The Charaka Samhita is among the earliest surviving Sanskrit medical manuals, and the most authoritative. Samhita is Sanskrit for compendium, and Charaka is a proper name. So translated, the work means "Charaka's Compendium." Although the exact date of composition of the Charaka Samhitais unknown, scholars estimate that it was written around 100 A.D. It was eventually supplemented, edited, and partially rewritten by otherauthors over an extended period up to 800 A.D. Charakareiterates the teachings of the school of Atreya, a famous physician of antiquity, and lengthy passages take the form of a dialogue between Atreya and Agnivesha, Charaka's teacher. Charaka was translated into Persion and Arabic in the eighth century, and is still used today. Most of what is known about Indian medical science derives from this text and two others, the Susruta Samhita and the Ashtangahridaya Samhita.
The Charaka Samhita is long, running to 1,000 pages in English translation. It represented a major advance over the supersitious ways of treating medical problems of the Atharva Veda (one of the four sacred books of Hinduism, which included songs and spells concerning the healing of diseases).Instead of appeasing deities and making sacrifices, practitioners were now looking at clinical problems and deciding how to treat them based on the specific disease. Perhaps most significant, they developed concepts of health anddisease which they applied in practice.
The science of medicine became known as Ayurveda, or science of life. Just aswe now seek to explain a disease as a problem of nutrition or genetics, Ayurvedic physicians formed a medical theory that guided the way they evaluated patients and diseases.
Unlike the germ theory which developed much later, Ayurveda proposed that human disorders arose from an imbalance of three vital substances, or humors, present in every living creature: wind, bile, and phlegm (that is, mucus). Lifeand health were considered not only a product of karma (the sum of a person's actions in previous states of existence) but also of behavior in this life.The things that upset the balance of the humors included improper food and practices, and accidents. Ayurveda emphasized prevention through cleansing, exercise, diet, and good habits.
By the time Charaka was written, doctoring was recognized as a profession, and sons often followed in the footsteps of their fathers. Then, as now,medicine promised a materially and spiritually satisfying life. According toCharaka, a physician could expect religious merit for relieving suffering, material gain from successful cures, and personal satisfaction from thefame and reputation that a successful practice would bring. The text offerspractical advice on medical training and managing patients, and it laid downa code of ethics for physicians. Charaka warned against unscrupulous physicians who make phony diagnoses in search of quick money, and emphasized amoral basis of medicine as a public service.
According to Charaka the medical profession was reserved for the highest castes (categories of a hereditary social order in South Asia). Because surgery was considered to be the work of low-caste persons such as barbers, thetext does not deal with surgery. Moreover, Indian physicians were not allowed to handle or to dissect corpses, which limited students' ways of learning about how the human body worked.
Charaka regarded disease as originating either inside the body or fromoutside. Divided into eight sections and 150 chapters, the text is above allan exhaustive work on therapeutic medicine, that is, the treatment of ailments curable by drugs and modification of diet and lifestyle. It also covers bodily structure and function, the cause, symptoms, and prognosis of disease, and the effect of disease on the body. Physicians are urged to examine patients carefully, and to tailor treatment not just to the disease but also to theperson, climate, time of year, and environment. Thus, different people with identical symptoms might receive different treatments. Charaka describes more than 600 drugs of animal, plant, and mineral origin, along with formulas for medicines and instructions for making them.