• By Prof U Venkatakrishna Rao
  • May 6, 2024
  • Prof Rao, in a Bhavan Journal 1964 article, writes about free hospitals in India around 400 A.D, orphanages, medical course, childbirth, dentistry, knowledge borrowed by Caliphs of Baghdad and etiology of a disease.

THE idea of maintaining hospitals with well-equipped beds for patients and well-stocked medicinal herbs growing in the compound for free treatment to everybody including the dumb animal and what is more important, with wheeling chairs for removing the wounded straight from the battlefield, was mooted for the first time in ancient India under the enlightened Buddhist Emperor Asoka in about the 3rd century BC.


Bhasa, the dramatist, who must have lived perhaps in the next century refers to Udayana, wounded in the elephant hunt in the forest, being wheeled into such a well-equipped hospital where his wounds were dressed at regular intervals and properly attended to. Such physicians followed the regular army into the battlefield and attended to the wounded there itself as is clear from Lakshmana’s wounds being attended to in the Rama-Ravana War by the physician Sushena. 


First published in Journal of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in 1964.


The Greeks under Megasthenes who visited India along with Alexander testified to the skill of our ancestors in toxicology and the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hien, who travelled in this country from 399 to 414 A.D., comparing himself to Kalidasa’s Cloud Messenger, was particularly impressed by such free hospitals which he testifies were scattered all over the country. “Hither come all helpless or poor patients suffering from every infirmity. They are well taken care of and a doctor attends to them, food and medicine being supplied according their wants, all free. Thus they are made quite comfortable and when they are well they may go away.” (Travel Diary). Yainavalkya, I, 209 advocates free nursing of sick persons, the same with gifts of cows. 


Such general and free hospitals, are the first of their kind in the history of the world. It was only in the Crimean War in the last century (1854-1856) that these ambulances were used for the first time to carry the wounded. Various sorts of charitable institutions were established and all living life down to the beast and the tree was regarded as the living emblem of the Divine-Vishvam Vishnu-as the opening verse of the Vishnusahasranaama characterised it.


Administering to the sick was regarded the most sacred duty and God Himself was referred to as the Great Physician or Vaidya in that exquisite lyric glorifying the thousand Names of the Lord. He was also regarded as the Nirvanam (cure), Bheshajam (medicine) and Bhishak (doctor) there itself. Dhanvantari, the Doctor, was Vishnu’s incarnation. 


Medical and psychological lore can be gleaned in its primitive form in the Atharva Veda which provides us with a correct estimate of the bones (X-2) in the human body, describes many diseases and what is more important, prescribes medicines for their cure also.


Ayurveda was glorified into an exalted science and given the status of an Upaveda. Every village was necessarily required to have its doctor and he was advised to be constantly on the move, examining the patients and studying the medicinal herbs, so much so that the ideal text-book itself had for its author’s name Charaka, the Eternal Wanderer. The other textbook was supposed to have been written by author Sushruta, who had heard (su+shruta) about the curative properties of the medicinal plants from everybody.


Such a stage of development could have been attained only after a long period of general evolution both during the pre-Buddhist and the pre-Christian eras.


Surgery was also well-known and practised. Dr. J .J. Modi, the great Professor of Dentistry, who later presided over the Oriental Conference also, regards India and not Greece and Egypt as the cradle of dentistry; the Ashvins, sons of the Sun, provided a set of new teeth to Pushan! The Indian Materia Medica is considered to be the most comprehensive in the world, and still constitutes in the modern and scientifically developed form the mainstay of allopathy.


Dr. Weber in his History of Indian Literature remarks: In surgery, Indians seem to have attained a special proficiency. Europeans might perhaps even at the present day still learn something from them as, indeed they have already borrowed from them the operation in rhinoplasty (perhaps also skin grafting), lithotomy (removal of the cataract in capsule, etc.). Filling of the teeth for Krimi-danta (now called Caries of the teeth) and ligaturing for the purpose of tightening the teeth, etc. were well-known to them.


Elphinstone, the historian of India, records (p. 365, 5th edition of his History of India) that the dead body of Jaichandra was recognised by his false teeth on the battlefield. The Caliphs of Baghdad made no secret of their having borrowed from Indian medical books. Many of their books were written by Indians whom they encouraged to come and practise in their country. They established Universities at Baghadad and Cordova where Indian Medicine was also taught


The development of medicine in India seems to have been stimulated by contacts with Hellenic doctors. Perhaps Hippocrates, the father of Greek medicine. himself had been considerably influenced by his Indian contacts, possibly in oral hygiene on which he is significantly silent. Averroes, the great Arabian medical writer, handsomely acknowledges his indebtedness to Indian medical sources.


Sushruta and other Ayurvedic writers expressly assign the cultivation of medicine to Kashi and other eastern provinces alone, which never came in contact with the Greeks. This is according to a remark made by Dr. Weber who tries to rebut the theory of borrowing from Greece in the context. Sir William Hunter records that in the medical University at Nalanda, Hindu surgeons performed operations in ‘rhinoplasty and other surgical feats. There are treatises dealing with curing deformed ears and noses and forming new ones corresponding to the equivalent of modern plastic surgery. It is a pity that all these are now obsolete. 


The etiology of a disease was considered from two standpoints: physiological (or physical) and psychological (or mental). These two are complementary and in our Hindu system, treatment was based on this assumption of complementariness.


The effect of seasons on the teeth of a patient was studied. Pilgrimages to the Ganga and the Godavari were also recommended for the healing of the body and the mind together. The Ganga waters have been shown to possess tonic properties. Our ancestors tried to fathom the root cause of a disease and often believed that the depletion of the nerve force was at the back of many a disease.


The Hindus also believed at the toxic elimination and not mere suppression (as often in allopathy). Emphasis is laid by them on nerve treatments as they happen to be the root of health in general. This method offers a wider and grander generalisation on the causes of diseases and their treatment than in allopathy. It tries to delve even into senile decay. As the origin of life is beyond the scope of the five senses, as the ultimate cause of dissolution will ever remain a mystery, this method tried to regenerate mental healing from within, and persons suffering from various mental systems were put through a series of questions to break the chain of ange, ennui and melancholia.


Psychological tales were used by psychiatrists to cure adults suffering from either mastoids or nervous disorders. Hindu medicines helped to arrest the growth of cancers though they had no cure thereto. They made the patients’ life less burdensome by giving them less pain and by preventing the disease from becoming fatal. 


The Rigveda V. 78 hymn is entitled Garbhaasraavinyupanishad and provides us with recipes which the Vedic physicians, the Ashvins, would employ for a safe delivery. It is nothing short of a miracle, and is appropriately styled an Upanishad of confidential secret. In its sixth stanza, these physicians are requested to employ their miraculous power or Maaya to make the childbirth smooth and safe, so that a “living baby may be born of the living mother.” The hymn in effect prays for absence of miscarriage or abortion which is a woman’s nightmare even today. These Ashvins, again, it is declared there itself, (Rigveda X. 65-12) have helped an eunuch’s wife to conceive, enabling her to enjoy the blessings of maternity. True, this may be only a miracle or miraculous cure, but these hymns are enough to show us how our ancestors were struggling hard to make researches in maternity or midwifery even in those days. 


Similarly Rigveda X.162 and 183 hymns aim at warding off diseases of children. Agni or the God of Fire is prayed to in the first hymn for preventing abortion. The first two hymns are directed against disease, third and fourth are meant to ward off evil fiends (perhaps referred to as Baalagraha in the later Puranic terminology of the Bhagavaza) which are supposed to attack pregnant women and young babies.


Infant mortality was dreaded by the Vedic Indian exactly as we do now.


Nurses are mentioned as early as the Vedic period. Women, illiterate though they may be, learnt this art of midwifery more by tradition and observation and they were referred to by Vaagbhata in his opening sloka as loving and affectionate, clean, capable and intelligent and more particularly as having no mercenary motives.


They were already (perhaps in the century prior to Christ) referred to as of three types: (1) Parichaarikaa, or sicknurses (2) Daayee, or midwifery experts (3) Dhaatree, nourishing the child with her milk or wet-nurse as referred to now.


Kalidasa in that very century refers to the way in which the queen of Dileepa was made to sleep in the arishtashayyaa or the Lying-in-chamber after her 9th month was complete. It was properly ventilated, newly white-or colour-washed (as per the taste of the delivering women), screened from public gaze and fumigated with dhoopa or incense (Sushruta X. 4p). All these details and some more also are scrupulously followed by Bana who describes the Queen of Tarapida’s Lying-in-room. 


Kalidasa and following him all later poets emphatically declare that all the desires of the pregnant woman should be immediately fulfilled by her husband; otherwise children born might have some deformed limb or other!


Sushruta in his Shaareeraka, chapter X, 5 advises the doctor how he should attend to normal labour. His remark is pertinent: “The onset of labour is indicated if the joints in loins become loose and the chest is felt to be lighter than usual. The pain generally spreads upwards on the loins and the neck.” (Quoted by Dr. Lakshmipati). This is according to him the signal for the nurse to give the woman a hot water bath. She is to be given only liquid diet with plenty of milk. Charaka and Sushruta have specifically emphasised the antenatal care of the mother prescribing hygienical herbs for her and particularly advise her to live in well-ventilated rooms. They are very particular about healthy infants and healthier progeny. 


The earlier Rama Epic reports how Rama specifically asked Bharata if he was attending to the health of women and children, as on their welfare depended the welfare of the entire future State. Whether hospitals existed then is not clear. Kautilya (about 3rd century B.C.) devotes a separate chapter of his Arthasastra for dealing with children’s welfare. Orphanages were to be provided for destitutes by the king; food was to be distributed free for them exactly as to the crippled and disabled. Child labour was prohibited strictly and the state was directed to superintend the safe delivery of female slaves who had to be given maternity leave and other benefits also.


Books on maternity, women and children’s diseases were translated into Persian and Arabic by a lady gynaecologist who was encouraged to stay in Baghdad as the Directress of Medical Services there. She was first taken there to cure the Caliph of a terrible recalcitrant malady. 


It is a pity that such high specialisation on midwifery and other branches of Ayurveda which was attained by our ancestors in Takshashila in the centuries following “the birth of Christ after a heavy sevenyear medical course came to be viewed with disfavour with the revival of Brahmin Culture. 


The Dharmasastras slowly dominated the life of the Indians throughout the length and breadth of the country and the doctor, who was almost the centre of Vedic society, was later considered unclean as he touched dead bodies and untouchables. There was a move to cut down the medical course to two or three years and this naturally resulted in unduly lowering its high efficiency attained till then.


Let us hope and pray that the high ideal of Charaka and Sushruta will once again dawn on Ayurveda and install it on the high pedestal from which it had been dislodged.


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, October 25, 1964 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.


Also read

1. Ayurveda, the Science of Life, is always relevant

2. Introduction to Ayurveda

3. Ayurveda – a distinction approach to health and disease

4. How Yoga and Ayurveda might help being infected by Corona Virus

5. Clinical efficacy of Ayurvedic management in computer vision syndrome A pilot study

6. Dashavidha Parikshya Bhava (tenfold of investigation) according to Acharya Charaka - An ancient method of research

7. Ayurveda and Modern Concepts

8. Evidence based traditional medicine for transforming global health and well-being

Receive Site Updates