Medicine - Early history

The use by animals of plants as medicines is well documented, strongly suggesting that even the earliest humans would have used herbal remedies too. However, evidence is scarce for medical practices in prehistoric times. Ancient surgery leaves traces in bones, but medicines rarely survive in the archaeological record.

Sanskrit texts

Old palmleaf manuscript showing a seated bodhisattva.
10th-12th Century palm leaf manuscript showing Bodhisattva Manjusri. Ayrvedic texts likely had their orgins in Buddhist monastaries around 400 BC.

The Indian subcontinent's rich legacy of Sanskrit texts were written down from about 400 BC, but include religious texts such as the Rig-Veda which may date from 1200 BC. Such texts (the veda) were memorised and passed on through oral tradition by priests until they were eventually written down.

These religious texts contain the first references to medicine in the subcontinent. However, these are brief, and (naturally enough in religious texts) emphasise magical and religious explanations and cures for illnesses. Herbal remedies are mentioned, and there is the intriguing soma, of so much fascination to the scholarly world.

Soma

Soma (in the Persian Avesta, haoma) features in the religious rituals of both the Hindu and Zoroastrian faiths, reflecting their likely shared origins in movements of Indo-European peoples. It plays a central role in hymns, addressed in terms such as these:

'We just drank the Soma, we have become immortal, we have come to the light, we have found the gods. What can enmity do to us now, and what the mischief of a mortal, o immortal one?'

A substance known as soma is sometimes used in Vedic rituals today. This is most often Sarcostemma brevistigma, consumed as an alcoholic drink.

Although the vedas' descriptions of soma are vague, it does appear to be a stimulant, rather than a hallucinogen or alcoholic drink. The most plausible candidate is one or more species of Ephedra. This contains the stimulant ephedrine, and is still used in Zoroastrian rituals. Many other candidates have been suggested, including rhubarb, harmel ( Peganum harmala), cannabis and, most implausibly, the fly agaric mushroom Amanita muscaria. Failing the discovery of any convincing archaeological evidence, the question remains unsolved.

The early history of Ayurveda

The word Ayurveda means 'the knowledge for longevity' and comes from two Sanskrit words, knowledge (vedayati) and longevity (ayusya). Ayurvedic medicine relies heavily on ancient textbooks; some dating back to about 800 AD, but incorporating material from 1000 years earlier.

It is often claimed that Ayurvedic texts have their roots in the vedic texts of 1500 BC. However, although both Ayurvedic and vedic texts are written in Sanskrit, the two types of text are very different in their style. It is more likely that Ayurvedic texts had their origins in Buddhist monasteries around 400 BC. Such monasteries are known to have had public hospitals from soon after their beginnings, because Buddhist kings saw hospitals as an expression of public compassion. There are many similarities in content between early Buddhist and Ayurvedic texts.

The two best known textbooks of Ayurvedic medicine are the Caraka Samhita and the Susruta Samhita. Both are very long books, covering a wide variety of medical and philosophical topics. Other texts, dating from 600 AD to 1500 AD, are also important. These texts, combined with teaching from an Ayurvedic mentor, are still fundamental to practising Ayurvedic medicine. In the past students would have memorised these texts. Although it is sometimes suggested that Ayurveda is unchanging, there is ample evidence of development through time. Later Ayurvedic texts recognise new diseases and new methods of diagnosis.