Science and Philosophy in Ancient India

Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya

In ancient India, the only discipline that aspired to be fully secular and promised—though inevitably in a rather rudimentary form—the beginnings of natural science in the modern sense, was medicine or Ayurveda. It moreover represented the original nucleus from which could eventually branch off specialised sciences like botany and zoology, anatomy and physiology, meteorology and metallurgy, even physics and chemistry. Besides, for all that we know of ancient Indian culture, it was in the medical circle that a conscious attempt to settle the question of the methodology of natural science was first developed. The significance of this for the development of Indian logic is already discussed by S. N. Dasgupta. [1]

Let us first try to be clear about the importance of Ayurveda in the history of Indian science.

The other disciplines more talked of in the orthodox circles are phonetics (siksa), grammar (vyakarana), etymology (nirukta), metrics (chandas), proto‑astronomy (jyotisa) and even proto‑geometry (sulva)—the last in the restricted sense of being a part of the ritual technique or kalpa. Like the ritual technique, however, all these originate in the priestly corporations as aids to their scriptural lore. The traditional word for them is vedanga, literally the limb of Veda or scripture. These disciplines thus bear the birth‑mark of religion or anti‑secularism, and as al‑Beruni [2] —the great visiting scientist of the eleventh century showed, specially in the case of Brahmagupta's astronomy—they faced formidable difficulties in developing towards natural science in real sense. Brahmagupta (born c A. D. 598), in his famous astronomical work, could move towards science proper only after paying heavy ransom to religion.

By contrast, already in a very early period, medicine—in spite of its inevitable humble beginning—took the momentous step forward from magico‑religious therapeutics to rational therapeutics, i.e. in the language of the grand medical compilation called the Caraka‑samhita, from daiva‑vyapasraya bhesaja to yukti‑vyapasraya bhesaja.  Our text defines the former as the healing art based on charms, incantations, prayers, propitiation, and the like, i.e. what was mainly prescribed in the ancient Atharvaveda and what is also being observed among the tribal peoples surviving in certain pockets of the modern world. [3] But it is not the system of medicine which the Caraka‑samhita itself defends. What it is interested instead is in the system of rationalist medicine or yukti‑vyapasraya bhesaja, defined as medicine based on the use of various natural substances used as diets and drugs, and which, as it is repeatedly claimed, has “directly perceptible results" (pratyaksa‑laksana‑phalah) [4] like the correction of any imbalance of the body‑materials viewed as the actual cause of disease.

This difference is crucial for the Caraka‑samhita, for we find the text explaining it not only in the section on the general principles of medicine (Sutra‑sthana) [5] but also in the section designed to explain the methodology of science (Vimana‑sthana, [6] literally ‘section on specific proofs').

Such an understanding of medical science is remarkably secular, free from supernaturalism, religion and scripture‑orientation. Thus the first decisive step to positive science in ancient India necessitated the scrapping of the magico‑religious mystification of nature and man. This could not but raise a wide range of theoretical problems, inclusive of some that are frankly philosophical and having interest even in our times. It is on these theoretical problems that we shall mainly concentrate in the present discussion.

Before passing on to discuss these, we may try to be clear about one question. When did Indian medicine take this step from magico‑religious therapeutics to rationalist therapeutics?

At the present stage of historical research, it is impossible of course to be exact about the answer. What is possible, nevertheless, is to note a few points of general interest.

I have elsewhere [7] tried to show in some detail that any tendency to fix this date on the basis of conjectures concerning the time of the composition of the Caraka‑samhita—and, what may roughly be called its surgical counterpart, the Susruta‑samhita—is bound to be fallacious. These grand compilations are highly complex and, on their own admission, presuppose a long history of assuming the forms in which they reach us. No less doubtful is the procedure of trying first to determine the date of a hypothetical ancient physician bearing the proper name Caraka, notwithstanding the illusory assurance given by Sylvain Levi [8] to the modern scholars that the Chinese sources speak of such a person as the court‑physician of king Kaniska. The “Chinese sources" mentioned are only two. One of these is a translation of some fables of uncertain Indian origin and the other already proved to be a literary forgery. Both the sources are thus worthless from the standpoint of strict historical requirements. The presumption, on the contrary, is that in the context of ancient Indian medicine, the word caraka was not the personal name of any individual. It seems rather to have been the general epithet for the roving physicians (caraka = roving), who wandered about searching for the healing agents and effecting cures, reminiscent of the carana‑vaidya‑s (literally "roving physicians"), from whom a lost recension of the Atharvaveda [9] took its name. Even granting credibility to Sylvain Levi's “Chinese sources", there is nothing improbable about a doctor belonging to such a sect as being attached to Kaniska's court, or, as Filliozat [10]  has very rightly observed, "even if the doctor of Kaniska was effectively called Caraka", there is no ground whatsoever for connecting him with our Caraka‑samhita.

Discarding the doubtful procedures of dating Indian medicine, we may ask ourselves another question. Do we have any collateral evidence on the basis of which it may be possible to form some approximate idea of the time of the formation of the essential doctrinal contents of the medical compilations, or, more strictly, of the fundamentals of yukti‑vyapasraya bhesaja? The answer seems to be in the affirmative. The Pali Vinaya­pitaka, [11] which was presumably codified not long after the death of Buddha, attributes to him a long discourse on the nature of the medical treatment to be allowed to the monks within the samgha. The discussion is highly systematic and amazingly rich in details. It evidently presupposed a therapeutic system already well‑established in the country during the time of the codification of the Vinaya‑pitaka. Further, what is decisive about it from the point of view of our present discussion is that it has nothing to do with magico‑religious therapeutics. What it presupposes, on the contrary, is the healing technique based on a purely naturalistic understanding not only of the causes of the diseases but also of their remedies. Its doctrinal content, in short, is essentially the same as that of the rationalist medicine of our Caraka‑samhita. Assuming the authenticity of the Pali Vinaya‑pitaka, therefore, it may not be an error to presume that the fundamentals of rationalist medicine were established in India sometimes before Buddha, i.e. roughly in the sixth century B.C., if not earlier. All this agrees with the extensive legends about Jivaka, the physician‑friend of Buddha. These legends, too, as incorporated in the Pali Vinaya‑pitaka, [12] want us to believe in a remarkably rationalist approach of Jivaka to the theory and practice of medicine.

With this brief note on the chronological question, we may now pass on to see some of the prominent features of rationalist medicine.

As far as we can judge from the Caraka‑samhita and Susruta‑samhita, the main theoretical question raised in rationalist medicine retains significance even in our times. It is the question concerning the interaction between environmental matter and body matter, i.e. between matter in the state of various things of nature and matter that assumes the form of the living bodies, specially human bodies. The general assumption underlying this way of formulating the question is that the human body, like everything else in nature, is made of the same stuff, namely matter or bhuta as the early scientists understood it.

The question itself was suggested to the ancient physicians by an enormous amount of empirical data, mainly of the nature of the effect on animal bodies of the various articles consumed as food and drink, and, interestingly enough, also of the impact of the climatic changes on the main body‑constituents. The enormity of the data easily rejects the possibility of these having been. compiled by any individual or even by a limited number of specialists. The strong presumption, on the contrary, is that these represent the pool or common fund of empirical knowledge gathered by generations of observers over a vast tract highly rich in flora, fauna and even some rare minerals, like the exudate from ores with different metal contents called silajatu.

Here are only a few examples from which we may form a rough idea of the kind of empirical knowledge that formed the basis of the theoretical generalization of rationalist medicine. The Caraka‑samhita, discusses the effects on animal bodies of about nine hundred varieties of plants, and the varieties of plants spoken of by the Susruta‑samhita number over a thousand. But the texts do not discuss the plants as such. These try to determine instead how the different constituents of our bodies are being differently affected by their root, bark, pith, exudation, stalk, juice, sprout, fruit, flower, and so on. As said in the Caraka‑samhita, "Root, bark, pith, exudation, stalk, juice, sprouts, alkalis, milk, fruit, flower, ash, oils, throns, leaves, buds, bulbs and off‑shoots are the plant‑products used in medicine". (i.1.73) The medical compilations also discuss about 156 varieties of animals—somewhat differently classified in the Caraka‑samhita and Susruta‑samhita—and want us to understand the different effects on our bodies of their flesh, fat, blood, bone, nails, horns, hoofs, milk, urine, bile, etc. Thus, for example, while in the Caraka‑samhita, cow's flesh is strongly recommended for patients suffering from consumption (i.27.79‑80), cow's milk is recommended for use internally or externally for various troubles ranging from dislocation and fracture to cardiac trouble. So also are discussed a considerable number of mineral substances, inclusive of iron dust in some form for the. treatment of anaemia. Excellent tabulations of all these are to be found in the Caraka‑Samhita: A Scientific Synopsis by Ray and Gupta, a work of very sustained labour, recently supplemented by their more imposing Susruta‑Samhita: A Scientific Synopsis. Even a cursory glance at the Tables in these two books is enough for us to be convinced that the empirical knowledge embodied in the medical compilations is extremely imposing.

To these Tables may be added only one point. The ancient doctors very consciously put strong emphasis on the importance of direct observation or direct experience for sound scientific knowledge. We shall mention here only two examples from the Susruta‑samhita.

Certain herbs described as belonging to the Ambastha group are actually observed by them to cure cases of dysentery with excessive mucus in stool (i.48.43). Hence they have absolutely no patience for any amount of empty theoretical speculation intended to prove the contrary. Arguing against any fascination for pure reason going contrary to experience, the text observes: "A knowledgeable physician must never try to examine on grounds of pure logic the efficacy of a medicine, which is known by direct observation, as having by nature a specific medical action. Thus, for example, even a thousand logical grounds will never make the Ambastha group of herbs to have a purgative action". (i.40.12‑13)

While explaining the importance of the knowledge of anatomy for medical (specially surgical) purposes, the same text insists on the need of actual dissection of corpse for the medical student, because no authoritative  treatise on the subject can be a substitute for direct knowledge derived from dissection: "The different parts or members of the body as mentioned, before—including even the skin—cannot be correctly described by one who is not versed in anatomy. Hence any one having a thorough knowledge of anatomy must prepare a dead body and carefully observe (by dissecting it) its different parts and exa­mine these. For a thorough knowledge can be acquired only by the corroboration of the accounts given in the authoritative works by direct personal observation". (iii.5.59‑60)

Thus, in short, the medical compilations not only contain a great deal of empirical knowledge; these want us also to be theoretically convinced of the basic importance of direct observation for scientific purposes. [13] We shall have to return to this point later.

The tools of observation of these early scientists are understandably rudimentary. They consist of nothing more than unaided sense‑organs, sharpened may be to a certain extent by purposiveness and discipline. There was then no possibility of having controlled conditions ensuring the accuracy of observation—no possibility of experiment in the modern sense. What nevertheless was remarkable about the early scientists—and what enabled them to take the prodigious first step to natural science—was the new intellectual apparatus they developed for processing their vast empirical data. The Caraka‑samhita contains a long section called Vimana‑sthana, literally the ‘section on specific proofs'. Its main theme is the methodology of natural science. From the viewpoint of the medical compilation, a knowledge of this methodology is a must for the qualified physician. The discussion retains significance even for our times, specially because so much of nonsense is being produced these days in the name of the methodology of natural science. There is at least nothing comparable to it in the entire range of ancient Indian literature.

We do not unfortunately have the scope to go here into the details of this discussion. That seems to form the subject of a separate study altogether. We shall try instead to have some idea of the main theoretical position gained in Ayurveda on the basis of their lucid understanding of the technique of establishing the causal connection and of moving forward to valid generalisation.

Scrapping supernaturalism and mythology, the ancient doctors wanted to interpret their data—i.e. what they actually observed about our bodies being variously affected by various natural substances—in terms of a grand theoretical generalisation concerning the interaction between environmental matter and body matter, because, as already said, shorn of all mysteries, the human body, like everything else in nature, is made of the same stuff, namely matter or bhuta.

As in ancient Greece, so also in ancient India, natural science begins with some kind of instinctive materialism. [14] This point is in need of special emphasis and some elaboration, because it is essential for understanding the real theoretical plank of Ayurveda.

As physicians, our ancient scientists are naturally interested above all in man or purusa. So also are our ancient metaphysicians speculating on the purusa. But the interest of the two are clearly different. The metaphysicians are interested in the mystery of the indwelling soul, supposed to be the spiritual essence of man. As put in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, “This shining immortal purusa who is in this earth, and with reference to oneself, this shining immortal purusa who is in the body—he indeed is just this soul (atman), this immortal, this brahman, this all”. (ii.5.1)

The physicians retain the term purusa, but they scrap its spiritual connotation. Their interest in the purusa is an allabsorbing interest in the physical constitution of man, or in the body alone. As the Caraka‑samhita formulates, sariramulah ca purusah bhavati: “Everything about purusa or man is established in the body". (ii.6.6) The Susruta‑samhita wants to be more specific: “The term purusa should be taken to mean those substances from which the purusa originates, i.e. matter in its different forms; it should be taken also to mean the various parts or limbs of purusa—the skin, flesh, bone, vein, nerve, etc" (i.1.47). But the question is: How is the making of man from matter or bhuta to be understood? A brief formulation of the Susruta‑samhita may be quoted: “Knowing man or purusa as the product of rasa, one must be specially careful about the preservation of rasa". (i.14.12)

What, then, is meant by rasa, of which man or purusa is supposed to be made? It is one of the key concepts of ancient Indian medicine and, in the context of the making of the human body, is perhaps best translated as “organic sap". But the special point to be noted is that this view of man being made of rasa brings us back to the materialistic understanding of purusa in Ayurveda, because rasa itself is viewed as made of matter in five forms (panca‑bhuta). Here is how the Susruta‑samhita explains the origin of rasa: “Food, which is made of matter in five forms, when fully transformed into its subtlest essence by the agency of fire (within the body) becomes rasa." (i.14.1) It is called rasa, says the text, because the word is derived from the root ras (“to move"), and the substance thus named is ceaselessly circulating throughout the organism. (i.14.13) “From this rasa are successively formed all the main constituents of the body—blood, flesh, fat, bone, marrow and semen.”  (ib., cf. CS vi.15.17) Hence is the brief formulation of the Caraka­-samhita: "The body is verily the product of food." (i.28.41) Since, however, food itself is made of matter in five forms, another way of putting the view is to say, “Body means the totality of the transformation of five forms of matter—a totality that becomes the substratum of consciousness." (CS iv.6.4) Or, as the Susruta‑samhita wants to explain, “The body is made of matter in five forms. Food also is made of matter in five forms. When fully transformed, the properties of the five forms of matter in food go to add to their counterparts in the body." (i. 46. 533).

Such an understanding of the making of man from the natural substances consumed leads the physician to see the intimate interrelation between nature and man, or, according to their way of putting, to the view of man as a microcosm of nature. As the Caraka‑samhita claims: "Whatever concretely exists in nature exists also in man (purusa); whatever concretely exists in man, exists also in nature. Such is the way in which the intelligent persons want to view both." (iv. 4.13)

But what exactly are the physicians driving at? What, according to them, concretely exists both in man and nature, making the former an epitome of the latter? The context in which this formulation occurs leaves us with no uncertainty about the answer. What the physicians are talking of is only matter and its transformation. The formulation, it needs to be noted, occurs immediately after discussing how natural matter in its five forms contributes to the formation of everything in the human body, beginning from the foetal stage. As the text, referring to the foetus formations, says, "In it (foetus), even what is derived from the mother . . . is after all nothing but the transformation of matter." (iv.4.12)

Understandably enough, such a formulation is as significant from the viewpoint of modern science as it was difficult for the ancient scientists to work out. It needs a good deal of the knowledge of matter and of the laws of its transformation to work out the proposition. The ancient scientists who are only beginning to grope for the knowledge of matter are not expected to give us an account of the formation of the body from natural matter more satisfactorily than is historically possible for them. Historically speaking, however, the more important point is that some people somewhere must make a beginning with this understanding and thereby create the possibility for further research in the right direction. In ancient India at any rate the physicians appear to have taken this first bold step.

From the point of view of the history of ideas, what is decisive about this step is its commitment to the materialist outlook. The Caraka‑samhita does not mince words about this materialism. It makes Atreya, the spokesman of medicine in the text, sum up a medical colloquium with the following observation: sarvam dravyam pancabhautikam asmin arthe; tat cetanavat, acetanam ca—this discipline (medicine) everything is viewed as made of matter in five forms (panca‑bhuta). These are either endowed with consciousness or are just unconscious." (i.26.10)

The statement is categorical and unambiguous. Whatever the metaphysician may have to say, the physician—as physician—cannot but be a materialist, because from the medical viewpoint there is nothing that is not made of matter. Even things endowed with consciousness are as much made of matter as things without consciousness.

Lest the materialist commitment of Ayurveda is casually viewed, we may mention here another point. The ancient physicians were apparently aware of the prestige and popularity of other philosophical views current in ancient India. But they ask themselves the question: Can the physician, in the special capacity of a physician, at all operate without a materialist view? The Susruta‑samhita comes out with a clear answer to it and the answer is in the negative. Reviewing the philosophical views current in ancient India—specially Upanisadic idealism (or Vedanta) and that form of the Samkhya which was already being eclipsed by this idealism—the text asserts that from the medical point of view at any rate only the materialist outlook has real relevance. Thus we are told, “It is claimed that the knowledge of matter in different forms is alone relevant for medicine, because in the therapeutic context it is impermissible to conceive of anything transcending matter." (iii.1.17) Let, therefore, the metaphysicians have their own views and let not the physicians dabble with these. What is imperative for them, however, is that they must not think of anything transcending matter.

It may be easy for us to call this materialism crude, naive and primitive. It could not indeed be otherwise. What concerns us here, however, is not the philosophical assessment of this materialism in modern standards but its historical importance. The point, in other words, is that the first decisive step to natural science taken in ancient India was characterised by an awareness of the need for materialist view of things. It was this that could lay the foundation for patient researches for centuries to come. Hence is its abiding interest for the history of ideas.

Besides, it would be wrong for us to overlook certain other positions that followed from the rudimentary materialism of the ancient physicians.

As already seen, the physicians conceived matter in five forms—panca-­bhuta—by which were meant earth, water, air, fire and sky (akasa). But these do not mean earth, water etc. as ordinarily experienced, because underlying such things of ordinary experience they try to see same grand principle of interconnection of the basic forms of matter. As the Susruta‑samhita says, “Five forms of matter exist in everything of the world, because of their mutual interdependence and because of their mutual interpenetration." (i.42.3) Thus, according to this view, though matter exists in five fundamental forms and though everything in nature—including man—is made of matter only, there is hardly anything concretely existing in nature as made of exclusively or purely one form of matter. What is decisive about everything is the principle of interconnection and interrelation of matter, as a result of which matter in all its five forms go to the making of everything. What, then, are earth, water, etc, as ordinarily experienced? The Susruta‑samhita answers that though everything concretely existing in nature is made of matter in all its five forms, because of the predominance of one matter‑form in something it is called “made of earth" or “made of water" etc. (i.42.3).

The special need felt by the physicians to take such a view would be too complicated a matter for our present discussion. What nevertheless need to be noted here are certain theoretical positions following from the view. Because of the basic interpenetration and interaction of matter in all its forms in everything belonging to nature, nothing in nature can be irrelevant from the medical viewpoint. This is evidently a point of crucial significance for Ayurveda, because we find both the medical compilations trying repeatedly to emphasise it. The Caraka‑samhita asserts, "There is nothing in nature which is without relevance for medicine." (i. 27. 330) The text repeats, “No substance is found in the world which is without relevance for medicine." (i.26.12) In the Susruta‑samhita we read, "There is no substance in the world which cannot be used for some medical purpose." (i.42.9) Incidentally, this reminds us of the legend of Jivaka. After he completed his medical studies in Taksasila, his preceptor—for the purpose of testing his knowledge—asked him to find from within a certain radius of the city those things that were irrelevant for medical purposes. After a meticulous search of the place, the young man returned with the apparently sad report that he could find nothing like that. And indeed, how could he—from the point of view of Ayurveda—find any such thing? If the interrelation and interpenetration of matter in all its forms were the basic fact about everything in nature as well as in man, there could obviously be nothing in nature totally irrelevant for the therapeutic technique, which was conceived after all as the technique of matter‑readjustment within the body.

We shall briefly note here another interesting theoretical position that follows from the early materialism of the ancient Indian doctors. From their point of view, as we have already seen, human body is the product of food. Since food is something made of matter, this view amounts to the assertion that the human body thrives on the absorption of matter in its various formations of natural things. But this absorption of natural matter by body matter is a ceaseless process. That is why, the body itself and everything about it are viewed in Ayurveda as being involved in a process of ceaseless flux, there being the perpetual replacement of the constituents of the body as a result of the intake and excretion of material things in nature. For the ancient physicians this means that the old body is being constantly replaced by a new one and the apparent impression of the persistence of the old body is due only to the similarity between the old and the new one. As the Caraka‑samhita says, "Nothing about the body remains the same. Everything in it is in a state of ceaseless change. Although in fact the body is produced anew every moment, the similarity between the old body and the new body gives the apparent impression of the persistence of the same body " (iv.1.46)

Understandably, the phenomenon called life—in which the physicians are so keenly interested—cannot be an exception to this universal process of coming into being and passing out of existence. Hence, it is only natural that they should want us to note the essential transitoriness of life. In their view, life is nothing but the combination of certain natural substances, which they call the desirable kind of food materials. As the Caraka‑samhita formulates: pranah pranabhutam annam—"Life is just food transformed into the living." (i.27.249‑50) The ceaseless process of further absorption of food. materials by the living beings (as well as the excretion of the waste‑products called kitta) makes them perpetually changing. However, because of the laws inherent in nature, this process of ceaseless change in the matter‑constituents in the body reaches a stage at which the body form itself disintegrates and its matter‑constituents start reverting back to their original natural state. Life, which comes into being, thus ceases to be. This is ordinarily called death or marana. But since in the physician's view, this is nothing but a return of the body matter to matter in its environmental or natural condition, one of the synonyms they propose for marana is svabhava, by which is meant "nature", or perhaps more appropriately, “law of nature". Significantly, another synonym proposed for the same is impermanence or anityata. Thus, discussing the symptoms of the approaching end of a man's life, the Caraka‑samhita says, "From these it can be predicted that he would revert back to nature during such and such moment and such and such hour . . . Here (in Ayurveda) nature svabhava, end of activities (pravrtteh uparamah), death (marana), impermanence (anityata) and cessation (nirodha) are all synonymous terms." (i.30.27)

To sum up: According to the basic theoretical generalisation of Ayurveda, everything is made of matter and everything is involved in the ceaseless process of coming into being and passing out existence. [15]

From the medical point of view, however, all this raises a serious question. Where and how, in this general scheme of things do the doctors come in? They are not philosophers after all. Their purpose is a practical one, namely to maintain health and cure diseases. If, therefore, the physicians feel the need of some theoretical understanding as well, the presumption is that it is also essential for their practical purposes.

How, then, could this be essential?

To ensure health and cure sickness, it is necessary first of all to understand what these really mean. Serious preoccupation with this problem leads the physicians to the view of the interaction between environmental matter and body matter, because everything about the body—inclusive of health and sickness—depends on it. Environmental matter existing in the form of different natural things enters into the making and maintenance of body and life. But there is a right way as well as a wrong way in which the transformation of natural matter into body matter can take place. Matter consumed in the right form, in right proportion and right combination results in what is supposed to be the proper balance or harmony or equilibrium of the body elements. Health means nothing but this. Disease again is nothing but the loss of this equilibrium resulting from the wrong way of absorbing environmental matter—i.e. either the over‑absorption or under-­absorption of some specific form of it.

From this understanding follows the main point of the therapeutic technique. Put in very general terms, it is matter-readjustment within the body aimed at the restoration of desired balance of the body elements. The Caraka‑samhita repeatedly emphasises this point: "Here (in medical science) the effect aimed at is the balance of the body elements. The purpose of the present work is to instruct on the effective measures to ensure the balance of the body elements." (i.1.53; cf i.16.34‑5; etc). Since, however, there is nothing in nature or man which is not made of matter, the therapeutic technique—put in more general terms—means that if there is an excess of body matter in some particular form resulting from the wrong absorption of environmental matter, the physician has to prescribe as diet or drug the kind of substances that has the efficacy of bringing down this particular form of body matter to its normal level, i.e. to the level at which it retains a balance with body matter in other forms. Secondly, if there is a diminution of body matter in some specific form resulting from the lack of absorption or inadequate absorption of environmental matter in this form, the physician has to prescribe as diet or drug certain specific substances which, when transformed within the body, raises the affected body matter to its required level.

Thus the physicians' knowledge consists mainly of all sorts of natural substances (dravya‑s) and of their actions (karma) on human bodies. On this knowledge depends his therapeutic technique of properly adjusting the interaction between environmental matter and body matter. But the physicians are also anxious to explain that this technique must not be misunderstood. The interaction between body matter and environmental matter takes place according to the laws of nature, and, as laws of nature, these are immutable. No physician can tamper with these laws in any way. None can create these laws or alter the course of their action. All that the physicians can do is to acquire better insight into these laws, so that their natural course is best utilised in the interest of the patient. This is easily explained with the analogy of fire. Fire burns or radiates heat, and this because of the law of nature. There is no way of changing the law itself. But there are ways of using the knowledge of this law to serve our purposes—inclusive of medical purposes, as is obvious, e.g., in cauterization and cooking, two of the most useful techniques from the standpoint of ancient Indian medicine.

Thus, all the mastery over nature that the doctor can aspire for is conceived in terms of the knowledge of nature. If anywhere in ancient Indian thought we see the real anticipation of the view that knowledge is power—which, when further worked out, assumes the formulation that freedom is the recognition of necessity—it is among the practitioners of the healing technique. But it is not easy for the ancients to develop expressions adequate for conveying such a profound idea. Here is one of the ways in which our Caraka‑samhita seems to grope for such an expression: "Like poison, like weapon, like fire, like lightning—the drug whose nature is not understood remains a source of unknown terror. When understood, however, it proves as beneficial as nectar". (i.1.24)

This is an ancient way of putting the point no doubt. But the point itself is not to be slighted as just primitive. Fire, poison and so on are for us sources of harm only so long as their real nature is not understood. But as we acquire insight into them, we can use them for our benefit. Knowledge is power.

Elsewhere in the Caraka‑samhita basically the same idea is sought to be conveyed in a way which may at first appear to be somewhat peculiar. It is argued that Ayurveda—in the sense of a body of natural laws—is beginningless or anadi, because nature exists from a beginningless past, and, along with nature, the laws that are inherent in it. Medical science can be said to have a beginning only from the standpoint of acquiring knowledge of these laws or of spreading the knowledge. So also it is necessary not to misunderstand the significance of the therapeutic technique. Diseases are cured not by any artificial technique of which the doctors are the innovators. These are cured by the laws inherent in nature, which the doctors can only know and, therefore, rightly apply. As the text puts the point: "Apart from the restricted sense of acquiring this knowledge and of spreading it, there is no sense in saying that medical science came into being having been non‑existent before. It is indeed only with reference to these two circumstances (i.e. of acquiring the knowledge of the laws of nature and of spreading such knowledge) that the origin of Ayurveda is alluded to by some. But there is nothing about these laws (and therefore about Ayurveda, which is based on the knowledge of these laws) that is created by anybody (akrtaka). As is said in the present chapter as well as in the first chapter, these laws are but natural laws (svabhavika)—just like the laws because of which fire is hot and water liquid." (i.30.27)

The point mentioned last needs to be very carefully noted and hence we quote it in its original Sanskrit: svabhavikam ca asya taksanam akrtakam yat uktam iha adye adhyaye ca; yatha agneh ausnam, apam dravatvam. From the need felt to reemphasise a point already made earlier, the importance intended to be attached to it becomes clear. The view of the laws inherent in nature—technically called svabhava—is essential for Ayurveda. Thus the fundamental postulates of ancient Indian medicine are: 1) everything in nature takes place according to the laws inherent in nature, 2) though immutable, these laws are nevertheless knowable, and 3) the knowledge of these laws brings power over nature, which, medically means ensuring a long and healthy life.

The entire theoretical presupposition of the therapeutic technique of Ayurveda thus hinges on one point. It is the concept of svabhava, which literally means “nature", or, as I am inclined to understand it, “law or laws of nature". [16] We do not unfortunately have the scope here to go into the details of this concept of svabhava. But it is essential to note that without the commitment to the view of svabhava, the therapeutic technique of the ancient physicians has no other rationale. Why should a natural substance with a specific matter composition affect the matter composition of the human body in a specific way? The ancient physicians know only one answer to it. It is svabhava. Ayurveda cannot thus but be committed to the view of svabhava.

But the commitment is extremely risky and the risk involved is frankly political. The view of svabhava is well‑known in the philosophical circles of ancient India and there are many references to it in our ancient literature. Reviewing these references, Hiriyanna [17] observes, "What needs to be noticed about it is its positivistic character which is implied by the contrast that is sometimes drawn between it an adrsta‑vada or belief in supernatural. In this it differs from the supernaturalism of the Mantras and Brahmanas on the one hand, and on the other from the metaphysical view of the Upanisads."

Let us first try to be clear about this supernaturalism or adrsta‑vada. The word adrsta refers to what is supposed to be the accumulated merits or demerits of the past actions (karma) of an individual. In the officially accepted view, this adrsta is moreover supposed to determine one's present lot. It is thus the ultimate ideological justification of the hierarchical social norm, strenuously defended by the Indian law‑makers. It is because of adrsta that one is born as a dvija or a sudra, i.e. as a member of the privileged class or of the class of direct producers without any privilege whatsoever. Since the view of svabhava, completely rejects adrsta, the Indian law‑makers are obliged to denounce it as abject heresy.

This leads us to see the political risk involved in the basic theoretical presupposition of the therapeutic technique. Without being politicians themselves, the ancient doctors were dragged into politics. As physicians, they cannot but pin their hopes on understanding the laws of nature, because they feel convinced that only on the basis of this understanding they can relieve human beings of avoidable suffering, or, in their own terminology, cure the curable diseases. Two chapters of the Caraka‑samhida are designed to discuss the view that medicine depends on four—and only four—factors. [18] These are the physician, the substances (used for medical purposes), the nursing attendant and the patient. Apart from discussing the essential qualifications for each of these factors—which, incidentally, are very much reminiscent of modern conditions [19]—one of the main drifts of the chapters is the defence of the intrinsic efficacy of medicine. The main point argued is that a qualified doctor with the correct understanding of the natural cause of diseases and supplied with the right natural remedies for these, cannot but cure a curable disease. In case of a disease being incurable, he can prescribe some palliative. Throughout the discussion, the view of karma and adrsta are completely ignored, or by implication, totally rejected. Indeed, without the rejection of the view of karma and adrsta, the defence of the intrinsic efficacy of medicine is not feasible, for according to the view of karma and adrsta everything about man—inclusive of his health and suffering from disease—is to be viewed as being basically determined by his past actions alone. In the Buddhist text Milinda‑panho, [20] the question of disease and karma is in fact squarely raised and it is admitted that diseases have natural causes after all, and hence it is not correct to think that these are caused by karma. Our point here is not whether the Buddhist preacher making such an arbitrary restriction to the law of karma is sufficiently self‑consistent or not. The point on the contrary is the frank admission that karma and medicine do not go together.

The ancient Indian doctors had to flout no doubt many injunctions and prohibitions of the ancient Indian law‑makers. They had to prescribe as diet and drug many things considered taboos by the law‑makers; notwithstanding strongest legal prohibitions against touching the corpse, the physicians felt obliged to dissect corpse for the sake of anatomical knowledge; besides, as we shall presently see, their healing technique required of them a democratic commitment which was also intensely detested by the law‑makers. But to question—even by implication—the law of karma and adrsta was perhaps the limit. It was in fact questioning the very norm of the hierarchical society itself. That was aspiring to be too severely scientific to remain unnoticed by the establishment. We have in this at least a major clue to what eventually happened to Indian medicine, in spite of its brilliant early promise.

The promise of science and philosophy with which rationalist medicine began in ancient India was not fulfilled. There grew a very intense resistance to it and the resistance was expressed primarily by the law‑makers, i.e. those who had ostensibly nothing to do either with science or philosophy. Their purpose was indeed frankly opposed to that of the scientists. Let us try to be clear about it.

While the scientists are interested in the theory and practice by which man acquires mastery over nature, the law‑makers are interested in the theory and practice by which man may acquire mastery over man, i.e. to keep the large masses of men under control or as law‑abiding people, which, in the ancient Indian context, concretely means people submitting to the model of varnasrama society. Understandably, therefore, the ancient Indian lawmakers find their basic purpose totally incompatible with the promise of positive science. And the fact is that they came out sharply against it.

This leads us to see an apparently bewildering phenomenon, namely the intense contempt expressed for the physicians and surgeons in the Indian legal literature. The usual way of expressing it is to declare that the physicians and surgeons are intrinsically impure beings—so impure indeed that their very presence pollutes a place, that food offered by them is too filthy to be accepted and that even food offered to them turns into something vile. Here are just a few examples.

The law‑codes of Apastamba declare that food given by a physician is too filthy to be accepted by members of higher castes (i.6.19.14). Gautama's law‑codes assert that a Brahmin may accept food from a "trader who is not an artisan", but he must not accept food from an artisan or a surgeon who belongs to the group of the intrinsically impure persons (xvii. 7 & 17). The law‑codes of Vasistha fully concur: food offered by the physician is as impure as that offered by the harlot etc. (xiv. 1‑10 & 19).

The three authorities just quoted are the most prominent of the earliest Indian law‑makers, whose works—called the Dharma‑sutra‑s—are usually placed between 600‑300 B.C. The legal contempt for the physicians and therefore also for their science thus dates back to a very ancient period. The later legal literature shows how it continues. Here is only one example. The most prominent of the Indian law‑books is Manu‑smrti, the codification of which is usually dated as the first or second century A.D. Like the earlier law‑makers, Manu declares that it is prohibited for the members of the higher castes to accept food from the physicians. What he adds to it is only a greater contempt for such food: "the food received from a doctor is as vile as blood and pus" (iv. 220). Accordingly, Manu takes care to prescribe that like the other intrinsically impure persons the physicians are not to be allowed to attend sacrifices offered to the gods and manes, because their very presence destroys the sanctity of the sacrifices (iii. 152). The later commentators of Manu like Medhatithi (A.D. 900) and Kulluka‑bhatta (c A.D. 1150‑1300) elaborately explain the desirability of enforcing these laws.

Hence there can obviously be no sanction from the lawmakers' point of view for the dvija or member of the privileged class to go in for medical practice. This is already emphasized in the law‑codes of Vasistha, which declare that a Brahmin who makes his living by medical practice forfeits his right to be considered a dvija (iii. 3). But this cannot but raise a practical problem. If medicine, in spite of its obvious use, is too derogatory a profession to be followed by the dvija‑s, on whom can its practice be entrusted? Manu answers the question and says: medical practice must remain restricted among the Ambastha‑s (x. 47). Who, then, are the Ambastha‑s? Though historically speaking they appear to be members of. some ancient tribe, Manu wants us to believe in a fanciful genealogy of them, which is intended to prove that they are bastards (varna‑samkara‑s) in caste nomenclature. They are born, says Manu, of the mating of Brahmana males with Vaisya females (x. 10)—a quaint story taken up in the ancient law‑codes of Baudhayana (i.8.7 & i.9.3) and reasserted by the later law‑makers.

Such then is the contempt for medicine and its practitioners expressed in the Indian legal literature. This, it is necessary to note, is not a stray thought. Beginning roughly from the sixth century B.C. it continues up to the 13th/14th century A.D., i.e. the time of the most famous commentators of Manu. Yet there is something very strange about it, because nowhere do the law‑makers express the real ground for their contempt for medicine. The condemnation of the doctors is just decreed, as if the sense of degradation and filth attached to them is too obvious to require any explanation.

Before passing on further, it may be useful to have some clarification.. The pollution imputed to the doctors could not be because of their indifference to physical cleanliness. The Caraka‑samhita at any rate refuses to accept the norm of a medical practitioner who does not observe the regulations of personal cleanliness. The four essential qualifications required of a doctor are: 1) clear grasp of the theoretical content of medical science, 2) a wide range of experience, 3) practical skill and 4) cleanliness (i.9.6). Cleanliness is thus as important for him as his medical knowledge, experience and practical skill.

It may be relevant to quote here at least two passages from the medical compilations to have some more idea of the kind of persons and their qualities in whom the law‑makers sense so much of defilement. Describing the young men who alone are entitled to medical studies, the Susruta‑samhita says, “He should be cleanly in his habits and well shaved and should not allow his nails to grow. He should wear white garments, put on a pair of shoes, carry a stick and an umbrella in his hands, and walk about with a mild and benign look as a friend of all creatures, ready to help all, and frank and friendly in his talk and demeanour and never allow the full control of his reason or intellectual powers to be in any way disturbed or interfered with" (i.10.2). In the same context, the Caraka‑samhita, says, “He should be peaceful, noble in disposition, incapable of any mean act, with straight eyes, face and nose, with slim body, having a clean and red tongue, without distortion of teeth and lips, with clear voice, persevering, without egotism, intelligent, endowed with powers of reasoning and good memory, with broad mind, . . . with eagerness to have knowledge of truth, with no deformity of body and no defect of sense‑organs, by nature modest and gentle, contemplating on the true nature of things, without anger and without addiction, endowed with good conduct, cleanliness, good habits, love, skill and courtesy, desirous of the welfare of all living beings, devoid of greed and laziness and having full loyalty and attachment to the teacher" (iii.8.8).

All this gives us some glimpse of the moral qualities of the physicians visualised by the ancient medical compilations. In this connection, it is tempting to quote another passage from the Caraka‑samhita, "Among the physicians he surpasses all who practise medicine neither for the sake of money nor for the sake of sensual gratification in any other form, but is motivated above all by the compassion for all living beings. Those who, as a source of income, want to sell medical skill like any other commodity (cikitsa‑panya‑vikrayam), appear to be running after a heap of dust overlooking the hoard of gold. Compared to the physician who cuts off the noose of death and brings back to life those who are being dragged by fierce diseases towards death, nobody confers greater blessings—moral or material—to the human beings. One who practises the healing technique with compassion for the living beings as the noblest of all duties is a person who really fulfils his mission and thereby gets entitled to the highest form of happiness" (vi. ID. 58‑62).

Here at any rate we read in ancient medicine something from which physicians today have much to learn.

We see in the ancient doctor the seeker of the knowledge of nature, not only hoping to convert this knowledge into successful healing technique but also boldly protesting Against the merchandisation of his knowledge and skill, which 'is so aptly described as cikitsa‑panya‑vikrayam. If, in view of the rudimentary technological development on which he is historically obliged to depend, it is necessary for him to be patient in investigating nature, the way in which he also chooses to be patient in serving humanity—pinning his hope on the conviction that the knowledge of the laws of nature alone holds the prospect of alleviating human sufferings‑cannot but be judged as highly remarkable. That is the image we have of the scientist in our ancient medical compilations—"the composite image . . . devoted equally to the patient investigation of nature and the patient service of humanity", with scant respect for the idea that the professional fee establishes the only bond between the healer and the healed. "To one who understands, knowledge of nature and love of humanity are not two things but one." This indeed would be a very lucid way of putting what the genuine physicians of our Caraka‑samhita stand for.

Yet, it is against these physicians that the law‑makers express so much of contempt. Why, then, is this contempt? Apparently, the law‑makers feel that there is some compelling reason for them to express this. What, then, is this reason?

We can see this when we take note of the actual source and nature of the Indian legal literature. This literature originates in the priestly corporations and has the primary purpose of validating the norm of hierarchical society, of which the priests are the earliest ideologists. This is easily seen when we take note of the origin of the Dharmasastra‑s. Though in the course of time these acquire absolute authority in legal matters, they actually represent Indian law still bound by the umbilical cord as it were with the ancient priestcraft of which they are born. As Winternitz puts it, "The Dharmasastras originated in the closest association with the literature of the ritual . . . Hence they are neither a mere collection of rules, nor pure lectures on jurisprudence . . . They, exactly as the old manuals, had sprung up in the Vedic schools, for the purpose of imparting instruction and were not written as codes for practical use in the courts of law." [21]

Thus, beginning from the days of its inception, the Indian legal literature is obliged to follow a science policy which is already prescribed by the Indian priest class, and from which, during its entire subsequent course, it seeks scriptural sanction.

But do the ancient Indian priests really formulate a science policy?

Interestingly enough, at least as far as medicine is concerned, they do formulate such a policy. This is evidenced by the Yajurveda, which is for us the first full‑fledged piece of priestly literature. It declares: "The Brahmin must not practise medicine, because the physician is impure and unfit for sacrifice"—brahmanena bhesajam na karyam, aputah hi esah amedhyah yah bhisak. (Tait. Sam. vi.4.9)

But why is the physician considered impure? The Yajurveda gives us a startling answer to this. As translated by Bloomfield, the answer is: "The practice entails promiscuous, unaristrocratic mingling with men." [22]

This, to say the least, is most remarkable. Put in modern terminology, the main charge against the doctors is that their science necessarily commits them to the democratic norm. As the Yajurveda elsewhere complains, "All sorts of persons rush to the physicians." (Mait. Sam. iv.6.2) But why does the commitment to the democratic norm makes the physicians so impure? There is only one answer to it. This commitment is incompatible with the requirements of the hierarchical or varnasrama society.

We can briefly note here one point indicating the fabulous power acquired by this view in the consciousness of the priest class. [23] Vedic scholarship wants us to admit that among the Vedic compilations, the Yajurveda is the latest. Between this full‑fledged priestly manual and the genuinely early hymns of the Rgveda, the time gap must have been very long. These genuinely early hymns, it is further shown by Vedic research, are unaware of the hierarchical aspirations, which is first foreshadowed in a very late hymn called the Purusa‑sukta and which becomes the most dominant theme of the Yajurveda. Significantly, along with the hierarchical aspirations are absent in the ancient Rgvedic hymns any contempt for medicine and its practitioners. On the contrary, in the mythological imagination of the ancient Rgvedic poets or seers, the twin‑gods called the Asvins or Nasatyas are highly eulogised for their medical skill. They are the physicians of the gods and the friendliest of friends of human beings. What, then, can the Yajurvedic priests do about these ancient gods?

What they actually do is most amazing. The Yajurveda strongly censors them, demotes them and declares that they are degraded because of their medical career. The priests even go to the extent of prescribing ritual purification for these ancient gods, so, that their medical past can be somehow or other atoned.

The sense of degradation attached to the ancient Asvins continues in the vast Brahmana‑literature, which grows directly out of the Yajurveda. As the Satapatha Brahmana declares: The other gods said to the Asvins: 'We will not invite you, for you have wandered much among men performing cures'. (iv. 1,5. 1‑ 15)

So the priests do not spare even the gods, whose medical career commits them to the democratic norm. But these Brahmana‑texts mention another ground because of which medicine—or, for that matter, anything containing the promise of positive science in any sense—has got to be censored from the viewpoint of the hierarchical aspirations. The main basis of medical science, as we have already seen, is made of empirical. knowledge, the importance of which the medical compilations consciously emphasise. Depending mainly on direct observation, Ayurveda aspires even after the knowledge of nature as a whole, because it is felt that there can be nothing in nature irrelevant for medical purposes. With the emergence of the hierarchical aspirations in the Vedic literature, however, it is all different. What is now cared for is a system of behaviour by which a privileged minority acquires mastery over the vast majority of direct producers. That which is most needed for the purpose is an ideology that draws some kind of mystical veil on nature, as that people can be persuaded to believe that things are not what appear to their eyes. The ideologists trying to validate the powers and privileges of the ruling minority have thus to begin with a distorted description of reality, i.e. the technique of twisting, concealing and mystifying the actual nature of the world, along with everything that goes on in it. What cannot be tolerated from this point of view is the direct knowledge of nature—the understanding of natural facts as these are actually observed.

Accordingly, the vast Brahmana‑texts take special rare in proclaiming that the purposive distortion of reality is one of their holy missions. The typical priestly formula by which this is eulogised is to claim that the gods themselves delight in making things purposively obscure, mysterious, unintelligible: paroksapriyah iva hi devab. (e.g. Ait. Br. vii. 30; iii.33; Sat. Br. vi. 1.2; etc)

We shall presently see how Yajnavalkya, the great idealist philosopher of the Upanisads, explains this formula. For the present the point is that if the gods themselves are fond of concealing the actual nature of things, the mortals can search for the knowledge of nature as it actually is only by flouting the gods. Anything genuinely foreshadowing positive science is thus a sin or a sacrilege. Any discipline aspiring to be science in our sense has thus to be condemned and despised as impure. It is no wonder, therefore, that the Indian legal literature, which emerges directly from the priestly corporations, should go on preaching for centuries a total contempt for medicine, which, of all the disciplines of ancient India, aspires to be science in our sense.

The continued condemnation of medicine in the officially approved social norm seems to be the most serious external factor that accounts for its decadence and eventual theoretical collapse. To evade censorship of the law‑makers, its later representatives seem to concede to the ideological requirements of the priests to the extent of almost obliterating the grand theoretical achievements of Ayurveda during its creative period. This cripples medicine, which is ultimately made to look like a confused assemblage of science and its opposite. [24] The result is a calamity for ancient Indian culture, the enormity of which is to be judged by what rationalist medicine once promised to it.

No. The calamity was much greater. The ideological requirements of the hierarchical social norm not only crippled science; it also corrupted philosophy. We shall end with a brief idea of this.

To the Brahmana‑texts are traditionally appended the Upanisads, which are for us the earliest documents of Indian philosophical thought proper. There is no doubt that the philosophers of the Upanisads are among the greatest luminaries of their age. Their glory has been extensively discussed by scholars, traditional as well as modern. We need not reiterate this over again. What nevertheless needs to be discussed is the grave danger created for the general direction of the development of their philosophical thought by the spell on them of the priestly dictum censoring direct observation or empirical evidence. Yajnavalkya, by far the most renowned metaphysician of the Upanisads, quotes the dictum. It seems, however, that a thinker of his stature feels that it is in need of some explication. While reiterating it, therefore, he adds a brief explanatory expression and says, “The gods are fond of the obscure; they detest direct knowledge" —paroksa‑priyah  iva hi devah; prayaksa‑dvisah. (By. Up. iv. 2.2)

The cryptic expression added to the dictum—namely pratyaksa dvisah—conveying divine distaste for direct knowledge, speaks volumes. The great metaphysician, while explaining the priestly dictum, explains in his own way its calamitous consequence for natural science. In the theoretical climate created by this endorsement, the zeal for the objective knowledge of nature inspired by the conviction that it alone holds the prospect of improving the lot of humanity, is quite dead. The magnificent theoretical endowments of the metaphysicians have to explore other avenues for self‑fulfilment. Philosophy not only breaks away from science—from the norm of interrogating nature—but moreover succumbs to a peculiar delusion of the omnipotence of pure reason or pure thought. Thought wants to dictate terms to reality and to announce itself as the only reality. Knowledge no longer aspires to be the knowledge of the objects. It wants to be the knowledge of the subject—of the bare ego or the pure self. As an Upanisadic metaphysician aptly describes it: "the libido fixed on the ego, sporting with the ego, copulating with the ego, delighting in the ego"—atmaratih atmakridah atmamaithuna atmanandaa (Ch Up vii. 25. 2)

This, in short, is extreme introversion that the psychiatrists speak of. Extreme introversion, we are further told, brings into operation a delusion of grandeur. It is the delusion of the omnipotence of the bare ego. The Upanisadic metaphysician gives us an admirable description of it: “I, indeed, am below. I am above. I am to the east. I am to the west. I, indeed, am the whole world." (Ch Up vii. 25‑1‑2)

The immediate result of this great grandeur attributed to the pure "I", is the lofty contempt for nature or the material world, which, in this metaphysical trend, is finally reduced to some kind of phantom or maya fabricated by just ignorance or avidya. Disowning direct perception or experience, which is for man the starting point of understanding nature, the metaphysician's consciousness tends to rise to ever more remote conditions where only thought remains and the things thought of fade out. This is the cult of pure reason. Among the leisured minority living on the surplus produced by the vast masses of manual workers, [25] consciousness—estranged from the active intercourse with nature—becomes a form of sick consciousness or morbid consciousness. It is no longer consciousness of something, but something like consciousness‑in‑itself —just consciousness or sheer consciousness, which can now be viewed as a deified absolute as it were, too mysterious to be grasped by mundane thought and too awesome to be described by mundane language. As Yajnavalkya declares, it is just a mass of consciousness—vijnaghana (By Up ii. 4. 12). Being by nature beyond the range of normal knowledge, the only way of referring to it is to say: It is not this; it is not this'. Or, only by dreaming or sinking further into the state of dreamless sleep called susupti, one can have some kind of awareness of it, though this awareness is supposed to he more meaningful only by attaining a state of cultivated catalepsy technically called turiya (Br Up iv. 3. 7ff). [26]

This is not the place for us to discuss the dominant trend of the Upanisadic philosophy in more detail. Tons of books are already written in admiration of it. What needs to be added to these, however, is only a simple point. The admiration must not be misplaced. Whatever may be the ground of admiring it, that cannot he any help it possibly renders to positive science. In fact, the great Upanisadic metaphysician Sanatkumara warns us against such a possibility. When Narada enumerates to him all the branches of knowledge cultivated in Upanisadic India—inclusive of proto‑science in some forms—Sanatkumara declares that from the point of view of his great metaphysical wisdom, all these have at best a nominal significance: nama eva (Ch Up vii). But Narada apparently considers medicine too derogatory even to be mentioned in the list of these disciplines. The humble researches of men who hoped to remove avoidable human suffering by a patient study of nature and its ever‑shifting phenomena have lost all prestige in Upanisadic India, where the gods are supposed to detest direct knowledge of nature—pratyaksa dvisah. The entire Upanisadic literature is silent about medicine, which, in ancient India, aspires to be natural science par excellence. The great luminaries of Upanisadic India like Yajnavalkya and Sanatkumara—whose breath‑taking flights of pure reason proves stunning for many thinkers even today—move forward only to put off the lamp of science. This is how the counter‑ideology required by the varnasrama or hierarchical social norm—the apprehension for and therefore the denunciation of direct knowledge of nature—condemns philosophy to develop in a direction that proves disastrous for natural science.


1.  Dasgupta, S N. History of Indian Philosophy, 4 vols, Cambridge 1922‑55, vol. ii, p. 273 [—> main text]

2.  Sachau, E.C. Al‑Beruni's India, reprint Delhi 1964, ii. 107ff. For further details, see Chattopadhyaya D. What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy, New Delhi 1976, pp. 257ff and Chattopadhyaya D. Science and Society in Ancient India, Calcutta 1977, pp 355ff. (The present paper is intended mainly to be a summary of the latter.) [—> main text]

3.  See e.g., Bodding, P.O. Studies in Santhal Medicine, Calcutta 1925. [—> main text]

4.  Susruta‑Samhitha i.40.12‑3. Cf Caraka‑samhita i.27.3 [—> main text]

5.  Caraka‑samhita i.11.53 [—> main text]

6.  Caraka‑samhita iii.8.87 [—> main text]

7.  Chattopadhyaya D. Science and Society in Ancient India, pp. 320ff [—> main text]

8.  Notes sur les Indo‑scythes in 'Journal Asiatique', Nov‑Dec. 1896 [—> main text]

9.  Dasgupta S.N. op. cit. ii. 283‑4 [—> main text]

10.  Filliozat J. The Classical Doctrine of Indian Medicine, New Delhi 1964, p. 18 [—> main text]

11.  Mahavagga vi. [—> main text]

12.  Mahavagga viii. [—> main text]

13.  Cf. Caraka‑samhita i.27.3: "Now, of all types of evidences, the most dependable ones are those that are directly observed b the eyes."  This emphasis on the importance of direct observation seems to be retained mainly in the alchemical literature, of medieval period. P.C. Ray (Essays and Discourses, Madras 1918) quotes from two alchemical texts, which it is tempting to quote over again. Ramacandra, in' his Rasendra‑cintamani, declares: "That which I have heard of learned men and have read in the sastra‑s but I have not been able to verify by experiment, I have discarded. On the other hand, those operations which I have—according to, the directions of my sage teachers—been able to perform with my own hands, those I have committed to writing." Yasodhara, in his Rasaprakas'a‑sudhakara, says: "All the chemical operations described in my book have been performed with my own hands; I am not writing from hearsay. Everything related is based on my own conviction and observations." In an atmosphere in which the law‑makers demanded abject faith in the scriptures, the alchemists were understandably considered heretics. [—> main text]

14.  See Lenin, who repeatedly claims that natural science cannot but instinctively adhere to the materialist theory of knowledge: Materialism and Empirio‑Criticism, Moscow 1970 edn, pp. 17, 32, 37, 62, 147, 268, 307. [—> main text]

15.  Engels, specially in his Dialectics of Nature, puts repeated emphasis on the fact that for the ancient Greek naturalists the "dialectical outlook" was a brilliant intuition as it were. See D. Chattopadhyaya, Engels on Philosophy (in Society and Revolution: Essays in Honour of Engels, New Delhi, 1971). This point may perhaps be added to the brilliant observations of Professor Joseph Needham (The Grand Titration, London 1969, p. 176) on the close similarity between the ancient Indian and ancient Greek traditions, and this as contrasted with the ancient Chinese tradition. The contrast is further evidenced by the lack of "logic” and "atomism" in the ancient Chinese tradition, which are among the outstanding achievements of both Indian and Greek traditions. [—> main text]

16.  For the discussion of the view of svabhava in more detail, see Chattopadhyaya D. Indian Atheism (reprint New Delhi 1980) pp. 55‑68 and What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy (New Delhi 1976) pp. 456ff. After re‑reading Professor Joseph Needham's Lecture at the Hatfield College of Technology, 1961, however, I feel that the understanding of svabhava as "Laws of Nature" is in need of this amendment that the theological‑metaphorical implication of "Laws of Nature" (Kepler, Descartes, Boyle and Newton) may be avoided. The concept of svabhava being profoundly incompatible with the conception of a celestial lawgiver, may perhaps be better rendered as "internal necessities of their own nature". cf. rta of Rgveda and tao of the Taoists. [—> main text]

17.  Hiriyanna, M. Outlines of Indian Philosophy, reprint Bombay 1973, p.104 [—> main text]

18.  Caraka‑samhita i.9 and i.10. [—> main text]

19.  for details, see Chattopadhyaya D. Science and Society in Ancient India, pp. 190ff [—> main text]

20.  Milinda‑panho iv. 62‑66. [—> main text]

21.  Winternitz, M. A History of Indian Literature, Vol. iii, Delhi 1967, p. 538 [—> main text]

22.  Bloomfield, M. in Sacred Books of the  East, Vo. XLI1, introduction p. x1 [—> main text]

23.  For details of textual references, see Chattopadhyaya D. Science and Society in Ancient India, pp. 232ff [—> main text]

24.  This makes it necessary to subject the extant Caraka‑samhita and Susruta‑samhita to serious textual analysis. See Chattopadhyaya D. Tradition of Rational Medicine in Ancient India: Case for a Critical Analysis of the Caraka­samhita, paper presented at the “IVth World Sanskrit Conference", Weimar 1979. [—> main text]

25.  For this material precondition of the origin of the Upanisadic idealism, see Chattopadhyaya, D. What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy, Ch. iv. [—> main text]

26.  For more details of this line of the argument of the Upanisadic idealists, see Chattopadhyaya, D. An Introductory Note on Indian Idealism in "K. M. Asraf: An Indian Scholar and Revolutionary." AkademieVerlag, Berlin 1966. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. “Science and Philosophy in Ancient India,” in Marxism and Indology, edited by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya (Calcutta; New Delhi: K. P. Bagchi & Company, 1981), pp. 231-262.

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Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya - Wikipedia

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