History of Indian Medicine
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Indian medicine

Atharva veda
A manuscript of the Atharva veda

May 2016 - Medicine got an early start in India, where even in the Stone Age, about 5000 BC, dentists at Mehrgahr, in the Indus River Valley (now in Pakistan), were drilling people's teeth to try to fix their cavities.

About 1000 BC, doctors in northern India wrote the Atharva veda, a medical textbook explaining how to treat diseases. Like Egyptian medical texts a little earlier, the Atharva veda says that diseases are caused by bad spirits, and you treat the disease by killing the spirits with poisons or spells. One example is the treatment of leprosy with a kind of lichen, which might have worked as an antibiotic. Another example is the treatment of snakebite by reciting charms. Possibly Yamnaya people brought marijuana with them when they came to India, about this time.

The surgeon Sushruta may have lived about 500 BC. Sushruta left a book, the Samhita, explaining his surgical methods. Sushruta described how to pull teeth, how to fix broken bones, and how to fix blockages of the intestines. He did operations on people's eyes to remove cataracts which sometimes worked a little, though more often they left the patient completely blind. He didn't have any anesthesia other than wine, though he recommended bhang (probably marijuana) to treat coughs and dysentery. Sushruta also described tuberculosis. About the same time, Indian people were using sand and charcoal filters to get clean water, which probably saved many lives.

By about 200 AD, Indian doctors, like Chinese doctors and Greek doctors, had abandoned the idea of bad spirits in favor of the somewhat less wrong idea of dosha or humors. The doctor Charaka wrote perhaps about this time. Charaka recognized that prevention was the best cure for many diseases, and he recommended keeping your humors in balance in order to stay healthy. Charaka recognized three humors - bile, phlegm (snot), and air. If your humors got out of balance, you should take medicines to rebalance them. But he also knew some medicines that worked: doctors recommended citrons to cure scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency). Indian doctors were so much respected that Indian traders got rich selling Indian medicines to people in the Roman Empire, Iran, Sogdiana, East Africa, and China.

By this time, Indian doctors also knew more about how your body worked: Charaka knew, probably from the work of earlier Egyptian doctors, that blood vessels both brought food to various parts of your body and also carried wastes away, and that your brain was for thinking.

Charaka also made the earliest Indian reference to smallpox, and this is just around the time that smallpox first devastated the Roman Empire, coming from the East. Under the Guptan kings, in the 300s AD, Chinese visitors praised India's hospitals.

Several hundred years later, Indian doctors were the first to invent a way to inoculate people against smallpox. In the 700s AD, a doctor called Madhav wrote about inoculation. Madhav knew that you could keep people from catching smallpox by scraping a little pus or scabs from someone who had smallpox, letting it sit around for a while, and then giving a small amount as an inoculation, either by sticking it into their skin on a needle, or by blowing the powder up their nose.

When Muslims conquered northern India about 1000 AD, many Iranian doctors came to India from West Asia to work for Muslim kings there. These doctors realized that the Indian list of humors didn't match the Islamic list of humors, and tried to find out what was right. For example, some Muslim doctors began to include air as one of the humors, and to combine black bile and yellow bile as one humor.

These Muslim doctors also brought opium and henbane (another anesthetic) with them to northern India, and by the 1200s AD, Indian doctors as far south as the Chola kingdom (as we know from the Sarangdhara Samhita) had learned to use opium both as an anesthetic and for diarrhea. The doctor Lakshmana Pandita wrote in the early 1400s AD in the Vijayanagara Empire, under Imadi Bukka, the son of Hari Hari II. Lakshmana Pandita wrote about the different types of fevers, dysentery, miscarriages and fistulas, cancer, epilepsy, and kidney stones, among other things. Like doctors everywhere in Afro-Eurasia at this time, he thought you could tell what was wrong with patients by taking their pulse.

Learn by doing: vaccinations project
More about Indian Science

Bibliography and further reading about Indian medicine:

Indian Mathematics
More about India
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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