Charaka Samhita – a treatise on holistic health

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Dharmarthakamamokshanamarogyam mulamuttamam (Charaka Samhita 1:15)
Health is the basis of four goals of human life - Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha

If grammar books and lexicons can be written in verses so that memorising will be easy, so can be a text on medical science. More so in the case of a text on medicine since easy recall by the physician can be a matter of life or death for someone.

But Charaka Samhita is not your typical reference book for instant prescription. It is much more than that. It will be more appropriate to call it a treatise on holistic health science. Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita are the foundational texts of Ayurveda, the former being much earlier. Ayurveda itself is much more than just a system of medicine.

No doubt Charaka Samhita has detailed prescriptions to remedy all kinds of disturbances to health. But it gives equal importance to preventive health care. While most of the modern systems of medicine examine disturbance to health from a few angles like injury, season, micro-organism, intake of food and lack of physical exercise, etc. Charaka Samhita goes to the entire gamut of human interactions and experiences. It examines not only physical and psychological factors, but also the spiritual sources of diseases and well being. It also recognises that a person’s social life has a bearing on his health.

The Samhita recognizes that disturbances to health can be cause due to suppression of urges and desires. In fact a whole chapter is dedicated to describe various natural urges and the results of their suppressions.

The unique thing about Charaka Samhita is that it emphasizes on customizing treatment and preventive health care depending upon an individual’s typical outer and inner body constitutions rather than recommending the same remedy for same symptoms or prescribing any kind of universal health regimen. Application of most of our ancient wisdom put heavy emphasis on sthana, kala and patra (place, time and the recipient individual).

I combine Ayurveda and yoga as my default way of both preventive and curative health care. There are two persons who have inspired my interest in Ayurveda since childhood. One is my father. He was not any official or unofficial expert in Ayurveda. He was also not a yoga buff.

I remember that he used to keep some basic ingredients like Amla, Bahada (Bibhitaki), Haritaki (Inknut), Pippali (Long pepper) etc. which are basic ingredients in many of the ayurvedic medicines. In case of common ailments first he tried to get some medicines from some of his favorite ayurvedic doctors form the locality. He also understood the limitations of the local ayurvedic doctors and where it was not appropriate did not insist on ayurvedic methods. Charaka Samhita recognizes the role of spiritual practices on overall well being including health. His basic principle was that either he would do a thing properly or would not do it. For example: doing pranayama is part of many Vedic rituals. But hardly anyone one does that. But my father was very particular about pranayama and various mudras (hand gestures using fingers) which are mandatory parts of all puja rituals. Yet even established pundits skip these crucial parts of the rituals.

He lived upto 87. I am sure he would have made it to 100 if he had not met with an accident. If Ayurveda is the science of prolonging life without being a burden on society and for the sake of activities commensurate with one’s stage of life, he was a living example.

Western scholars are puzzled by the emphasis on spiritual element in Charaka Samhita. Some feel it downgrades the otherwise scientific spirit of the text. Here they are missing a basic tenet of ancient Indian Knowledge systems and philosophy that recognized the unity of everything. The ancient Rishis could see through the inter-related and inter-dependence of all knowledge systems and also various aspect of life. Physical health cannot be disconnected from the psychological and spiritual state of an individual. Spirituality was not a narrow faith based concept for the ancient Rishis. They did not say you have to follow only this path or accept only so and so as true God. As we see from the Yoga Sutras, for spiritual practices it is not mandatory to first believe in a concept of God. Since ancient times in India, multiple paths have been recognised and the choice of an individual to follow a spiritual path has been respected.

The second person who inspired was a vaidya who visited our village regularly. We used to call him Radha Makaddam. He was a regular at our house since I had lots of immunity issues during childhood and took his ayurvedic tonics and other prescriptions like goats milk etc. He used to check the nadi (pulse) and talk about bata, pitta and kapha frequently. Even though I did not understand these concepts, I remembered these words due to repeated hearing and later tried to find out what these meant. That is how I came to know that bata, pitta and kapha are parts of the basic philosophy of Ayurveda.

Bata, pitta and kapha are known as tridoshas or three humours according to loosely translated English. According to Charaka Samhita majority of the sicknesses are the results of these three humours going out of balance. A qualified doctor first finds out which dosha or combination of doshas are disturbed depending upon the individual’s ideal composition of humour. Then he recommends regimens, diets and medicines which will restore the balance. Radha Makaddama had jurisdiction over a number of villages. He visited those villages regularly to find out the well being of people. Of course he was also available on demand for the emergency cases.

Some scholars are of the opinion that most of the physicians of ancient times were mendicants and Charaka is a generic term for such mendicant physicians. Some believe Charaka was a school of thought on Ayurveda. But the majority of scholars profess the existence of a person known as Charaka.

Charaka Samhita is usually studied by the Ayruveda professionals. However it has plenty of takeaways for the layman. Actually the layman can better appreciate Ayurveda if he knows the basic principles of Ayurveda like the body composition in terms of the subtle elements of bata, pitta and kapha which in turn are based on the principles of panhcha mahabhutas – the five great elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether.

Coming to holistic diet, Charaka divides food according to their tastes. The six kinds of tastes are- sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent. A balanced diet should contain food from all these tastes. There are also detailed recommendations as to foods of what taste are conducive or inimical to what kind of dosha.

When people go to an ayurvedic doctor and things do not work out, they usually loose faith in the system of treatment. Usually we do not consider the possibility that the doctor could be incompetent or the medicines manufactured by that particular company might be ineffective. I have experienced the differences in the effectiveness of medicines from different manufacturers. Charaka Samhita has detailed guidelines about a good doctor and a bad doctor. Maybe, if a layman could be educated on that he will be able to distinguish a good doctor from a bad one and will be able to make a better choice with regard to the system of medicine.

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Other prominent texts of Ayurveda are: Sushruta Samhita, Ashtanga Hridayam, Ashtanga Sangrah, Sharangadhara Samhita, Bhava Prakasha, Madhava Nidanam

Other notable texts starting with alphabet C are Chandas Sashtra (Pingala) / Chhandogya Upanishad.  In case I missed a book please let me know. Please subscribe to my blog to get my posts regularly in your email. Drop in your thoughts in the comment box.

This is the third post (alphabet C post) of Blogchatter AtoZ Challenge 2021. My theme this year is ‘The beauty of Sanskrit and Sanskrit texts’, where in I explore selected compositions in Sanskrit and also some unique aspects of Sanskrit language. Join with me in my journey to understand India’s intellectual heritage. All the posts of AtoZ Challenge 2021 can be accessed here.

27 thoughts on “Charaka Samhita – a treatise on holistic health

  1. I have also been brought up in the vicinity of many Ayurvedic ingredients. My grandfather used to cure many ailments just with his stock of ‘desi ingredients’ as he used to call them. I intend to study Charak Samhita and Ashtang Hridyam in near future. Thanks for providing useful facts about the book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yesterday i was thinking that you will probably write about Charak Samhita. Thanks for bringing out the nuances of the book. Have heard of all the things you wrote from my maternal grandfather buy never studied them. Lovely post
    Deepika Sharma

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The outer state cannot be separated from the inner state. This is what I like about Ayurveda. Since 2-3 years, I also use Ayurveda and Yoga as my preventive and curative healthcare. This was a very enriching post. Thank you for the valuable information.

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  4. Ayurveda is a holistic science and works very well as preventive healthcare practice too. My uncle is an ayurvedic physician and I see how he lives his life basis principles of ayurveda. Very informative post.

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  5. My grandfather used to be a true believer of Ayurveda too… Reading your post made me recollect a few of his frequent used words which I never understood then. Even today many people resort to ayurvedic treatment when the conventional medical treatments call it as chronic ailments or have no proper remedy. I have also seen some people benefit a lot by resorting to Ayurveda. It’s sad that we couldn’t propagate this as one of our rich ancient treasures as much as we should have… Or maybe the westerners didn’t let that happen possibly.

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  6. My grandfather had a tremendous interest in Homeopathy and would prescribe medication to us. He too laid a lot of emphasis on holistic development. Thanks for letting us know about six types of taste for I had never known that astringent was also a kind of taste. The Indian philosophy on health and wellbeing surely surpasses the western concept which lacks the wider perspective. Sorry to know about the tragic accident that your grandfather suffered.

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  7. I dropped by to read about this because of the name of the book – Charak Samhita – that because my grandfather late Prof. P.V.Sharma is the author of this book. He was a well known personality in Ayurveda and every Ayurvedic doctor would have read some of his books. It’s a moment of immense pride for me to read this blog post. Thank you so much.

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  8. Ashtanga Ayurveda deals with the eight branches of Ayurvedic specialization. In accordance with Charaka Samhita, a scientific creation of Charaka, the science of Ayurveda is divided into eight different parts, collectively known as Ashtanga Ayurveda.

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