Eat, drink and be moderate: Charaka advised the good life, not an assortment of pills


V0050555 A group of men beheading a goat PHOTO/Wellcome Library, London

‘Charaka Samhita’ frowned neither on eating the meats of all animals, nor on drinking wine or even smoking of herbs, so long as they were done right.

When the British-era Government of Bengal decided to set up the first medical college in Asia in Calcutta in the 1830s, there was intense debate among the Indian educated class about what the curriculum to be taught to the future students should be. Should it be the Indian systems of medicine then current – Ayurveda or Unani – or should the students be taught the Western medical education system? The authority of Pandit Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar – a scholar of Ayurveda if not an actual practitioner – was influential in deciding that Western medicine was the way forward and the teaching of Western medicine triumphed. All the subsequent medical colleges in the Madras and Bombay Presidencies followed suit.

Ayurveda, though, and its teaching never went away. Almost 200 years later there remains considerable interest in Ayurveda and its philosophy of medicine, although no MBBS curriculum medical school teaches it in detail. One reason for this is the lack of a clear and authoritative version of the Charaka Samhita, the foundational textbook of Ayurveda. Fortunately, we now possess the life’s labour of Dr Priyavrat Sharma, former Director of the Postgraduate Institute of Indian Medicine, BHU who has brought out a revised, critical, annotated edition of the Sanskrit text with a fluent English translation, several decades in preparation, now readily available in online stores, and as a free download on several sites.

A philosophy of health

While it is impossible to discuss or even summarise the diagnostic paradigms and extensive and unique pharmacopoeia of Ayurveda in a single article, what is certainly interesting and accessible to all students of medicine – indeed, even to laypersons – is a summary of the philosophy of Ayurveda, which remains cogent and relevant to our life today. Why is this? It is probably because Ayurveda, unlike Western medicine, deals with the practical issue of how to lead a healthy life – something (curiously, and studiously) avoided by that system of medicine.

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