Who was Maharishi Charaka?

The history of Indian medicine is rich and famous. Its oldest ideas are found in the sacred literature known as the Vedas, particularly the metrical portions of the Atharvaveda, which may date back to the 2nd millennium BCE. The creation of the medical treatises known as the Charaka-Samhita and Sushruta-Samhita credited to Charaka, a physician, and Sushruta, a surgeon respectively, heralded the beginning of the golden period of Indian medicine, which spanned from 800 BCE to around 1000 CE. All subsequent books on Indian medicine were built on the foundation of these texts. 

The topic comes under GS Paper 1 of the UPSC Syllabus and is important for various competitive examinations. In this article, we have discussed in detail, Charak, an Ayurvedic practitioner, and Charak Samhita, a comprehensive text on ancient Indian medicine.

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About Charak

Acharya Charak was born around 300 BC and was a key contributor to Ayurveda’s ancient art and science, medicine, and lifestyle philosophy that was developed in Ancient India. Charaka lived between AD 150-200 and 100 BC. He is well known as the editor of the medical treatise Charaka Samhita, one of the basic books of traditional Indian medicine and Ayurveda, which is contained in the Brhat-Trayi.

According to Charaka’s ideas, health and sickness are not predestined, and human effort and attention to lifestyle can prolong life. According to Indian tradition and the Ayurvedic system, prevention of all forms of ailments is more important than treatment, including lifestyle restructuring in line with the rhythm of nature and the six seasons, which will ensure overall health.

While Charaka studied all parts of medicine, including the logic and philosophy underlying the Indian medical system, he placed a specific focus on illness diagnosis and regarded Ayurveda as a holistic system of health care that addressed both preventative and curative elements. He also elaborated on topics such as foetal production and development, physiology of the human body and function and malfunction of the body. According to Charaka, a body works because it has three doshas or principles: movement (Vata), transformation (Pitta), and lubrication and stability (Kapha). These doshas correspond to the Western categorization of humour, wind, bile, and phlegm. They are created when dhatus (blood, flesh, and marrow) interact with the food consumed. However, for the same amount of food consumed, one body creates dosha in a different amount than another. That is why one body differs from another.

Furthermore, he emphasised that disease is caused by a disruption in the equilibrium of the three doshas in the human body. He suggested medicines to help restore balance. Although he was aware of microbes in the body, he did not regard them highly.

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Charak’s Medical Ethics

Charaka was an important and respected part of ancient Indian society and medical practice. He followed professional behaviour and ethical ideals. Some ideals of Charak are as follows:

  • “You must not become intoxicated, commit evil, or hang around with wicked people”.
  • “You must strive with all your soul for the health of the ill”.
  • “You must have a good tone of voice and be attentive, always working to expand your knowledge”.
  • “You must not betray your patients, even if it means risking your own life”.
  • “Nothing that transpires in the ill man’s residence may be shared outside, nor may the patient’s condition be revealed to anybody who may harm the sufferer or another”.
  • “When you visit a patient’s house, you should devote your words, mind, intellect, and senses only to your patient and his therapy”.

This ethical code is global and remains as important and appropriate now as it did then.

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About Charak Samhita

The Charaka Samhita is an Ayurvedic treatise (Indian traditional medicine) written in Sanskrit. The Charaka Samhita is one of two Ayurvedic fundamental texts, the other being the Sushruta Samhita. It remained a classic text on the subject for two millennia and was translated into numerous foreign languages, including Arabic and Latin. The current version of the Charaka-Samhita is said to have developed in the first century CE. 

In the seventh century BCE, Agnivesa, under the supervision of the ancient physician Atreya, compiled the Agnivesha Samhita, an encyclopaedic medical compendium. However, the text lacked depth of knowledge and was not up-to-date in terms of quality, so very little attention was paid to the task. Hence, later Charaka updated the Agnivesha Samhita and called it the Charaka Samhita. Charaka organised the treatise into eight sections or ashtanga sthanas

  1. Sutra
  2. Nidana
  3. Vimana
  4. Sarira
  5. Endriya
  6. Chikitsa
  7. Kalpa
  8. Siddha

Each section comprised many chapters.

The author Dhabala later added seventeen chapters to the Charaka Samhita. According to the book, there are four key components to medical practice:

  1. The Patient
  2. The Physician
  3. The Nurse
  4. The Medications.  

According to the scripture, all four are necessary for rehabilitation and restoring health. The Charaka Samhita, like most ancient Hindu literature, reveres and credits Hindu Gods as the true source of its knowledge.

The text is not just a fascinating source of ancient medical practises, it may also be a helpful source of information on the ecological, social, and economic elements of ancient India. The book defines physical geography using names like Jangala, Aanoopa, and Sadharana before listing the trees, vegetables, lakes and rivers, birdlife, and animals found in each of these locales. Many of the drugs mentioned are, according to them, linked to the location of their origin (e.g. Maghadi from Maghada and Kashmarya from Kashmir).

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