According to early vedic literature, Ayurveda was supposedly first passed on by Lord Brahma to sage Bharadvaja. Bharadvaja in turn taught it to other sages, one among whom was Punarvasu Atreya. Atreya taught Ayurveda to his six disciples namely, Agnivesha, Bhela, Jatukarana, Parasara, Harita and Ksharapani. These disciples, on the basis of their own understanding of the subject, composed treatises and read them before the expert sages. The sages whole-heartedly approved these works and blessed the authors. The treatises became popular and proved helpful in mitigating human suffering.
Charaka Samhita is a huge treatise on ancient Indian medicine. It contains eight divisions (ashtanga sthanas) viz., sutra, nidana, vimana, sharia, indriya, chikitsa, kalpa and siddha sthanas. Each division is further divided into numerous chapters, it describes not only the existing knowledge about medicine aspects but also the logic and philosophy behind the medical systems. The present manuscript of Charaka Samhita has a long history behind it. As stated earlier, it was originally composed by Agnivesa one of the six students of Atreya, and it embodied the teachings of the latter. Agnivesha’s treatise appears to have been available till the eleventh century, as Chakrapanidatta, its commentator, quotes from it.
With the passage of time, as new knowledge accumulated, it looks, it was felt necessary that Agnivesha tantra should be revised. This was done by Charaka and the revised edition of Agnivesha tantra came to be called Charaka Samhita. During the ninth century, Charaka Samhita was again edited and reconstructed by a Kashmiri Pandit named Dridhabala, son of Kapilabala, a resident of Panchanadapura, now known as Panjor situated seven miles north of Srinagar. The present form which Charaka Samhita has, was given to it by Dridhabala. He not only added the missing chapters but also edited the whole samhita.
Charaka Samhita deals elaborately with subjects such as foetal generation and development, anatomy of the human body, function and malfunction of the body depending upon the equilibrium or otherwise of the three humours of the body, viz., of vayu, pitta and kapha. It describes etiology, classification, pathology, diagnosis treatment of various diseases and the science of rejuvenation of the body. It discusses elaborately the etiology of diseases on the basis of the tridosa theory. It gives a detailed description of the various diseases including those of the eyes, the female genital organs, normal and abnormal deliveries and diseases of the children. Charaka’s materia medica consists chiefly of vegetable products though animal and earthy products are also included in it. All these drugs are classified into 50 groups on the basis of their action on the body.
This vast treatise also gives an idea of the various categories of the practitioners of the healing art, specialization in different medical subjects, physicians and their fees, nursing care, centers of medical learning, schools of philosophy such as Nyaya and Vaiseshika which formed the fundamental basis of medical theories, medical botany and classification of the animal kingdom, particularly in regard to properties of their flesh etc. It also describes various customs, tradition, legends, routine of daily life, habits of smoking and drinking, dress and clothing of the people of that era.
Commentary on Charaka Samhita by Chakrapanidatta, called Charaka Tatparya-Tika or Ayurveda Dipika, done in the eleventh century (A.D. 1066), is very famous.
Charaka Samhita was translated from Sanskrit into Arabic in the beginning of the eighth century and its name Sharaka Indianus occurs in the Latin translation of Avicenna, Razes, and Serapion, a translation of the Karka from Sanskrit into Persian and from Persian into Arabic is mentioned in the Fihrst (finished in A.D. 987). It is likewise mentioned by Alberuni. Charaka Samhita was first translated into English by A.C. Kaviratnain 1897.
The life and times of Charaka are not known with certainty. Some Indian scholars have stated that Charaka of Charaka Samhita existed before Panini, the grammarian, who is said to have lived before the sixth century B. C. Another school argues that Patanjali wrote a commentary on the medical work of Charaka, which is corroborated by his commentator, Chakrapanidatta. They say that if Patanjali lived around 175 B.C., Charaka must have lived some time before him. Another source about the identity of Charaka and his times is provided by the French orientalist Sylvan Levi. He discovered in the Chinese translation of the Buddhist Tripitaka, a person named Charaka who was a court physician to the Indo-Scythian king Kanishka, who in all probability reigned in the second century A.D. From the above discussion, it would seem that Charaka may have lived between the second century B.C. to the second century A.D. Till such time as further and more conclusive evidence is available, to narrow down this period would not be justifiable.
This treatise is the main source of knowledge about surgery in ancient India. Susruta Samhita, as we know it now, is not in the original form which Susruta gave it and which he called. It was first called Shalya Tantra consisted of only five divisions, viz., sutra, nidana, sharira, chikitsa, and kalpa. Shalya Tantra was later revised and supplemented. Later addition of uttara-tantra’ consisting of three divisions called shalakya, bhuta-vidya and kalamara-bhrtya, makes eight divisions in the present Susruta Samhita.
Of the commentaries on Susruta Samhita, the most renowned is that of Dalhana called Nibandha Samgraha written in the twelfth century AD. Another commentary is by Chakrapanidatta written in the eleventh century. It is called Bhanumati and only a portion of it is available now.
Susruta Samhita was translated into Arabic before the end of the eighth century A.D. It was called Kitabshaw-shoon-a Hindi or Kitabi-i-Susrud. Rhazes, the famous Arab physician, often quoted from it and mentioned Sarad as an authority on surgery. It was translated in Latin by Hassler and in German by Ullers.
It was translated into English, in part only, by U.C. Datta (1883), A. Chattopadhyaya (1891) and Hoernle (1897). K.L. Bhisagaratna translated it in full between the years 1908 and 1917 and it is this translation which is available now.
Who was Susruta, the composer of Shalya Tantra and when did he live, is not known with any certainty, but for a hint here and there. In connection with the bones of the human body, Susruta in Susruta Samhita introduces his own exposition with a remark pointing to the difference between the Atreya system and his own in respect of the total number of bones. This proves that Susruta could not have lived before Atreya. Another hint is provided by Shatapatha Brahmana, which seems to be acquainted with Susruta’s enumeration of bones. The exact data of Shatapatha Brahmana is not known, but it is said to belong to the sixth century B.C. If that is so, Susruta may have lived around the time when Agnivesha composed his tantra under the direction of Atreya.
Susruta of Shalaya Tantra was a great surgeon, teacher of repute and an admirable author. He made great improvements in the general techniques of surgery and performed many new and major operations. He also described a variety of surgical instruments.
He taught his students the surgical techniques first on the dummies and later on the dead bodies. His techniques of dissection of the human body are unique, practical and revealing of the structure of the body. His operations of making a new nose or ear-lobe, of lithotomy, of taking out the dead foetus, and abdominal operations, are classical marvels.
Before Susruta’s time, knowledge and practice of surgery in India was more or less of the same standard as in other contemporary civilizations like Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece. In India, the profession of healing was practiced by surgeons (ahalya vaidas), physicians (bhesajas) priest doctors (bhisaj atharvana], poison-curers (vishaharas) and demon doctors (krtyaharas). To practise their art, these professionals had to go out into the open streets, calling out for patients. They lived in houses surrounded by gardens of medicinal herbs. Surgery was not considered a respectable profession before Susruta’s time.
Bhela was one of the six students of Atreya, alongwith Agnivesha. He is said to have composed a treatise called Bhela Samhita. This was not traceable for many centuries, but in the year 1880, a palm leaf manuscript of it, composed in Sanskrit but written in the Telugu script, was found in the Palace Library at Tanjore. This manuscript, written about 1650, abounds in mistakes and some of it has been disfigured beyond recognition. But whatever has survived gives evidence of the same ancient tradition as Charaka Samhita does. It has also eight divisions like the Charaka, and each section ends with : “Thus spake Atreya” as it is in Charaka Samhita. Bhela Samhita essentially corroborates what Charaka Samhita says. Occasionally, it differs from it in some details.