Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita

by Nayana Sharma | 2015 | 139,725 words

This page relates ‘Certain aspects of dietary regimen’ 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.

Certain aspects of dietary regimen

A study of dietary regimen prescribed for the healthy and the sick reveals two noteworthy aspects:

  1. the importance accorded to rice and meat in diet and
  2. the absence of proscriptions in respect of any particular food article.

The śāli (Oryza sativa Linn.), particularly raktaśāli or lohitāśāli[1] and ṣaṣṭika varieties of rice are much valued among cereals,[2] and are included in regular diet along with certain kinds of meat.[3] There are few diseases in which rice and meat are not recommended to patients. There are more references to rice as compared to barley and wheat in the texts. Raktaśāli is preferred for it is eliminative of all the three doṣas (doṣaghna), increases strength, improves complexion among other properties.[4] The śāli and ṣaṣṭika varieties of rice are preferred for patients of fever[5] and rakta-pitta.[6] Śāli is also useful in phantom tumour,[7] diarrhoea,[8] phthisis,[9] oedema,[10] abdominal diseases,[11] piles,[12], cough,[13] and even in fractures and dislocations[14] but is avoidable in urinary disorders.[15] Rice is also the preferred food substance for rejuvenating digestive capability. For the patient who has undergone eliminative therapies, a yavāgu (thin gruel) prepared with a small quantity of rice once a day at the beginning is the recommended diet. Gradually vilepī (thick gruel) is introduced into the diet followed by well-boiled rice without salt and fat along with soup of mudga pulse, and finally well cooked rice in greater quantity.[16]

Both the treatises record the names of several varieties of rice as opposed to other cereals. Caraka mentions 15 varieties of śāli, 10 varieties of ṣaṣṭika and two types of vrīhi rice[17] but only three varieties of wheat.[18] Suśruta refers to 18 types of śāli, 11 types of ṣaṣṭika, 9 types of vrīhi but one of wheat.[19] Each of the categories of rice mentioned in Suśruta ends with the term “prabhṛti” implying the existence of many more varieties. Besides, the properties of śāli grown in different types of soil, whether in burnt fields, dry land or marsh land, are also mentioned.[20] Rice grown by the method of transplantation of paddy seedlings is considered superior in being light, easily digestible, devoid of burning sensation, eliminative of the three doṣas, nourishing and diuretic.[21]

The second noteworthy aspect of medical dietetics is the proclivity for flesh foods. Not only do the treatises extol the virtues of flesh foods, great importance is accorded to meats in the diet. Caraka advocates regular consumption of jāṅgala meat[22] (animals of arid zone) and describes fresh meat of young animals, fish and birds as nourishing.[23] Suśruta includes meat of adolescent animals among the best dietary articles along with year old cereals, ripe fruits and vegetables that are fresh and tender.[24] Meat juice (rasa) is particularly recommended to critical patients as in poisoning,[25] very serious cases of fall from a height resulting in crushing of body parts and severe dislocation of limbs,[26] all kinds of fractures and dislocations,[27] surgical removal of urinary stone,[28] as also in that of a woman in the postpartum period.[29]

One of the highlights of the discussion on flesh foods is the taxonomic lists of edible meats occurring in both the treatises though the classification of Suśruta is more elaborate enumerating the pharmacological properties of the flesh of no less than 168 animals. It has been commented that the catalogue of meats in the Suśruta Saṃhitā is “the most complex and orderly of any catalogue…”[30] What is incredible about the discussion on meats is the inclusion of practically all kinds of known mammals, birds, reptiles,[31] fish and molluscs[32] as flesh foods that incorporates certain types of flesh that appear to be implausible for dietary purposes. We may mention here a few, such as, flesh of the lion (siṃha), the tiger (vyāghra), the hyena (tarakṣu), the bear (ṛkṣa),[33] the elephant,[34] the vulture (gṛdhra),[35] etc.

For the physician, however, the cardinal principle determinative of the pharmacological characteristics of the flesh of an animal is its habitat; more specifically its proximity or otherwise to water. Animals and birds that dwell away from human habitation and water bodies are said to be alpābhiṣyandī as opposed to those living closer to these sites whose flesh is mahābhiṣyandī.[36] A substance that causes obstruction to the channels of circulation because of its unctuousness and heaviness is termed abhiṣyandī.[37] This polarity between the two types of meats is expressed in the two terms- jāṅgala and ānūpa. Zimmermann has drawn our attention to the occurrence of these two technical terms in the Arthaśāstra (II.24.5). What distinguishes jāṅgala or sthala from ānūpa is quantity of precipitation: the former receives half as much rainfall as the latter.[38] Jāṅgala meats are said to be alpābhiṣyandī[39] or less hydrating as compared to other meats. The meat of the ruru deer that belongs to the sub-group kūlacara (who roam along the banks of water bodies) is heavy[40] relative to other species of deer living in drier areas.[41] Therefore, the two principal groups into which all animals are classified are: jāṅgala and ānūpa.[42] The term ānūpa occurs frequently in conjunction with audaka (aquatic) as a compound term, ānūpa-audaka[43] and again with grāmya (domesticated) as grāmya-ānūpa-audaka[44] or grāmya-audaka-ānūpa.[45] Human habitation inevitably develops proximate to some source of water, and this may account for associating domesticated animals with those of aquatic creatures and those of wetlands group.

Meats of jāṅgala group are particularly favoured in the medical texts. We may cite some of the disorders for which they are recommended: fever,[46] haemorrhagic disorders,[47] gulma (phantom tumour),[48] urinary abnormalities (prameha),[49] kuṣṭha,[50] consumption,[51] oedema (śopha),[52] grahaṇī doṣa,[53] vāta-rakta (gout),[54] abdominal enlargements,[55] spasticity (urūstambha),[56] abdominal colic,[57] heart disease,[58] anaemia (pāṇḍuroga),[59] fainting,[60] alcoholism,[61] burning sensation in the body,[62] emesis,[63] nasal disorders,[64] common cold,[65] and various types of headaches.[66] Although it is advisable to refrain from meat in kuṣṭha, meat of jāṅgala animals devoid of fat can be given to those habituated to meat.[67] Patients undergoing śilājātu therapy for diabetes are put on a diet containing soup of jāṅgala meat.[68] Diet of meats of birds and jāṅgala animals are beneficial for improvement of eyesight.[69]

By contrast, the flesh of domesticated (gramya), aquatic (audaka) and swamp (ānupa) animals are generally described as harmful. Such meats are aetiologically linked to urinary disorders,[70] asthma and hiccup,[71] menorrhagia,[72] oedema,[73] and a type of impotence.[74] It is forbidden to patients of these conditions and in abdominal diseases.[75] The few conditions in which they are prescribed are in vātika type of cough[76] and convulsions (apatānaka).[77]

It may also be noted that the animals meats recommended by Caraka for regular consumption are those of lāva (the quail/partridge), kapiñjala (the grey partridge), eṇa (the black antelope), śaśa (the rabbit), śarabha (not identified), śambhara (Indian sambar)[78] are included in the jāṅgala category.[79] These are some of the animals that are required to be kept at hospitals as well.[80]

A study of dietetics in both the texts also reveals a complete absence of any proscriptions regarding consumption of meats. When contrasted with the dietary restrictions of the Dharmaśāstras, we notice a wide divergence in the food regimen of medical texts reveals a huge divergence in the positions of the brahmanical and medical positions. We may point out that the animals whose flesh is allowed by Manu are the porcupine, the hedgehog, the iguana, the rhinoceros, the tortoise and the hare; all animals with teeth in one jaw except the camel.[81] It is also stated that meat should be consumed only on sacrificial occasions; doing so at any other time is demonic (rākṣaso vidhirucyate).[82] It is, therefore, forbidden even in times of distress.[83] However, elsewhere the text, as D.N.Jha[84] has pointed out, lifts some of these restrictions. Manu allows meat sprinkled with water, and at times when brāhmaṇas so desire, when one is engaged according to the law and when one’s life is in danger.[85] Yājñavalkya also prohibits unconsecrated meat, and declares anyone killing animals solely for his own food and not in accordance with the Vedic practice is doomed to hell.[86]

The objective of meat consumption in the medical treatises is solely nutritional and therapeutic. Even cow’s meat that came to be strongly disapproved in the Dharmaśāstras from around the middle of the first millennium CE,[87] is greatly recommended by the ancient physicians. According to Suśruta, it is punya, implying it is sacred or auspicious or beneficial in nature. Beef is a curative in conditions of asthma, cough, coryza and irregular fever, tiredness and excessive hunger.[88] In the Caraka Saṃhitā the origin of diarrhoea (atīsāra) is traced to the mythical tale of the consumption of sacrificed bulls and cows in the time of Pṛṣadhra, yet the intake of beef is not specifically mentioned as a factor in the discussion on the aetiology of this disorder nor is it forbidden. Rather its therapeutic utility is clearly spelt out.[89]

The classical authors do identify certain types of flesh as harmful.

According to Suśruta:

“The meat which is dry or putrefied, from an animal which has died due to disease, poison or snake bite, meat pierced by poisoned arrows or of old, thin and too-young animals and of those which eat unaccustomed food is not worth consuming because their potency would have faded, got polluted, destroyed, changed, lessened or else would be incomplete and hence they are harmful.

The meat of animals other than these should be used.

Dry meat causes distaste and coryza, and is heavy. The meat of an animal that has died due to poison or disease causes death; and of the very young aggravates vomiting.

The (meat of) an old (animal) causes cough and asthma and of a diseased (animal) causes vitiation of all the three doṣas.

(Eating) the putrefied meat causes nausea and that of a weak animal aggravates vāta.”[90]

Caraka’s views on forbidden meats are no different.[91] The operative consideration here is not the animal per se, its morphological characteristics, its religious or cultural significance; rather the concern from the medical point of view is entirely nutritional. The standpoint of the medical dietetic proscriptions is entirely nutritional. Acceptability of any substance is directly related to its therapeutic function. This is even more evident from the dietary articles prescribed by the classical medical authorities for the patient of consumption suffering from emaciation and loss of muscle tissue.

Both Caraka and Suśruta recommend meat of carnivores[92] as it is helpful in the growth of tissues.[93] Flesh of crow, owl, mongoose, cat, earthworm, ferocious animals (vyāla), burrowing animals like mouse and vultures are included in the diet of a consumptive patient but they are to be served under disguised names.[94] The meat of vultures, owls and blue-jays are to be disguised as peacock meat; serpent flesh is to be given under the guise of meat of varmi (an edible fish shaped like a snake); fried earthworm as intestines of fish; meat of the fox, the large mongoose, the cat and jackal cubs prepared as rabbit meat; flesh of the lion, hyena, tiger and other carnivores disguised as deer meat; and the flesh of the elephant, the rhinoceros and the horse seasoned with spices should be given in the guise of buffalo meat.[95]

It is admitted that the meat of these animals is not considered edible in tradition. If the nature of the meat is revealed the patient would not be able to consume it. Hence, it is necessary to conceal the true identity for the benefit of the patient.[96] Such meat preparations require the services of a specialised cook who is acquainted with them.[97] It is therefore, evident that practically any kind of meat is permitted to the consumptive patient as long as it is of therapeutic value. As consumption is perceived as a wasting disease, providing nourishment to the emaciated tissues is of prime concern in its management.

Though we do read in the text that by refraining from meat and alcohol, and by being disciplined and pure, one is not afflicted by insanity;[98] yet the diet recommended in the texts is overwhelmingly meat based as it is nourishing (maṃsam bṛhaṇīyānāṃ).[99] Not all patients are meat eaters though as there is reference to people who preferred vegetarian diet[100] or habituated to vegetables.[101] It is therapeutic concern that also causes the physician to recommend a wide variety of fermented drinks or wines (madya) for their pharmaceutical goodness: they work as appetizers, purgatives, eliminate kapha and vāta; they are cardiotonic and help to purify the bladder.[102] The absence of any religious encumbrances is most evident in the physician’s understanding of drugs and diet. There is no gainsaying that ancient Indian medicine had its own code of dietary ethics distinct from that of the Dharmaśāstras.

Footnotes and references:


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 27.11; Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.6.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.10.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 5.5.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.6.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 3.178.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 4.36.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 5.110.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 8.132.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 11.26.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 12.63.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 13.97.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 14.95.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 18.36.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 3.5.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 6.46-48.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 39.6-11.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 27.8-15.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 27.21-22.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.4-14.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.15-17.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.18.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 5.12.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 12.25.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.338.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 23.226.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 2.38.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 3.5.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 7.35.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 15.27.


F.Zimmermann, The Jungle and the Aroma of Meats: An Ecological Theme in Hindu Medicine, p.98.


The tortoise, the crocodile, etc. are mentioned. Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.109.


The conch shell, the crab, etc. are mentioned. Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.108- 109.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.72.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.94.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.74.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.90-91.


Vaidya B. Dash, Fundamentals of Ayurvedic Medicine (Revised and Enlarged Edition), Delhi: Srisatguru Publications, 1999, p.201.


F.Zimmermann, The Jungle and the Aroma of Meats, p.47.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.90.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.99.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.54.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.53.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 5.18.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 18.36.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 6.4.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 3.157.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 4.41; Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 45.16.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 5.133, 164.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 6.19; Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 11.6.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 7.83; Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 9.5.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 8.116, 120.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 12.62; Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 23.13.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 15.116.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 5.12.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 14.5.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 5.38.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 42.106, 123.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 43.14.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 44.37.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 46.16.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 47.29, 36.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 47.69.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 49.35.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 23.11.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 24.38.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 26.17, 31, 39.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 9.5.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 13.11.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 17.50.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 6.4.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 17.15.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 30.206.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 23.4.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 30.164.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 13.99.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 18.36.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 5.18.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 5.5.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 27.59 (lāva and kapiñjala); 45-46 (the other animals).


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 15.7.


Manusmṛti V.18.


Manusmṛti V.31.


Manusmṛti V.43.


D.N.Jha, The Myth of the Holy Cow, London/ New York, 2004, p. 92.


Manusmṛti V.27.


Vidyarnava, Srisa Chandra (trans.) and W.L.S. Panshikar, (Ed.), Yājñavalkya Smṛti, Varanasi, 2003 (Reprint), I.180.


D.N.Jha, The Myth of the Holy Cow, pp.113-115.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.90.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 27.79-80.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.126-128.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 27.311.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 8.116, 120.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 1.82.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Uttaratantra 44.36.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 8.150-154.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 8.156-157.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 8.149.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 9.96.


Caraka Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 25.40.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 29.53.


Caraka Saṃhitā Cikitsāsthāna 4.40.


Suśruta Saṃhitā Sūtrasthāna 46.170.

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