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Legacy of Vagbhata

Legacy of Vagbhata by M. S. Valiathan

K. Rajagopalan, G. Geetha Krishnan1
Sushrutha Bhavan, Hospital Road, Kollam,
Kerala, 1Department of Integrative Medicine
Medanta - The Medicity, Gurgaon NCT,
Harayana, India.
Price: Rs.1,195.00
ISBN: 978-81-7371-668-3
Pages: 946
Year: 2009
Binding: Hardback
Publisher: Universities Press

A text book for students and practitioners of Ayurveda, to
understand Astangahrdaya, is how MS Valiathan describes
his venture, The Legacy of Vagbhata, the latest in the trilogy
of Brihat trayees.
Written in the structure and form of the former two books
of this series, The Legacy of Charaka and The Legacy of
Sushruta, in The Legacy of Vagbhata, Valiathan dissects
and reassembles Astangahrdaya, with the precision and skill
of the great surgeon that he is. The resemblance to the
structure of a modern medical text book is unmistakable.
It follows the logical build-up from the basics of the
science to the intricacies of super specialties and finally
regenerative medicine.

In writing his Legacy series, Valiathan adopted from the

start, a format that would make them readily accessible
to students who opt for Ayurveda and medicine after 12
years of school, while maintaining the utmost fidelity to
the original texts. Thus Legacy of Vagbhata refrains from
lengthy and inconclusive discussions on non-medical topics
such as the identity of Vagbhata, his date and place of birth
and so on. It is appropriate, and in line with the thoughts of
great sages of India, that Vagbhatas legacy is not sought
through dissecting his speculative personal details, but the
subject itself. Vagbhata, like his predecessors, cared to say
little about himself or the times in which he lived, but left it
to his work to speak, timelessly.

Concise, in a nut shell, easy to memorize, poetic,

more contemporary with regard to medicines, essence
of Samhitas by Charaka, Sushrutha, and the Sangraha
by Vagbhata; these are a few of the comments made
about Vagbhata's great literary and scientific work, the
Astangahrdaya. In this respect Valiathans endeavor
sticks closely to the heart of Vagbhata and concisely
summarizes the deep knowledge of Astangahrdaya into
easily understandable tables and figures, thus paving the way
for it to be used as a quick reference guide to the original.
Explaining his decision to work with Astangahrdaya (AH)
instead of Astangasangraha (AS), as the text book of choice,
to look into the life, philosophies, thoughts, and poetic
marvel of Vagbhata, Valiathan says that Vagbhata himself
considered AH to have grown out of the immaculate
knowledge of ancient sages and their studies.

He explains
that he had sufficiently looked into Astangasangraha of
Vagbhata, and, soon realised that neither time nor my
training would permit me to write on Vagbhatas legacy
based on a critical and exhaustive study of Sangraha and
Hrdaya together.
Astangahrdaya owed its great appeal over earlier texts, to
the beauty of its verses, its masterly style of condensation,
logical arrangement of topics, clarity of description, and
other merits. No doubt it was translated into foreign
languages, such as, Arabic, Persian, and Tibetan many
centuries ago, and more recently into European languages.
Astangahrdaya is a medically oriented work, with principal
emphasis on internal medicine (Kayachikitsa). South of the
Vindhyas, its popularity has rivaled that of the Samhitas of
Charaka and Sushruta, whose names are revered, but not
widely read.

Valiathan, after his attempts to travel through the Brihat

trayees (as the three major treatises of Ayurveda are known)
states that; the core of Ayurvedic doctrines, and profile
of diseases and procedures, remain unchanged over
centuries, whereas, changes which did occur, were more or
less confined to the domain of medicinal formulations.
To some one well versed with AH, the ingenuity of
Valiathans work rests in the part where he attempts to
compare certain aspects of AH, AS, and the Charaka
Samhita (CS), by looking at the concepts of
Phthisis (pulmonary tuberculosis), and the Panchakarma
process of Basti.

In the process, Valiathan clearly builds his

case, bringing to light very definite trends in the evolution
of doctrines, treatment approaches, medical procedures,
and pharmaceutical preparations, as traced through time
and mirrored through the scientific literature of CS, AS,
and AH.
.the remarkable absence of significant changes (may) be
due to the fact that AS and AH both drew their inspiration
from Drdhabalas commentary, a redaction of Charaka,
which was probably written in the sixth century .... not
long before (Vagbhata) lived.

As medicine evolved after Charaka, it became more of a

practical art, with decreasing emphasis on its philosophical
basis. One should look less for the abstract and the
profound, and more for the concrete and practical in AS
and AH, which were written for busy practitioners and
young trainees of Ayurveda, who then, as at present, had
little time or inclination for philosophical reflection,
opines Valiathan.
Vagbhata was obviously keen, as indeed he has
to restate the essence of past knowledge in Ayurveda to suit
his times, and he was also conscious of the success of his
effort, as shown by his confident statement: From those
extensive texts, the essence alone has been extracted in this
treatise Astangahrdaya which is neither too short nor
too long. Vagbhata, through his work, boldly throws the
challenge to his posterity on the imperative for them to study
his work or that of Charaka or Sushruta.

Astangahrdaya is celebrated not only for simplification and

extraction, but also for its brilliant use of similes (upama),
rhyme (prasa), and a variety of metrical structures (vrtta).
Almost every verse in AH is so melodious and pleasing
to the ear, that the reader will probably be carried away as
much by the magic of Vagbhatas poetry, as by the serious
medical concepts that it intends to convey! Valiathan's
quotes from AH bear eloquent testimony to Vagbhatas
dual claim to greatness as both a physician and a poet. It
is a tribute to Vagbhata's genius that he could effortlessly
infuse poetry into such mundane themes as the collection
of suitable herbs for treatment. Nothing in the domains of
health, disease, and healing, including death, was too prosaic
or too technical for Vagbhatas muse to touch and adorn.

The reverence with which Valiathan treats Vagbhata, the

depth and reach of his immense understanding along the
length and breadth of the Brihat trayees, and his perception
of the purpose of medical science, can be read with
clarity in the words with which Valiathan concludes his
introduction: Vagbhata was the king of the domain
of Ayurveda, as well as the king of poetic rhythm and
style; along with his sparkling distillate of ancient lore,
he succeeded in giving us an admirable text, which has
never been exceeded in authority by anything written by
his successors. But Vagbhata derives his majesty, above
all, from his application of moral ideas to the practice of
medicine under conditions fixed by the ancient precepts
of Ayurveda. Vagbhatas moral universe was not bound up
with any rigid system of thought or belief. He knew that
the practice of a medicine indifferent to moral ideas would
be soulless and indifferent to life as well.

Alone among
the Acharyas, he had the heart to proclaim that a mind,
pure and soaked in compassion, is the best febrifuge. No
wonder, he remains one of the chief glories of Ayurveda,
who is truly worthy of our homage.
It is a must for the student and every Ayurvedic scientist,
to read and understand Vagbhata, who with his profound
knowledge of life and health, stands alone and boldly states,
A physician should never feel ashamed of being unable to
name a disease; the fact is that not all diseases have been
named. Valiathans book provides a uniquely excellent
window into this vast and profound wisdom.