Ayurveda began as an appendix to the youngest of the Vedas, the Atharva Yeda. Later on, possibly between the 8th and 10th centuries –about 900 years before Christ was born—the most important of all Ayurvedic texts, the Charaka Samhita, appeared. Ayurveda’s most famous surgical text, the Sushruta Samhita was also compiled around this time. While these texts may have had single authors they are more likely to be compilations of material from many sources.
Ayurvedic medicine was already extensively developed by the time of Gautama Buddha. The Buddha supported both the study and the practice of medicine. Since the days of Charaka and Sushruta, Ayurvedic students dissected human corpses, practising the arts of surgery on wooden or clay dummies, and learning other practical arts such as:
• cookery because diet and nutrition was and still is an essential aspect of treatment
• the collection and preparation of herbs
• the purification and preparation of mineral medicines
The Spread of Ayurveda
About three centuries before the birth of Christ, Ashoka, the Emperor of most of North India, embraced Buddhism. He furnished extensive support to medicine and built charitable hospitals including specialised surgical, obstetric and mental facilities for both humans and animals throughout his realm. His emissaries spread Buddhism and Indian sciences to other countries including Central Asia and Sri Lanka.
During the later Indian empires of Guptas and the Mauryas, the government expanded this active support for medicine by planting gardens of medicinal herbs, establishing hospitals and maternity homes, posting physicians in villages, and punishing quacks who tried to practise medicine without proper learning and imperial licence.
During this era Ayurveda was taught in large Buddhist universities like the one at Nalanda, established during the 4th century AD (500 years after Christ), and which flourished for about 800 years. Students came from all over the world to study at these universities. At the time, Ayurveda was not limited to humans. Today, texts on the treatment of trees, horses and elephants still exist. It is thought that others may have existed for cows, goats, sheep, donkeys, camels and hawks.
The golden age of Indian culture ended when Muslim invaders inundated Northern India after the 10th century. They slaughtered the Buddhist monks as infidels, destroyed the universities and burned the libraries, destroying original texts. Some monks fled to Nepal and Tibet, so some Ayurvedic texts survive in Tibetan translation. Although the Muslim conquerors imported their own system of medicine into India, Ayurveda and Hindu culture did survive.
In the 13th or 14th century, a treatise on Ayurvedic pharmacology, the Sharngadhara Samhita, appeared. During the 16th century all Indian medical knowledge was collected and compiled by the order of the Mughal Emperor Akbar.
The European conquests were nearly fatal to Ayurveda especially after 1835 when the British decided neither to recognise nor support Indian sciences in their Indian dominions. The Germans, and later other Westerners, developed plastic surgery from Sushruta’s operation for repair of damaged noses and ears. However, it took the upsurge of Indian Nationalism at the beginning of 20th century to reawaken interest in the indigenous arts and sciences in India. Ayurveda began its renaissance then, and today is one of the six medical systems in India, which is officially recognised by India’s government. The others are Allophay, Unani, Siddha, Homeopathy and Naturopathy.