The word ‘Charaka’ literally means ‘wandering’ or ‘touring’. One of the greatest Ayurvedic physicians of all time was called Charaka because he was constantly travelling far and wide in Ancient India, healing, teaching and spreading the message that health and disease are not predetermined. Charaka lived between the third and second centuries BC, and was the court physician of the Buddhist King Kanishka. He was also the author of the one of the oldest and the most important ancient authoritative writings on Ayurveda, the Charaka Samhita, which is truly an encyclopedia of health, as it covers information right from birth to death.
The Charaka Samhita provides guidelines to doctors, nurses and patients about their role in curing a disease. Charaka taught that life may be prolonged by human effort and attention to lifestyle. He gave great emphasis to cleanliness and described an ideal daily routine. The Charaka Samhita has discussions on treatment and explanations on the various root cause of the diseases. It presents most of the theoretical principles of Ayurveda and concentrates on the branch of Ayurveda called Kayachikitsa or internal medicine.
The Charaka Samhita is divided into eight sthanas or parts which are again divided to 120 chapters, and some them are in the fields of physiology, etiology and embryology. Interestingly, the Charaka Samhita is not an original writing of a single person but a continuation and renewal of an ancient knowledge system, proving that Ayurveda is a product of constant verification, fine-tuning and authentication by an active community of physicians. To this day, vaidyas or Ayurvedic physicians hold this treatise in reverence. This is especially true in Kerala, the sunny state in South India where the vaidyas are renowned for their knowledge of the Charaka Samhita.
The First Among Equals
Charaka was the first physician to present the concept of digestion, metabolism and immunity. He understood the fundamentals of genetics- he knew the factors determining the sex of a child and taught that a defect in a child, like lameness or blindness, was not due to any defect in the mother or the father, but in the ovum or sperm of the parents. He studied the anatomy of the human body and various organs. He gave 360 as the total number of bones, including teeth, present in the body. He wrongly believed that the heart had one cavity, but he was right when he considered it to be a controlling centre. He claimed that the heart was connected to the entire body through 13 main channels. Though he was mistaken in some respects his knowledge on anatomy and various organs of human body was amazing.
Charaka carried out extensive work on the respiratory system and placed great emphasis on the diagnostic part of the treatment. He classified everything from the solar calendar to the timing of the birth of a child. This legendary physician identified eight stages of a disease from its inception to the culmination. He also laid great emphasis on the timing and manner of the collection of medicinal plants. His most famous quote is “A physician who fails to enter the body of a patient with the lamp of knowledge and understanding can never treat diseases. He should first study all the factors, including environment, which influence a patient’s disease, and then prescribe treatment. It is more important to prevent the occurrence of disease than to seek a cure” – and these words of wisdom hold good to this day.