Classical Period (450 BCE - 400 CE)
Introduction to Charaka Samhita
Many consider Charaka to be a redactor; restoring, rewriting, and filling in the gaps of the Agnivesa Samhita (46,000 verses), which is no longer in existence. (2) In this lineage, Agnivesa transcribed the teachings of Atreya Punarvasu and turned them into a text that would later be made available to the world thanks to Charaka. The Agnivesa Samhita is said to have been on the verge of perishing, or maybe just falling into disuse, at the moment that Charaka took on the great task of redaction. (1)
Charaka is believed to have flourished anywhere between the 2nd and 6th century BCE. (1, 2) Speculation still revolves around his existence as a singular person, or its existence as a collaborative effort. Commentators such as Vijnana Bhiksu, Sivadasa, and Bhavamisra (the author of the Bhavaprakasha), subscribe to the opinion that Charaka and author of Mahabhasya on Vyakarana Patanjali, are one and the same person. (1)
Who exactly the author is, or if, in fact, Charaka represents the work of a "school of thought," is unknown. It is possible that a group of scholars — maybe even followers of a man named Charaka — collaborated to complete this comprehensive work. (2)
Regardless, Charaka Samhita remains one of the most crucial (and highly studied) authoritative contributions to Ayurvedic medicine today. The work itself summarizes medical care in health and in disease by offering etiology, symptomatology and treatments. (1) This divine piece of Sanskrit writing is presented in the form of poetry, with meter and melody, to enhance one’s ability for memorization. It presents most of the theoretical foundations of Ayurveda while focusing on kayachikitsa (internal medicine). Charaka never discusses the upadoshas of pitta or kapha, but does describe the 5 sub-types of vata. (2)
Commentaries on Charaka Samhita
The practice of writing commentaries on the classical texts of Ayurveda began during the Sangraha period. This was the age of the reign of the Gupta Kings, often considered the golden age of Indian history. During this time many treatises of different disciplines were reexamined and redacted to update them for the new era.
Previously, many volumes of text had been written focusing on different specialties in medicine. With such a large body of work, it was difficult for students and practitioners to thoroughly learn and incorporate this knowledge through studying the texts. Thus, the practice of creating concise “handbooks” began. These were commentaries on the classical texts that covered the essentials of all of the eight branches of Ayurveda. This tradition of creating compilations of information from the classical Ayurvedic texts is believed to have begun with Vagbhata, who wrote his treatises Ashtanga Hridayam and Ashtanga Sangraha during this time. Both texts incorporate the writings of Charaka and Sushruta in a new layout meant to be easier to use for practitioners at the time.
Charaka Samhita has over 60 different known commentators, in addition to some anonymous commentators. The various commentators of the Charaka Samhita compiled commentaries based in their own education and personal bias. Some authors wrote word for word translations, analyzing each compound in comparison to other commentators, while others picked through the verses and selected information which they perceived to be genuine to be included in the commentary.
Here, we describe some of the more well-known commentators and their commentaries.
Bhattara Harischandra wrote Charakanyasa, which is the oldest commentary on Charaka Samhita. It was written around the turn of the 4th century, C.E. This commentary is well regarded in the medical world, and is also praised for its prose in the literary world. Many scholars consider it the best commentary, but unfortunately the complete text is not available.
Swami Kumara’s commentary is known as Panjika, and is believed to have been written around the 5th century C.E. Only a small portion of the text was preserved, and little is known about the author, other than that he was Shaiva based on the invocation... in his commentary. (He starts with an invocation to Lord Shiva).
He is a good example of how many of the commentators are intertwined. Before writing his commentary, he consulted Hariṣcandra’s commentary, which he also quoted frequently throughout his writings. He was later quoted by Jejjata in his commentaries. These connections help historians to place authors in their context in the timeline of Indian history.
Shivadas Sen wrote the commentary called Tatvachandrika or Tattvapradīpikā in the 15th century C.E. Again, the full text is not available. We know that he was trained in Ayurveda and other sciences by his father to whom he repeatedly refers in the Sūtrasthāna of Charaka Samhitā , and may have been a devotee of Vishnu. At the end of his third commentary Shivadas Sen wrote of his long lineage dating back to Sāisena, a famous poet who lived at the court of Śikharevśara.
Jejjata wrote the commentary Nirantarapada Vyakhya. His background is not entirely clear; some mention Mahajanupati as his teacher, while others identify his teacher as Vagbhat. It is debated whether his was Hindu or Buddhist.
His is the most popular commentary on Charaka Samhita after Charakanyasa. It was written in the 6th century C.E., and only a few sections of the work are still available. In his commentary, Jejjata is especially concerned with determining which verses of Charaka Samhita can be regarded as genuine, and actually rejects those verses that he does not perceive as genuine.
Chakrapanidutta is quite famous among the commentators of Charaka Samhita. Indeed, his work on his commentaries of both Charaka and Sushruta Samhita earned him the honorifics 'Charaka Chaturanana' and 'Susruta Sahasranayana'. His commentary is called Āyurveda Dīpikā, and is one of the few that is still available in its complete form. Historians have determined the date of writing to be in the 11th century C.E.
In his commentary, Chakrapani is not interested in psychopathology because in his opinion the text is devoted to internal medicine (kayachikitsa). He does not admit blood as a dosha and expresses doubt regarding the relationship between pitta and agni. He understood the concepts of poshya or sthayi and poshaka or asthayi dhatu, gave a limited role to samprapti, and made an important remark regarding the clay-like color of the stools in obstructive jaundice. He was of the opinion that animals may be killed if required for the preservation of health or the curing of disease.
Chakrapani’s philosophical views were aligned with the later stages of Nyāya, Vaiśheṣhika, and Saṃkhya. Because of this, it is apparent that in his commentaries, he is critical of Charaka and attempts to reconcile statements found in Charaka Samhita with Nyāya doctrines. One example of this is that Chakrapani did not accept yukti as a separate pramāṇa like Charaka did.
Yogendranath Sen is one of the more recent commentators on Charaka Samhita. He was born in 1871, and his commentary Charakopaskāra was originally published in incomplete form in 1920. He studied Ayurveda under his father, who was a pupil of Gangadhara, and eventually became known as one of the foremost Ayurvedic physicians of India.
His commentary covers only the first chapter of the Sutrasthana to the 13th chapter of the Chikitsasthana. Unlike many of the other commentaries, it was written in simple sanskrit, and it follows Charaka word for word while analyzing each compound of each word. He also sometimes agrees with and comments on some of the writings of Chakrapanni and Gangadhara, sometimes synthesizing their views or offering his own view.
Kaviraj Jyotishchandra Sarasvati was a Bengali author who wrote the commentary is called Charaka Dīpikā, and was published only up to the sutrasthana. Throughout his commentary, he repeatedly refers to the views of Gaṇāthasena and contradicts Kaviraj Gananath Sen.
Some of the best pearls of these commentaries can be found in the last two volumes of P.V. Sharma’s English translation of Charaka Samhita.
Narayanaswamy, V. Origin and Development of Ayurveda. College of Indian Medicine, Madras - India. Ancient Science of Life, Vol. 1, No. 1. July 1981. Pp 1-7
A Handbook of the History of Ayurveda (Revised and Illustrated), by Dr. R. Vidyanath and Dr. K. Nishteswar
A History of Indian Medical Literature by G. Jan Meulenbeld