Charaka Samhita - A Brief Introduction

October 14, 2012

Ayurveda is
one of the oldest continuously practiced health-care system in the world. Derived from its ancient Sanskrit roots - ‘ayus' (life) and ‘veda' (knowledge) – and offering a rich, comprehensive outlook to a healthy life, its origins go back thousands of years. With the growing understanding that nutrition is a subject far more complex than previously appreciated, today the perception of food as mere calories has changed. The holistic wisdom of Ayurveda is gaining international popularity as an alternative and complement to modern medicine.

The two most important treatises in Ayurveda - Charaka Samhita concentrating on internal medicine and Susrutha Samhita concentrating on surgery- were compiled during the golden age of Ayurveda long before the beginning of the Christian era.

Chronology of Ayurveda
Ayurvedic tradition traces its origin from mythical through semi mythical to historical beginnings. The mythical beginnings trace to Brahma to Indra to sage Bharadvaja to Atreya; and from Indra to Dhanvanthari to Sustrutha. It is believed that before the time of Atreya and Susrutha there were only medicine men that practiced witchcraft, whose source was claimed to be supernatural or semi mythical. Atreya and Sustrutha are considered the founding fathers of their respective fields of medicine and surgery.

The ancient university at Takshasila dates back to the 6th century BC. It is described in detail in the Buddhist Jātaka tales. At Takshasila all sciences including medicine were taught by world renowned teachers. At the time of Buddha, or shortly before that, there was a leading teacher of medicine by the name Atreya at Takshasila; thus, he should have flourished sometime in the sixth century BC.  Another indicator to this date of Atreya is the evidence in Atharva veda, one of the primary texts of Vedic literature. The description of human skeletal system in Atharva Veda is said to be strikingly similar to the writings of Atreya as contained in the Charaka Samhita, again indicating he should have lived in the sixth century BC.

Charaka Samhita
Charaka Samhita, the comprehensive and authoritative text on Ayurveda, is a gem of practical wisdom and remains to this day as the most respected work on Ayurveda. It was written in Sanskrit in poetic format and the valuable information in this work is scattered over thousands of sutras or verse statements in the manuscript.  In ancient times this format helped the aspiring students of this science to memorize the sutras. Charaka Samhita has eight sections and 120 chapters containing 8,400 metrical verses and it focuses on healing the body, mind and soul of a patient in a minimally invasive manner.

The present manuscript of Charaka Samhita has a long history behind it. It was originally composed by Agnivesa one of the six students of Atreya. Agnivesa Samhita did not survive in its original from. Years later Charaka compiled and revised the brief sutra style of Agnivesha’s work with annotations and interpretations. His contributions in this respect were so remarkable that the original treatise in its new form began to be known as the work Charaka himself. The latter one third of the Charaka Samhita is believed to have compiled, still several centuries later, by another physician Dridhabala who also revised portions written by Charaka. But the name of the compendium remained Charaka Samhita. For practical purposes, Charaka’s compendium represents Atreya’s system of medicine as handed down by his student Agnivesa. Passages on the qualitative and quantitative aspects of food in Charaka Samhita are contained in the earlier portions composed by Charaka. 

The life and times of Charaka are not known with any certainty and there is considerable disagreement about the period during which he lived. Some scholars suggest that Charaka is quoted in the works of the Sanskrit grammarian Panini (520-460 BC) and Patanjali (circa 250 BC) and he should have lived before them. Another opinion is that Charaka was the name of one of the branches of Krishna Yajurveda and the persons following this branch of the vedas formed a sect known as Charaka. Thus perhaps Charaka, the annotator was a person belonging to that sect. Based on the Chinese version of the Buddhist Tripitaka French orientalist Sylvan Levi has stated that Charaka was the court physician of the Emperor Kaniska who belonged to the first or second century AD. From these conflicting suggestions it can only be concluded that Charka should have lived smetime between the sixth century BC and the second century AD.

Resources:

Hoernle, August Friedrich Rudolf, Studies in the Medicine of Ancient India, Oxford at Clarendon Press 1907

Sharma P.V. Caraka Samhita English translation Chaukhambha Orientalia, India 2001

Singh J, Desai MS, Pandav CS, and Desai SP Contributions of ancient Indian physicians - Implications for modern times in Journal Postgraduate Medicine, Volume 58. 2012

Valiathan, M.S. The Legacy of Caraka Orient Longman 2003

Van Loon, Gabriel (Ed). Charaka Samhita Handbook on Ayurveda Volume I, ebook 2002-2003


AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN