Philosophy of Charaka-samhita

by Asokan. G | 2008 | 88,742 words

Ayurveda, represented by Charaka and Sushruta, stands first among the sciences of Indian intellectual tradition. The Charaka-samhita, ascribed to the great celebrity Charaka, has got three strata. (1) The first stratum is the original work composed by Agnivesha, the foremost of the six disciples of Punarvasu Atreya. He accomplished the work by coll...

The theory of five physical substances (pañcabhūta-siddhānta)

According to Caraka the elements common to external physical world and human physical existence at the bottom are the five physical elements (bhūtas). They are ākāśa, air (vāyu) fire (agni), water (ap), and earth kṣiti). Sound, touch, colour, taste, and smell are their specific qualities (viśeṣaguṇas) respectively.[1]

We know this physical world through the external cognitive senses. The sense organs of cognition are limited to five and the specific qualities (viśeṣaguṇas) known through these senses are also limited to the five mentioned above. Moreover it is peculiar to the sense organs that each one of them is capable of grasping a particular quality among the five. Based on this conception, it is inferred that there are five physical elements which serve as the substrate of each one of these specific qualities and they are called by the common term bhūta.Accordingly bhūtas are defined as those inherent with the specific qualities that can be known by the external sense organs.[2] That is, all physical substances have a specific quality that is externally perceivable and all that have an externally perceivable specific quality is physical. This definition is rather based on empirical generalization amply confirmed by innumerable observation reports and not challenged by any counter examples.[3] But it should not be thought as a priori, necessary truth. There are examples of physical objects which may not have externally perceivable specific qualities.[4] So what they claim is that a physical substance is the causal substratum (samavāyikāraṇa) of externally perceivable qualities like smell.[5] However, this would not distract from the reliable empirical generalization which has been admitted by almost all systems of Indian thought. Thus, the causal substratum of smell is called earth or earth is that which the causal substratum of the specific quality smell. Similarly water is that of taste, fire is that of colour, air is that of touch, and ākāśa of sound. Thus, we have five physical elements (bhūtas) having five specific qualities which can be known by their corresponding sense organs. Consequently the specific quality becomes the distinguishing property of a physical substance.[6]

According to Caraka, each and every object of the physical world is a combination of the five physical substances[7] and it has been accepted by all in Āyurveda.[8] As such each and every substance is composed of all the five gross elements (mahābhūtas);but they differ according to the preponderance of a particular mahābhūta in composition. For instance, when a substance is called pṛthivī it implies that, though it is composed of five mahābhūtas, the pṛthivī-bhūta is predominant there. Similar is the case of all other gross elements. This is due to the successive emanation of the gross elements.[9]

In Suśruta the evolution of gross elements (mahābhūtas) is described in a quiet different way. There the gross physical elements are described as occurring through the combination of the subtle elements called tanmātras. The particular principle by which they combine togather is called “mutual involvement” ("anyonyānupraveśa/bhūtanupraveśa'). [10] In Suśruta also the gross elements are known by specific names as earth, water, fire, air and ākāśa on the basis of the predominance of the subtle element in the gross element.[11]

The Vedāntins proposes an arithmetical formula in the process of mutual involvement of the “simple subtle physical elements” (apancikkrtabhūta/tanmatra).[12] According to them gross elements are produced by the combination of the subtle elements particularly possesed of the ingredient tamas. The process by which they evolve is also called pañcīkaraṇa.[13] The theory of pañcīkaraṇa presuposes the idea that, the preponderant mahābhūta gets 50% share in the composition while the remaining four 12½% each.[14]

Referring to this, Dr. B. N. Seal says:

“Like the Vedāntists, Caraka held that each of the gross bhūtas (mahābhūtas) is a particular ultra chemical compound of five original subtle bhūtas. In this sense, every substance is pentabhautic, but for purposes of chemical anaysis and synthesis, that is considered with reference to the mahābhūtas, all substancess in their chemical constitution belong to one or other of the following classes: monobhautic, bibhautic, tribhautic, tetrabhautic, and pentabatic. Further these compounds combine to form more complex substances gradually giving rise to organic substances and products.”[15]

Taking account of this fact, P.V. Sarma remarks that this theory brings Āyurveda very close to Vedānta.[16] But this is not admissible in the case of Caraka, because in Carakasaṃhitā, the gross elements are construed as direct evolutes from the “I consciousness” and not from the subtle elements as we see in Suśruta, Classical Sāṃkhya or Vedānta.

Suśruta says that ākāśa is predominantly sāttvik, vāyu is primarily rajastic, fire is sāttvic and rājasic, water is primaly tamasic and sattvic, and earth is tamasic.[17] But there is no such notion in Caraka.

Keeping in mind the pharmacological point of view, Caraka asserts that all empirical substances[18] are constitutions of the five physical elements[19] and gives a classification in that direction. Thus substances are divided into two: sentient (cetanaṃ) and insentient (acetanaṃ). Things having sense organs are called sentient while those which are devoid of them are called insentient.[20] Actually the sentient substances are those which are constituted by the five physical elements and the self.Although consciousness belongs to the self, it gets manifested only when it is conjoined with the mind and body. So the soul, in combination with the mind and body, is said as sentient. The sentient includes even the vegetable kingdom for they also posses consciousness. For instance sūryabhakta (helianthus annus Linn) moving according to the position of the sun.[21] The insentient are those constituted by the physical elements only.

Caraka further gives two different types of three fold classification based on the specific action (prabhāva) of drugs. Of them, the first type of classification is based on its causal efficacy in the maintenance of health. Accordingly, the three types coming under the first group are drugs capable of alleviating doṣas, vitiating dhātus, and those good for the maintenance of positive health.[22] The three types coming under the second group are based on their origin. Thus, there are drugs of animal origin (jāṅgama), vegetable origin (audbhija) and earthly (pārthiva)origin.[23] However these divisions have their further ramifications.

The theory of pañcabhūtika composition of empirical substances is found denied in the Vaiśeṣika system[24] as well as the Nyāya system.[25] It is technical of their attitude that only one mahābhūta may be the inherent cause of the empirical substance though other bhūtas may participate in its composition as efficient cause.

With regard to the classification also there is difference in the NyāyaVaiśeṣika system. There, the classification is given in relation to the description of earth. Accordingly, ephemeral effects produced by the atoms of earth are classified into body, sense organs and objects.[26] Then, the bodies are subdivided into two: embryonic (yonja) and non-embryonic (ayonija).[27] Embrionic is born by the union of the semen and the ovule. It is of two kinds: viviparous (jarāyuja) and oviparous (aṇaḍja). The bodies of humanbeings and dometic and wild animals are examples of the former. The bodies of birds and reptiles belong to the latter. The bodies of gods and sages are born independently of the semen and so they are non-embryonic.[28] One thing to be noted in this context is that, Viswanātha gives a different description of non-embrionic bodies. He classifies it into two: those springing up from moisture and those shooting out of earth. The former are represented by worms, gnats; the latter by plants and shrubs. The bodies of denizens are also considered as non-embryonic.[29]

Another striking point to be noted in this connection is that Caraka regards the following as earthy substances: gold, the five metals (copper, silver, lead, iron, and tin) and their “rust” (different types of bitumen), arsenic, precious stones, salts, red chalk, and collirium.[30] This is further attested by Susruta.[31] But Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika philosophy includes metals like gold in the group of minerals (ākaraja) which is a division of the fiery objects (taijasaviṣaya).[32] Not only that but they also take special strain to establish it. They argue that gold is not earthly because the fluidity of melted gold is not destroyed even by the application of extreme heat, while the fluidity of earthly things like clarified butter is generally found to vanish at certain temperature in the absence of obstruction. But the fluidity of gold remains in tact even if the obstruction is absent. Gold cannot be water like because its fluidity is occasional and not inherent by nature; nor can it be air as it has no colour. So gold is fiery. Heat and brilliancy natural to fire is concealed in gold by the obstruction of earthly colour and touch.[33]

Caraka, in conformity with others, recognizes sound, touch, colour, taste, and smell as specific qualities of ākāśa, air, fire, water, and earth respectively. Beyond that, from the pharmacological angle, he identifies five specific physical qualities sensible to touch and they are recognized as impeccable identifying marks or definitions of the five physical elements and their isomeric forms. The identifying physical qualities thus accepted are hardness or roughness of earth, liquidity of water, impelling or moving force of air, heat of fire and non-resistance (or penetrability) of ākāśa respectively.[34]

Further he enumerates twenty physical qualities beginning with heaviness (gurvādi) and five actions beginning with vamana which have high pharmacological value. These qualities are called sāmānyaguṇas since they are common to physical substances.

Such qualities of each element are as follows.

Earth: Heavy (guru), rough (khara), hard (kaḍhina), inert (manda), stable (sthira), clear or non-slimy (viśada) dense (sāndra), coarse (sthūla), and smell (gandha).

Water: Liquid (drava), viscous (snigdha), cold (śīta), dull (manda), soft (mṛdu), slimy (picchala), taste (rasa).

Fire: Hot (uṣṇā), penetrative (tīkṣṇā), subtle (sūkṣma), light (laghu), dry (rūkṣā), clear (viśada), and colour (rūpa).

Air: Light (laghu), cold (śīta), dry (rūkṣa), rough (khara), non-slimy (viśada) and subtle (sūṣma), and touch (sparśa).

Ākāśa: Imponderable (mṛdu), light (laghu), subtle (sūkṣma), smooth (ślaṣṇa), and sound.[35]

This enumeration is reiterated by Suśruta[36] and Vāgbhaṭa.[37]

The pañcabhūta siddhānta of Caraka has got its own originality and in no way it can be equated with the concepts in other systems of thought. The idea of the successive emanation of the gross elements, the enumeration of the specific qualities sensible to touch and also the general physical qualities and the conception of the minerals like gold as earthly substance instead of fiery are some of the important salient features which add to the novelty.

Footnotes and references:


mahābhūtni kham vāyuragnirāpaḥ kṣitistathā śabdaḥ sparśaśca rūpaṃ ca raso gandhaśca tadguṇāḥ., CS, Śārīra - sthāna, I. 27.


pṛthivyāḍīnāṃ pañcānāmapi bhūtatvendiyaprakṛtitvabāhyaikekendriya grāhyaviśeṣaguṇavatvāni Praśastapādabhāṣya., p. 51; Bhutatva does not refer to univeral bhūtatva. See supra, p. 78. The word bhūtatva is used to mean bhūta:bhūtatvaṃ bhūtaśabdavācyatvaṃ”, see Nyāyakandalī on ibid; bhūtatvaṃ ca ātmānyatve sati viśeṣaguṇavatvaṃ na tu jātiḥ.., Vācaspatyaṃ, Vol. VI, p. 4684; bhūtatvaṃ [ka] “bahirindriyagrāhyaviśeṣaguṇavatvaṃ”, Nyāyakośa., p. 629, see also NSMK, p. 96.


CIPM, p. 20.


According to the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣikas, substances including the physical ones do not have any quality at the moment of its production and destruction., see notes, TSA, p.104; Vide supra, p. 35.


It is with this idea that Athalye points out that the definition of earth “as having odour” (gandhavatī) is to be understood as the intimate cause of odour (gandhasamavāyikāraṇaṃ), Notes, TSA, p. 103; gandhaheturiti. gandhasamavāikaraṇamityarthaḥ, NSMK, p. 106.


guṇāḥ śarīre guṇināṃ nirdiṣṭaścihnameva ca, CS, Śārīra - sthāna, I. 31.


sarvam dravyaṃ pāñcabhautikaṃ....... CS, Su, XXVI. 10.


tatra pṛthivyāpatejovāyuvākāśānāṃ samudāyāt dravyābhinivṛttiḥ, Suśrutasaṃhitā of Suśruta., Su, XI. 3. iha hi dravyaṃ pañcabhūtātmakaṃ, Aṣṭāṅgasaṅgraha of Vāgbhaṭa., Su, XVII. p. 235.


Loc. cit, p. 121.


anyonyānupraviśṭāni sarvāṇyetāni nirdiśet, Suśrutasaṃhitā of Suśruta., Śārīra - sthāna, I. 21; The very same idea is seen expressed in an interpolated verse in Manusmṛti: parasparānupraveśāddhārayanti parasparaṃ guṇaṃ pūrvasya pūrvasya dhārayantyuttarottaraṃ., Manusmṛti., p. 25.


“.......utkarṣatvābhivyañjako bhavati idaṃ-pārthivamidamāpyamidaṃ taijasamidaṃ vāyavyamidamākāśīyamiti”. Suśrutasaṃhitā of Suśruta., Su, Xli. 3; bhūtotkarṣāpakarṣasanniveśaviśeṣāt dravyavaiṣamyaṃ, Rasavaiśeṣika-sūtra of Bhadantanāgarjuna., II. 98


tatra ākāśādīni pañcabhūtānyapañcīkṛtāni tanmātrāpratipādyānyutpadyante. Vedāntaparibhāṣa of Dharmarāja Adhvarīndra., p.157.In Vedanta the subtle physical elements are conceived as the products of cosmic illusion (māya) constituted by sattva, rajas, and tamas: “imāni bhūtāni triguṇamāyākāryāṇi triguṇāni”, Ibid., 159.


sthūlabhūtāni tu pañcīkṛtāni, Vedānta- Sāra of Sadānanda Yogīndra., 58.


dvidhā vidhāya caikaikaṃ caturthā pradhamaṃ punaḥ svasvetaradvitīyāṃśairyojanāt pañca pañca te. Pñcadaśī, “Tattvavivekaprakaraṇaṃ”, 27; Vedānta- Sāra of Sadānanda Yogīndra., p. 58; Vedāntaparibhāṣa of Dharmarāja Adhvarīndra., p. 162.


PSAH, p. 57.


PVS, p. 167.


Suśrutasaṃhitā of Suśruta., Śārīra - sthāna, I, 20.


The word dravya is also used in the special sense of drugs in the Āyurvedic literature. “dravyāṇi punaroṣadhayaḥ”; Suśrutasaṃhitā of Suśruta., Su, I. 28.


See supra, p. 131, tatra, pṛthivyaptejovāyvākāśānāṃ samudāyāt dravyābhinivṛttiḥ, Suśrutasaṃhitā of Suśruta., Su, 41. 3.


sendriyam cetanaṃ, nirīndriyamacetanaṃ. CS, Su, I. 48.


atra sendriyatvena vṛkṣādīnāmapi cetanatvaṃ bodhavyaṃ; tathā hi sūryabhaktāyā yathā yathā sūryo bhramati tathā tathā bhramaṇadṛganumīyate, Cakrapāṇi on Ibid.


CS, Su, I. 67.


Ibid., I. 68.


Vaiśeṣikadarśana., IV. ii. 2-4; For details see Vaiśeṣikopaskāra of Śaṅkaramiśra., pp. 285-287.


Nyāyasūtra., III, I. 28. See also Vātsyāyana on ibid., pp. 244 - 45.


Praśastapādabhāṣya., pp, 78-81.


Vaiśeṣikadarśana., IV. ii. 5.


Praśastapādabhāṣya., p. 82.


NSMK, p. 120.


suvarṇaṃ samalāḥ pañca lohāḥ sasikatāḥ suddhā bhaumaṃ.......
...................bhaumamauṣadhamuddiṣṭaṃ.....”, CS, Su, I. 70.


pārthivāḥ, suvarṇarajatamaṇimuktāmanaḥśilāmṛtkapālādayaḥ, Suśrutasaṃhitā of Suśruta., Su, I. 32.


The Nyāya-Vaiśeṣikas divide the fiery objects into four namely, earthly (bhauma), heavenly (divya), gastric (udarya), and minerals (ākaraja). Metals like gold is included in the division of minerals. “viṣayascaturvidhaṃ— bhaumadivyamudaryamakarajañca.... akarajaṃ suvarṇādiḥ”, Praśastapādabhāṣya., p.100-101; TSA, p. 8; Tarkabhāṣa of Keśavamiśra., p. 178. Saptapadārthi of Śivāditya., p. 18


suvarṇaṃ taijasaṃ asatipratibandhake'atyantāgni saṃyoge'pyanucchidyamāna - janyadravatvāt yannaivaṃ tannaivaṃ yathā pṛthivītī', NSMK, pp. 140-141; Dīpikā, TSA, p. 8; also Jinavardhanasūri's commentary, Saptapadārthi of Śivāditya., p.18; Praśastapādabhāṣya., pp. 101-102.


kharadravacaloṣṇatvaṃ bhūjalānilatejasāṃ ākāśasyapratīghāto dṛṣṭam liṅgamethākramaṃ. lakṣaṇaṃ sarvamevaitat sparśanendriyagocaraṃ, CS, Śārīra - sthāna, I. 29-30.


CS, Su, XXVI. 11.


Suśrutasaṃhitā of Suśruta., Su, xIi. 4 (1 - 5).


Aṣṭāṅgasaṅgraha of Vāgbhaṭa., XVII. p. 238

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