The Great Three Classics of Ayurveda
The Charaka Samhita is believed to have arisen around
400-200 BCE. It is felt to be one of the oldest and
the most important ancient authoritative writings on
Ayurveda. It is not known who this person was or, if
indeed, this represents the work of a "school of
thought." It could have been from a group of scholars
or followers of a man known as Charaka or an original
composition from a single person named Charaka. This
work is sometimes considered a redaction of an older
and more voluminous work, Agnivesha Samhita (46,000
verses), which is no longer extant. Dridhabala, living
about 400 AD, is believed to have filled in many verses
of missing text (perhaps up to 20%) in the Chikitsasthana
and elsewhere, which disappeared over time.
The language of Charaka is Sanskrit
and its style is poetry, with meter and melody. Poetry
was known to serve as a memory aid. For example, Charaka
contains over 8,400 metrical verses, which are often
committed to memory, in toto, by modern medical students
It presents most of the theoretical edifice of Ayurveda
and concentrates on the branch of Ayurveda called kayachikitsa
(internal medicine). This is largely the theory of the
internal fire--of digestion--or internal medicine, in
modern terms. Charaka never discusses the sub-types
of pitta and kapha, but does list and describe the 5
sub-types of vata.
Seen from a greater perspective,
this work seems to represent a certain value of consciousness
that is different from other works. It gives more discussion
about the notion that life is fundamentally a field
of intelligence and pure knowledge. This field is self-aware;
it is the Knower as well as the object of perception,
and for Charaka this is part of what is to be treated
by the physician.
The P.V. Sharma translation comes
in four volumes, two of original text and two of commentary
about the original work. Sharma's English version is
said to be a scholarly and relatively faithful work.
It has numerous appendices and an extensive index. The
B. Dash / R.K. Sharma version lacks these features but
does have extensive commentary incorporated in with
the original text. All three translators have excellent
academic or/and clinical credentials supporting their
The Sushruta Samhita presents the field of Ayurvedic
surgery (shalya). This branch of medicine arose in part
from the exigencies of dealing with the effects of war.
This work also is said to be a redaction of oral material
passed down verbally from generation to generation.
It is thought to have arisen about the same time period
as the Charaka Samhita, slightly after or before it
according to different authorities. Its style is both
prose and poetry with poetry being the greater portion.
The Sushruta Samhita, while dealing
with the practice and theory of surgery, is an important
source of Ayurvedic aphorisms. For example, the most
comprehensive and frequently quoted definition of health
is from Sushruta. This work is unique in that it discusses
blood in terms of the fourth doshic principle. This
work is the first to enumerate and discuss the pitta
sub-doshas and the marmas. With its emphasis on pitta,
surgery, and blood, this work best represents the transformational
value of life.
This work, also originally written
in Sanskrit, is now available in English with Devanagari.
Bhishagratna's translation is English and Sanskrit.
P.V. Sharma has recently written a translation with
both the Sanskrit/Devanagari and English that includes
Dallana's commentary. Dallana has been regarded as the
most influential commentator on Sushruta's work.
Ashtanga Hridayam and Ashtanga
Ashtanga Sangraha and Ashtanga Hridayam are the work
of a person named Vagbhata. There are two works by a
person or persons with this name. The Ashtanga Sangraha
is nearly 40% greater in size (by verse count) and is
primarily poetry with prose. The Hridayam (about 7800
verses) is written in prose and seems to have a slightly
different organization of material than the former.
Both works have been dated about the same time and are
thought to date after the Charaka and Sushruta Samhitas
The exposition is relatively straightforward
and also deals primarily with kayachikitsa. In this
work, we see the kapha sub-doshas are listed and described
for the first time, completing our modern edifice of
vata, pitta, and kapha with their five sub-types. Its
emphasis on treating the physiology of the body and
suggestions for therapeutic use of metals and minerals
means the perspective of the treatise represents the
gross, material value of life more than its counterparts
Charaka and Sushruta. While Charaka has entire chapters
dealing with the Self, these works merely mention that
the body is the home for the Self without any elaboration.
Srikantha Murthy's translation
includes the Sanskrit/Devanagari for those who want
to delve into the original text. S. Murthy has translated
many of the ancient Ayurvedic writings into English,
for which we are indebted. He has weighty credentials
and brings them to bear in this work.
The Lesser Three Classics of Ayurveda
The Sharngadhara Samhita is a concise exposition of
Ayurvedic principles. Its author, Sharngadhara, has
offered his work as a digested version of Ayurvedic
knowledge, deliberately omitting much detail because
the works of The Great Three were already widely known.
This treatise is thought to have originated in the 15th
century AD. The Sharngadhara Samhita is prized for its
enumeration and description of numerous pharmacological
formulations used in panchakarma and contains the first
textual elaboration of diagnosis by means of the pulse.
Its subject matter is again the field of kayachikitsa.
This work is available in Sanskrit/Devanagari and English
translation by Srikantha Murthy.
Bhava Prakasha is just now available in English translation.
It is the most recent of the classical texts, written
in the 16th century. It is a well-organized and compact
re-presentation of the earlier classics. There are about
10,268 verses of varying meters. It deals with kayachikitsa
generally and has a large section entitled Nighantu,
which gives the characteristics of many foods, plants,
and minerals. Many of it sutras are direct quotes from
earlier writers. Sri Kantha Murthy again does this Sanskrit/Devanagari
and English translation.
Madhava Nidanam, available here in Sanskrit/Devanagari
and English translation by Srikantha Murthy, deals with
the classification of diseases in Ayurveda. Its taxonomy
is slightly different at times from those given by Charaka,
Sushruta, and Vagbhata, while for the greater part its
verses are seemingly direct quotes from them. This work
is dated around 700 AD and is prized for covering a
wide range of diseases in the fields of bala (children
and women's disorders), shalya, damstra (toxicology),
shalakya (ear, nose and throat), and kayachikitsa. While
this treatise gives detailed description of disease
etiology (disease doctrines), prodroma and cardinal
signs and symptoms, it does not give explanation or
suggestions for chikitsa (treatment).
1. Charaka Samhita--PV Sharma Translator, Chaukhamba
Orientalia, Varanasi, India, 1981, pp. ix-xxxii (I)
2. Sushruta Samhita-KL Bhishagratna Translator, Chaukhamba
Orientalia, Varanasi, India, 1991, pp. iii-lxvi (I),
i-xvii (II) 3 Volumes
3. Ashtanga Hridaya-Shri Kanta Murthy Translator, Chaukhamba
Orientalia, Varanasi, India, 1991, pp. ix-xxvi 3 Volumes
4. Sharngadhara Samhita--Shri Kanta Murthy Translator,
Chaukhamba Orientalia, Varanasi, India, 1984, pp. iii-xvi
5. Madhava Nidanam--Shri Kanta Murthy translator, Chaukhamba
Orientalia, Varanasi, India, 1993, pp. iii-xv
6. Bhava Prakasha--Shri Kanta Murthy translator, Chaukhamba
Orientalia, Varanasi, India, 1998, pp.vii-xii 2 Volumes
NOTE: This article is not strictly
transliterated from the original Sanskrit. Charaka is
often transliterated as Caraka as kayachikitsa is often
kayacikitsa. The "c" was changed to "ch"
to aid in the correct pronunciation in these cases.
Copyright 1998, Michael S. Dick
and The Ayurvedic Institute