SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY IN ANCIENT INDIA- PART II

In the field of medicine, Indians made considerable progress in ancient times. The earliest reference to disease and medicine are found in the Atharvana Veda. The Vedas mention Ashvini brothers as the celestial physicians. Dhanvantri, a legendary figure was regarded as the god of medicine and giver of Ayurveda.

Way back in 6th century B.C., the study of medicine was systematically elaborately and scientifically developed. The story of the life of Jivaka who was the physician to emperor Bimbisara (6th Century B.C) of Magadha and later the physician in attendance to Lord Buddha as narrated in the Buddhist canonical texts, provides details of the science of medicine. Numerous medicines were prepared from roots, leaves, fruits and salts, chunam for itches and boils, medicines for skin diseases, eye-ointments, medicated oils, etc. Science of surgery also progressed well. They performed successfully lancet operations and used bandages, ointments and oils for the treatment of wounds. During the Mauryan rule (3rd Century B.C) the state built hospitals for both men and animals.

Arthasastra of Kautilya refers to ordinary physicians, surgeons with surgical instruments and appliances and materials for bandages, nurses, midwives and trained physicians, especially skilled in detecting poison. Adequate arrangement was also made for the post-mortem examination of a corpse which was smeared with certain oil to prevent its decomposition.

Ancient Indians used anesthesia hundreds of years before it was applied in Europe in 19th century A.D. A drug called sammohini desensitized the patient, leaving him practically asleep and another sanjivini served to accelerate his return to consciousness. Susruta suggests that those parts of the body which are to undergo surgery be shaved before hand and that a strict cleanliness be observed.

Charak, a contemporary of Kind Kanishka (78-102 A.D.) was a great authority on Ayurveda. His work Charaksamhita consisting of 120 chapters is a comprehensive manual on medicine. It covers various branches like diagnosis of diseases, physiology, embryology, treatment, preparation of medicine and therapies. Charak had identified 20 types of disease causing germs and their shapes and colours. Susruta (4th century A/D) incorporated surgery into the general field of medicine. His work Susrutasamhita is a comprehensive treatment of the science of surgery and other branches of Ayurveda. I cover various aspects like anatomy, embryology, equipments for surgery, surgical procedures, cauterization, types of wounds, healing methods, anesthesia methods, bone fractures and dislocation, orthopaedic surgery, management of urinary stones including operations, surgery of intestines and abdomen. His work also throws light on plastic surgery for repairing noses, ears, etc. The instruments used in surgery are also elaborated. A systematic summary of the teachings of Charakasamhita and Susrutasamhita is presented in the Astanga-Samgraha by Vagbhatta I who seems to have lived in 6th Century A.D. Another work on medicine composed during the Gupta age is Navanitakam. This work was discovered in 1890 by Lieutenant Bower at Kuchar in Eastern Turkistan. Navanitakam is not a systematic or comprehensive work on medicine but a mere manual or recipes, formulae and prescriptions intended for the use of the busy practitioner. Twelve of its formulas are taken from Bhelasamhita, 29 from Charakasamhita and six from Susrutasamhita. It is likely that some of its formulae, not attributed to the above three authorities may have been based upon the lost Samhitas of Harita, Jatukarna, Ksharapani and Parasara, who also were according to tradition, disciples of Punarvasu like Charaka and Susruta.

Veterinary Science were not neglected and a work Hastyayurveda by  Palakapya is an extensive work of 160 chapters and deals with the principal diseases of elephants, their diagnosis and treatment, both medical and surgical. A similar treatise on horses Svasastra was written by Sage Salihotra.

Chinese travelers like Hiuen Tsang and I-Tsing speak about the high standard of personal hygiene and sanitary practices of ancient Indians. According to them, floors of houses were purified with cow dung and strewn with season flowers. People bathed daily smeared bodies with sandal paste, washed hands and mouth with water before and after meals. The fragments and remains of meals were not served up again and utensils that were of pottery or wood were thrown away after use, while those made out of gold, silver, copper and iron were used after cleaning.

Ancient Indians were well-versed in the art of tool making and metallurgy. Large quantities of carnelian beads were exported from India during the Saraswathi-Sindhu civilization. Bead making required techniques of sawing, flaking, grinding and boring. Probably the Saraswathi-Sindhu people were the first to make tools like metal saws and fine tubular drills. Their metallurgist were fully acquainted with various casting and forging techniques like closed casting, lost wax process, sinking, running on, cold work, annealing, soldering, etc. as attested by the various objects discovered in the various sites of the Saraswathi-Sindhu valley.

The famous iron pillar near Qutb Minar in Delhi ascribed to the Gupta’s period stands as a silent witness to proclaim the striking metallurgical skills of ancient Indians. At a time when the process of making iron was but imperfectly known even in the west, Indian metallurgists manufactured this huge iron pillar so skillfully that although it stands exposed to the sun and rain for the last 1500 years, it shows not the least sign of rusting or corrosion. The pillar is 24 feet in height and six and a half tons in weight. Even the simple forging of so large an iron column was out of the reach of human thought elsewhere not only at that time but for many centuries afterwards as well. Similarly the colossal image of Buddha at Sultanganj in Bihar measuring 2.1 meters in height and weighing over a ton cast in pure copper reveal the high degree of proficiency in metal work achieved by ancient Indians.(Concluded)

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