Bhesajjakkhandhaka (Chapter on Medicine)

by Hin-tak Sik | 2016 | 121,742 words

This study deals with the ancient Indian Medicine (Ayurveda) in Early Buddhist Literature and studies the Bhesajjakkhandhaka and the Parallels in other Vinaya Canons. The word Bhesajja means “medicine” and is the sixth chapter of the Khandhaka, which represents the second book of the Pali Vinaya Pitaka. Other works consulted include the Bhaisajya-s...

Background Information

In the preceding chapter, it has been shown that the main concern of this thesis is to examine and understand the ancient Indian medical details preserved in the Chapter on Medicine. As already mentioned, the study will employ a three-fold interpretative method–namely, narration of the accounts of diseases and drugs, explanation of the medical data by means of commentarial information and Āyurvedic doctrines, and translation of ancient Indian medical lore to modern scientific/medical knowledge. In order to facilitate readers to appreciate thoroughly the discussions and interpretations of the medical facts of the Chapter on Medicine, especially those on the materia medica and the illnesses with their treatments which will be presented in Chapters Four and Five of this thesis, certain preliminary knowledge will be conducive to understanding. This chapter serves to provide such information.

Four sections of particulars will be provided:

  1. the history of Indian medicine–up to the time of the Buddha;
  2. the origin of the research material (viz. the Chapter on Medicine)–the Vinaya Piṭaka, the Skandhaka, and the Chapter on Medicine;
  3. a brief history and basic principles of Āyurveda; and
  4. a brief history and basic principles of biomedicine.

Why are these four scopes covered as background information? To begin with, the source of this present study is the Chapter on Medicine, which is the record of medical events which occurred within the monastic community during the time of the Buddha (around fifth to sixth century Before Common Era).[1] Knowing the historical context of medicine and so the medical development up to this time in India should enable us to better appreciate the medical lore in this epoch. Then, since the text for this study of ancient Indian medicine–the Chapter on Medicine–comes from the Skandhaka section of the Vinaya Piṭaka, it would be reasonable to know what the Vinaya Piṭaka, the Skandhaka and the Chapter on Medicine are all about. Finally, in order to comprehend the medical interpretations by means of Āyurveda and biomedicine, a brief history and the basic principles of these two medical systems will be concisely outlined, so that readers can understand with ease the medical terms and elucidations in the later chapters. The information of these four scopes will be given only as descriptive overviews of current knowledge in the respective areas. It would be beyond the scope of this study to furnish detailed discussions here.

Many scholars have conducted much research on the history of Indian medicine as well as on the Vinaya Piṭaka, and their fruitful results will be relied on for depicting the facts in the first two parts–that is, the information of Indian medical history up to the Buddha’s time, and that of the Vinaya Piṭaka, the Skandhaka and the Chapter on Medicine.[2] For the part on the history and principles of Āyurvedic medicine, classical Indian medical texts and contemporary Āyurvedic works will be consulted. Likewise, for the part on the history and principles of biomedicine, modern medical literature will be relied on.

Footnotes and references:


The dating of the historical Buddha is a complex issue. There is no reliable information on the Buddha’s dates and no consensus has been reached. It is not within the scope of this study to delve into this difficult topic, but a brief description on it is provided here. According to Bechert (2004, 82), there are several hypotheses: (i) the Theravāda tradition calculates the demise of the Buddha to be in 544 or 543 Before Common Era, 218 years before the enthronement of Emperor Aśoka; (ii) most of the scholars, based on the exact dates for Emperor Aśoka, calculate the year of the demise of the Buddha to be 487 or 486 Before Common Era (this is known as the long chronology); (iii) based on certain Buddhist texts of the Mūlasarvāstivāda tradition and historical references of the Theravāda tradition, the Buddha’s parinirvāṇa is dated at 100 years before the reign of Emperor Aśoka, or 368 Before Common Era (this is known as the short chronology); (iv) later texts of East Asian and Tibetan traditions suggest a variety of earlier dates. Although there is no conclusion on the dating of the Buddha, Bechert expresses that “it is safe to suppose that the Buddha passed away some time between 420 Before Common Era and 350 Before Common Era at the age of approximately eighty years” (2004, 82).


The history of ancient Indian medicine and that of Indian Buddhism (which is relevant for the origin of the Buddhist canon) still have many controversies, due to the fact that the historical events were not accurately recorded, as well as that the records often were filled with myths and legends. This makes concise (and precise) descriptions for the preliminary information not easy at all. This chapter has no intention to delve into these controversies, for they are not within the aim of this study.

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