Modern medicine has made significant progress in the past few centuries and is now considered the most effective treatment for diseases. However, natural healing methods and disease treatment systems existed long before modern medicine. Learning about the history of ancient medicine is fascinating, and this article focuses on the medical practices of India during different time periods and how some of them are still relevant.
Ancient Indian medicine has a rich and diverse history that dates back thousands of years. The concept of medicine in India can be traced back to the Stone Age when the knowledge of medicinal substances and the healing properties of herbs and plants were already present among the earliest settlers.
Over time, through trial and error, as well as the exchange of medical knowledge between communities and tribes, India developed a vast medical knowledge that has significantly influenced contemporary medicine in the country. While modern medicinal practices are now more regulated by biomedicine norms, it is undeniable that ancient Indian medical practices have played a pivotal role in shaping the current healthcare system.
The Evolution of Ancient Indian Medicine
You can understand the development of ancient Indian medicine through six distinct stages, each contributing to the gradual progress and evolution of medical knowledge.
I. Pre-Vedic age (10,000 BCE to 1500 BCE)
During this era, ancient Indians relied on self-physician techniques, imitating animals to treat wounds and injuries. Practices such as sucking, licking, and covering wounds with mud were prevalent.
As the Stone Age advanced, medical treatments expanded to include amputation, incision, scarification, bloodletting, and trepanation, influenced by the invention of weapons and tools. Attention to diet, herbal applications, diuretics, and purgatives also became part of medical treatments.
However, alongside these practices, incantations, rituals, sacrificial offerings, and spells existed integral to healing. Diseases and ailments were believed to be caused by the wrath of gods, sorcery, or demonic possession.
II. Bronze Age
With the advancement of civilisation, fruits, leaves, minerals, spices, flowers, and other agents were utilised for their therapeutic effects. The roles of priests, herbalists, magicians, and prophets expanded as physicians. Diagnosis involved dreams, astrology, urine examination, and liver examination, while treatment relied on magic and homoeopathy. Although the Indus Valley civilisation was advanced, limited evidence exists regarding medical practices during that time. However, archaeological excavations have revealed evidence of dental procedures, such as treating cavities, fixing tooth issues, and performing tooth drilling.
III. Vedic Age (1500 BCE to 500 BCE)
During the Vedic Age, the settled Aryans built a society centred around sacrifices, religious rites, and agricultural advancements. Medicine developed as a supplement to religious performances. Religious and magical rites influenced the concept of treatment and disease. However, using various vegetables, fruits, and metals was considered effective.
Texts like Atharva Veda and Kaushika Sutra describe the development and application of drugs and medicines during this time. They contained details about early understanding of the human body, diseases and their cures. Plants and their products occupied the realm of Vedic healers. Other healing materials included cow’s milk and its other products, soil, water, powdered shells, and rock salt.
Unusual and superstitious medical practices included using amulets containing spear splinters to treat colic pain, spraying cold water to treat dropsy, and tying a yellow bird to the bed of a patient with jaundice. People still attributed disease causes to evil possession, the wrath of gods, humoral imbalances, seasonal changes, spirit possession, heredity, unwholesome food, and contagion.
While divine and demonic origins are often associated with diseases, rational ideas did prevail, developed mostly in the later Vedic age (1000 to 600 BCE). Some of them found in Atharva Veda includes,
- Classification of fever in fair detail
- Description of bones and other internal body organs
- Derangement of phlegm, wind, or bile can cause diseases
- Knowledge of hereditary diseases
During this age, theories began to emerge regarding the humours responsible for bodily well-being and the concepts of macrocosm and microcosm. Ancient Indians gained in-depth knowledge of physiological processes and made progress in surgical ideas. Bamboo splinters replaced stone tools for surgical operations.
IV. Post-Vedic Age (600 BCE to 600 CE)
The Post-Vedic Age witnessed the development of Ayurveda, one of India’s most well-known, holistic, methodical, and effective ancient medical practices. During this era, medicine became more rational, liberating itself from restrictions and irrational concepts and veering away from magico-religious and empirical thinking.
Ayurveda, meaning “science of life,” was codified in texts like Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, which outlined principles of diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of diseases. While Charaka Samhita primarily details therapeutics, Sushruta Samhita describes various surgical procedures such as plastic surgery, cataract surgery, and the use of surgical instruments. Another important text is Vagbhatta’s Ashtangahrdaya from the 7th century CE. Ayurveda emphasised a holistic approach to healthcare, considering the mind, body, and spirit as interconnected entities.
Ayurvedic medicine categorised diseases into three main types:
- i) Those caused by imbalances in bodily humours (doshas)
- ii) those caused by imbalances in bodily tissues (dhatus)
- iii) those caused by imbalances in bodily waste products (malas)
Treatment involved restoring balance through various methods, including herbal remedies, dietary changes, detoxification therapies, yoga, meditation, and lifestyle modifications. The diagnosis was an inherent aspect of treatment that involved careful observation of the patient’s physiology, mental state, age, diet, and season when the disease occurred.
In the same period, Siddha, another system of medicine, developed in the southern part of the Indian peninsula. The traditional healers are called “Siddhars”, who treat diseases with Thavaram (Herbal products), Thadhu (Inorganic products), and Jangamam (Animal products). Siddha too, had a similar three-humour concept to Ayurveda and enforced Pathiyam (Diet) and Apathiyam (Lifestyle) to maintain equilibrium among the three humours.
V. Medieval Period (600 CE to 1600 CE)
During the medieval period, medical knowledge in India continued to evolve and expand. The influence of other civilisations, such as the Greeks, Persians, and Arabs, through trade and invasions led to the assimilation of new medical practices and the integration of ancient Indian medicine with external influences. This period saw the emergence of prominent medical scholars and their works, including the works of Charaka, Sushruta, and Vagbhata, which were translated into Arabic and spread across the Islamic world.
The integration of various medical traditions resulted in the development of a comprehensive medical system known as Unani-Tibb. Unani medicine combines principles of Ayurveda, Greek medicine, Persian medicine, and Islamic medicine. It emphasised the balance of the four humours (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) and the use of natural remedies such as herbs, minerals, and animal products for treatment. Unani medicine also incorporated diagnostic methods such as pulse examination and urine analysis.
VI. Colonial and Modern Era (1600 CE to Present)
With the arrival of European colonisers in India, the influence of Western medicine began to grow. The British East India Company and subsequent British rule brought allopathic medicine, which focused on scientific principles, anatomy, and surgery, to the forefront. Western medical practices gradually gained dominance, leading to the decline of traditional medical systems.
However, the ancient medical practices of India are not completely extinct. Ayurveda, Siddha, and Unani systems of medicine continued to exist alongside allopathic medicine in India. Efforts to preserve and promote traditional medicine through research, education, and establishing dedicated institutions never ceased. The Ministry of AYUSH in India oversees the development and regulation of traditional systems of medicine.
** AYUSH – Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homoeopathy
In recent years, there has been a renewed global interest in ancient Indian medicine practices. Ayurveda, in particular, has gained popularity worldwide, with people seeking its holistic approach to wellness and natural remedies. Ayurvedic treatments, herbal supplements, and yoga practices have found a place in wellness centres and spas worldwide.
The ancient medical practices of India have a long and storied history, with each era contributing to the evolution and development of medical knowledge. From the pre-Vedic age to the modern era, India’s medical traditions encompassed many practices. They include herbal remedies, surgical techniques, diagnostic methods, and holistic approaches to healthcare. While Western medicine has had a significant impact on the healthcare system in India, the ancient medical practices of Ayurveda, Siddha, and Unani continue to coexist, offering alternative perspectives and treatments for those seeking a more holistic and natural approach to health and well-being.