Dhanvantari, The Legacy Consigned To Oblivion

Why did India let the legacy of Dhanvantari, the first doctor, be lost in oblivion? Both indigenous charlatans and foreign invaders are to blame. But with the state’s interest in Ayurveda rekindled, society must do everything within its capabilities to revive the science

On the day of Dhanteras, Sirf News brings to you the story and legacy of Dhanvantari to whom the occasion is dedicated. At the end of the Samudra or Sāgara manthana, Ayurvedacharya Dhanvantari and the demons received the amrita kalasha (nectar urn) in their hands. Information about the event of sea-churning was spread in all the realms, each which its own formidable, supernatural power. At the time, Hindu itihāsas say, Dhanvantari was the most renowned doctor. Just as different realms received as the outcome of the sea-churning exercise the Kamdhenu cow, the Upaishrava horse, the Airāvata elephant, the Kaustubha mani, the Kalpavriksha, Rambhā, Lakshmi, Varuni, Chandra, and the Pārijata tree and the Pānchajanya conch, Dhanvantari was gifted to the gods and humanity in another realm. However, in the medicinal forests where Dhanvantari lived, Uru, Puru etc had already reached that plot. Dhanvantari was their descendant.

When Dhanvantari and the chiefs of this region came to know about the arrival of mighty people like the gods and the demons, they understood that a conflict would be disastrous. They decided to have a better relationship with both.

Dhanvantari thought his pharmacological research would get global recognition. That he will also get an opportunity to cure gods and demons. According to Srimadbhagavata, as the process of churning the ocean progressed, one of the 14 gems that appeared was Lord Dhanvantari. Dhanvantari and his generations discovered many such plants and used them on diseased humans.

The findings of these experiments also did a remarkable job of moulding the shlokas so that this discovered legacy was not lost. The collection of these verses is Ayurveda, the first time the term was used. This samhitā (anthology) of one lakh shlokas is also called Brahmasamhitā. There are a thousand chapters with a hundred verses each in these codes. Later they were classified. Its foundation was made on the basic premise that its recipients would be of tender age and low intelligence. The compilation also makes the Atharvaveda. Dhanvantari gave the complete knowledge of Ayurveda of Atharvaveda first to Daksha Prajapati and then to Ashwini Kumar. Ashwini Kumar created the Ashwini Kumar Samhita with a view to increasing the knowledge of the Vaidyas.

Another Puranic legend mentions that Indra found a large number of diseased humans once he stared at the earth from heaven. He requested Dhanvantari to follow establish a tradition of complete knowledge of Ayurveda on earth. Thereafter, Dhanvantari was born as Divodāsa, king of Kashi, and was called Kashiraj. On the orders of his father Vishwāmitra, Maharshi Sushruta reached Kashi with 00 other sage-sons accompanying him, and there Sushruta, along with the sage-sons, studied Ayurveda from Dhanvantari. Subsequently, this group composed public welfare codes and texts and through them started the treatment methods to make people of the entire planet healthy.

The Atharvaveda describes the utility of pharmaceuticals. The definitive properties and uses of pharmaceuticals are mentioned in details in Ayurveda, which is the cornerstone of Indian medical science. It has also been considered an upaveda (categorised science). It has eight chapters that deal with various aspects of medicine. Western scholars believe its creation to be dated 3000-2500 BCE. It has eight chapters; hence, it is also called Ashtanga Ayurveda. The post-Ayurveda Puranas mention Sushruta and Charaka and samhitā composed by them. Sushruta Samhita has a detailed description of surgical science. It is in this period that Charaka Samhita was compiled, pioneering work on medical science in India. The compilation gives a logical description of the quantity and methods of use of drugs.

The codes of the samhitā are compatible with today’s prevalent medical practices. Some methods refer even to injecting medicine into the body. This was the time when Indian medical science was at its peak and the pharmacological and toxicological systems of Indian physicians were advanced compared to other countries. The sages had deeply studied the properties of many mineral substances contained in the soil and carried out scientific research into the treatment of the ailing with the help of diseases and pharmaceuticals. Sushruta and Charaka are now recognised by modern medical science. This is the reason that the pharmaceutical companies of modern medicine have started printing in their calendars pictures of Sushrutā and Chāraka performing surgery.

But why did the science decline in India despite an excellent medical system? Was it far ahead of its time? A theory says some Tantrikas, Siddhas and also some antisocial elements and charlatans began to mix this richness of life with rituals, giving it a voodoo-like shape. Soon after, another big crisis arose with the attacks of Greeks, Shakas, Huns and finally Muslims and the British. During this transition, the Indian flame of medical science was extinguished. In much of the medieval era, research and development in Indian medical science, as well as the practice of compiling the details of discoveries, came to nought. Due to the chaos, violence and unrest that spread owing to invasions and conquests on this land, many Ayurvedic texts were destroyed or lost. Some branches of medicine were handed over to pandas (supposed agents of god) and even regular priests. As a result, the subject acquired a form that looked superstitious, laughable and/or incredible to medical practitioners across the world who had come of age by the 19th century. The few indigenous scholars who were genuine got clubbed with cheats in the British scheme of things, and were defamed to obscurity.

Dharampal’s Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century states that in 1731 (18 years before Edward Jenner, credited with the discovery of the smallpox vaccine, was born), Dr Oliver Cault was appointed in Bengal. Cault wrote that there was a practice of giving vaccines to patients in ancient India. The Vaidya of Bengal used to take a needle infected by a smallpox wound and pierce it several times in the body of a patient to vaccinate the latter. After completing this treatment, they used to make a paste of boiled rice and paste it on the patient’s wound. The patient would get a fever. He would be kept in a cool place and bathed with cold water so that the body temperature would be controlled. Finally, the patient would recover and never in his life be afflicted by smallpox. Such was the advancement of medical science in ancient India, pioneered by Dhanvantari.

Mausumi Dasgupta

By Mausumi Dasgupta

Literary affairs writer, consultant for overseas education, history and economics enthusiast

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