In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indian Medicine

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Concepts of Disease
  • Buddhism and Medicine
  • Jainism and Medicine
  • Evolution of Medical Literature
  • Hospitals
  • Traditional Surgery
  • Demons of Fever and Possession
  • European Discovery of Indian Medicine

Hinduism Indian Medicine
Dominik Wujastyk
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 January 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0035


Contemporary India has what anthropologists such as Charles Leslie have termed a “pluralistic medical system” (see Ayurveda in the Modern World). This expression captures the idea that a person experiencing illness may have recourse to multiple therapeutic resources. For nondangerous illnesses, an ill person is quite likely to be treated at home by friends or family members, perhaps using therapies and ideas that have been passed down from earlier generations through family traditions. Other ill persons may turn to temple healers, herbalists, village healers, ascetics, exorcists, practitioners of modern establishment medicine, unani tibb, ayurveda, siddha, or a host of other diverse forms of healing (see, for example, The Human Body). Forms of medicine are often combined, in spite of having different explanatory models. An important distinction exists between forms of medicine sanctioned and financially supported by the government (establishment medicine) and others. The Indian government’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare devotes most of its budget to modern establishment medicine (MEM). But it also has a Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homoeopathy (AYUSH). Thus, in India, the latter forms of medicine can also be considered “establishment” medicine. Outside South Asia, these forms of medicine are normally part of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), and this different status gives them a different historical and social trajectory. “Indian medicine” is commonly understood to refer to medical systems that have their historical origins in South Asia. The present bibliography will focus especially on ayurveda, the most ancient and widespread of theses systems and the one with the longest continuous literary history. The Sanskrit word āyurveda, meaning “knowledge for long life” has now entered the English language and routinely appears in English dictionaries. It can therefore be used, without the diacritical mark, as an English word signifying classical Indian medicine.

Introductory Works

The foundational works on Indian medical history that are still important and useful include Jolly 1977 (original German edition 1901) and Filliozat 1964 (original French edition 1949). Jolly 1977, first translated and updated in the 1950s, is still valuable, though we now know more details about a wider range of Sanskrit medical literature. Filliozat 1964 is also still valuable, although some of his arguments concerning the strong historical connection between Vedic and ayurvedic medicine have been superseded. His comparisons between ayurveda and Plato’s Timaeus are suggestive, although research in the decades since his work was done has not produced any conclusive historical data on connections between Greek and Indian medicine. Kutumbiah 1962, originally the author’s lectures for medical school students, shows a modern establishment medicine (MEM) doctor wrestling with the history and interpretation of ayurvedic medicine from the point of view of real medical theory and practice. Besides being an original and informative historical essay, Majumdar 1971 usefully locates historical information about ayurveda in the framework of the history of science in India. Basham 1967 and Basham 1976 are essays on ayurveda and have introduced many academic readers to the history of Indian medicine. They locate information about ayurveda carefully in a sociohistorical framework that helps the reader transcend trite images of ayurveda as a timeless, unchanging ancient wisdom. Wujastyk 2003 was written in order to make foundational ayurvedic texts available in a translation into contemporary British English that would be accessible to readers without a background in Sanskrit or Hindi literature. It also presented a concise introduction to the latest historical discoveries about ayurveda and its contemporary interpretation. Mazars 2006 provides a valuable, short introduction to Indian medicine in a historical framework, with attention to the place of ayurveda in contemporary India.

  • Basham, A. L. The Wonder That Was India. 3d ed. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1967.

    This remains a classic work and still probably the best general introduction to the history and culture of India up to 1000 CE. Appendix VI on ayurveda has been, for many readers, their first introduction to ayurveda as an academic subject.

  • Basham, A. L. “The Practice of Medicine in Ancient and Medieval India.” In Asian Medical Systems: A Comparative Study. Edited by Charles Leslie, 18–43. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

    This essay, along with Basham 1967, remains important and original, and both are still valuable introductory reading, with a slant toward social history and the patient’s experience. Reprinted in 1998.

  • Filliozat, Jean. The Classical Doctrine of Indian Medicine. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1964.

    A foundational classic. Filliozat discusses Greek and Indian medical parallels. His remarks on medical ideas and vocabulary in Vedic and Avestan literature remain valuable. Filliozat proposed that ayurvedic prognostication may owe much to treatises of Mesopotamian origin that circulated when the Persian Achaemenids ruled northwest India, between the 6th and the 4th century BCE.

  • Jolly, Julius. Indian Medicine: Translated from German and Supplemented with Notes by C. G. Kashikar; with a Foreword by J. Filliozat. 2d ed. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1977.

    First published in German in 1901 and substantially updated by the translator in 1951, this extraordinarily informative book is still an important reference work and offers a clear, well-referenced survey of many fundamental topics in ayurveda.

  • Kutumbiah, Pudipeddy. Ancient Indian Medicine. Bombay: Orient Longmans, 1962.

    A classic work written by a professor of medicine. Shows attention to the details of early ayurvedic anatomy, physiology, and surgery. Approaches ayurveda from the angle of a working physician. Often reprinted.

  • Majumdar, R. C. “Medicine.” In A Concise History of Science in India. Edited by D. M. Bose, S. N. Sen, and B. V. Subbarayappa, 213–273. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy, 1971.

    A concise but comprehensive introduction to the history of ayurveda and other forms of Indian medicine from a professional historian. A chapter in a larger collection of worthwhile materials on the history of science in India.

  • Mazars, Guy. A Concise Introduction to Indian Medicine. Indian Medical Tradition 8. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2006.

    A more modern short introduction aimed at beginning students.

  • Wujastyk, Dominik. The Roots of Āyurveda: Selections from Sanskrit Medical Writings. 3d ed. New York: Penguin, 2003.

    Selected ayurvedic texts from different periods of history in a contemporary translation, with a general introduction and historical introductions to each text.

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