Commonly worshipped as the Hindu God of Medicine, the Master of Universal Knowledge, Physician of Gods and the Guardian Deity of Hospitals, DHANVANTARI is regarded as the original exponent of Indian medical tradition called AYURVEDA, the ‘eternal science of life.’ This tradition is now accepted as the oldest, most original and unbroken medical system of the world.
In ancient Indian tradition there are several schools like those of ATHARVAN, ATREYA, CHARAKA, SUSHRUTA, BEHLA, AGNIVESA, PARASARA, HARITA, VAGBHATA and MADHAVA. Of these, the ‘Great Three’ or BRIHAT-TRAM are the works of CHARAKA, SUSHRUTA and VAGBHATA. Further there was the school of physicians headed by ATREYA and of the Rasa Siddha-s, by KASHYAPA.
DHANVANTARI has many myths and legends woven around him. Normally shown as clad in bright yellow silk, He is depicted with four hands- the upper pair of hands carrying sankha and chakra, and the lower pair, a (golden) leech (jalookaa-medical term Hirudo Medicinalis) and kamandalu (pitcher) (sometimes shown as a blood letting bowl). Sometimes he is shown with the text of the upaveda, AYURVEDA and medicinal herbs. Sometime he is shown with a tulasi-seed garland around his neck and a plant-wreath halo. His complexion is blue, making Him another incarnation of VISHNU. Interestingly, the leech was part of the doctor’s kit in olden days since it was used to suck out impure blood from the patient‘s body. Even now, extract from its saliva is used to prevent clotting.
What does the word Dhanvantari mean?
The word DHANVANTARI affords different interpretations:
(a) The word dhanus is only indicative (upalakshna). It denotes the science of surgery. The one who has seen the end (anta) of it is DHANVANTARI.
(b) The word dhanvan means a desert. (Compare RIGVEDA [V.36.1] dhanvachara meaning, he who moves in a desert). There is a mantra in the Veda: dhanvan iva prapaaasi (0 Lord! You are like the place where water is distributed to travellers in a desert.) Thus, DHANVANTARI the incarnation of Lord VISHNU with a pot of nectar in His hand is like prapaa (water spot) in the desert of worldly existence.
The RAMAYANA (Balakanda, Sarga 45) describes him as a divine being who emerged from the milky ocean after a churning of 1000 years. He carried a kamandalu (water pitcher) in one hand and a danda (staff) in the other.
The first Dhanvantari
Gods, repeatedly defeated and killed by their more powerful cousins, the demons, approached Lord VISHNU, seeking the boon of rejuvenation and the gift of immortality.
He then directed them to churn the primeval ocean in which were hidden the secrets of life and death.
The Gods sought the help of the demons, to whom they promised part of the spoil. With VASUKI as the rope and Mount MANDARA as the churning rod, they churned the ocean till it yielded several valuable things such as desire-yielding trees, a cow, the flying horse, the white elephant and nymphs, Moon and LAKSHMI. Finally came DHANVANTARI the divine physician, holding the pitcher of AMRITA the elixir of life that could bestow immortality.
The HARIVAMSA (ch. 29) describes him as prosperous-looking, and says that after emerging from the milky ocean, he stood worshipping Lord VISHNU. VISHNU named him ABJA. He then bowed down to VISHNU and said: “0 Lord, I am Your son. Allor a share of the sacrifices to me.” VISHNU replied: “Portions of sacrifices have already been allotted. Since you were born after the celestials, you cannot be considered as one of them. You will be born in the world of humans and then you will become a celebrity. In your second life, which will be in the DVAPARA YUGA, even from the time of your conception, you will have various occult powers. You will be born as god-incarnate. You will compose works on AYURVEDA which will be well known in all parts of the world.”
Dhanvantari is worshipped as the Hindu God of Medicine. He epitomlzes medical knowledgeAe is also regarded as the origlnal exponent of the Indian Medical Tradition, Ayutveda.
In the DVAPARA YUGA, there was a king called DHANVA in the family of the rulers of KASI. He did not have children for a long time. He performed penance and propitiated ABJA (another name for DHANVANTARI). Pleased by his austerities, ABJA was born as his son. DHANVA named him DHANVANTARI. DHANVANTARI taught AYURVEDA in parts, to eight disciples. To him were born KETUMAN, BHIMARATHA and DIVODASA.
There is a story in some purana-s connecting DHANVANTARI with PARIKSHIT, the grandson of the PANDAVA-S. When TAKSHAKA wanted to bite PARIKSHIT and kill him, a specialist in treating poisonous bites rushed to save the king. But TAKSHAKA bribed and sent him back. It is said that the doctor thus sent back was DHANVANTARI. But other references identify him with KASHYAPA.
The BRAHMA VAIVARTA PURANA (Krishnajanma Khanda) has an interesting story connecting DHANVANTARI with MAANASAA DEVI, a serpent Goddess. Once DHANVANTARI was going to KAILASA along with his disciples. On the way, TAKSHAKA hissed and spat venom. Irritated, one of the disciples of DHANVANTARI boldly plucked the diamond on the head of TAKSHAKA and threw it on the ground.
Hearing about this, VASUKI, the King of Serpents, threatened DHANVANTARI with thousands of serpents under the leadership of DRONA, PUNDARIKA and DHANANJAYA. The poisonous breath of these snakes made the disciples of DWANTARI swoon. However, DHA”TARI made all of them recover with a powerful medicine and in turn sent all the serpents to a swoon.
When VASUKI came to know about this, he next sent the serpent-maid MAANASAA DEVI, a disciple of Lord SIVA, to face DHA”TARI. MAANASAA DEVI also made all the disciples of DHANVANTARI swoon. But DHANVANTARI proved more than a match for her. He brought back his disciples to normal with his powerful medicines. When MAANASAA DEW realized that she could not harm DHANVANTARI or his disciples with her poison, she took the trisula (trident) given by Lord SIVA and aimed it at DHANVANTARI. At this point, SIVA and BRAHMA appeared before them, pacified and sent them away.
According to some other works, DHANVANTARI was born as DIVODASA, King of KASI. He became famous as KASIRAJA and composed many texts on AYURVEDA. Glorification of these works is to be found in the AGNI PURANA (chs. 279-288), and the works of KASIRAJA’S disciple, SUSHRUTA.
The BHAGAVATA PURANA refers to DHANVANTARI as “smritamaatra aartinaasanah” (One who destroys all sufferings even when remembered). DHANVANTARI, DIVODASA and KASIRAJA are names of the same person who is “the first God and who freed the other Gods from old age, disease and death”, and who in his Himalayan retreat taught surgery to SUSHRUTA and other sages.
The VISHNUDHARMOTTAKA PURANA (I. 73.41) which is a major text on iconography, suggests that, DHANVANTARI should be presented as surupa (handsome) and priya-darshana (pleasant in appearance), with two hands, carrying a pitcher of ambrosia in each hand. According to some dhyanasloka-s given in the PRAPANCHA-SARA-SANGRAHA DANVANTARI may be meditated upon as bathing Himself with nectar flowing from the two pots He holds over His head. This form is to be visualised as seated on the devotee’s head, or upon the lunar orb in the full-moon night. Yet another verse describes him as handsome (manoharaanga), with a tranquil face (prasanna-mukha) and residing in the solar orb (ravi-bimbastba.)
DHANVANTARI’S appearance is celebrated each year on the 13th day (trayodasi) of the waxing moon a few days before the DIPAVALI.
The second Dhanvantari
There is an account of a second DHANVANTARI as AMRITACHARYA. He appears to be an eminent medical scientist born in the ambashtha caste. According to a work called the AMBASHTHACHARA CHANDRIKA, sage GALAVA once went to the forest to collect darbba grass and firewood. He walked for long and felt thirsty and hungry. He then saw a girl coming that way with water. She was a vaisya girl VIRABHADRAA by name. He quenched his thirst with the water given by her. Pleased with her, the sage blessed that she would get a noble son. The girl said she was still unmarried. GALAVA then made a figure of a male with dharbha grass and asked her to get a child from that figure. She got a beautiful baby boy. Since he was born to a vaisya mother and brahmin father (darbha-purusha created by the Brahmin GALAVA) he belonged to the ambashta caste. The boy was named AMRITACHARYA.
Dhanvantari and Kumbha Mela
There are episodes connecting DHANVANTARI with the KUMBHA MELA river festival, which takes place once in twelve years at four different places- HARIDVAR, ALLAHABAD, NASIK and UJJAIN. As DHANVANTARI emerged with the pot containing nectar in His palms, a great fight took place between the Gods and demons to wrest the pitcher from His hands. During the fierce battle that took place in the sky, a few drops of nectar fell in the four places referred to. Hence these places became sacred. KUMBHAMELA-S are held at these places to commemorate the divine event. Devotees throng to these places in tens of thousands to purify and rejuvenate themselves with the waters, which are supposed to have within them, the power of AMRITA.
DHANVANTARI appears to have been an actual historical person, although his precise identity is hard to be ascertained. He taught surgery and other divisions of AYURVEDA (Indian system of medicine) at the instance of SUSHRUTA, to a group of sages among whom SUSHPUTA was the foremost. DHANVANTARI is regarded as the patron-god of all branches of medicine. While DHANVANTARI is not credited with any medical treatise of his own, in the early accounts, there is a voluminous glossary and materia medica known as DHANVANTARI NIGHANTU. Even as there is the HIPPOCRATES’ oath for allopathic doctors, so is there the DHANVANTARI oath for AYURVEDIC practitioners.
This work is considered the most ancient of all medical glossaries available. The original work is said to have been in three recensions and the present version may have been based on one of them. This text in six se.ctions deals with 373 medicinal substances, their names and synonyms and a brief description of their properties. Described as the ‘third eye’ for practising physicians, it is extensively relied upon, despite several more comprehensive glossaries that have been compiled subsequently.
Dhanvantari in the context of Allopathy
Modern scholars with a scientific bent of mind assume that Western Science in its modern phase is the paradigm for all forms of scientific knowledge. The native systems of medicine, in their opinion, are crude and unscientific. But if Science can be defined as the body of knowledge based on observation of phenomena under a theoretical framework, which itself is tested in observation, the system of AYURVEDA also has a claim to be called Science. In course of time it has been, and is being realized that there is a vast field for research and discovery in this ancient system of medicine. Texts on AYURVEDA lay great importance on empirid observation – collection of data on drugs, on pathological symptoms, and even on anatomy through dissection of corpses.
These texts mention drugs of vegetable, animal and mineral origin. The number of drug plants mentioned in the three SAMHITA-S (CHARAKA, SUSHRUTA and the text ASHTANGAHRIDAYA of VAGBHATA) is somewhere between 600 and 700 and the number of Sanskrit names (excluding their derivatives) of vegetable drugs is about 1900. These works do not discuss plants as such. They discuss, instead, the effects on our bodies of the different parts and products of the plants.
Says the CHARAKA SAMHITA (Sutra Stbana, Ch. I, verses 72-73): “Roots, bark, pith, exudation, stalk, juice, sprouts, alkalis, milk, fruit, flower, ash, oils, thorns, leaves, buds, bulbs and off-shoots are the plant products now in medicine.” In ancient days they were doing trephining (making holes in the head), nose corrections and operative deliveries. In so far as the drugs of animal origin are concerned, the CHARAKASAMHITA done discusses 165 varieties of animals. It says (Sutra Sthana Ch, I, w. 68-69): “Honey, milk, bile, fat, marrow, blood, flesh, excrement, urine, skin, semen, bones, sinews, horns, nails, hooves, hair, gorocana – these are the substances used in medicine from the animal world.” Again, it mentions 64 main minerals used for drugs. This gives an idea Of the enormity of the pharmacopoeia On which AYURVEDIC medicine was based. About the respect for empirical observation of the AYURVEDIC physicians, CHARAKA (Virnaana Sthana, ch. 118, verse 14) says: “The entire world is the teacher for an intelligent physician, as it is the foe for a fool”. Both CHARAKA and SUSHRUTA declare that there is no substance in the world, which is not relevant for medicine.
AYURVEDA has cure for several diseases for which there may not be a permanent cure in allopathy. It must be admitted that there is no dramatic and overnight cure in AYURVEDA. It works over a period of time; but it works. There are very effective thaila-s (oils), aasava-s (drugs), churna-s (powders) and vatika-s (pills/tablets) for different ailments. For instance, KSHEERABALAADI TAILAM is effective for paralysis, VASANTA KUSUMAKARAM for diabetes, ARJUNA (bark) for heart ailments, DRAKSHARISHTA
and DASAMULARISHTA for colds and flues, NARAYANA TAILAM and MAHAMASHA TAILAM for rheumatism; RASNA (a herb) and MAHAYOGARAJA GUGGULU for joint pains, BHOOMYAMALAKI (juice extract) for jaundice (Hepatitis B); LASUNA – garlic (crude or caps) good for heart conditions and the control of cholesterol. Every part of the MARGOSA plant leaves/nuts/oil/shoots, is very effective in curing many an ailment. TULASI (basil) is a very powerful plant with rich medicinal properties. ALOE VERA (called KUMARIe)x tract is ideal for curing
uterus problems, bleeding complaints, skin diseases and so on. There are several greens like kattali,pasala keerai, kuppameni keerai, agattikeerai, etc. which act very effectively against a number of diseases like herpis, allergy, kidney stones, cataract, toxins in the body, hair loss, etc.
For certain diseases, AYURVEDA preparations seem to be better. This is what many doctors practising allopathy also have realized. Of course there is also one section of allopaths, which does not recognize the soundness of other systems like AYURVEDA, UNANI and HOMEOPATHY. A good number of them, ofcourse, are recommending the use of AYURVEDIC medicines to their patients. They themselves are using AYURVEDIC medicines. It may be observed in conclusion that the various systems of medicine should work in collaboration to cure or relieve. There should be an open mind and a healthy respect to all systems. After all, many of our “grandmother‘s superstitions” are being found to have a scientific basis cloaked in mumbo-jumbo. We should never forget that divine help plus medicine are required for curing every disease. According to DAVID FRAWLEY (AYURVEDIC HEALING: 1989. Morson Publishing), “Within all of us is the archetype of the Divine Healer. This Divine Healer is the true healer in all beings, not any particular individual or special personality. To heal others or ourselves we must set it in motion within ourselves. DHANVANTARI represents this truth in the tradition of AYURVEDA. His status is found at most AYURVEDIC schools and clinics. It is a reminder that however much we know or skilful we become, everything still depends on the grace of spiritual nature.
Sri Nrisimha Priya