Sushruta Samhita, volume 1: Sutrasthana

by Kaviraj Kunja Lal Bhishagratna | 1907 | 148,756 words

This current book, the Sutra-sthana (english translation), is the first part of this voluminous medical work. It contains a large summary of the knowledge envelopig the medical aspects of Ayurveda. Descriptions of diseases, various diets and drugs, the duties of a surgeon, surgical procedures, medical training; these are only some of the numerous s...

Chapter XL - Knowledge of taste etc of drugs

Now we shall discourse on the Chapter, which treats of drugs and their flavours, virtues, potencies and chemical actions. (Dravya-Rasa-Guna-Virya-Vipaka-Vijnaniya-adhyaya).

Certain professors of the Ayurveda hold that a medicinal drug or substance is pre-eminently the most important matter with which the science of medicine is concerned. First because, a drug, as a substance, has a definite and continuous existence, which its attributes (such as, taste, etc.,) do not possess. As for example the tastes, etc., which characterise a fruit in its unripe stage, are not perceived in its ripe or matured condition. Secondly because, a drug is real (Nitya) and invariable, whereas its attributes are but transitory and accidental at the best. As for instance the real character of a drug cannot be destroyed whether it be powdered or pasted. Thirdly because, a drug or a substance never can lose its own generic character. As for example, a drug possessed of attributes peculiar to the fundamental matter, earth, can never be transformed into one of watery attributes—a truth which does not hold good of its attributes. Fourthly because, a drug or a substance is an object of all the five senses of a man, whereas its attributes of tastes, etc. are respectively accommodated to the faculty of special sense organs. Fifthly because, a drug or a substance is the receptacle of the attributes of taste, etc., while the latter are the things contained. Sixthly because, a dictum of medicine can be commenced with the name of a drug or substance. As for example, it is quite natural to say that the drugs such as Vidari Gandha, etc., should be pressed and boiled. But it sounds preposterous to utter that the sweet taste should be pulverised and boiled. Seventhly because, the greater importance of a drug or substance has been laid down in the Shastras of medicines inasmuch as medical recipes have been described by the names of their component ingredients such as Matulunga, Agnimantha, etc., and not described as the tastes of Matulunga, Agnimantha etc. Eighthly because, the attributes of tastes, etc., depend upon the drugs and substances (of which they are the attributes) for their progressive maturity. As for example, the taste of a drug or substance varies with its growth and is different in its raw (immature) and ripe (mature) conditions. (Hence a drug is more important than its attributes of taste, etc.) Ninthly because, a drug may prove curative through the efficacy of one of its component parts or principles as in the case of Mahavriksha, the milky exudations of which are possessed of therapeutical virtues, which cannot be said of its taste.

Hence a drug or a substance (Dravyam) is the most important factor (which the science of medicine has got to deal with). A substance or drug necessarily implies action and attributes with which it is intimately connected and of which it is the primary cause, or to put it more explicitly, these attributes have an inseparable inherence in and are intimately associated with the substance by way of cause and effect (Samavayi-Karana).

Others, on the contrary, who do not endorse the above opinion, accord the highest importance to the attribute of taste (Rasa) of a drug or substance. Firstly because, it is so laid down in the Agamas (Vedas), which include the science of medicine (ayurveda Shastram) as well, and inasmuch as such statements as “Food is primarily contingent on its tastes and on food depends life” occur therein. Secondly because, the essential importance of taste may be inferred from such injunctions or instructions of the professors of medicine as, “sweet, acid and saline tastes soothe or pacify the deranged bodily Vayu.” Thirdly because, a drug or a substance is named after the nature of its taste, as a sweet drug, a saline substance, etc. Fourthly because, its primary importance is based on the inspired utterances of the holy sages (Rishis) which form the sacred hymns and verses of the Vedas, and such passages as “sweets to be collected for the purposes of a religious sacrifice,” etc., are to be found in them. Hence taste is the most important factor in the science of medicine and forms the primary attribute of a medicinal drug. But, later on, we shall have occasion to speak of that.

Certain authorities however, (who reject the two aforesaid theories), hold the potency (Viryam) of a drug to be the most important factor in medicine inasmuch as its therapeutic action, whether purgative, emetic, or both, or cathartic, or pacifying, or astringent, appetising, pressing (drawing to a definite head) or liquefacient, or constructive, tonic (vitalising) or aphrodisiac, or inflammatory, absorbing, caustic, or bursting, or intoxicating, soporific, killing or antitoxic, depends upon its potency. The potency of a drug is either cooling or heat-making owing to the twofold (hot and cool) nature of the temperament of the world. According to several authorities the potency of a medicinal drug may be classed as either hot or cool, emollient or dry, expansive or slimy, mild or keen, so as to embrace the eight different attributes in all. These potencies of medicinal drugs serve their respective functions by overpowering their (drugs’) tastes with their specific strength (intensity) and virtues. As for example the decoction of the roots belonging to the group of the Maha-Pancamula, though possessed of an astringent taste which is subsequently transformed into a bitter one, acquires the virtue of pacifying the deranged Vayu out of its heat-making potency. Similarly, the pulse known as Kulattha though possessed of an astringent taste, and onion though endued with a pungent one, respectively soothe the same deranged humour of the body through the oleaginous character of their potencies. On the other hand, the expressed juice of sugar-cane, though possessed of a sweet taste, tends to augment or aggravate the deranged Vayu owing to its cooling potency. The drug Pippali, though a pungent substance in itself, proves soothing to the deranged Pitta, owing to its mild and cooling potency. Similarly, an amalaka fruit, though acid in taste, and Saindhava, though saline, respectively tend to pacify the deranged Pitta. The drug Kakamachi, though of a bitter taste, and fish, though sweet, respectively aggravate the Pitta, owing to their thermogenetic potency. Similarly, Mulaka (Radish), though pungent, increases the Kapha of the body, on account of its emollient potency; and Kapittha, though acid, soothes; and honey, though sweet, tends to pacify the deranged Kapha owing to the dry character of its potency. The aforesaid instances have been cited by way of illustration.

Authoritative verses on the subject:—

Tastes, which are possessed of dry, light or expansive potencies, fail to pacify the deranged Vayu, though otherwise they may prove soothing to that deranged humour. Similarly, tastes, which are ordinarily reckoned as pacifiers of the deranged Pitta, fail to produce that effect in the event of their being endued with a keen, light or heat-making potency. Likewise, tastes, which are commonly found to soothe the deranged Kapha, tend to aggravate it in the event of their being possessed of potencies which are respectively heavy, cool and emollient in their character.[1] Hence the potency of a drug is the most important factor in the science of medicine.

But certain authorities dissent from the above-said view, and attach the highest importance to the process of digestive (chemical) reaction (Vipaka) for the reason, that all ingested food, properly or improperly digested in the stomach, proves wholesome or otherwise to the body. Certain authorities on the subject hold that digestion develops all the several tastes.[2]

According to others, tastes such as, sweet, pungent and acid, follow upon the completion of the process of digestion (by way of reactionary result or transformation).

It is needless to say that the hypothesis is based on erroneous data, inasmuch as the fact of acid digestion (acid taste developed at the close of the digestive process or reactionary acidity) is contrary both to the properties of matter and the collective experience of the race embodied in the dictum of the Shastras, and which should be rather ascribed to the acid taste of the Pitta remaining in an undigested or unassimilated condition owing to imperfect gastric digestion. The probability of a saline digestion (a reactionary saline taste following upon the close of the digestive process) should be necessarily presumed, if the fact of an acid digestion were to be upheld as a tested and corroborated principle of medical science. The hypothesis of an acid digestion (reactionary acidity) does not preclude the possibility of a similar saline one owing to the participation of the natural taste (saline) of the bodily Kapha in the process of digestion, as is said of Pitta in the preceding instance. Hence the theory that only three tastes, such as sweet, acid, and pungent are developed through digestive reaction, appears to be untenable, and naturally points to the doctrine that a sweet taste (partaken of by a man) brings on a sweet tasted digestion; an acid taste (reactionary acidity) begets acid digestion, and so on, a taste of whatsoever kind partaken of by a man imparting its specific character to his digestive reaction.

Those, who adhere to the last named doctrine, endeavour to substantiate it by the following analogy, and argue that as milk kept boiling in a basin placed over a fire does not change its natural sweetness (with the change of its temperature), as cereals such as Shali-rice, wheat, barley, Mudga, etc. sown broadcast in the ground do not part with their inherent, generic attributes (through their successive stages of development), so the tastes of food-stuff do not alter even after being boiled in the heat of the digestive organs.

Others, on the contrary, assert that weak tastes are naturally merged in the strong ones in the course of digestion. And since the consensus of expert opinions on the subject serves only to increase the confusion on account of their differences and bigoted antipathy, we shall judiciously refrain from indulging in idle theories on the subject.

Only two kinds of digestion (digestive reactionary tastes) have been noticed in the Shastras, such as, the sweet and the pungent, the first being heavy and the second light. The specific properties of the five essential material principles of the world such as, the earth, water, fire, air and sky may be roughly described as heaviness and lightness, the two attributes which appertain to their fundamental natures. Heaviness forms the characteristic attribute of earth and water, while lightness stands for the essential properties of fire, air and sky. Hence the digestion of all food-stuff may be described as either heavy (Guru) or light (Laghu).

Authoritative verses on the subject:—

Of substances under the process of digestion, those, which are characterised by attributes, specifically belonging to earth and water, are called substances of sweet (heavy) digestion; while those which are permeated with the specific properties of air, fire and sky are called substances of pungent (light) digestion (easily digestible articles of food). We have fully stated the text of the controversy as regards the primary importance of drugs and their tastes, virtues, potencies and digestive reactions, as well as the views of those who build their theories on the separate or exclusive importance of any of the five afore-said factors. The wise and the erudite set an equal importance to each of them, and ascribe the curative efficacy of a medicine to the co-operation of all these five factors. A drug or a substance sometimes destroys or originates a deranged condition of the humours through the dynamical action of its native or inherent properties, sometimes in virtue of its specific potency and sometimes by natural taste or digestive (chemical) reaction. Digestive reaction is impossible without drug potency. There is no potency without a taste, and taste without a drug or substance is an absurdity. Hence a substance (vegetable or otherwise) is the greatest of them all. A taste and a substance are correlative categories from the time of their origin, like a body and an embodied self in the plane of organic existence. Since an attribute per se can not be possessed of another attribute, the eight kinds of potency (properties) can only appertain to a substance and not to a taste, which is an attribute in itself. Substances are digested in an organic body and not the six tastes simply for the reason of their being invisible and intangible in themselves. Hence a substance is the greatest of all the aforesaid five factors (of substance, taste, virtues, etc.) and the attributes lie inherent in the substance.

Unscrutable and unthinkable are the virtues of drugs (medicines), which are above all rules of syllogism; and hence drugs (medicines), which have been observed to be efficacious from time immemorial, as well as those laid down in the scriptures on medicines, should alone be used in the course of a medical treatment, A learned physician should think it a sacrilege to logically dispute the efficacy of a medicine of tested virtue, and which has been adopted after generations of careful observation and is instinctively pronounced by men as a beneficial remedy. No amount of logic will alter the nature of things, nor persuade the drugs of the Amboshtha group to exercise a purgative virtue. Hence an intelligent physician should adhere to the officinal recipes given in the books on medicine, and not introduce innovations, however logical or probable, into the realms of applied or practical Therapeutics.


Thus ends the fortieth Chapter of the Sutrasthana in the Sushruta Samhita, which deals with drugs and their flavours, virtues, and digestive (chemical) transformation.

Footnotes and references:


Flavours such as, sweet, acid and saline, subdue the deranged Vayu. Tastes such as, sweet, bitter and astringent are antibilious in their efficacy, while those, which are pungent, bitter and astringent, are antiphlegmagogic in their virtues.


The process of digestion is followed by a reactionary taste, which may be either sweet, pungent, acid, astringent, bitter or saline.

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