Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita

by Nayana Sharma | 2015 | 139,725 words

This page relates ‘Drugs and Diet (Introduction)’ of the study on the Charaka Samhita and the Sushruta Samhita, both important and authentic Sanskrit texts belonging to Ayurveda: the ancient Indian science of medicine and nature. The text anaylsis its medical and social aspects, and various topics such as diseases and health-care, the physician, their training and specialisation, interaction with society, educational training, etc.

Drugs and Diet (Introduction)

nānauṣadhibhūtaṃ jagati kiñciddravyamupalabhyate tāṃ tāṃ yuktimarthaṃ ca taṃ tamabhipretya.”

“There is nothing in the world that does not have therapeutic utility in appropriate conditions and situations.”[1]

In the light of the above statement which espouses the therapeutic utility of all substances, it is hardly surprising to find the development of a vast pharmacopoeia in the medical treatises of Caraka and Suśruta. In order of importance, drugs have been given the second position in the quartet of therapeutics after the physician.[2] Medicines are, of course, imperative in order to bring about the equilibrium of the dhātus or the body tissues (kāryaṃ dhātusaṃyam-ihocyate) which is the primary object of Āyurveda.[3]

The term commonly used for drugs in the two treatises is “dravya” which implies any substance/matter of therapeutic value. Dravya is defined as the substratum of actions (karma) and qualities (guṇas) in which they exist in an inseparable (samavāyi) manner.[4] In other words, dravyas possess both property and action. Here, action denotes specifically action of curative nature. The term dravya as drugs has a wider connotation relative to modern western medicine wherein drugs imply curative medical formulations. Āyurveda considers dietary articles as drugs as well inasmuch as they have a preventive role in diseases. Drugs and dietary articles are homologous in composition for all matter is pāñcabhautika, i.e., constituted of the five primordial elements (earth, water, fire, air and ether) and may be animate or inanimate.[5] As every substance is composed of the five elements, there is no substance without therapeutic value.

Āyurvedic pharmacopeia incorporates substances of both organic and inorganic origin, viz., plant (sthāvara) and animal (jaṅgama) derivatives, metals and minerals (pārthiva). It is estimated that more than a thousand Sanskrit names of plant drugs occur in both the Caraka Saṃhitā and the Suśruta Saṃhitā[6] though many of these names are synonyms.[7] The Vedic corpus has yielded only about 174 plant names.[8] The total number of drugs of vegetable origin in the Caraka Saṃhitā is 341,[9] 177 are of animal origin[10] and 64 are mineral derivatives.[11] The Suśruta Saṃhitā mentions 404 drugs of vegetable origin,[12] 55 of animal origin[13] and 63 substances of mineral origin.[14]

Such a vast repertoire permitted physicians to create innumerable formulations based on permutations and combinations of the ingredients. Caraka describes six hundred kinds of emetic formulations[15] from which it is possible to imagine the huge pharmacopeia at the disposal of the ancient physicians. The Saṃhitās prescribe compound formulations prepared from a number of substances, some requiring lengthy period of processing. Such formulations are unknown in the Vedas; Vedic medication consisted of simples which were waved or stroked over the patient or used as amulets.[16] The considerable enhancement that had taken place in materia medica and pharmacology (dravyaguṇa) since the age of the Vedas is one of the striking features of our Saṃhitās. This in itself is indicative of the vast development in pharmacy in ancient India.

This naturally raises questions about the management of procurement of the pharmacological ingredients, the preparation of medicinal compounds and their storage. The entire process would necessarily involve engagement of assistants. Use of drugs belonging to specific locations or drugs of non-indigenous origin opens up the issue of trade in medicinal drugs. In this chapter, we have looked at issues of procuring and preparation of drugs, the involvement of assistants, the management of drugs, trade and dietetics. Related to the medications is dietetics as disease management in the Saṃhitās is not entirely pharmacological; diet is an integral part of Āyurvedic therapeutics. Many medications are administered thorough dietary items as in gruels, soups, drinks, etc.[17] It is the pharmaceutical properties of any substance that renders it wholesome or unwholesome for the body. Hence, the discussion on dietary substances focusses on these properties of each type of food group.[18]

This broadening repertoire of medicines necessitated systemization in the form of a classificatory system. Drugs (dravyas) can be classified according to their sources, tastes or action. There are three broad classes on the basis of their derivation- sthāvara (vegetable), jaṅgama (animal) and pārthiva (inorganic). Metals, gems, salts, ash, ores, arsenic, shells, etc. are included in the inorganic category. Drugs can be of six types according to taste (rasa) -sweet, sour, saline, pungent, bitter and astringent.[19] On the basis of action, Caraka categorises vegetable drugs into 50 classes. Suśruta categorises them into 37 classes based on the common properties of drugs wherein each class is named after the first article in the group.[20] They can again be of five classes depending on the predominant primary element[21] in the drugs.[22]

Footnotes and references:


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 26.12. A similar statement occurs in Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 41.5.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 9.3.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 1.53.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 1.51. yathāśritāḥ karmaguṇāḥ kāranaṃ samavyāyī yata.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 26.13.


T.B. Singh, Glossary of Vegetable Drugs in Bṛhattrayī, Varanasi, 1999 (second edition), p.ix. The number of Sanskrit names occurring in the Caraka Saṃhitā and the Suśruta Saṃhitā is about 1100 and 1270 respectively.


The problems of correctly identifying the flora and their synonyms in the medical and non-medical texts have been pointed out by scholars like U.C.Dutt, Materia Medica of the Hindus, p. xv and K.G. Zysk, Medicine in the Veda: Religious Healing in the Veda, p.257


P.V.Sharma, “Medicinal Plants in the Vedas” in P.V.Sharma (Ed.), History of Medicine in India, pp.37-67.


P. Ray and H.N. Gupta, Caraka Saṃhitā (A Scientific Synopsis), pp.52-77.


P. Ray and H.N. Gupta, Caraka Saṃhitā (A Scientific Synopsis), pp. 38-59.


P. Ray and H.N. Gupta, Caraka Saṃhitā (A Scientific Synopsis), pp.78-85.


P. Ray, H.N. Gupta and M. Roy, Suśruta Saṃhitā (A Scientific Synopsis), New Delhi, 1993, pp.136-237.


P. Ray, et al., Suśruta Saṃhitā (A Scientific Synopsis), pp. 130-135.


P. Ray, et al., Suśruta Saṃhitā (A Scientific Synopsis), pp.227-237.


Caraka Saṃhitā Kalpasthāna 1.6.


K.G.Zysk, Medicine in the Veda: Religious Healing in the Veda, pp.8-9.


Caraka Saṃhitā Kalpasthāna 7.33.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 27; Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 45-46.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 36.12.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 38.1-78.


Earth, water, fire, air or ether.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 41.1-4.

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