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 11 - Institutions and Universities

The Rishi-kula

Cardinal Newman says that a University is an assembly of learned persons. According to this definition, each and every Rishi family was an autonomous university where the atmosphere of learning and scholarship, sacrifice, worship and self-realization prevailed. These unitary Rishi-kulas or educational settlements developed into a form more complex, first as Ashrama-kulas conducting their studies in the calm and cool shades of the forest and later on as Guru-kulas which were the urban proto-types of the former. Both these rural and urban Kulas were doing the work of universities. The Ashrama-kulas being situated in the forests resembled the residential universities while Guru-kulas were like the affiliating and partly residential universities

Such Ashramas were as a rule situated in places where nature was bountiful and pleasant. Some of these Ashramas have become immortalised in the history of our culture. Naimisaranya (Naimiṣāraṇya) is famed in the Purauas. Janasthana (Janasthāna) stands in the forefront of the Ramayana while the Ashrama of Kanva Rishi, described in the Mahabharata and immortalised by that prince among Indian poets Kalidasa, is even today looked upon with great reverence and awe by the research scholars.

Vyasa (Vyāsa), Dhaumya, Agastya, Vasistha (Vasiṣṭha), Vishvamitra (Viśvāmitra), Jabali (Jābāli), Valmiki (Vālmīki), Kanva (Kaṇva) and other Rishis have attained great renown. Some of these Rishis had ten thousand pupils studying under their direction and these Rishis were addressed by the honoured title of Kulapati.


“He is verily called a ‘Kulapati’ who teaches along with all their branches the four Vedas to ten thousand students with free lodging and boarding”.

University Education

Admission to these universities was by no means easy. The gates of the university were guarded very scrupulously by erudite scholars who held the entrance examination Only passing through a stiff test could one gain entrance to this revered temple of learning. The members of the admission committee were aptly called Dvara Panditas (Dvārapaṇḍita) who were zealous in maintaing [maintaining?] the scholarship by preventing the entrance of mediocres. The final test for graduation or completion of study was equally hard. The examination committees used the Salaka pariksa test in which the candidates were required to explain that page of the text book which happened to be the last when picked up by a Salaka or a needle

Buddha Viharas as Universities

As men got entangled more and more in the worldly affairs, the Rishi-kula was eventually superseded by the Guru-kula. The Guru-kula tried to maintain the best tradition of the Rishi-kula as far as it was possible in its new environments. Consequent upon the disorganisation of Brahmanism when Buddhism came in the ascendance, it took up the link and continued to impart education in the Viharas (religious places) almost on the lines of the Guru-kulas in a systematic way. We have adequate information regarding the Buddhistic Viharas. The manner in which they were utilized as universities was really admirable. Amongst these educational institutions the universities of Takshashila (Takṣaśilā). Kashi (Kāśī) Nalanda (Nālandā), Udattapuri (Udāttapurī), Jagaddala (Jagaddalā), Mithila (Mithilā) and Navadvipa (Navadvīpa) have earned fame in the scholastic world. Takshashila was situated about 20 miles west of modern Rawalpindi. Valabhi was in Saurastra, while the others were in the Gangetic valley Here thousands of people flocked together to quench their thirst for knowledge. There was a continuous flow of admiring pilgrims for getting the merit of having Darshana (auspicious sight) of these religio-educational sanctuaries. It was considered a high honour for foreign scholars to get admission into these temples of learning. It was due to the world-wide fame of these educational institutions that men like Fa Hyan and Huen Tsang came all the way from China, travelled through the whole of Aryavarta and left for us priceless accounts of their experiences. The high personages like the mighty chancellors Shila-bhadra (Śīlabhadra), Dipankara (Dīpaṃkara) and Atisa (Atīsa) had by their unrelenting studiousness made these universities universally lovable and popular

Courses of Study

The full list of the study courses included Vedic literature. The Vedas (prayer books), the Brahmanas (sacerdotal texts), the Upanisads (spiritual discourses), the Sutras (aphorisms), Sanskrit literature, history, geography, Puranas (ancient history), poetry, drama, arts and science, phonetics, grammar, vocabulary, prosody, rhetorics, philosophy, astronomy, astrology, geometry, trigonometry, arithmetic, algebra, medicine, military science, lands, marine sciences, commerce and industry, the Dharma Sastra (religion), the Smriti (law), the Arthashastra (political economy) and religious scriptures—this comprehensive course of study was taught by the universities according to their needs and resources. Takshashila had a very famous medical college. The military academy of Takshashila was also famous Nalanda was noted for its library. Kashi paid more attention to Vedanta (philosophy) and Nyaya, Tantra Vidya (incantatiton of religious magic) and magic were popular at Vikrama-sila. Mithila excelled in Navya-nyaya (neo-logic) Navadvipa specialised in Hetuvidya (logic). Each Vihara had valuable stores of books and to avail themselves of their benefit, students paid frequent visits to these places.

Chinese Pilgrims’ Accounts

The best accounts of the University are furnished by the two cheese pilgrims to India viz, Yuan Chwang who travelled in India for 16 years i.e. 629-645 A D as a student of Buddhism, of which he spent five years as a student at the university of Nalanda, and It-sang who spent ten years i.e., 675-685 A. D. as a student there Yuan Chwang states that foreign students came to Nalanda to put an end to their doubts and then became celebrated. At the entrance examination of the university only about 20 could pass and 80 failed to get admission. The university thus comprised really the picked scholars who could take their part in its academic life of the highest standard as represented in its ‘schools of discussions’ of which the university was mainly made up. To be a student of Nalanda was thus the highet [highest?] academic distinction of the day.

Yuan Chwang states,

“Those who bore the name of ‘Nalanda brother’ were all treated with respect wherever they went”.

Yuan Chwang supports the claim by stating that the students of Nalanda were looked upon as models.


Taxila (Takshashila—Takṣaśilā) situated about 20 miles west of Rawalpindi in the North-west provinces was undoubtedly the most important seat of learning in ancient India. It was the capital of the-then important province of Gandhara and its history goes back into hoary antiquity. But its fame rests not on its being a political capital of a province, but on its being the intellectual capital of Aryavarta. In its halcyon days, the place resounded with the chantings of Vedic Mantras by a host of students attracted to it from the nooks and corners of the whole of India and even beyond. It was founded by Bharata and named after his son Taksa who was established there as a ruler. Janamejaya’s serpent sacrifice was performed at this very place Not much is known of its early educational activities but by the 7th century B.C., it loomed large as a famous seat of learning.

Its fame had spread far and wide in foreign countries and we find many glorious tributes to it in the writings of foreigners, ancients and moderns. Pliny calls it a famous city. Strabo declares it to be a large city and adds that the neighbouring country was crowded with inhabitants and that it was very fertile. Marrian described it as a large and wealthy city and the most populous between the Indus and Hydaspes.

Vincent Smith, in his history, says,

“It was the leading seat of Hindu learning where crowds of pupils from all quarters were taught the three Vedas and the eighteen accomplishments. It was the fashion to send princes and the sons of the well-to-do Brahmanas on attaining the age of sixteen to complete their education at Taxila which may be properly described as a University town. The medical school there enjoyed a special reputation but all arts and sciences could be studied under the most eminent professors”.

Dr Hoernle says:—

“According to another non-medical line of Indian tradition preserved in the Buddhist Jatakas or Folk-lore, there existed in India in the age of Buddha two great universities or seats of learning in which all sciences ([???] or sarvashilpanisarvashilpa) or including medicine were taught by professors of world-wide renown ([???] or dishapramukhacarya). These two universities were Kashi or Benares in the east and still more famous Takshashila on the Jhelum river in the west. In the latter university, at the time of Buddha or shortly before it, the leading professor of medicine was Atreya. He accordingly should have flourished at some time in the sixth century B.C.”

We find references to the origin of Taxila in the Ramayana as follows:—

[Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa Uttarakāṇḍa, Sarga 101.10-11.]

“As they were all killed, Bharata, the son of Kaikeyi built up two prosperous cities and placed Taksa in Takshashila and Puskala in Puskalavata in the beautiful country of Gandharvas and in the province of Gandhara respectively”.

In Mahabharata also there is a similar reference.

[Mahābhārata Ādiparva A. 3.10]

“The brothers sent by him went out as desired Having instructed his brothers thus, he attacked Takshashila and subjugated it”.

This famous university not only attracted students from far off places in India like Rajagriha, Mithila, Benares, Ujjain, Kuru, Koshala etc., but from foreign countries also like Babylonia, Mishra (Egypt), Phoenicia, Syria, Arabia, China and Greece. It was a university to which a number of Indian institutions were affiliated. It furnished an ideal to foreign countries for moulding their universities on its lines. The Alexandrian school which was established in the 4th ceutury B.C. and which could boast of 14000 students, was probably the result of inspiration derived from Takshashila during Alexander’s invasion of India.

The presence of world-renowned teachers, who were authorities in their subjects, experts and specialists of the various branches of learning was its forte. It was a place where the finishing touch to education was given as graduation from it marked the completion of one’s studies.

The catholicity of the curriculum amazes the student of history. Medicine, surgery, allied military arts, astronomy, astrology, divination, accountancy, commerce, agriculture, conveyancing, magic, snake charming, finding hidden treasures and mines, dancing and painting were the main subjects taught besides the Vedas and the eighteen accomplishments.

The subjects were taught under the supervision of expert teachers Each teacher had his own institution having on its role about 500 students. We learn that one teacher of the military science had all the princes of India studying under him numbering 103.

The brilliant teachers and the variety of subjects attracted the cream of the intelligentia and we can count among the luminaries of this intellectual alma mater of India such famous names as Canakya (Cāṇakya) Panini (Pāṇini), Jivaka (Jīvaka), Vyadi (Vyāḍi), Kumaralabdha (Kumāralabdha), Asvaghosa (Aśvaghoṣa), Deva, Nagarjuna (Nāgārjuna), Atreya (Ātreya), Brahmadatta, Junaha (Junāha) and a host of others. No doubt it won the popular epithet of the “Queen of learning.”

The enrolment of students from distant lands reflects very favourably on the soundness of its educational system. Travel in those days was more than an adventure, it was a hazard. It took months to reach a place where it would now take as many hours. It was usual for a person to distribute his property among his heirs and relatives and bid them adieu before starting on a pilgrimage because the hazards and the rigours of travel were such that if a person safely returned from his travels, it was considered to be nothing short of a miracle. And yet parents unhesitatingly sent their sons to Taxila for the acquisition of knowledge at the tender age of 16, the same age limit as is found in modern universities. The course lasted from 5 to 7 years and the students could not return to their homes every four or six months as students of our age can, because the means of communication as we know them today were not existent then.


Fees were levied. 1000 pieces of the-then current coin was the fee for the course to be paid at the time of enrolment whereas the students who were not able to pay fees rendered personal service to the teacher in lieu of the fees. On completion of study, a lump sum or some other gift was given to the teacher as Guru Daksina (gurudakṣiṇā) according to the students’ capacity.

The university was largely supported by public contributions. Handsome donations from princes to the university were always forthcoming Besides the students and the staff were often invited and entertained to meals by the public. We find an instance where a school of 500 students was invited for a dinner by a country family. Often a similar entertainment was given by the whole village

Some students were married persons and maintained their own household and attended to their studies. Those who could afford were allowed to stay in their owe homes. There is the instance of prince Junah of Kashi who was running an independent house for himself while he attended his college at Taxila

The admission was strict but the strictness was with regards to the intellectual level of the students seeking admission. But the caste or poverty never formed a barrier, the only exception being that of the Candala. This will be evident when we find that there were youths from Ksatriyas, Brahmins, princes, noblemen, merchants, tailors, fishermen and others among the students. There is a story that a Candala of Ujjaini got admission to the university by resorting to disguise

Caste not, only did not hamper admission into the university, but it also did not restrict the student in the choice of his subject. This freedom of choice of subjects is evident from instances where we find a Brahmin learning magic and charm, another Brahmin learning the art of hunting, still another studying archery and yet another pursuing practical science Caste, thus had lost its sting if it ever then had, before the charms of this intellectual capital of Aryavarta.

Like caste, class distinctions also were a thing foreign to this university. A perfect democratic spirit pervaded throughout, and princes, merchants and poor students, all lived as fellow-students under the same strict discipline.

The senior students were given the chance to work as assistant teachers to enhance their grasp of the subject Shift system was also adopted and day and night classes were held.

We have ample proofs to learn that the courses of study were not merely theoretical. The knowledge of both theory and practice was imparted. Many students gave a finishing touch to their practical work by travels in various countries. Taxila was especially noted for its medical school, law school and the school of military science. These schools were very famous and the last named school could boast of having all the princes of India of the time as already stated as its students. The arts of healing and war were the specialities of Taxila although it included all other branches of learning.

Taxila stood in so high an esteem that pupils from various universities also were drawn to it. There is a story of a student Seta Ketu, of Benares, who went to Takshashila for further studies. On his return, he went to a village where a group of 500 ascetics taught him the arts.

The university at Benares was a later development, moulded on the lines of Taxila by students from Taxila. It flourished from 7th B.C. to 12 A.D. We find that the Benares boys were drawn to Taxila but we do not find any references of Taxila boys going to Benares. The most brilliant and outstanding feature of pride of the Benares university of those days was its school of surgery

There were many minor but important centres of learning at the time One such was the Himalayan school situated at Kanakhal near modern Haradwar where Kashyapa (Kaśyapa) the author of Kashyapa Samhita was the great teacher. It was primarily famous as a school of Pediatrics. Similarly Videha was also noted as a seat of learning for diseases of the eye.

Nalanda was the largest residential university that India has ever seen. The area covered by it was I mile long and 1/2 mile broad. This area had a high wall round the buildings Well-planned large and small buildings with 8 big halls and 300 lecture rooms is but a modest description of the centre of learning, which was a monastery and university combined into one. The University building was six-storeyed. The population comprised of 10000 pupils and over 1500 lecturers and teachers Over 1000 scholars of high repute were proud of having the honour to reside in the university. This, together with the executive and menial staff, reached a staggering figure. The university undertook a heavy burden of obligations towards the population. It undertook to give its students and teachers free lodging, free food and clothing and free tuition and medicine. There was no idea of deriving part of its expenses from the income of fees levied on the students (as is done in modern times) Education was free. This was possible due to the liberal grants made for the purpose by royal and private philanthropy. The University of Nalanda was royally patronized by Gupta rulers. It is also stated that as many as 100 chairs or pulpits were arranged every day for the lecturers or discourses to be delivered by as many different teachers

Admission was very strict. Only 2 out of every 10 applicants were admitted, thus preserving the very high intellectual standard for which the university was world-renowned. It could boast of students hailing from such far away countries like China, Korea, Tibet, Tokhara, Mongolia, Japan and the Indian Archipelago Considering the scarce and difficult means of communications of this distant age, this cosmopolitan nature of the students is amazing.

The Library at Nalanda

Library was considered to be the most essential constituent of such a university. It was proverbial to say that a monastery without a library was like a castle without armoury. This Nalanda university had three buildings reserved for library. They were nine-storeyed buddings containing rare and sacred books. The library quarter was known as Dharmaganja (Dharmagañja), the mart of religion.

Munificent donations, not only from the local Gupta kings, but from Bengal rulers and rulers of Java and Sumatra made it possible for the Kulapatis to supply all the requisite clothes, food, bedding and medicine absolutely free. The requisites obtained, the students could concentrate on study with nothing to worry about. It thus became an institute for higher or specialized learning. Its scholars after finishing their education travelled to China, Arabia, Tibet and Other places and organised medical work—a subject which was an important item in the curricula. These sacrificing scholars made it their mission to carry the banner of Indian learning and culture to foreign countries so as to build up a greater India far beyond the geographical boundaries of India proper. This peaceful cultural conquest, the greatest achievement of the Indian system of education as practised in the past, helped in creating a holy halo round this great temple of learning, and attracted students from all parts of the world to beg at India’s doors for the alms of knowledge that provided lasting satisfaction to the greater glory of the donors as well as the recipients. It thus justified its name of the University (Viśvabhāratī) by attracting students from the whole world. It was in fact an international university, like the modern Oxford and Cambridge universities Chinese travellers have left valuable accounts of their travels from which we can get a glimpse of the glory of India that was greater than we are wont to believe

Nalanda was particularly a research institute for advanced students and was so to say the supreme court of judges of intellectual worth Any new theory or hypothesis had to obtain its stamp to become current coin. The highest distinction bestowed by the university was the Fellowship or brotherhood of Nalanda. The students of Nalanda were looked upon as models by all India and were respected everywhere.

All subjects were taught in this university Medicine was one of the subjects. Logic was compulsory for all and was given great importance. There was an astronomical observatory and a waterclock which gave correct time to the whole of Magadha.

Nalanda’s alumni are names to conjure with. Nagarjuna (Nāgārjuna), Aryadeva (Āryadeva), Asanga (Asaṃga/Asaṅga), Vasubandhu, Dinnaga (Diṅnāga), Sthiramati, Dharmapala (Dharmapāla), Shilabhadra (Śīlabhadra) are but a few of the prodigies of which Nalanda can well be proud.

In contrast to all this glory, or rather we should say in perfect harmony with the ideals, mission and practice of this noble work of imparting education and infusing cultures, the dress of the students was the same as that of a Bhiksu (Bhikṣu). There was no caste distinction and a simple robe comprised the dress of all the students without any distinction as regards caste or social status. They were all Bhiksus (Bhikṣu), for the greatest gifts a human being can obtain—knowledge—culture—living.

This university flourished from 450 A.D. to 12th century A.D.

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