History of Ayurveda

By Govardhan Ecovillage February 25, 2019

A replica of Shri Madan Mohan Temple has been created at Govardhan Ecovillage and was inaugurated on
January 25, 2019 in the graceful presence of H.H Radhanath Swami Maharaj and other dignitaries.


he word Ayurveda is made from the union of two Sanskrit words “ayu” and “veda”. Ayu is the life and Veda is the knowledge. Therefore Ayurveda is a comprehensive knowledge of life.

Existence and use of Ayurveda date back approx. 5000 years ago or more. It is considered as old as the Vedas themselves. The four vedas are Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda. The word Atharva emerges from the same root as the word Artha does. The word Artha means value, meaning or worth. Atharvaveda is the Veda that deals with the fulfillment of material requirements and help the person find the best way to survive with minimal exertion. This knowledge was meant for the sages, who wanted to spend their lives exploring the divine wisdom. Therefore Atharva Veda ensured that all their basic physical, personal and social needs were fulfilled. Ayurveda is called the fifth Veda. However, it is considered to have emerged from Atharva Veda as it is the store of worldly knowledge.

Sources of Ayurvedic history

The mentions of Ayurvedic treatment is mentioned in various parts of the Vedas. Vedas mention the use of herbs like soma to get the divine nectar for the gods. In epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana, there are multiple instances of medicinal treatment, obstetrics and even plastic surgeries done on nose, ears; replacement of limbs etc. however, the knowledge of Ayurvedic history majorly comes from the Ayurvedic classical texts themselves. There are 2 major sections of Ayurvedic works available today – Brihattrayi (The Major Three). Brihattrayi includes Charak Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, and Ashtanga Hridya Samhita. Brihat-trayi is the backbone of the Ayurvedic treatment today. All these texts are very comprehensive. Charak Samhita is the main text for Ayurvedic general medicine. Sushrut Samhita is the major text available for Ayurvedic surgery. Ashtanga Hridya Samhita is a complete Ayurveda treatise that includes knowledge from most of the major Ayurvedic works. The second section is the Laghutrayi (the lesser three). It includes – Bhava Prakash, Madhava Nidana and Sharangdhara Samhita. Bhava Prakash is the epitome work on the Ayurvedic herbs and other substances used in Ayurvedic medicines. It describes herbal properties and uses in detail. The word “Nidana” means the cause or the root. Madhav Nidana is the master of the book of Ayurvedic diagnosis. It covers the description, types, pathophysiology, pathological stages and symptoms of all the major diseases. Sharangadhara Samhita is the seminal work on Ayurvedic pharmaceutical knowledge. It includes the formulae, preparation methods and uses of the classical Ayurvedic medicines. Apart, from these major works, there are multiple other works that deal with different branches of Ayurveda. For example – Kashyap Samhita covers all the subjects on Gynaecology, Obstetrics, and Paediatrics. Thus, Ayurveda is a complete and established science and not a compilation of some herbal remedies discovered by trial and error.

How Ayurveda was discovered

It is believed that the knowledge of Ayurveda emerged from the Brahma himself, as he is the source of everything in the universe. He is the source of the universe himself. From Brahma, this knowledge passed to Indra, the king of the gods.

According to Charak Samhita, sages were getting sick because of an unhealthy diet and lifestyle. They wanted to find out a way to elongate their life-span so that they can pursue their spiritual journey and reach the salvation in a single birth. There was a meeting of all the sages and they appointed Sage Bharadwaj as their representative, to go to Indra. Sage Bharadwaja meditated on the god Indra and he received the divine knowledge of Ayurveda in its entirety. Thus Bhardwaja is said to be the father of Ayurveda for the human race.

From Bharadwaja, the knowledge of Ayurveda spread to all the eligible rishis (sages) and satvik people. According to the available text of Charak Samhita, Rishi Atreya was one of the sages who received the knowledge of Ayurveda from the seers. Atreya passed on his ayurvedic wisdom to his six main students – Agnivesha, Bhela, Jatukarna, Parashara, Ksharaparani, and Harita. Out of all these students, Agnivesha was the most promising. Each one of these students compiled their learnings in the form of different Samhitas, however, Agnivesha Samhita received the praise and blessing of the gods and survives to this day in the form of Charak Samhita. Charak Samhita was compiled by sage Charak. The Sanskrit word “Charak” refers to the nomads or the one who keeps walking. Timeline of sage Charak is very uncertain. The word Charak is a general term s that was used for the nomadic sage doctors, who would travel from one place to the other offering their medicinal services to the common folks. These sage doctors existed throughout ancient India. Their services became more prevalent with the rise of Buddhist monks who would travel from one place to the other. They would give religious discourses as well as treat the sick people. They believed that the one in physical pain should not be made to focus on spirituality.

Branches of Ayurveda

Ayurveda was too extensive for a single person to absorb, therefore Sage Bharadwaj made 8 branches of Ayurveda. These branches are specialized sciences

Communities of Ayurveda

Atreya Community

Punarvasu Atreya is the sage who founded the Atreya community. According to Atreya, the most important branch of Ayurveda is Kayachikitsa. It is so because Kaya chikitsa is the general medicine of Ayurveda that treats the entire body as a whole. In contrast, other branches are meant for specific purposes like Kaumarabhratya is solely for the children, Shalakya is for the head region and Bhutavidya is meant for the psychiatric disorders. But Kayachikitsa has the most extensive role in disease prevention and treatment of almost all diseases. Even other branches of Ayurveda derive support from Kayachikitsa for a comprehensive treatment. Therefore, according to the Atreya community, Kayachikista is the principal branch of Ayurveda. Vaidyas of Atreya community must excel in the knowledge of Kayachikista compulsorily, even if they choose to practice in other branches of Ayurveda. Each of these communities has special literature devoted exclusively to their central specialization. For Atreya community, the most important of all ancient Ayurveda text is Charak Samhita.

Charak Samhita is compiled by Sage Charak, as a discourse between Sage Atreya and his pupil Agnivesha. Throughout Sage Charak Samhita, Agnivesha asks various questions from his master, and Atreya answers the questions in detail. These questions are segregated in different chapters, specific to a certain subject, for example – Sutrasthana (Basic concepts), Sharirsthana (Human Anatomy and physiology), Chkitsasthana (medicinal treatment and rejuvenation procedures) etc. Charak Samhita extensively covers metabolic, genetic, communicable, gynecological, and mental disorders and their treatment. It describes over 500 herbs and their medicinal properties. It also describes the types and medicinal properties of food items like pulses, rice, wheat, milk etc.

Dhanvantari Community

According to Sushruta Samhita, there was another line of Ayurveda that formed from Dhanavatari. There are many people of Ayurvedic prominence by the name of Dhanvantari. The divine physician to the gods, the one who was born with a pot of elixir in his hands is called god Dhavantari. However, Sushruta Samhita is compiled by sage Sushrut who was the disciple of King Divodasa Dhanvantari, the king of Kashi (modern Varanasi). As stated in Sushrut Samhita, King Dhanvantari states that in earlier times, the environment of the earth (climatic conditions) was divine and the human body was resilient towards diseases. At that time a human being would always die a natural death unless injured by an accident, war or physical trauma. In such circumstances, the only science that could be immediately useful and fruitful was Shalya Tantra (Ayurvedic Surgery). Therefore, Shalya Tantra is the essence of all the Ayurvedic knowledge. It is the crown branch of Ayurveda which can save human beings from pre-mature death or permanent deformity. Shalya Tantra is also important in the case of deformity correction. Vedas and ancient literature have references of surgical correction of nose, eyes, ears, limbs etc. Ayurvedic obstetric is elaborately described in Ayurvedic surgery. Therefore Shalya Tantra is applicable right from the birth of the individual, until his death. In the context of a perfectly healthy environment, pure food and water, the claim of Dhanvantari community can be considered correct that Shalya Tantra is truly the highest and most required branch of Ayurveda.

Sushrut Samhita, written by the favorite disciple of King of Varanasi, Dhanvantari, is the authority text in the field of Ayurvedic surgery. Like Charak Samhita, it contains the basics of health and diseases. However, the focus is on the surgical use of herbs, types of surgical instruments, bandages, the process of wound-healing, directives for the construction of hospital and Operation theatre etc.

Unfortunately, due to the rise of Buddhism and Jainism in India during the medieval period, surgery was seen as a kind of “hinsa” or violence towards the body. Probably, it was so because the institution for regulating the Ayurvedic surgical practice deteriorated. As a result, surgical mal-practices prevailed and common people suffered at the hands of quacks. As an alternative, Buddhist monks developed another branch of Ayurveda Shalakya Tantra. The word Shalakya is derived from the Sanskrit word “Shalaka”, which means the needle. This branch cures the diseases through the use of needles. Shalakya Tantra was rejuvenated in the form of Acupressure and acupuncture. This science spread across the world with Buddhism and presented a safer alternative as the knowledge and practice of Shalya Tantra declined.

Apart from these 2 main communities of Ayurveda, several other communities developed across the world that retained the knowledge of Ayurveda in bits and pieces. For example, traditional medicine in Ladakh uses hot needles or fire for curing diseases. This is a form of a traditional Ayurvedic treatment called Agnikarma. Homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, and several other ancient medical systems worked on the concepts of dosha or the humor in the body.

Ayurveda is being rediscovered and rejuvenated now and we hope that in future, we will have a new generation that will be able to reclaim the knowledge of Ayurveda from the cosmos.