Articles- Science and Society: An Indian Perspective
Indian Sciences

Ancient Indian Medicine: Towards an Unbiased Perspective.

The task of the historian who will search for elements of scientific knowledge in the knowledge systems of ancient non-western civilisations is a difficult one. All current theoretical reflection on science - sociological, epistemological and historical - is based on the assumption that western science in its modern phase is the paradigm for a ‘scientific’ knowledge system. If the historian of sciences of ancient civilisations were to go by the tradition of this scholarship in science, he must abdicate his task right at the threshold: he is not likely to find ‘knowledge systems’ identical with the modern western science at any time or place in history. All that the historian of science can then do is to document the evolution of modern science in the western culture from Galileo onwards. This is precisely what the historians of science did, till recently.

If the historian of science in ancient civilisations is to take up his task seriously, he must first free himself of the inherent bias of all modern scholarship on science and evolve a criterion for calling a knowledge system ‘scientific’. Fortunately, evolving such a criterion is not difficult. One can simply turn back to the school text definition of science: “Science is the body of knowledge based on observation of phenomena and their classification under a theoretical framework, which itself is tested in observation.” Thus all that the historian has to look for is a knowledge system that has the following methodological characteristics:

M-1: It is based on a sufficiently large body of observational data.
M-2: It has a sufficiently elaborate theoretical framework to classify the data.
M-3: The basis of legitimisation of theoretical speculation is located in observation.

The above methodology obviously presupposes an epistemological position that:

E-1: The above method is a legitimate method for acquiring knowledge about reality.

E-2: The knowledge so acquired is always limited, and subject to modification in the light of new data.

The historian of science must also search for evidence, explicit or implicit, in favour of the above two epistemological criteria.

The above epistemological-methodological criteria make knowledge a process of accretion that keeps ever increasing and changing through the addition and assimilation of new data. Acquisition of such knowledge can only be a collective corporate activity. Therefore, in order to show that in a society a knowledge system based on the above criteria actually flourished, the historian must also show the presence of a community of practitioners. Thus to the above list of methodological-epistemological criteria, the historian must add the sociological criterion that:

S-1: In the society under study, there was a professional community of practitioners of knowledge as defined through the above methodological-epistemological criteria; and that this community of practitioners was governed by specific social norms.

If in a knowledge system of an ancient civilisation the historian can find all the above characteristics, he can have no hesitation in calling such a knowledge system ‘scientific’, whether that system fits in with the paradigm of ‘modern science’ or not. The current tradition of scholarship on science, obsessed as it is with the idea that modern science happens to be the only scientific knowledge system that mankind has ever produced may not agree with him. But for any unbiased observer such a knowledge system must have all claims to be called scientific.

Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya in the first chapter of his book Science and Society in Ancient India marshals great amount of data that proves that ancient Indian medicine satisfied all the above requirements. The data he presents is gleaned largely from the textbooks of Indian medicine, in fact from the two major texts Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita. Below, we give a few glimpses of this data, grouping it according to the six criteria that we have identified above.

Methodological Criteria

M-1 Empirical Basis: The Ayurvedic texts lay great store by empirical observation. The texts give very detailed instructions about gathering of empirical data on drugs, on symptoms of health and morbidity, and even on anatomy through the dissection of corpses. The data accumulated in the canonical texts of Ayurveda on all these aspects is enormous. Take the case of data on drugs alone: The texts mention drugs of vegetable, animal and mineral origin. The number of drug plants recorded in the three Samhitas – Charaka, Sushruta and Ashtanga-Hridaya – is between 600 and 700 and the number of Sanskrit names, excluding their derivatives, of vegetable drugs is about 1900. To this it needs to be added that the medical works do not discuss a plant only as a whole; instead the texts describe the effects on our bodies of different parts and products of the plants. As the Charaka Samhita explains, “Root, bark, pith, exudation, stalk, juice, sprouts, alkalies, milk, fruit, flower, ash, oils, thorns, leaves, buds, bulbs and off-shots are the plant products known in medicine.”(p.85, Charaka Samhita, i.1.73)[2]

While discussing therapeutic and other properties of substances of animal origin, the Charaka Samhita alone describes one hundred and sixty five varieties of animals. Enumerating the different animal products used for medical purposes, it says, “Honey, milk, bile, fat, marrow, blood, flesh, excrement, urine, skin, semen, bones, sinews, horns, nails, hooves, hair, gorochana - these are the substances used in medicine from the animal world.”(p.86, Charaka Samhita, i.1.68-9) The Charaka Samhita also mentions 64 main minerals used for therapeutic purposes.

Thus the canonical medical texts describe 600 to 700 drug plants with their different parts forming different drugs, 165 varieties of animals again with different products and parts acting as different drugs, and 64 main minerals. Each of these substances is subject to a variety of pharmacological processes and preparations; and the texts also describe how the therapeutic properties of different substances vary according to the pharmacological processing and preparation. All this makes for an enormous pharmacopoeia. The Charaka Samhita speaks of ‘six hundred purgatives and five hundred decoctions’ besides eighty-four varieties of wines. (p.88, Charaka Samhita, i.27.7)

This vast repertoire of therapeutic information arises from an attitude of deep respect for empirical observation that the Ayurvedic texts exhibit, both implicitly in their content and explicitly in the various statements of their theoretical and epistemological beliefs. The Charaka Samhita says, ‘…the entire world is the teacher of the intelligent physician, as it is the foe of the fool’ (p.63, Charaka Samhita, iii.8.14). And, both Charaka and Sushruta assert that ‘no substance is found in the world which is without relevance for medicine.’.

M-2 Theoretical Framework to classify the Empirical Data:
The Ayurvedic physicians are clearly aware of the need of a theoretical framework to classify and comprehend empirical data, in order to go beyond mere empiricism. “¼[T]hey feel that something more than the mere knowledge of substances is required for their purpose. This something is the intellectual discipline of yukti. Hence they claim, ‘Yukti or rational application is the ultimate foundation of (therapeutic) success. A physician accomplished in rational application is always superior to one with the mere empirical knowledge of the substances’” (p.10, Charaka Samhita, i.2.16). At another place the texts say, “¼No one can claim to have perfect knowledge of pharmacology by the mere acquaintance with the names or even forms of herbs. If one who knows the uses and action of herbs, though not acquainted with their forms, may be called a pharmacologist, what then need be said of the physician who knows the herbs botanically, pharmacologically and in every other respect?¼” (p.9, Charaka Samhita, i.1.120-3)

In accordance with their expressed preference for a medicine based on a theoretical formulation (yukti-vyapasraya-bheshaja), the Ayurvedic physicians develop an elaborate theoretical framework to classify and understand data on drugs and diseases and to infer the ways of curing diseases. The framework they establish is elaborate enough to classify and understand the enormous amount of observational data on drugs, diseases, diet, environmental conditions, etc., that is collected in the Ayurvedic corpus.

M-3 Basis of Legitimisation:
Notwithstanding the stress that Ayurveda lays upon a theoretical formulation of the problem of medicine, the texts always insist that the final test of any hypothesis is to be found in practice. The texts say:

He is the best of physicians who can in actual practice cure people of diseases. - p.103 , Charaka Samhita i.1.134-5

A learned 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 not make the Ambashtha group of drugs have a purgative function. - p.83, Sushruta Samhita 1.40.12-3

All this is what we prescribe, because all these are based on what we directly observe: samyak upadisamah samyak pasyamah cha iti.
- p.82, Charaka Samhita iii.3.36

Epistemological Criteria

It is not essential that a knowledge system in order to be termed ‘scientific’ must state its epistemological position explicitly. In no text of modern science does one find statements to that effect, and most of the practitioners of modern science are unlikely to be aware of the epistemological position implied by their sciences. However, in a society that allows more than one knowledge system to flourish, explicit statements of the epistemological positions of various knowledge systems are expected. The Ayurvedic texts define their epistemological position very clearly; and we can find many verses stating the positions E-l and E-2 unambiguously:

E-1 Faith in the legitimacy of the method:
Ayurvedic texts forcefully assert that the method they follow is a legitimate method of acquiring knowledge about human health. Thus Charaka Samhita declares: “The physician starting medical treatment in time and with proper medical knowledge - inclusive of the knowledge between curable and incurable diseases - is absolutely certain to attain success.”(p.36, Charaka Samhita i.10.7) Again, the text says, “In cases of diseases amenable to medical treatment, medicine can never be ineffective.” (p.195, Charaka Samhita i.10.5) Further we read, “As a bowman who is a good marksman and given to constant practice, taking up a bow and releasing an arrow does not fail in hitting a big target that is not far off, and achieves his purpose, so does a physician of accomplishment and means who starts treating a curable disease after full investigation, without fail bestow health on the patient.” (p.195, Charaka Samhita i.10.5)

The texts go so far as to state that, any success achieved without following the correct method is sheer accidental success and is to be discouraged. Thus Charaka Samhita declares, “Like a man without eyes or like a canoe left at the mercy of winds, the ignorant physician gropes about timidly because of his lack of knowledge. However, when he meets accidental success in someone otherwise assured of life (niyatayusha) the pretentious quack gathers courage with which he hastens the death of many others whose lives are not thus assured (a-niyatayusha).” (p.204, Charaka Samhita i.9.16-7)

E-2 Recognition of Limitations:
The scientific method demands continuous accretion of data and continuous checking of theoretical formulations against observed data. It is therefore essential for a knowledge system based on such a method to recognise the limitations of the knowledge available at any given time. In modern western science these limits were recognised only in early twentieth century after the theory of relativity shook the bases of classical mechanics. Ayurveda texts, on the other hand, explicitly recognise these limits; such recognition of limits in fact seems to be an essential component of the theoretical attitude and formulations of Ayurveda. The recognition of limits in Ayurveda is at many levels; we indicate some of these below.

a) Limits on the domain of applicability of knowledge acquired: Limits on the domain of applicability of therapeutic knowledge is clearly established in the distinction the texts make between curable and incurable diseases. Knowing the difference between curable and incurable diseases is an essential attribute of a good physician. The texts repeatedly enjoin upon the physicians to avoid trying to cure incurable diseases. Sushruta Samhita in this context advises, “Having made these observations, adopt palliative measures in cases where palliation is all that can be offered, and should not take up a case which is beyond all medical treatment¼” (p.102, Sushruta Samhita i.10.7)

b) Limits on the completeness of theoretical apparatus:
Ayurvedic texts seem to be always conscious of the incompleteness of the theoretical apparatus developed to classify and understand empirical data. Thus when it is found that all substances and their actions cannot be classified on the basis of their observed qualities alone, the texts introduce the category of vipaka, which refers to post-digestive changes in qualities of the substance. And when it is further found that there are substances that agree with each other in all the categories developed so far but do not agree in their action, a further concept, prabhava, is introduced. Here is what Charaka Samhita says about prabhava: “When in spite of the similarity between taste (rasa), potency (virya) and post-digestive change (vipaka), two substances are actually observed to differ in their actions, such difference is to be accounted for by prabhava.” What is meant by prabhava? Charaka Samhita makes the frank admission that at the stage of knowledge represented by it, prabhava is beyond the comprehension of doctors: prabhavah achintyah ucyate (p.174, Charaka Samhita i.26.70). This willingness to add new theoretical categories in the face of new data, and willingness to admit the incompleteness of the current theoretical apparatus is the very essence of scientific method.

c) Limits on the domain of applicability of the method:
Ayurveda originated and flourished in an epoch and a society in which a number of knowledge systems prevailed. Therefore, it is natural for Ayurvedic texts to allow that other methodologies may have equal validity in other contexts. Debiprasad does not look for data on this aspect of Ayurveda. But, wherever he finds an assertive epistemological or methodological statement in the Ayurvedic text, it seems to always carry the qualification that the assertion holds in the therapeutic context alone. Thus Charaka Samhita declares, “In this discipline (viz. medicine), everything is viewed as made of matter in five forms¼” (p.66, Charaka Samhita, i.26.10). And, Sushruta Samhita says, “It is claimed that knowledge of matter in its different forms is alone relevant for medicine, because in the therapeutic context it is impermissible to conceive of anything transcending matter.” (p.74, Sushruta Samhita, iii.1.17) (Emphasis added)

This realisation that different contexts may require different methodologies and categories, and that the scientific methodology is essential for acquiring knowledge specific to certain contexts, is very significant. Today when the undisputed legitimacy of the scientific method in the domain of natural sciences is given as a proof of the illegitimacy of all other knowledge systems - even those concerned with the ethical and social contexts - the methodological approach of Ayurveda provides a refreshing openness.

Sociological Criterion

Ayurveda is the product of an active community of physicians that had well-established norms to govern it. Most of the texts are accounts of symposia held at various places in which physicians from various schools participated. Defining the rules and norms that govern such symposia, the texts insist that there are concepts and principles that are unanimously shared by all schools of medicine, sarva-tantra-siddhantha. For example Charaka Samhita says, “Among these (conclusions) those are called the unanimously admitted ones which have reputation in each and every treatise on the subject (viz. medicine). Such as: there are causes, there are diseases, there are ways of curing the curable diseases.” (p.22, Charaka Samhita, iii.8.37) Besides these, there are principles that are particular to specific schools; and the texts define in detail distinct rules of debate and discussion between physician who belong to the same school, and between those who belong to different schools.

How anxious the physicians are to have a professional community is also indicated by the minute care with which the texts describe the qualities of men entitled to seek medical studies. The following about the seeker after medical studies from Charaka Samhita is worth quoting in full:

He should be peaceful (prasanta), noble in disposition, incapable of any mean act (a-kshudra-karman), with straight eyes, face and nose, with slim body, having a clean and red tongue without distortion of teeth and lips, with clear voice (i.e., with voice neither indistinct nor nasal), persevering, without egotism, intelligent, endowed with powers of reasoning and good memory (vitarka-smriti-sampanna), with broad mind (udara-sattva), inclined to medical study either because of being born in the family of physicians or by natural aptitude, with eagerness to have the knowledge of truth (tattva-abhinivesin), with no deformity of body and no defect of sense-organs, by nature modest and gentle, contemplating on the true nature of things (artha-tattva-bhavaka), without anger and without addiction, endowed with good conduct, cleanliness, good habits, love, skill and courtesy (sila-sauca-anuraga-dakshya-pradakshinya-upapanna), desirous of the welfare of all living beings, devoid of greed and laziness (alubdham analasam sarva-bhutahitaishinam) and having full loyalty and attachment to the teacher. (p.218-9, Charaka Samhita, iii.8.8)

The Ayurvedic texts in fact give evidence of the prevalence of the four norms that Merton identifies to be characteristic of a professional scientific community: universalism, communism, disinterestedness and organised scepticism.

implies that truth claims in the community be subject to impersonal, well-defined criteria of validation. As we have seen above, Ayurveda lists the criteria of validation of knowledge in so many words. And for those who are permitted to pursue medicine as a career, it prescribes clear impersonal qualities as is obvious from the verses quoted above. However, unlike the Mertonian analysits, the Ayurvedic physicians do not go further to claim that the impersonal criteria for validation of knowledge established by them in the therapeutic context are the only criteria by which any knowledge in any context can be validated. But that in any case is an impermissible and biased extension of the criterion of universalism.

essentially means that there be free flow of information amongst the practitioners. In Ayurveda, it is ensured by strongly stressing the need for continuing debate and discussion within the community of physicians. Charaka Samhita advises, “A physician must enter into debate with another physician: bhishak bhishaja saha sambhashate.” Explaining the desirability of such debate, the text adds: “Debate with one belonging to the same discipline contributes in the perfection of one’s knowledge and clarifies one’s understanding¼Those who are wise, therefore, strongly recommend intra-disciplinary debate.” (p.208, Charaka Samhita, iii.8.15)

Disinterestedness in the Mertonian sense of willingness to discard theories that do not face up to the data, and willingness to add new categories to the theoretical framework is clearly borne out by the discussion on prabhava given earlier. In preaching disinterestedness Charaka Samhita goes much farther than any present day scientific community. The Samhita declares: “(Among physicians) he surpasses all who practises medicine neither for the sake of money nor for the sake of sensual gratification of any other form, but is motivated only by the compassion for living beings¼ One who practises the healing art 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.” (p.210, Charaka Samhita, vi.1D.58-62)

Organised Scepticism:
The Ayurvedic texts are clearly sceptical about any knowledge that is not acquired in pursuance of the scientific method. In a colloquium described in Charaka Samhita, a participant, Rajarshi Varyovida, waxes eloquent about the importance of Wind (Vayu) in sustaining life, quoting various qualities of the Vayu god. Marici, another participant in the colloquium, immediately leaps up to assert: “Even if all these were true, what is the point of saying all this in the medical discipline? Whatever is said here must be said in accordance with the requirements of medicine.” (p.265, Charaka Samhita, i.12.9)

However, this scepticism is conscientiously restricted to the medical context where alone it is relevant to the requirements of science. The physicians show no inclination to state that nothing is sacred in any context. While analysing the cow in the medical context as to its place in the general zoological classification of animals the texts describe the properties of cow’s flesh and other parts. But, the Ayurvedic scholars find no contradiction in declaring in other contexts that “one should worship the Gods, Cows, Brahmins, preceptors, spiritual adepts and teachers.” (p.15, Charaka Samhita, i.8.18)

In the above, on the basis of data presented by Debiprasad Chattopadhayaya, we have tried to prove that going by unbiased well-defined criteria, the knowledge system of ancient Indian medicine was indeed ‘scientific’. However, Debiprasad is not looking for the ‘scientific’ in ancient Indian medicine for its own sake, but only to prove that Indian medicine had tendencies which could be called ‘proto-scientific’ and which in an alternative, presumably Western-Liberal, civilisation would have bloomed into modern science. The second part of this review is devoted to discussing the reasoning behind this position and its obvious inadequacies.


A historian of science, who overcomes the deep-seated bias of modern scholarship that modern western science is the only scientific knowledge system that mankind has ever produced, may find other knowledge systems that have claims to be called scientific by any unbiased criterion. He is then faced with the question: “Why did these knowledge systems not evolve into modern science?”

To this counter-factual question, an unbiased historian may answer that there is nothing in the criterion for scientificity of a knowledge system that dictates that all scientific knowledge must evolve into modern science. Having observed a scientific knowledge system that was and remained in its content and form quite different from modern science through centuries of evolution, the historian may conclude that, like all other knowledge, science is also a cultural product. And, the content and form of science in different cultures are therefore different. He will then have the interesting task of looking for differing socio-cultural elements in different societies that make their scientific formulation of the same natural phenomena different from each other. Instead of finding futile explanations for what did not happen, the historian of science will then be making fruitful comparative analysis of the concepts of human health, of social organisation of health-care systems, of the objects and limits of human intervention in disease and health, etc., in different civilisations.

Taking up such a position will amount to a direct confrontation with all modern scholarship on science, which insists not only that modern science is the only scientific knowledge system evolved in human history, but also that modern science is the unique formulation of reality. And, since modern-western culture alone has been able to produce this ‘unique formulation of reality’, modern-Western culture also becomes the model to be followed by other cultures if they want to have any genuine knowledge of reality.

Standing on the shoulders of Needham, Debiprasad takes the first step towards evolving an unbiased view on science: that of allowing that other societies at other times may have produced scientific knowledge systems. But, like Needham, Debiprasad cannot take the next step. He fails to admit of the possibility that the scientific knowledge systems originating in different cultures might follow their independent paths of evolution and development. He is unable to grant that the mere fact that a knowledge system that in its evolution shows no tendencies of becoming identical with modern science is no argument to prove that the system must have died a natural death. Instead, Debiprasad acquiesces in the current bias that modern science is the unique formulation of reality. All that he wants to claim in favour of the enormous theoretical and empirical knowledge of the ancient physicians is that it was some sort of a proto-science, which had the potential of evolving into modern science. If it did not do so, it can only be because there were elements in the ancient Indian culture that inhibited the development of science. And as if to atone for the sin of having discovered a scientific knowledge system in a non-western society, Debiprasad sets for himself the task of finding those elements in the cultural environment of ancient India, which thwarted the development of this knowledge into modern science.

Here is what Debiprasad has to say about his task in the remainder of the book:

¼[I]t is impossible for the historian of science in its restricted sense - and even for the historian of ideas in general - to ignore the significance of a number of theoretical achievements of the ancient physicians. But it is equally impossible for the historian to overlook the basic fact that the promises of science remain unfulfilled in ancient and medieval India. These do not lead to the creation of science in the modern sense, as expected of the normal course of their development. Evidently there is also something in ancient India which inhibits or injures science, wanting even to destroy what is once achieved by it. Since, as Needham says, the inhibitory processes concern the historian of science as much as the adjuvant ones, an attempt will be made in the present chapter to identify the former (p.212).

In this attempt to search for the ‘inhibitory processes’ Debiprasad collects data from the Indian legal literature (in chapter 2), and from Charaka Samhita (in chapter 3). Before evaluating this data, we wish to remark on a curious feature of this attempt. When a historian of science undertakes an attempt to find the processes that inhibited the development of a scientific knowledge system, one expects him to first adduce some evidence that, in the period under consideration, the knowledge system was indeed inhibited in a way that it failed to flourish. Debiprasad adduces no such evidence. On the contrary the impression one forms from the data collected by Debiprasad is that of a medical system which continuously flourished during the whole period of about 10 centuries covered by his analysis, and which was apparently very efficacious. Let us give some evidence of these two features of ancient Indian medicine:

i. Evidence showing that Ancient Indian Medicine was a Flourishing system:
According to Debiprasad’s testimony, Indian medicine acquired the status of a scientific knowledge system sometime before Buddha. “Indian medicine takes the step from magico-religious therapeutics to rational therapeutics sometime before Buddha”, he asserts. (p.341) The extant Charaka Samhita, according to Debiprasad, is a revised version of the earlier texts, the reviser being Dridhabala about whom ‘on a rough estimate, however, it may be permissible to assume that he belongs to the Gupta period or sometimes near the sixth century’ (p.132). In the currently extant Charaka Samhita, Dridhabala claims that the text he is revising is itself a revised version of an earlier text, the intermediate reviser being Charaka. Then there is the presumption based on textual evidence that there are ‘eminent ancient authorities through whose hands the compilation passes before reaching its intermediate editor, whom Dridhabala calls Charaka’ (p.33). The extant Sushruta-Samhita seems to have a similar history.

Thus over the period of ten centuries, about which the medical compilations offer historical data, these canonical works of Indian medicine are being repeatedly revised, or reconstructed as Dridhabala prefers to term his revision. Who will imagine this happening in a knowledge system that has failed to flourish? And what does the reconstruction of these medical compilations involve? Dridhabala himself claims to have ‘completed this treatise by adding to it seventeen chapters on therapeutics, the Siddhi Sthana and Kalpa-Sthana¼’ (p.31, Charaka Samhita viii.12.34-9). Thus, in this last reconstruction, Charaka Samhita acquires 41 new chapters out of a total of 120. Seventeen chapters are added to Chikitsa-Sthana which deals mainly with therapeutics. The newly added Kalpa-Sthana contains ‘12 brief chapters, evidently supplementing the pharmacopoeia of the earlier books’ (p.21). And the newly added Siddhi-Sthana contains ‘12 chapters on enema, purgation, urinary diseases etc., mainly supplementing what is discussed in other books (of Charaka Samhita)’ (p.21). Thus Dridhabala is evidently bringing the text up-to-date by adding to it the new information acquired since the earlier compilation on therapeutics, pharmacology and diseases and techniques. Does a science that is becoming decadent generate such a vast amount of new data, requiring a supplement one-third as big as the earlier compilation?

ii. Evidence showing that Ancient Indian Medicine was an Efficacious system:
In favour of this preposition there is the evidence of the faith in their medicine of the ancient physicians themselves quoted earlier in the first part of this review. It is difficult to imagine the practitioners of a medicine that did not work stating categorically, ‘In cases of diseases amenable to medical treatment, medicine can never be ineffective (na hi bheshaja-sadhyanam vyadhinam bheshajam akarnam bhavati)’ (p.195, Charaka Samhita i.10.5). However this is not the only evidence we find in the book about the efficacy of Indian medicine. Debiprasad quotes Vinaya-Pitaka, a Pali canonical work of Buddhism, describing how Buddha allowed all sorts of freedom to the sick Bhikkus in consideration of medical requirements (p.328-333). According to Vinaya-Pitaka, Buddha goes to the extent of saying, ‘I allow, Oh bhikkus, in the case of a disease not human, the use of raw flesh and the blood’ (p.332). If Buddha with his ethics of non-injury (ahimsa) allows his bhikkus the use of raw flesh and blood, in case of medicinal need, it could only be if the medical practice had acquired a reputation for efficacy. The general belief in the efficacy of medicine at the Buddhist time was so great that sick lay-men were tempted to join the samgha in order to get entitled to the services of a famous physician, Jivaka Komarbhaccha. (p.328)

The India legal literature, which according to Debiprasad is frankly anti-science, pays a tribute to the efficacy of medicine by recording the story of Asvins, the medical gods. According to the story, Asvins acquired the right of getting libations drawn for them during the sacrificial ritual (yajna), because they had repaired the severed head of the sacrifice (Vedi). The story is repeated in several Vaidika texts (p.242-250). If the medical practice is so efficacious that even gods who are not much enamoured of the medical men can be in need of it, it must have been really efficacious for mere humans.

Thus there is sufficient evidence in Debiprasad’s book to show that Indian medicine, in the period considered by him, continuously flourished and effectively worked. His search for the processes that inhibited the growth of science in India is not based on any evidence that the medical science degenerated or decayed in any particular period. He takes up the task only because the theoretical formulations of ancient Indian medicine during their evolution did not ‘lead to the creation of science, in the modern sense, as expected of the normal course of their development’ (p.212).

Debiprasad collects two kinds of evidence to show the presence of these inhibitory factors. We discuss these separately:

i. Evidence from literary sources:
In his second chapter, Debiprasad collects evidence of anti-science bias from the literary sources, especially from what he calls the Indian legal literature. He argues that in this literature there is intense contempt for the knowledge acquired by observation, and for the rational method. He also notes that the legal literature assigns a low-caste status to the physicians, and that even the medical gods are not quite at par with other gods. Assuming that all he says about the Vaidika literature is correct, all that the evidence proves is that in the socio-ethical-religious context the rational method was not considered suitable; and that the physicians probably did not belong to the highest rungs of society. These two observations cannot suffice to establish that in the Indian socio-cultural context scientific method in the medical context could not have survived.

By all historical evidence, the legal literature of India and the rational-medicine flourished at the same time. Obviously, there must have been realisation of the relevance of different systems of knowledge in different contexts to allow two different knowledge systems to flourish simultaneously. Debiprasad does not accept this hypothesis. Instead, he seems to propose to explain the historical fact of the simultaneous development of Upanishadic philosophy and rational-therapeutics by claiming that the latter developed outside Upnishadic India; the development of the two, according to him, was spatially, if not temporally, separate. In support of this he quotes the story of Uddalaka Aruni who is born in Kuru-Panchala but is forced to go far away from his native place to learn medicine. Seeking instruction in medical science, Uddalaka Aruni goes to the physician Saunaka, ‘who lives in some comparatively unknown place outside the stronghold of Upanishadic culture’ (p.303-304). The hold of Upanishadic culture must have been rather limited to allow Indian medicine to continuously flourish for ten centuries outside its strongholds within India!

ii. Evidence from Charaka Samhita:
In the third chapter, Debiprasad lists evidence from within Charaka Samhita that goes against its expressed reliance on the scientific method. His hypothesis is that these extra-scientific statements in Charaka Samhita are in the nature of tributes paid to the dominant anti-scientific ideology, to save their science from being entirely banned. While avoiding going into the merits of this farfetched hypothesis, we only point out that most of the extra-scientific statements identified by Debiprasad are in the nature of ethical statements. He devotes a large part of this chapter to show how Charaka Samhita, in spite of taking a very scientific interest in the cow, recommends at other places that the cow should be worshipped. Or, to show how the text while giving a very scientific description of alcohol, and listing 84 varieties of wines, insists at other places that celibacy (brahmcharya, which includes avoidance of alcohol) is a virtue. It is difficult to see why a scientist, while realising the importance of scientific understanding of cow and alcohol in the medical context, is not allowed to hold the cow to be an object of worship and alcohol to be obnoxious? If Buddha with all his piety and all his insistence on ahimsa can recognise medical need of eating flesh and thereby lose nothing of his ethics, why the scientist who recognises the ethical need of worshipping the cow and avoiding alcohol must lose all his science?

Debiprasad believes that the ancient physicians by taking an interest in the ethical-social questions stopped ancient medicine from evolving into modern medicine. He may well be correct. But he does not prove that this interest in the social-ethical questions stopped ancient medicine from flourishing or from curing sickness. It is a peculiar belief of the modern scholarship on science that recognition of the ethical and social needs in a knowledge system is antiscientific. Thus, in a similar context, Needham asserts: “To neglect man and speculate about Nature was, he (Confucius) believed, to misunderstand the whole universe. And so it was that he struck a blow at science by emphasising its social context too much and too soon.”[3]

Debiprasad by acquiescing in this belief loses the opportunity of finding how the ethical-social views that ancient physicians held affected the content and form of their science. He loses the opportunity to find out how the explicitly stated ethical beliefs of Indian physicians made their science so different from modern science whose unstated ethics is the ethics of the market and of unbridled exploitation of both nature and man for the sake of profit. If a denial of all ethics except the ethics of the market is essential for the development of modern science, as both Needham and Debiprasad seem to imply, then let us not have modern science. We shall still have a science, just as the ancient physicians had a medicine that was scientific, that flourished and that cured.



[1] A Critical Review of Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Science and Society in Ancient India, Research India Publications, Calcutta 1977.

[2] Page references are to the book under review.

[3] Joseph Needham et al., The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China, abridged by C.A. Ronan, Vol. 1, p.83