Lord Dhanvantari

The source of Ayurveda is attributed to Lord Dhanvantari, the Hindu Deity of Medicine. It is mentioned in Vedas as well as Puranas that Lord Dhanvantari was the physician of the Gods in addition to being an excellent surgeon. Lord Dhanwantari is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu who, according to Shrimad Bhagwat Purana, emerged from the depths of the ocean holding a pot of Amrit (the elixir of immortality) whilst the ocean was being churned with the help of the great Mandara mountain and serpent Vasuki. He is one of the 14 ratnas which made their appearance during the event of Samudramanthana. The pot of Amrit was initially snatched by the Asuras, but with the help of Mohini (another incarnation of Lord Vishnu), it was recovered and consumed by the Devas. This episode is the crux of the Kumbh Mela which is celebrated every 12 years.

Human suffering moved Lord Dhanvantari so much that he took birth on earth as the son of King of Kashi (Varanasi), Dirghatma. The Prince of Kashi, he came to be known as Kashiraja or Devodasa Dhanvantari. When he went on to become the King of Kashi, he was approached by a group of sages (including Sushruta) with a request to teach them Ayurveda. Dhanvantari stated that Brahma had created Ayurveda far before he created mankind. He also said that Ayurveda forms one of the upangas of the Atharva Veda and it is not easy for men to learn it within their lifespans as it has 1,00,000 verses arranged in 1,000 chapters. However, Dhanvantari acceded to their request and recast Brahma’s Ayurveda into 8 divisions or ashtangas, each representing specialities (shalya, shalakya, kayachikitsa, bhutavidya, kaumarabhrtya, agadatantra, rasayanatantra, vajikaranatantra). This is how Lord Dhanvantari revealed Ayurveda to the world. He then began teaching within the framework of pratyaksa (perception), agama (authoritative scripture), anumana (inference) and upamana (analogy) which is where his teachings on Ayurveda stresses overall promotion of human health in a holistic manner and not just the curative aspect of medical science.

The word dhanvan indicatively means science of surgery. The one who has seen the end (anta) of it is known as Dhanvantari. The name Dhanvantari also indicates gift of God to remove human suffering.

Among the group of sages was Sushrutha, who went on to become Dhanvantari’s foremost disciple. He promulgated Dhanvantari’s teachings to future generations through a school of medicine and surgery that he founded at Varanasi. He also went on to author the Sushrutha Samhitha which contains descriptions of 1,120 illnesses, 700 medicinal plants, 64 preparations from mineral sources and 57 preparations based on animal sources in 184 chapters. It is an instruction manual for physicians for the holistic treatment of their patients. He stated that disease was caused by an imbalance in the body and it was the physician’s duty to help others maintain balance or to restore it if it had been lost. The text addresses general medicine as well as surgery. It became popular and soon moved to different parts of the world where it became quite popular. Sushrutha is known today as the Father of Surgery. It is regarded as one of the Great Trilogy of Ayurvedic Medicine, along with Charaka Samhitha and Ashtanga Hridaya.

Pictoral Depictions of Sushrutha and Charaka

Charaka Samhitha is one of the oldest and authoritative writings on Ayurveda. Although it is not known how the text came into being, there is a popular belief that it is a subset or redaction of an earlier text known as Agnivesh Tantra by Agnivesh, which was authored by a Kashmiri sage known as Charaka. There is also the argument that since charak in Sanskrit means ‘wandering scholars/physicians’, it is compendium of pooled knowledge of multiple scholars. The text defines life as the combination of the body, sense organs, mind and soul, the factor responsible for preventing decay and death. According to this perspective, Ayurveda is concerned with measures to protect Ayus (longevity) which include healthy living along with therapeutic measures that relate to physical, mental, social and spiritual harmony. This definition has great relevance for both prophylactic and therapeutic management of mind, body, and soul. No other document known to humanity defines the science of life in such visionary and yet realistic terms.

Ashtanga Hridaya is the work of Vagbhata, a Buddhist Scholar. Ashtanga Hridaya translates to ‘Heart or Essence of the Eight Sections’ of Ayurveda. Chronologically, this text succeeds the Charaka Samhitha and the Sushrutha Samhitha. This scripture primarily deals with kayachikitsa and mentions the dosha edifices of vata, pitta and kapha along with their sub-types. It emphasises on treating the physiology of the body and suggests therapeutic use of metals and minerals.

Some other notable texts in Ayurveda are Ashtanga Sangraha, Bhavaprakasha, Sarangadhar Samhitha and Madhava Nidan.


Ayurveda is based on three concepts;

  • The Panchamahabhuta or five basic elements concept,
  • The Tridosha or the three bodily humors concept, and
  • The Saptadhatu or the seven body tissues concept.

The Panchamahabhuta Concept:
Everything that exists in the vast external universe (macrocosm), also appears in the internal cosmos of the human body (microcosm). In other words, all human beings are a living microcosm of the universe and the universe is a living macrocosm of human beings. The entire physical universe and every living and non-living element in it (including the human body) are composed of five basic elements – Akasha (Space), Vayu (Air), Agni (Fire), Jala (Water) and Prithvi (Earth). It is believed that the world existed as an un-manifested state of consciousness in the beginning.

  • A subtle vibration of cosmic soundless sound Aum or Om manifested the un-manifested state into Ether/Space (Akasha) element.
  • These ethereal elements began to move and this subtle movement created the Air (Vayu) element.
  • This movement of air created friction and thereby heat, which eventually converted into Fire (Agni) element.
  • Certain ethereal elements melted due to fire and became Water (Jal) elements.
  • This later solidified and formed the Earth (Bhoomi) element.

In context of the human body,

  • Ether refers to the hollow spaces in the body- lungs, mouth, nostrils, gastro-intestinal tract, etc.
  • Vayu signifies movement- the movement of lungs, intestine, heart, etc.
  • Agni refers to the burning of food for energy, metabolism, and maintenance of body temperature.
  • Jal refers to all juicy secretions of the body- digestive juices, sweat, sputum, etc.
  • The entire body is Bhoomi which contains all the inorganic minerals.

The panchamahabhuta also manifest into five senses like taste, vision, touch, smell, and hearing.

Lord Dhanvantari
The interplay between the Panchamahabhuta and the Tridosha. (Image Source - Wikipedia)

The Tridosha Concept:
The central concept of Ayurvedic medicine is the theory that health exists when there is a balance between three fundamental bodily humours or dosha called Vata, Pitta and Kapha. These are the forces that govern all psycho-physiological functions in the body and mind respectively. The five elements are present in the three dosha in different combinations and concentrations.

  • Vata – Ether and Air elements combine in dominance to form Vata Dosha, which governs the principle of movement and therefore can be seen as the force which directs nerve impulses, circulation, respiration and elimination.
  • Pitta – Fire and Water elements combine in dominance to form the Pitta Dosha which is responsible for the process of transformation or metabolism. Pitta is also responsible for metabolism at organ, tissue, as well as cellular levels.
  • Kapha – Water and Earth elements combine to form the Kapha Dosha. Kapha is responsible for growth, protection (fluid shock absorber for joints, brain (Cerebro-Spinal Fluid and spinal cord) and makes the body stable, the structures well held with muscle, tendons, ligaments, and fats.

Vata, Pitta and Kapha together govern the bodily functions when healthy and cause diseases when out of harmony. For every person, this state of harmony is unique which is their very own Prakriti. Prakriti is the innate balance of dosha that one acquires at the time of conception. It is dependent on several factors that govern how Vata, pitta and Kapha will express themselves throughout our life in our physique and psyche. Although age, time, and seasons exert their effects, Prakriti once defined cannot be changed. Prakriti is unique to an individual just like fingerprint and DNA. This is how Ayurveda can explain the subtle differences between individuals and explains why everyone is unique and that two persons can react very differently when exposed to the same environment or stimuli. Ayurveda seeks to employ a balance between these dosha and hence, treats the root cause of the disease rather than just the symptoms.

The Saptadhatu Concept:
Ayurveda identifies seven vital tissues that provide nourishment, growth and structure to the entire body. They provide support, strength and structure to the body. The seven body tissues are;

  • Rasa Dhatu (plasma): It is the transporter of the body- plasma fluids. It provides nourishment to all the other dhatu.
  • Rakta Dhatu (blood): It is the basis of life and provides nourishment to all the tissues and cells in the body. It also provides strength to the body and colour to blood.
  • Mamsa Dhatu (muscle): It provides movement to the muscular system in the body and physical support to the meda dhatu.
  • Meda Dhatu (fat): It collects the energies and stores them to provide strength to the body. The adipose tissue also stores fat as a means of body lubrication and support to bones.
  • Asthi Dhatu (bone): Includes all the bones and cartilages and gives shape to the body. It also supports the Mamsa dhatu.
  • Majja Dhatu (bone marrow): It nourishes the body and helps maintain its functions. It also strengthens the body, fills the bones, and nourishes the Shukra dhatu.
  • Shukra Dhatu (reproductive tissue): It nourishes the reproductive strengths of an individual. It includes sperm and ovum.

All the seven dhatu are inter-connected; the malfunctioning of even a single dhatu can have an impact on all the other dhatu. Like the dosha, the dhatu are composed of the Panchamahabhuta. Thus, the dosha help manage the balance of the dhatu. A system of well-balanced dosha helps balance the dhatu, thus leading to the proper functioning of the entire system of the body.

Ayurveda places great emphasis on prevention and encourages the maintenance of health by paying attention to the balance in one’s life. Knowledge of Ayurveda enables one to understand how to create this balance of body, mind and consciousness according to one’s constitution and how to make lifestyle changes to bring about and maintain this balance.