Handbook of Ayurvedic Medicinal Plants: Herbal Reference Library
THE ANTIQUITY OF INDIAN MATERIA MEDICA
The history of medicine in India can be traced to the remote past. The earliest mention of medicinal use of plants is to be found in the Rigveda, which is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, repositories of human knowledge, having been written between 4500 and 1600 B.C. In this work, mention has been made of the Soma plant and its effects on man. In the Atharvaveda, which is a later production, the use of drugs is more varied, although it takes the form, in many instances, of charms, amulets, etc. It is in the Ayurveda, which is considered as an Upaveda (or supplementary hymns designed for the more detailed instruction of mankind), that definite properties of drugs and their uses have been given in some detail. Ayurveda, in fact, is the very foundation stone of the ancient medical science of India.1 It has eight divisions that deal with different aspects of the science of life and the art of healing: (1) kaya cikitsa, or internal medicine; (2) salya tantra, or surgery; (3) salakya tantra, or the treatment of diseases of the head and neck; (4) agada tantra, or toxicology; (5) bhuta vidya, or the management of seizures by evil spirits and other mental disorders; (6) bala tantra, or pediatrics; (7) rasayana tantra, or geriatrics, including rejuvenation therapy; and (8) vajikarana tantra, or the science of aphrodisiacs. The age of Ayurveda is fixed by various Western scholars at somewhere about 2500 to 600 B.C. The eight divisions of the Ayurveda were followed by two works written later, i.e., Susruta5 and Charaka.4 About the date of Susruta, there is a great deal of uncertainty, but it could not have been written later than 1000 B.C. In this work, surgery is dealt with in detail, but there is a comprehensive chapter on therapeutics. Charaka, written about the same period, deals more with medicine, and its seventh chapter is taken up entirely with the consideration of purgatives and emetics. In its twelve chapters there is to be found a remarkable description of materia medica as it was known to ancient Hindus. The simple medicines alone are arranged by this author under forty-five headings. The methods of administration of drugs are fully described and bear a striking resemblance to those in use at the present time; even administration of medicaments by injections for various diseased conditions has not failed to attract notice and attention. From Susruta and Charaka, various systems dealing with different branches of medicine sprang up. Dr. Wise (1845; quoted in Reference 6) mentions two systems of Hindu surgery and nine systems of medicine, three of materia medica, one of posology, one of pharmacy, and three of metallic preparations alone. From these one can gather the strength and dimensions of the scientific knowledge of ancient India regarding therapeutic agents of both organic and inorganic origin. Even anesthetics in some form or other were not unknown. “Bhojaprabandha”, a treatise written about 980 A.D., contains a reference to inhalations of medicaments before surgical operations, and an anesthetic called “sammohini” is said to have been used in the time of Buddha.1
From this period down to the Mohammedan invasion of India, Hindu medicine flourished. Its progress may briefly be traced through four distinct stages, namely, (1) the Vedic period; (2) the period of original research and classical authors; (3) the period of compilers and also of tantra and siddhas (chemists-physicians); and (4) the period of decay and recompilation. During the second and third periods, progress was remarkable in every respect, and Ayurveda then attained its highest development. Towards the close of this period. Ayurvedic medicine made its way far beyond the limits of India. The nations of the civilized world of that time eagerly sought to obtain information regarding the healing art from the Hindus of those times; the influence of Hindu medicine permeated far and wide into Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and molded Greek and Roman medicine and through the former, Arabic medicine also. Jacolliot7 very rightly and pertinently remarked, “We should not forget that India, that immense and luminous center in olden times, was in constant communication with all the peoples of Asia and that all the philosophers and sages of antiquity went there to study the science of life.” There are unmistakable evidences in Grecian and Roman medicine of the influence of Hindu medicine. Hellenic civilization came most intimately in contact with Indian civilization through the conquests of Alexander the Great. During this period, Indian medicine was at its zenith, and the knowledge of the Hindu physicians in the domain of drug therapy and toxicology was far in advance of others. They made an intensive study of the properties of every product of the soil and systematically devoted their attention to the study of disease and its treatment with drugs. The skill of these physicians in curing snake bites and other ailments among the soldiers of the Grecian camp bears testimony to this. No wonder then that Grecian medicine imbibed in large measure the knowledge of the healing science and enriched its materia medica from those of the Hindus. There is reason to believe that many Greek philosophers, like Paracelsus, Hippocrates, and Pythagoras, actually visited the East and helped in the transmission of Hindu culture to their own countries. The work of the great physician Dioscorides definitely shows to what extent the ancients were indebted to India and the East for their medicine. Many Indian plants are mentioned in his first work, particularly the aromatic group of drugs for which India has always been famed. The smoking of datura in cases of asthma, the use of nux vomica in paralysis and dyspepsia, and the use of croton as a purgative, can be definitely traced to an origin in ancient India. Even the effects produced by excessive smoking of datura came to their notice.
The Romans also took a great interest in Indian drugs. There is evidence to show that an extensive trade in Indian drugs existed between India and Rome many centuries ago. The country, with enormous variations of climate and with such wonderful ranges of mountains as the Himalayas, was from the earliest times recognized as a rich nursery of the vegetable materia medica. In the days of Pliny, this drug traffic assumed such enormous proportions that he actually complained of the heavy drain of Roman gold to India in buying costly Indian drugs and spices. The following extract from the writing of an English student of Oriental literature will be of interest in this connection. In the course of a lecture, Captain Johnston Saint mentioned the extraordinary advance made both in surgery and medicine in India when Europe was groping for light in her cradle in Greece.8 Says he, “If then this is what we found in surgery, what may we not find in medicine from India — that vast and fertile country which is a veritable encyclopedia of the vegetable world. The materia medica of the ancient Hindu is a marvel from which both the Greeks and the Romans freely borrowed.”
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