30.48]

“All suffering, with its resort in the body as well as in the mind has for its basis ignorance, while all happiness has its foundation in pure scientific knowledge.

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