The journey of ancient Indian medical science, throughout the past three millenniums, is an interesting one. Socio-political scenarios at different times, starting from ancient clan society to the present idea of nation-state, have influenced this journey. Today, what we call Ayurveda, which is nothing but a pseudo-scientific Brahminised version of an age-old idea, which once echoed the modern understanding of natural science. Along with the scientific criticism of Ayurveda and its lack of pharmacovigilence, we must admit its contributions in transforming the ‘magico-religious therapeutics’ to ‘rational therapeutics’ or in the terminology of ancient physicians – daiva-vyapasraya-bhesaja to yukti-vyapasraya-bhesaja.
Ignoring the later Brahminic influence, it can be said that the fundamental understanding of Ayurveda consists of two main ideas – firstly, the methodology of science or the materialistic world-view, along with the relation between man and nature, and secondly, the concept of causality, which means the use of experience and reason. Reflections of these ideas in the root sources of Ayurveda, i.e., in Caraka-Samhita and Susruta-Samhita, are briefly explained below.
1) Materialistic outlook: Glorification of soul and other methaphysical doctrines can be found throughout the Upanisads, which developed strong contempt for the body. However, both Caraka and Susruta-Samhita challenged such doctrines, and realized that everything in a human body is made of only natural matters (bhuta), which the contemporary physicians considered as in five forms (panca-bhuta) such as akasa (antariksa), air (vayaviya), fire (agneya), water (apya), and earth (parthiva). They believed that the characteristics of a particular human body depend on the pre-dominance of one matter-form. Caraka-Samhita explicitly says – “whatever concretely exists in the world, exists also in man” and vice versa. Susruta-Samhita extends this understanding by saying that “five forms of matter exist in everything in the world, because of their mutual interrelation, because of their mutual interdependence, and because of their mutual interpenetration.” Such an understanding of man and nature was surely a great leap towards scientific thinking.
2) Importance on direct observation: A tendency of discarding scripture-based knowledge and insisting on the importance of direct observation of natural phenomena, followed by a rational understanding of the empirical data were witnessed in both Caraka-Samhita and Susruta-Samhita. Caraka-Samhita says, “of all types of evidences, the most dependable ones are those that are directly observed by the eyes”. Even Susruta-Samhita, in defence of empirical knowledge, takes a step further and warns the physicians against the empty fascination of pure reason. It says – “even a thousand logical grounds will never make the Ambastha group of drugs (which) have a purgative function.” This type of emphasis on empirical knowledge definitely formed the basis of modern medical science.
The proponents of modern-day Ayurveda will not be happy if we talk about some ancient ideas, which are not compatible with the mainstream Brahminised understanding that has made Ayurveda more or less synonymous to herbal plants. However, in reality, the Caraka-Samhita alone discussed 165 varieties of animals and the use of different animal products for medical purposes. Adding to the discomfort of the Brahminised propaganda, it says even cow’s flesh, fat, and horn are as useful as cow’s milk, urine, and dung. Ample evidences are there in these texts that the doctors are highly impressed by the protein value of cow’s flesh, and they specially recommend this to the persons who badly need to add flesh to their bodies. However, since cow has become a political tool, the ruling class, irrespective of their ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ Hindutva background, consistently sidelined these aspects of Ayurveda, which are not compatible with the politically-motivated Brahminised narrative. Due to this type of Brahminic influence throughout the millenniums, the source books of Indian medicine reach us in a strange form, where we find both science and its opposite. Experts on this subject realized these as different religious ideas and beliefs that are superimposed on the medical science and these are pre-dominantly Vedic in nature. In many passages of Caraka and Susruta-Samhita, we find superstitions, which do not go with the materialistic attitude of these ancient texts. Rather, the scientific temperaments of these texts are very similar to the views of the outspoken materialists of ancient India – the Lokayats or Carvakas, who are heavily censored as nonconformists by the law-givers and others.
Undoubtedly, the materialistic understanding of nature, man, and medicine became a threat to the priestly class, who used to uphold the law of karma in order to promote the belief that everything related to human being depends on the actions performed by him/her in his/her past life. Therefore, in ancient India, this momentous step towards science was full of political risks and Brahminic interruptions and may be that is why the twin-gods – Aswins, who are highly praised for their medical and surgical skills in Rigveda, are degraded in later literatures because of their medical past.