Monday, November 10, 2014


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RESONANCE │ October 2010

Dawn of Science
5.The Healing Art
T Padmanabhan
Surgery, Charaka Samhita,
Hippocrates, acupuncture,
T Padmanabhan works at
IUCAA, Pune and is
interested in all areas
of theoretical physics,
especially those which
have something to do with
Previous parts:
Resonance, Vol.15: p.498;
p.590; p.684; p.774.
It was in the field of surgery that ancient Indian medical
practice achieved the most.
Primitive tribes used a variety of plants and plant products for
food and realised that some of these are poisonous and some
curative. Those in the tribe who were quick to appreciate these
effects could assert considerable power over others. These were
the earliest among ‘witch doctors’. Healing soon got inextricably
mixed with magical practices and with gods and demons. And
medicine was in the hands of godmen and witch doctors as it is, to
some extent, even today. To retain their special status, it was also
necessary for them to shroud the details of their practices in magic
and mystery.
It is, therefore, rather surprising that the science of medicine
developed to a high degree in two of the ancient civilisations –
Indian and Greek – in spite of their abounding supernatural
beliefs. The earliest concepts of Indian medicine are presented in
one of the four Vedas, the Atharvaveda, which probably dates
back to 2000 BC. Several diseases like fever, cough, diarrhoea,
abscesses, etc., and their herbal remedies are mentioned in the
Vedas. Unfortunately, the cures are mixed up with spurious
magical practices to allow an objective evaluation.
The golden age of Indian medicine, however, occurred in the
post-vedic period, during 800 BC to AD 100. Two major medical
treatises, Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, appeared dur-
ing this period. These texts discuss several aspects of medicine:
symptoms, diagnosis and classification of diseases, preparation
of medicines from plants, diet and care of patients, etc.
Indian medicine believed that diseases are caused by the imbal-
ance among three vital entities acting in the body: air (vayu or
RESONANCE │ October 2010
Figure 1.
Figure 2.
RESONANCE │ October 2010
vata), phlegm (kapha) and bile (pitta). The seven con-
stituents of the body – blood, flesh, fat, bone, marrow,
chyle end semen – are supposed to be produced by the
action of these three entities. Most of the cures involved
restoring the balance between these three entities by
dietary and herbal means. Charaka lists 500 medicinal
plants while Sushruta has a more extensive list of 760.
In addition, several animal products and minerals were
used. The Indian medical man could administer emetics,
purgatives, enemas and also sneezing powders and herbal fumes.
But it was in the field of surgery that Indian medicine achieved the
most. By about AD 100, several surgical procedures were known
and practised; these included excision of tumours, incision of
abscesses, removal of fluids from parts of the body, probing of
fistulas and stitching of open wounds. The classical texts give
very detailed instructions about these operations and about the
choice of instruments. Sushruta, for instance, describes 20 sharp
and about 100 blunt instruments – knives of different kinds,
scissors, trocars (for piercing tissues), saws, needles, forceps,
levers and hooks. Most of the instruments were made of steel and
the operations seem to have been performed using alcohol as an
Almost around the same time, medical art was thriving in Greece
as well. Hippocrates (460 BC–370 BC) seems to be the first
person to state categorically that diseases are due to natural
causes and not curses from Gods. Very little is known about his
life and work; historians think that most of the works attributed to
Figure 3. A noted physi-
cian in India, Sushruta, was
known for a range of writ-
Figure 4. Hippocrates.
Courtesy: http://www.blatner.
RESONANCE │ October 2010
him could have been written by several other people who lived
much later. (Since Hippocratas’ name carried much weight in
Greece, people probably preferred to attribute their own ideas to
Hippocrates.) Whatever the truth, the books that make up the
collection Corpus Hippocraticum has earned him the title the
‘father of modern medicine’. Here he describes the symptoms
and the courses of illnesses clearly and concisely. Hippocrates
repeatedly emphasized the natural cause for illnesses and sought
to cure them in a methodical way. He laid much stress on the
effects of diet, occupation, climate and environment on health.
His greatest legacy perhaps was the code of conduct for medical
practitioners, the ‘Hippocratic Oath’, which is still used at the
time of medical graduation.
The first, formal medical school was established in Alexandria
around 300 BC and thrived under the Greek anatomist, Herophilus.
He was the first to dissect human bodies in public. (In the pre-
Christian era, there was no taboo on dissection and the Greeks
took advantage of it. In contrast ancient Indians desisted from
cutting open bodies. Sushruta Samhita recommends an elaborate
procedure for soaking a body in water so that parts can be
removed without cutting!) Herophilus gave particularly detailed
descriptions of the brain, parts of the eye, ovaries and uterus; he
named the retina, the duodenum and the prostate gland. These
investigations were continued by Erasistratus (304–250 BC) who
also taught at Alexandria. By now medical science had detailed
knowledge of the various organs of the body though it had very
little idea of its functions.
Figure 5. Galen’s work around 140 AD in Rome ended
up being authoritative in Europe until the 16th cen-
tury! Here he is using the technique of ‘cupping’,
creating small vacuums in heated cups to ‘draw the
poisons out’. This technique continued in folk culture
through the early 20th century.
Courtesy: http://www.blatner. com/adam/consctransf/
RESONANCE │ October 2010
Soon after Erasistratus, the study of anatomy declined because of
religious objections to the dissection of the human body. Later
workers, notably Galen (AD 130–200), had to rely on animal
dissections to understand anatomy. In spite of such constraints,
Galen could make progress. He noticed that arteries carried
blood, which was set into a rhythmic motion by the pounding of
the heart. He used the pulse as a diagnostic test but narrowly
missed discovering the circulation of blood!
Suggested Reading
There are several articles on the history of medicine at
Isaac Asimov, Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and
Technology, Doubleday, 1982.
Address for Correspondence
T Padmanabhan
IUCAA, Post Bag 4
Pune University Campus
Pune 411 007 India.
Box 1. Chinese Medicine
The Chinese system of medicine also has great antiquity. Several medical texts originated in China during the
period 500 BC to AD 300. The most famous amongst them were the compilations Nei Ching and Mo Ching.
Traditional medicine in China is based on the theory of Yin and Yang. Illnesses are supposed to be caused by
the imbalance between these two active principles in the body. However, the Chinese understanding of
anatomy was primitive – again because of the religious restrictions on the dissection of the body – but they
made good progress in diagnostics. Mo Ching, for example, describes detailed rules for the interpretation of the
pulse, which is to be measured not only at the wrist but also certain other parts of the body!
The mysterious and typically Chinese concept in medicine is acupuncture. This consists of insertion of hot or
cold metal needles into the body; the needles may range in lengths from 3 to 25 cm. These needles provide the
cure, the practitioners claimed, by changing the distribution of Yin and Yang in the body and restoring the
balance between them. Acupuncture dates from before 2500 BC and is strangely different from the widely
practised concepts of modern (Western) medicine.

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