The ancient Vedic elixir of life


We find the ancient Indian elixir of life in a series of texts which reveal how our ancestors at least 5,000 years ago coped with similar health conditions that we experience today. All this is revealed in the Sushruta Samhita and the Charaka Samhita.

“Samhita” is Sanskrit for compendium, and Sushruta and Charaka were the authors of the texts that form the cornerstone of the Indian medical tradition of Ayurveda, which means ‘science of life’. Both Sushruta’s and Charaka’s compendiums were based on an earlier text written by Divodasa Dhanvantari, their teacher. Sushruta is thought to have been the son of the Vedic sage Visvamitra.

For thousands of years, the Vedic texts were never written down but memorised and passed on orally by those who were initiated into their teachings.

Like the Charaka Samhita, the Sushruta Samhita refers to the eight branches of Ayurvedic medicine. The Sushruta is organised similarly to the Charaka, but in addition to emphasising therapeutics, it also discusses surgery, which Charaka barely mentions, and also Sushruta is much stronger on the need for and method to carry out dissections on human bodies, to gain knowledge of anatomy. Students would practice on natural and artificial objects, for example, vegetables and leather bags full of water, and sacrifical animals were used to study different kinds of anatomy.

We find in Sushruta’s texts more than 650 remedies of plant, mineral and animal origin. This includes 395 plant substances, 57 substances of animal origin, and 64 substances derived from minerals and metals.

It also describes more than 300 kinds types of surgical operations, with 42 various types of surgical processes and there are 121 surgical instruments like scalpels.

In keeping with the Ayurvedic philosophy of preserving life and preventing the infirmity of old age, Sushruta extols the benefits of clean living, pure thinking, good habits and regular exercise, and special diets and drug preparations.

Sushruta explains the origins of disease as imbalances of vital humors that occur either individually or in combination, and that originate from within the body or outside of it, or for no known reason.

He discusses the use of surgical devices such as tourniquets and setting plasters, and surgical tools and procedures. He describes how operations should be performed for amputations, hemorrhoids, hernia repair, eye surgery, and Caesarean section.

An operation using skin flaps, for example, to repair a nose, is also described in the Sushruta Samhita. The procedure was observed in India by a British surgeon in 1793 and published in London the following year, thus changing the course of plastic surgery in Europe.

Elixir of Life

A plant called Soma, that is described in the early texts but tantalisingly, has never been clearly identified, was recommended as a treatment for rejuvenating the body and the mind. If only that herb could be identified today, we would all be so much healthier and have a better quality of life.

But interestingly, Sushruta must have been one of the first pyschologists. He explains the need for all living creatures to sleep and to dream as a function of two principles of the mind that give glimpses of previous existences or warn of future ill health. When both principles are weakened, he insists, coma results.

The Charaka Samhita restricts access to medical training to the three higher orders of society, but Sushruta also admits members of the lowest of the four classes. However, lower castes were excluded from special ceremonies.

The Sushruta Samhita is fascinating in that it describes the day-to-day life of the physician in ancient India, who made the rounds of patients’ houses and also would have a consulting room in his own home,complete with a storeroom of drugs and equipment. Although doctors could command a good living, they might also treat learned brahmins–priests–and the poor for free. Sushruta describes the ideal qualities of a nurse, and suggests that doctors may have been required to have licenses.

We only know all this now because of the 8th century conquest by Arabs of the Indian province of Sind (now a part of Pakistan). It unleashed a scholarly exchange of scientific ideas. The Sushruta Samhita was translated into Arabic and later into Persian.These translations, as well as those of Charaka, helped to spread the science of Ayurveda far beyond India.

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