Indian contributions to science and technology - II

Ashok Sridhar is a NRIOL featured columnist. He pens "The Ashok Sridhar Column". To read about Ashok Sridhar, please click here. For a listing of past columns by Ashok Sridhar, please click here.

In this version of 'Indian contributions to science and technology', the progress made in ancient India in the field of medical sciences and surgery has been dealt with. Also, concise accounts of the two most famous medical systems of India, namely, Ayurveda and Siddha, have been provided here.


The origins of Ayurveda are far from being certain. There are some historians who claim that the concept of Ayurveda was prevalent even in the pre-Vedic period, as early as 5000 BC. Its origins are, sometimes, also traced to mythological sources, to Lord Brahma. However, it is quite safe to say that one of the earliest texts on Ayurveda is the 'Sushruta Samhita', written by Sushruta, a surgeon who probably lived in the 6th century BC. It served as a textual material at the ancient universities of Takshashila (Taxila) and Nalanda. It deals primarily with various fundamental principles and theory of surgery. More than 100 kinds of surgical instruments including scalpels, scissors, forceps, specula etc. are described along with their use in this valuable document. Dissection and operative procedures are explained, making use of vegetables and dead animals. Descriptions of how to go about doing incision, excision, extraction and bandaging etc. are detailed in this compendium. In addition, this document also mentions other topics as anatomy, embryology, toxicology and therapeutics. It also has a mention of about 650 drugs.
Another very important and massive ancient compilation is the 'Charka Samhita'. It contains several chapters dealing at length with therapeutic or internal medicine. About 600 drugs of plant, animal and mineral origin are described in it. Besides, this compendium also deals with other branches of Ayurveda like anatomy, physiology, aetiology, prognosis, pathology, treatment and medicine etc.
Several treatises indicate the presence of eight specialities in Ayurveda, called 'Ashtanga Ayurveda'. They are:
  • Internal Medicine (Kaya Chikitsa)
  • Paediatrics (Kaumar Bhritya)
  • Psychiatry ( Bhoot Vidya)
  • Otorhinolaryngology and Ophthalmology (Shalakya)
  • Surgery (Shalya)
  • Toxicology (Agad Tantra)
  • Geriatrics (Rasayana)
  • Eugenics and aphrodisiacs (Vajikarana)
Ayurveda is probably the earliest medical system having a positive concept of health to be achieved through a blending of physical, mental, social, moral and spiritual welfare. Ayurveda deals elaborately with measures of healthy living during the entire span of life and its various phases. Besides dealing with principles for maintenance of health, it has also developed a wide range of therapeutic measures to combat illness. In short, Ayurveda is one of the oldest systems of medicine dealing with both the preventive and curative aspects of life in a most comprehensive way.


Like Ayurveda, Siddha is also a traditional medical system with a very rich history. It was developed in southern India and has its literature in Tamil, unlike Ayurveda, with its literature in Sanskrit. Its origins are, sometimes, also traced to mythological sources, to Lord Shiva. According to tradition, there were 18 'Siddhars' (practitioners of Siddha and symbols of psychosomatic perfection), of which Agasthya is considered the first and foremost. In the Siddha medicine system, the use of metals, minerals and chemical products is predominant. Alchemy actually has its origin in the Siddha system, which was connected with the Tantrik culture, aimed at the perfection of man not only at the spiritual level but also at the physical level. The use of human urine in medicine also started with the Tantrik culture.
Generally, the basic concepts of the Siddha medicine are almost similar to Ayurveda. In Siddha medicine, the use of metals and minerals are more predominant in comparison to other traditional medicine systems. In the usage of metals, minerals and other chemicals, this system was more advanced than Ayurveda. It was only later that mercury and its compounds were introduced to the Ayurveda system. The use of more metals and chemicals was justified by the fact that to preserve the body from decomposing, materials that do not decompose easily should be used. The other reason, perhaps, was that the south Indian rivers were non-perennial and herbs were not available all through the year. Another salient aspect of the Siddha system is pulse reading, developed by the practitioners of the yore.
A branch of Siddha medicine, being practised in pockets of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, dealing with traumatology and injuries, is called 'Varma'. There are about 100 vital points, which are either junctions of bones, tendons or ligaments, or blood vessels, called 'Varma points'.
To summarise, it can be said that the Siddha system is basically a regional variant of Ayurveda, nurtured by the local Tamil culture and tradition.

Pharmacology and Toxicology

The Western pharmacology is just a few centuries old. But herbal products and minerals have been, for millennia, in use in India.

It seems that the ancient Indians believed in the use of various parts of plants that resemble different human organs, for treatment of diseases and enhancement of their functioning. For example, 'Karela' (bitter melon) fruits look like the human pancreas and ancient literature mentions that it is the best remedy for diabetes mellitus. Modern day scientists have proved that diabetes is a result of disturbed functioning of pancreas. Similarly, the kernel of 'Akhrot' (walnut) resembles the structure of human brain and ancient Indian herbalists used it as brain tonic.

The Ayurvedic literature is very comprehensive and includes a host of drugs from plant sources. Some of the most common herbs used in the Ayurvedic system are: neem, aloe, camphor, lemon, cucumber, eucalyptus, sandalwood, ginger, garlic, red pepper, holy basil (tulsi) etc. There are also quite a few drugs mentioned in the literature, the sources of which are animals and minerals. These drugs aside, according to the Ayurveda, a physician should have deep knowledge of poisons and their antidotes.

Modern day researchers, having understood the value of the traditional Indian medicines, are delving deep into the literature to draw parallels with the contemporary medicine system.


The origin of surgery in India can be traced back to the Indus-Saraswati valley civilisation. In fact, recent findings suggest that the origin could be pushed even further. Excavations from the Mehrgarh area of the present-day Pakistan have revealed that the practice of drilling human teeth existed even 9000 years ago. Among the eight divisions of Ayurveda, surgery was considered the first and the foremost branch. Sushruta is recognised as the father of Indian surgery. He used a variety of surgical practices that compare well even with modern practices. Some of the pioneering concepts/practices of Sushruta include, but not limited to the following:
  • He had put forth a comprehensive list of blunt and sharp instruments, meant for removing foreign bodies, for sucking the fluids, for facilitating the various surgical procedures, to hold and pull any objects, etc
  • He can be considered as the first person to introduce diagnostic instruments and their principles
  • He proposed 14 types of bandaging capable of covering almost all the regions of the body
  • He was aware of all the degrees of burns, the effects of heat-stroke, sun-stroke and frost-bite
  • He gave a classification of accidental wounds, which he divided into 6 kinds. This classification has not changed even after many centuries, except for the inclusion of gunshot wounds
  • A classification of bones and their reaction to injuries was also given by Sushruta
  • The most outstanding contribution of Sushruta was reconstructive/plastic surgery. He reconstructed mutilated noses (rhinoplasty), earlobes (otoplasty), and lips (oroplasty); grafting of the healthy skin from the cheek, rotation of the pedicle flap, its transfer to the nose, ear or lips, and reconstruction resembling the normal shape have been described in great detail by him
  • Sushruta's method of rhinoplasty has stood the test of time and finds mention as the Indian method in modern books on plastic surgery
It is fair to conclude by stating that by probing deep into and understanding the intricacies of ancient Indian medical systems like Siddha and Ayurveda, one can realise that many parallels could be drawn with the modern medical systems. They might even hold the key to many contemporary medical complications.

  • Siddha medicine: its basic concepts - by Lalit Tiwari
  • Pharmacology and toxicology in ancient India - by D.P.Agrawal and Lalit Tiwari
  • Susruta: the great surgeon of yore - by D.P.Agrawal
  • Military surgery in ancient India - by D.P.Agrawal
For the columns authored by Ashok Sridhar in "Ashok Sridhar", please click here.

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