History of Ayurveda – Part I – Ancient Times

Note: This is a continuation of my previous article on this subject. Click here to read that article: “Introduction to Ayurveda”.

“Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass.

It’s not easy to put our finger at a point in history and say that this is where Ayurveda began. Ayurveda is a lifestyle and lifestyle is not something that you define overnight. The current moment is the culmination of all the moments in the past till now. So rather than trying to put a start date to Ayurveda, I’ve decided to start with that particular event in history that put things in motion and formalized Ayurveda and medicine as we now know.

Side note: I am going to refer to India a lot in this article and subsequent articles. By India, I mean the Indus-Saraswati region (including current day India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, etc. in this context). Historically speaking, the current day India, i.e. Post the 1947 ‘Republic of India’ as a nation is a part, of course, a large part of the geographical region that was referred to as India in medieval and ancient times. We can safely assume that, in ancient and medieval times, people may not have had the current national identity, but they did have the geographical identity. We can see references to this geographical identity when I cover “Charaka Samhita” part in this article.

Back to Ayurveda: Ancient History

The Himalayan Conference

Although we cannot put a beginning date to Ayurveda, we can put our finger on a specific defining event in the evolution of Ayurveda. As per ‘Charaka Samhita’, one of the major authoritative books on Ayurveda, the systematized form of Ayurveda dates back to a rishi conference which was held in the place called Chityarata in the foothills of Mount Himalaya. The exact date of this conference is not known, but this probably took place before 400 BCE. These rishis were real people, not mythological characters. Rishi means a learned person. From this conference perspective, they are the experts in their field, modern equivalent of Ph.Ds and Post Doc fellows. The objective of this conference was to formalize medicine and put in place a systematic way of lifestyle and disease treatment method that can enhance the quality of life of people besides increasing their lifespan.

This conference was headed by Sage Bharadvaja and attended by experts from different geographies of the Indian region including those from Sri Lanka. A few seers who were in attendance include but not limited to:’‘Angeerasa’, ‘Jamadagni’, ‘Vasishta’, ‘Kashyapa’, ‘Bhrigu’, ‘Atreya’, ‘Gautama’ etc. Check ‘References’ at the end of this article to view a YouTube video listing the names of all the sages who attended that conference as per ‘Charaka Samhita’.

The result of that Himalayan conference was systemization of medicine which in turn resulted in two major authoritative books on Ayurveda: “Charaka Samhita’ and “Susruta Samhita”. Rishis have put together their knowledge, their expertise and they had written down in Sanskrit the tradition, method, tools, and the practices to support this system of medicine. These and the corresponding books had then become the textbooks to teach Ayurveda not only in India but subsequently these books spread to other countries as well.

Reference: http://www.carakasamhitaonline.com/mediawiki-1.28.2/index.php?title=Charaka_Samhita

“In the last two thousand years, the popularity of Charaka Samhita spread beyond the frontiers of the Indian subcontinent, when it was translated into Arabic (8th century CE) and Persian (10th century CE). With the spread of Buddhism, it got translated into Tibetan and subsequently, Mongolian languages.”

Ayurvedic Text Books

Ayurvedic texts are categorized into two groups; Bruhat Trayi (i.e. Greater Triad) and Laghu Trayi (Lesser Triad).

Greater Triad or Bruhat Trayi, written in ancient times, comprises of 3 texts namely; Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita and Vaghbata Samhita.

Lesser Triad or Laghu Trayi, written in medieval times, comprises of 3 texts namely: Madhav Nidanam, Bhavprakash, and Sharanghadhar Samhita

Charaka Samhita

Charaka Samhita covers internal medicine and was originally authored by sage Atreya and later edited by sage Charaka. This text is also considered to be a source for the socio-cultural and ecological history of ancient India. From below, we can see that this system was developed by many sages (i.e. medical experts) from a wide geography and also shows that this system is indigenous to India because the herbs, food habits, the ecology and geography mentioned in this system are indigenous to the Indian subcontinent.

As per Wikipedia:

“This text is not only an interesting source of ancient medical practices, it may be a source of valuable information on ancient ecological, social, and economic conditions in ancient India.[14] The text describes geography and ethnic groups with words such as Jangala, Aanoopa, and Sadharana, then lists the trees, vegetables, lakes and rivers, bird life and animals found in these regions.[14] Many of the drugs and potions mentioned they state, are linked to the region of their origin (e.g. Maghadi from Maghada and Kashmarya from Kashmir).[14] Ray et al. list the numerous mammals, reptiles, insects, fishes, amphibians, arthropods and birds and the respective chapters of Charaka Samhita these are mentioned in.[83]

The text also states that the food habits of ancient Indians varied by regions.[14] Mamsa (meat) was popular with people who lived in Bahlika, Pahlava, Cheena, Shoolika, Yavana, and Shaka. People of Prachya preferred Matsya (fish), according to Bhavana and Shreevathsa translation.[14] Those living in Sindhu Desha (now Gujarat and south Pakistan) were habituated to milk, according to Charaka Samhita, while people of Ashmaka and Avantika consumed more oily and sour food.[14] The people of Dakshina Desha (South India) preferred Peya flavors, whereas those of Uttara (North) and Pashchima (West) liked Mantha flavors. Residents of Madhya Desha (Central India) preferred barley, wheat, and milk products according to the text.[14]

Sushruta Samhita

Sushruta Samhita is about surgery and ENT and was written by sage Sushruta who was a well-known surgeon. Many instruments and principles of surgery described in this treatise are still in use today. I’ll specifically discuss how this part of Ayurveda has evolved and how the use of plastic surgery from Ayurveda made it to Britain from India as late as 18th century. I’ll cover this modern history of Ayurveda in the following article.

Vaghbata Samhita

Sage Vaghbata wrote Ashtanga Sangraha and his grandson wrote Astanga Hridaya. These two texts were later combined around 100-200 AD and known as Vaghbata Samhita. This text contains information on all 8 subjects of Ayurveda that are listed below.

8 Subjects of Ayurveda

  1. Kaya Chikitsa Tantra (Internal Medicine):  Charaka Samhita gives elaborate knowledge about Kaya (body) Chikitsa (treatment) or Ayurvedic General Medicine.

  2.   Shalya Tantra (General Surgery): Shalya Tantra has 3 parts; Poorva Karma (pre-surgery), Shastra Chikitsa (surgery) and pashatkarma (post-surgery treatment). Shastra Chikitsa has got around 108 different surgical tools.

  3.     Shalakya Tantra (like ENT in Ayurveda): Shalakya Tantra deals with the parts above the neck; Eye, Nose, Throat, Ears, and Head.

  4.     Kumarabritya Tantra (Pediatrics): Also known as Bala Chikitsa. ‘Bala’ means a child under the age of 16.  Ashtanga Sangraha and Astanga Hridaya detail the pre-natal, natal and post-natal care to be given to the children.

  5.  Agada Tantra (Toxicology): Visha means poison. Agada Tantra focuses on treatment of two different types of toxins; a) Snake or insect bites, and b) Consumption of poisonous foods or drinks.

  6. Aside: Pesticides used in agriculture can also become toxins in the long run. This results in autoimmune diseases.

  7.  Vagikarana Tantra (Purification of genetic organs): Vrishya Chikitsa or Vajeekarana Chikitsa deals with the sexual health by the use of Aphrodisiacs like Ashwagandha and treatments like Panchakarma, Rasayana Chikitsa etc.

  8. Graha Chikitsa (Spiritual Healing/Psychiatry): Graha Chikitsa is used to treat afflictions to mind.

  9. Rasayana Tantra (Health and Longevity): This rejuvenation therapy is used to treat aging process in old people and to prevent the unhealthy changes in other people. This system uses Kaya Kalpa that enhances immunity, arrests aging and gives luster to the skin.

By now the reader probably has got a good understanding of how these books were written and the source of such texts. Also, I’d like to draw the attention of the reader to the systematic way in which Ayurveda texts were organized, developed, taught and practiced.

Ancient University of Ayurveda: Takshasila University

Tatkshasila was an ancient university that flourished from 600 BC to 500 AD in the kingdom of Gandhara in the Indian subcontinent where Ayurveda was taught.

Courtesy: Wikpedia Image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/57/Taxila_%28local_coinage%29._Circa_220-185_BC.jpg

Reference article: http://www.taksha.org/about/history/

From the above website, “Taxila or Takshashila was an ancient city in what is now northern Pakistan. At ancient Takshashila University, 10,500 students (two out of three applicants rejected) came from within India and outside (Babylonia-now Iraq, Greece, Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor-now Turkey, Arabia, and China), to be taught by nearly 2000 master-teachers. The curriculum consisted of some 68 elective courses, including philosophy, law, state-craft, defense, warfare strategies, grammar (several languages), the 18 arts (music, dance, fine arts, etc.), mathematics, astronomy, astrology, plants & herbs, medicine (Ayurveda, Ayurvedic acupuncture, etc.), and surgery.

Some of these, such as medicine, were taught for up to seven years before graduation. Students enter at the age of 16.

Takshashila’s famous researchers and teachers include: Panini (the great grammarian of Sanskrit, to whom Prof. Noam Chomsky of MIT attributes the origin of linguistics); Kautilya, also known as Chanakya (king-maker, astute political advisor, and author of ArthaShastra, c. 300 BCE, deemed by social and economic historian Max Weber as one of the greatest political state-craft books of the ancient world); Charaka (the distinguished physician, whose research on the region’s flora and fauna described in his CharakaSamhita strengthened the development of Ayurveda); and Jivaka (the great physician to Gautama Buddha and his followers). “

This university was destroyed by nomadic Huns in 5th century CE. But the texts like Charaka Samhita survived as by then others have rewritten this text and those manuscripts survived into the modern era.  From Wikipedia: “The manuscripts that survive into the modern era are based on one edited by Dridhabala.[14]  believed to be around 6th century CE. Dridhabala stated in the Charaka Samhita that he had to write one third of the book all by himself because this portion of the book had been lost, and that he also re-wrote the last part of the book.[15]

What happened to Ayurveda after Takshasila?

Ayurveda did not die with the destruction of Takshasila. By then the knowledge and the method spread to a wide geography and later into Arabic and Persian countries as well. Evolution of Ayurveda continued into medieval times and Ayurveda is solidly back now in modern times. We’ll cover this in the next article. “History of Ayurveda: Part 2- Through Medieval Time to Current Day and Beyond”

Click here for the part 2 of the article. 


I’ve listed a few references throughout the article. But here’re a few more that I used to compile this article.

  1. http://www.nlam.in/- National Library of Ayurveda Medicine- A non-profit organization

  2. http://www.indigenousmedimini.gov.lk/History.html- History of Ayurveda

  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJY1Fdb6AIk – Origin of Ayurveda

  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charaka_Samhita#A_source_for_socio-cultural_and_ecological_history_of_ancient_India- Charaka Samhita

  5. http://www.carakasamhitaonline.com/mediawiki-1.28.2/index.php?title=Charaka_Samhita

  6. Laghu Trayi: https://easyayurveda.com/2016/11/02/laghu-trayi-of-ayurveda/

  7. Reference books for those interested in broader Indian history in ancient and medieval times:

  8. Sanjeev Sanyal. The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History

  9. The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean: The Ancient World Economy and the Kingdoms of Africa, Arabia and India by Dr Raoul McLaughlin