Indian Medicinal Plants

by Kanhoba Ranchoddas Kirtikar | 1918

A comprehensive work on Indian Botany including plant synonyms in various languages, habitat description and uses in traditional medicine, such as Ayurveda....

Notes on the importance of Sanskrit names of medicinal plants

The importance of Sanskrit names of plants was fully understood by Sir William Jones, the President Founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. More than a century ago he suggested that

“the first step in compiling a treatise on the plants of India should be to write their true names in Roman letters, according to the most accurate orthography, and in Sanskrit preferably to any vulgar dialect; because a learned language is fixed in books, while popular idioms are in constant fluctuation, and will not perhaps be understood a century hence by the inhabitants of these Indian territories, 'whom future botanists may consult on the common appellations of trees and flowers.” (Sir Wm. Jones’ Works, Yol. II, London, 1799, p. 2.)

On another occasion Sir Wm. Jones said:—

“I am very solicitous to give Indian plants their true Indian appellation; because I am fully persuaded, that Linnæus himself would have adopted them, had he known the learned and ancient language of this country. * * * Far am I from doubting the great importance of perfect botanical descriptions; for languages expire as nations decay, and the true sense of many appellatives in every dead language must be lost in the course of ages; but as long as those appellatives remain understood, a travelling physician who should wish to procure an Arabian or Indian plant, and without asking for it by its learned or vulgar name, should hunt for it in the woods by its botanical character, would resemble a geographer, who, desiring to inquire by name for a street or a town, but waits with his tables and instruments for a proper occasion to determine its longitude and latitude.” (“Botanical Observations on select Indian Plants.” Sir Wm. Jones’ Works, Vol. II P. 47, London, 1799.)

In Sanskrit every plant bears several synonyms which may facilitate in tracing the history and identification of the plant.

“Every single word in Sanskrit,” writes Professor Sir Monier Williams, “is referred to dhatu or root which is also a name for any constituent elementary substance, whether of rocks or living organisms. In short, when we follow out their grammatical system in all the details of its curious subtleties and technicalities, we seem to be engaged, like a geologist, in splitting solid substances, or like a chemist, in some elaborate process of analysis.” (Preface to Sanskrit Dictionary p. vi.)

These Sanskrit synonyms to be of any use, should be accompanied with a literal translation into English.

Mr. O. B. Clarke does not think that the vernacular names of plants help much in identifying them. For he says:

“I have observed that the eagerness to get native or vulgar names for plants is directly proportioned to the ignorance of the enquirer, those who know nothing about the plants and who are unable to discriminate them under any names being always loud in their call for native or local names.”

Again, “as to the grand Sanskrit names, they are of still less value than the vulgar ones, being founded on less actual observation, with the object of enriching the language.” (Preface by Mr. Clarke to his Edition of Roxburgh’s Flora Indica, p. ii, Calcutta, 1874.)

I think these remarks of Mr. Clarke are not quite justifiable, and they are not shared in by other eminent botanists. For instance, Sir David Brandis, who has been called the “Father of Indian Forestry,” says regarding the vernacular names of plants,:—

“The critical examination of the vernacular names of the different Indian languages, and their derivation from the Sanskrit or other roots, will be found a most interesting and important study. 2 2 2 2The forester should not despise vernacular names, for in many instances they have a fixity which systematic names do not yet possess. We all know the ever green Khirni, and there can be no mistake about it; but botanists are not yet agreed whether the tree shall be called Mimusops indica, hexandra or Kauki. Kamela or Kamila is a well-known small tree, its systematic name among Indian botanists, however, which for more than half a century was Rottleria tinctoria has now and properly been changed into Mallotus philippinensis. Again, there can be no doubt as to the tree designated by kao, kan. Although some botanists call it olea europea, others olea cuspidata, and others olea ferrnginea. * * * These changes of systematic names are not arbitrary—as a rule, they are dictated by the progress of scientific research ; but they are apt to discourage the student, and on that account, also, vernacular names merit attention.” (Forest Flora of N. W. India, Preface: pp. xi and xii, London, 1874.)

When the Pharmacopoeia of India was issued, it was considered a great defect in the work that it had not given the vernacular names of the plants. In reviewing the work, a writer said : —

“ Many of the non-officinal remedies, the introduction of which to regular practice is avowedly one of the objects of the publication of this Pharmacopoeia, are dismissed without a single vernacular name for them being given. The recommendation, for example, of the committee, that Hymenodictyon excelsum should be looked to as likely to prove a valuable specific for malarious fevers, is pretty certain to be quite thrown away on a medical officer, who is not an expert in botany, for not a single native name for this tree is given either in the book itself or in the index ; and though it might happen to grow in forests round his station, the committee put him in possession of no means of recognising it. * * * This very grave defect in the Pharmacopoeia, cannot be removed by the publication of a separate catalogue of native names, as proposed. In a second edition we hope to see not only a full vernacular index, but to find, following the botanical name of each substance, as complete a list as possible of the vernacular Synonyms for it which are current in the three presidencies.” (Calcutta Review for 1869, p. 201.)

All the above extracts will show that the importance of vernacular names of plants is fully recognised by those whose opinion is entitled to respect on this subject.

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