Ayurveda: Origins and Evolution


Rajesh Kochhar

CSIR Emeritus Scientist

Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Mohali

Sector 26, Chandigarh 160019



Quest for good health and long life is probably as old as human existence itself. Human beings have always believed that they are entitled to die of old age rather than disease. Towards this goal they have striven at spiritual as well as material level. Evil spirits were sought to be driven off through charms, incantation and magic , with appeal made to the Creator to be the Saviour and Healer also. At the same time, recourse was taken to medication also. The premise that disease has a cause and efforts need to be made to remove it eventually led to the establishment of a health care system.


The beginnings of medical science in India are contained in the Vedic literature itself. The Rgveda describes the Asvins, Varuna and Rudraas bhisaj, physicians (Macdonell& Keith 1912 II:104) . By bhesajis meant “remedy”, incorporating charms, magic, incantation, etc.. This concept goes back to the era of Indo-Iranian commonality because equivalent terms occur in the Avestan literature as well: manthrabaesaza [mantra bhesaj] and haomabaesazya [soma bhesajya]( Bloomfield 1899:58). At the same time , the Vedic literature is familiar with osadhi, that is plants with medicinal properties. As time progressed, the domain ofosadhi expanded at the expense of bhesaj, and osadhi itself transcended plants. The discipline of Ayurveda was born as an affiliate of the Atharvaveda.

Made up of two Sanskrit words Ayuh (life) and Veda (knowledge), Ayurveda can be defined as an ancient Indian health care system, comprising both practice and theory, and devoted to a systematized quest for a long, healthy, vigorous and happy life. It comprises two distinct traditions: botanical and the metallurgical (“rasa”). The botanical is the older. The metallurgical with emphasis on mercury constitutes the Siddha system.
That these two streams have always been perceived as distinct can be seen from the fact that they are linked to different divinities: the botanical to the Asvins and Indra, and the metallurgical to Rudra/Siva(RamachandraRao 1985 I:62,80}. There are eight divisions (anga) in Ayurveda :salya-tantra (surgery); salakya-tantra (diseases of head and neck); kaya-cikitsa (general medicine); bhuta-vidya ( dealing with evil spirits, etc.); kaumara-bhrtya (paediatrics); agada-tantra (toxicology); rasayana-tantra; and vajikarana-tantra (dealing with aphrodisiacs, etc.).There is a vast literature on the subject, spread over a long span of time. To be able to critically examine the issues pertaining to the origins and evolution of Ayurveda, we must first review the nature, content and limitations of the extant source material. Here, our emphasis will be on the botanical Ayurveda.


The Vedic texts because of their sanctity were preserved in their original form. In the case of the Puranas and the epics, additions were made but not deletions. In contrast, scientific texts such as dealing in healthcare and astronomy generally underwent both deletion and addition.All the well knownhistorical  limitations of an  oral tradition apply to Ayurveda also. Once an influential