Chapter 8 – Medicine and Surgery in ancient Bharat Varsha

Themes from Return of the Aryans

Theme No. 8 – Medicine and Surgery in ancient Bharat Varsha (5,000 BCE)

 

Selected extracts from Return of the Aryans by Bhagwan S. Gidwani, published by Penguin Books, India, ISBN 0-14- 024053 – 5

 

(Reference Pages 340- 342, from Return of the Aryans)

The story of Sage Dhanawantar and his wife Dhanawantri who together spear-headed the establishment of a system of Medicine and Surgery in ancient Bharat Varsha around 5,000 BCE.

 

A physician was always regarded as an important member in the community. His job was to prevent sickness, not merely to cure it.

 

Nandan, the 21st Karkarta of the Sindhu clan gave every assistance to physicians and in particular to Sage Dhanawantar who, along with his wife Dhanawantri, had developed a system of medicine around 5050 BCE. The “Guiding Principle” established by Sage Dhanawantar for his disciples at his Ashram was:

 

“The health of your patients and their recovery is of paramount importance, even at the cost of your own health . . . You do not choose patients. Their pain and agony calls to you. Do not pass it by. . . be he a master or servant, rich or poor, man or animal (possibly, veterinary medicine as a separate field had not yet taken root). . .

 

“By all means, pray for and with your patients, if you wish. . . .And surely, if your prayers have no effect on your patients, they are at least good for your mental health . . .and to guard your soul. . .”

 

Sage Dhanawantar described six ‘winds’ which cause bodily functions- udana, from the throat, causing speech; prana m the heart for breathing; somana, fanning a cooking fire in the stomach to separate digestible food; vyana, causing blood-movement to and from the heart; ojas, a diffused wind throughout the body producing energy for bodily functions; and apana, semen for sex and procreation

 

The sage explained how food is digested and how blood, bone marrow and semen are formed. He listed functions of the spinal cord; and located eighteen centers in the brain which were the seats of learning, memory, nervous system, psychic energy and other impulses. Many of Sage’s views on interrelation of the brain and heart were, later, criticized. For instance, the Sage speculated that there could be another diffused ‘wind, – the wind of the ‘inner voice’, which sought to measure, weigh and assess all that the brain wanted to do-and sometimes, it encouraged or even opposed what the brain contemplated, though the brain was the commander and could reject or accept what that ‘wind’ of the silent voice whispered.

 

Sage’s views on adverse effect to an individual’s health as the result of the brain rejecting advice of the ‘inner voice’ were not acceptable to many. Their view simply was that the brain considers many courses of action and finally selects the course that appeals to it.

 

Sage’s wife, Dhanawantri, was also criticized for some of her theories. She conceived three main stages of the functioning of the human brain. In its first stage, the brain receives and interprets outside signals (such as by eyesight, sounds, the sensation of touch or smell). In the second stage, processing takes place to analyze those signals and to evolve a plan of action; and the third stage is the brain-output, to issue commands to the body for movement, speech, or any other action or inaction. None objected to these views or to her view of the two organisms of the brain viz. ‘Stream of the Conscious’ and the ‘Stream of the Unconscious’. But she was criticized much when she went far a field to speculate that ‘ Stream of the Unconscious’ had another ‘current’ too, which possibly arose before we were born and remained after we died and that much of its content came from our past series of lives and would go forward to next series of lives, ‘enriched or seasoned by the experience of our sojourn in the Present’. This hidden, undying ‘current’, according to her, could be tapped by the wise for its knowledge of the ‘infinite unknown’ and ‘the memory of what happened before we were born and possibly a preconception of what may happen after we die’. She gave the instance of music and lullaby, soothing to infants, well before they hear or understand anything else as the familiar sound heard by them for countless past generations.

 

The complaint of critics was that Sage and his wife often forgot the boundary-lines between scientific study and philosophy. But the Sage always held that one leads to the other.

 

In any case the Sage accepted criticism cheerfully and to his students , he said:

 

“If only my ignorance equaled my knowledge, I would know a trillion times more. So be sure, dear students, to question all that I say and investigate everything yourselves”

 

Priests disliked Sage Dhanawantar, (except when they were sick themselves and needed his attention) as he was suspected of having performed dissection of dead bodies. They held that the body served as the temple of the soul and had to be respected even after death, entitled to prayers and cremation – and for that, it had to be kept whole and wholesome and dissection, according to the priests, was an abomination. Some asked the Sage if he had actually dissected bodies, but his reply was, “A physician never betrays a patient’s secret; is he not to guard his own secret !” Since he refused to deny it, many assumed that he had carried out dissection of bodies. But that is inconclusive because always he declined to confirm or deny any questions which intruded on his personal affairs or even charities and when pressed, all he would say. “God and my wife know all my secrets – Let that be.”

 

However, many were convinced, from the drawings and descriptions of Sage Dhanawantar, that such intimate knowledge of the functioning of the body is impossible without dissection. How else could he have drawn such precise illustrations of internal organs !

 

A case which caused some furor arose when hermit Dhrona ‘willed’ before witnesses that his body be given, after his death, to Sage Dhanawantar for dissection .

 

Dhrona had become a hermit at the age of twenty-eight He was healthy and strong and expected to outlive Sage Dhanawantar. No one therefore took his declaration seriously. But he died after a brief illness at the age of forty-four. Purohits approached Karkarta Nandan to declare that such a ‘will’ – to declare that his body be given up for dissection – was unlawful ‘Ashes to ashes, let it be, and neither desecrate nor abominate what was once the dwelling of the god’s soul – the Purohits argued. Fortunately for Karkarta Nandan, the question of disposing Dhrona’s body ceased to be a live issue. Dhrona’s family quickly came forward to cremate the body, with the assistance of a number of Purohits who were even paid handsome fees requested by them for assisting in the cremation.

 

After the Sage’s death, his wife Dhanawantri went to Avagana (Afghanistan). She remained with Vaid (a physician from Sindh) who had served as the headman (chief Administrator of Afghanistan) but had now retired as a hermit. Some said, Dhanawantri and Vaid got married, though Vaid was seventy years (solar) and she, sixty-four (lunar), so maybe it was more a spiritual marriage.

 

To Dhanawantri also belongs the distinction of developing in Avagana (Afghanistan), a comprehensive system of surgery. The taboo on the dissection of dead bodies in the Sindhu region had not penetrated into Avagana; the battlefields there gave her the opportunity to improve the surgical training of her students, who became experts in plastic surgery, far beyond anything known at that time; they could repair fingers, noses, ears and lips injured or lost in battle.