The history of Indian medicine and its impact on modern practice
Gotri, Vadodara, India
Figure 1. The Ashwini Kumars. Image by Carly Bertn and Mark Cartwright, World History Encyclopedia. Based on Wikimedia image. CC BY-SA 4.0.
India has a rich tradition of medicine that has evolved over the centuries. One such medical practice is Ayurveda, a system that has been used in India for over 3,000 years.1 Ayurveda has its roots in mythology, and the story of the Ashwini Kumars is a testament to the role of mythology in traditional medical practices in India.
The Ashwini Kumars are twin brothers believed to be the gods of healing in Hindu mythology. According to legend, they were born to the Sun God and his wife Sanjana. However, Sanjana was unable to tolerate the intense heat of the Sun, so she ran away to the forest and transformed herself into a mare. The Sun God pursued her and also transformed himself into a horse. The Ashwini Kumars were born from this union. The Ashwini Kumars, known for their healing abilities and knowledge of herbs and medicinal plants, are believed to have been the first practitioners of Ayurveda and brought their knowledge to humanity.
The role of mythology in traditional medical practice in India is significant. Myths and legends are often used to explain the origins of diseases and illnesses. For example, the story of the demon Jvara explains the origin of fever. Jvara was a demon who was defeated by the gods. He took refuge in the bodies of humans, causing them to become feverish.2
The Ashwini Kumars are revered in Ayurvedic medicine as the gods of healing. They are often depicted in Ayurvedic texts and artwork, and their legacy is still felt in traditional medical practices in India. In one story, the Ashwini Kumars used their healing powers to restore the sight of a blind king named Vritra. Vritra had lost his sight in battle and became a recluse in his palace. The Ashwini Kumars were able to restore his sight through the use of a medicinal herb called soma.3 The story of Vritra and the Ashwini Kumars is often used in Ayurveda to illustrate the power of medicinal plants and herbs. Soma is a key ingredient in many Ayurvedic remedies and is believed to have a wide range of healing properties.
Ayurveda is based on the principles of balance and harmony. According to Ayurvedic theory, the human body is made up of three doshas (humors)—Vata (wind), Pitta (bile), and Kapha (phlegm).4 These doshas are responsible for maintaining balance in the body. If one of the doshas becomes imbalanced, it can lead to illness. Ayurvedic treatments are designed to restore balance to the body. They often involve the use of herbs and medicinal plants, as well as dietary and lifestyle changes. Ayurveda also strongly emphasizes prevention, and many Ayurvedic practices are designed to prevent illness before it occurs.
In the medieval period, India was a center of medical learning and innovation, with scholars and physicians from around the world coming to study and exchange ideas. The great physician and surgeon Susruta, for example, is credited with inventing surgical tools such as scalpels and forceps and performing procedures such as rhinoplasty as early as the sixth century BC.5 In the modern era, India has continued to be a leader in medical research and innovation. Indian scientists and physicians have made significant contributions to fields such as cardiology, neurology, and genetics. In recent years, India has also become a major hub for medical tourism, with patients from around the world coming to take advantage of the country’s advanced healthcare facilities and skilled practitioners.
The history of medicine in India is a rich and complex story, with a long tradition of innovation and a deep respect for the healing power of nature. From the ancient practices of Ayurveda to the cutting-edge research of modern medical science, India has played a significant role in shaping the field of medicine and improving the health and well-being of people around the world.
- Wujastyk, Dominik. The Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from Sanskrit Medical Writings. London: Penguin Books, 2003.
- “Jvarasura – The Fever Demon.” Amar Chitra Katha, July 6, 2022. https://amarchitrakatha.com/mythologies/jvarasura-the-fever-demon/.
- Cartwright, Mark. “Ashvins.” World History Encyclopedia. Last modified June 29, 2016. https://worldhistory.org/Ashvins/.
- Davidson, Katey. “What Are the Ayurveda Doshas? Vata, Kapha, and Pitta Explained.” Healthline, August 5, 2020. https://healthline.com/nutrition/vata-dosha-pitta-dosha-kapha-dosha.
- Singh, Vibha. “Sushruta: The Father of Surgery.” National Journal of Maxillofacial Surgery 8, no. 1 (2017): 1-3. doi:10.4103/njms.NJMS_33_17.
KAHAN MEHTA is an MBBS student and researcher at GMERS Medical College in Vadodara, India, who is planning a career in surgery.
Submitted for the 2022–23 Medical Student Essay Contest