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A History of Hindu Chemistry Vol 1/Introduction/Chapter 6

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Indebtedness of the Arabians to India.

The Arabians are acknowledged on all hands to have played a prominent part in the propagation of science and mathematics in the West. When in the dark and middle ages, the lamp of knowledge had begun to burn very low in Europe and even when the very vestiges of Greek culture and learning had all but disappeared, save in the obscure and dingy cells of the monk, it was the Arabs who carried there the accumulated intellectual treasures of the East, and thus laid the foundation, so to speak, of modern European greatness.

It will, perhaps, be not out of place to discuss here briefly as to how much India indirectly contributed to this result in the departments of medicine, pharmacy and other kindred subjects.

The author of Kitāb-al-Fihrist, who wrote towards the middle of the tenth century[1], Haji Khalifa and Ibn Abú Usaibiah, who flourished at the commencement of the 13th century, distinctly mention that by order of the Caliphs Harun and Mansur several standard Hindu works on medicine, materia medica and therapeutics were translated into Arabic. The information on the subject has been gathered at length by Dietz in his Analecta medica, Wustenfeld, author of Geschichte der Arab. Aerzte, Cureton[2], Flügel, Müller and other Arabic scholars.

Flügel[3] states on the authority of Kitāb-al-Fihrist that Susrud (the Sanskrit name Susruta, thus corrupted into Arabic) was translated by Mankh, the Indian, who cured Harun ar-Raschid of a severe illness, and was appointed physician in charge of the Royal Hospital. We also learn that a work on the official plants of India was rendered into Arabic by the same Mankh. The other comprehensive Sanskrit treatise, the Charaka was also fully laid under contribution.

We have ample and overwhelming testimony of Arabic writers, notably of Haji Khalifa, that Hindu astronomy, algebra and medicine were zealously studied by their compatriots, and many Hindu servants were induced to reside at the Court of the Caliphs as their instructors. Mussulman students, in their eager thirst for knowledge, used to flock to the centres of learning in India, and there drank deep at the very fountain-head. Indeed, it had come to be regarded as an essential part of completing one's liberal education to travel to India and learn the sciences firsthand.

That this is no language of rhetoric will be evident from the extracts quoted below from Gildemeister's "Scriptorum Arabum De Rebus Indicis loci et opuscula."

"Etiam Muhammed ben Ismail al Tanûkhi in Indiam profectus est eo imprimis consilio, ut Indorum astronomiam cognosceret.

"Ibn Albaithàr, rei herbariæ inter Arabes peritissimus, qui and eius disciplinae studium longinqua itinera per Hispaniam Africam et Asiam instituit, etiam in Indiam venit, teste Leone Africano; Abulfadà tamen et Ibn Abi Ucaibia, qui de eius vita scripserunt, eius rei mentionem non faciunt." p. 80.

"Sed etiam accuratius edocti erant, et scite iam vetus Indopleusta eas disciplinas, in quibus Indi maxime excellerent, nominat has: medicinam, philosophiam et astronomiam. Eodem modo Hagi Khalfa arithmeticam, geometriam, medicinam, astronomiam et metaphysicam enumerat." p. 81.

"De libris ex Indica lingua in Arabicam conversis iam inter Arabes egerunt ii, qui libros de re literaria composuere. Plurimi de iis sine dubio apud Hag'i Khalfam, legentur, cuius hucusque pars tantum publico usui patet. De antiquioribus his libris locuples testis est antiquissimus de Arabum literis scriptor Ibn Abi Yaqub ibn Alnadìm, qui in Indice scientiarum. * * * * * quem scripsit anno 337 (inc. 10 Jul. 948) inter monumenta literarum Arabicarum etiam peculiari cura egit de libris e linguis Graeca, Persica et Indica conversis." p. 82.

Müller's refutation of Haas.Haas, whose criticism of the Susruta we have already noticed, having once taken up the position of denying the antiquity of Hindu medicine with special regard to the Charaka and the Susruta, was driven to the necessity of discounting, nay, explaining away, the numerous references to Hindu works made by Mussulman writers. This had the effect of eliciting a reply from Müller, who subjected the Arabic literature bearing on the subject to a crucial examination, especially Book XII of Useibia. He finds that not only the Charaka and the Susruta, but also the Nidána and the compendium Asânkar,[4] a book on Poison by Sánáq the Indian, and another on Warm and Cold, and several other works were rendered into Arabic. This German orientalist also arrives at the conclusion that Indian physicians practised at the Court of Bagdad.[5]

Albérúní's evidence.We have now to place before the reader the evidence of a remarkable author—remarkable alike for the depth of his learning, versatility of his genius, rare impartiality of his judgment and his singular freedom from race-bias.

Albérúní lived in India from 1017-1030 A. D., and during this long sojourn he mastered Sanskrit and studied Hindu mathematics and philosophy in the original. At a time when his patron, Sultan Mahmud of Ghzni, was busy pillaging the temples in Thaneswar, Mathura, Kanauj and Somnath with the zeal of an iconoclast, this philosophic Moslem was pondering over the Sámkhya and the Pátañjala, and instituting a comparison between their contents and those of the "Timæus" and its commentator, Proclus.

We have elsewhere quoted at length Albérúní's views on Rasáyana (alchemy); it now remains for us to glean such information from him as will throw light on the subject under inquiry. According to Sachau, the learned translator of Albérúní, "some of the books that had been translated under the first Abbaside Caliphs were extant in the library of Albérúní, when he wrote his India, the Brahmasiddhánta or Sindhind………the Charaka in the edition of Ali Ibn Zain and the Pañchtantra or Kalila and Dimna." The fact that the Charaka occupied a place in the library of a cultured Arab affords an additional proof of the esteem in which the Hindu system of medicine was held by the Moslem world. We also learn that "the Christian philosopher and physician from Bagdad, Abulkahir Alkhamnour, friend of Albérúní, seems to have practised in Ghazni his medical profession" (Sachau). This is significant as indicating that both the Greek and Hindu systems held sway side by side; but more of it anon.[6]

Internal evidence.So far as regards historical evidence. Let us now see if any internal evidence could be gathered in corroboration of the former. Reference has already been made to the Book on Poisons by Sânâq the Indian. We shall cite here some parallel passages on the Examihation of Poisoned Food and Drink. These are the chief characteristics as given by Sânâq, the Charaka and the Susruta respectively.

Sanaq the Indian The Charaka The Susruta

The vapor emitted by poisoned food has the colour of the throat of the peacock . . . . when the food is thrown into fire, it rises high in the air; the fire makes a craclking sound as when salt deflagrates ..... the smoke has the smell of a burnt corpse. Poisoned drinks: butter milk and thin milk have a light blue to yellow line.

The food is to be thrown into fire for testing . . . the flame becomes parti-coloured like the plume of a peacock. The tongue of the flame also becomes pointed; a crackling sound is emitted and the smell of a putrid corpse is perceived. ... Water, milk and other drinking liquids, when mixed with poison, have blue lines printed upon.— "Chikitsá," Ch. xxiii, 29-30.

When poisoned food is thrown into fire, it makes crackling sound and the flame issuing therefrom is tinted like the throat of the peacock.—"Kalpa," Ch. i, 27.

The physician, as superintendent of the kitchen, well-versed in toxicology, is essentially an Indian institution. Cf. Susruta, Kalpa, Ch. I. 6-9

Müller has pointed out the parallelism as shown above. We have, however, added to it the diagnostic test of poisoned food as given in the Charaka, and it will be seen that Sânâq was equally indebted to this authority and to the Susruta.

The description of leeches as given by Rases agrees almost word for word with that of the Susruta (Sanasrad) in many places.

Susruta Rases, quoting Sanasrad
The variety of leeches called Krishnā is black in colour and have thick heads, Karvurās have their bodies, like that of eels with elevated stripes across their abdomen. Alagardhās have hairs on their bodies, large and black mouths, Indrāyudhās have longitudinal lines along their back, of the colour of the rainbow.

Sāmudrikās are of a dark-yellow colour and have variegated spots on their bodies resembling flowers in appearance. Gochondanās have bifurcated tails like the two horns of a cow and small heads. When these

Of the leeches one is poisonous, which is intensely black like antimony having a large head; and scales like certain fishes and having the middle green; also another upon which are hairs, has a large head and different colour like the rain-bow:

poisonous leeches bite any person, the bitten parts become swollen and very itchy, and fainting, fever, burning of the body, vomiting, mental derangement and langour occur. In these cases the medicine called Mahāgada should be administered internally, applied externally and used as snuff. The bite of the leech called Indrāyudha is fatal. Such is the dsscription of the poisonous leeches, and their treatment.

Now the non-poisonous leeches. Their names are as follows: Kapilā, Pingalā, Sankumukhī, Mūshikā, Pundarīkamukhī and Sāvarikāa

in the colour of which there are lines as in blue-spar, bluestone, azure—which often bites: thence will be caused abscess with fainting: with coma and relaxing of the joints: nevertheless of these very leeches there is a good one which is assimilated to the colour of water:

Kapilā have their sides of the colour of orpiment

in which there will be greenness having upon it two lines like arsenic [orpiment] but light red,

and their back smooth and of the colour of the pulse called


mudga (Phaseoslus mungo). Pingalas have round bodies, move quickly, and are of slightly red or tawny colour. Sānkuhmukhīs are liver-coloured, suck blood quickly, and have large sharp mouths.

coloured and corresponding to the colours of liver: which are swift to draw to themselves fine blood:

Mushikas have the colour and shape of rats and a bad smell.

which are assimilated to the tail [colour] of a mouse: having a horrible smell * * *

Pundarikās have mouths like the lotus and are of the colour of the pulse of Phaseolus mungo. Sāvarikās have green colour like the leaf of the lotus, are functuous, and eighteen fingers in length. They are used only for extracting blood from beasts. Such is the description of the non-poisonous leeches. The non-poisonous leeches are found in Turkey, Pāndya (the country to the south), Sahya (a mountain on the banks of the Narbadā)

And having the belly red along with blackness

and Pautana (the tract of country about Mathuro). Of non-poisonous leeches, those which are stronger and have large bodies, can drink blood rapidly and eat much, are especially free from poison.

and the back green: they are

Leeches which are produced in dirty water and from the decomposition of poisonous fishes, insects, frogs, urine and fæces are poisonous. Those produced in pure water and from the decomposition of the different varieties of the Nelumbium Speciosum and the Nymphæa lotus and of Saivāla (Blyxa octandra) are non-poisonous.

The varieties of Nymphæa mentioned here are padma, utpala, kumuda, nalina, kuvalaya, saugandhika and pundarka.

On this subject there is the following verse:—Non-poisonous leeches go about in the field and fragrant water. They do not live in confined

bitter but they will be worse in bad water quite stagnant in which are many small tadpole frogs: nevertheless, they are good in good and excellent water,

places or lie in mud as they seek comfort. These should be caught by means of wet-leather or some other article. They should be kept in a new large earthen pot filled with mud and water from a tank. Mosses, dried flesh and powdered tubers of water-plants should be given them for food. For bedding they should be furnished with grasses and leaves of water-plants. Fresh water and food should be given every second or third day, and every seventh day the earthen pot should be changed. On the subject there is the following verse:

Leeches which are very thin or thick or with their central portions thick, which move slowly or do not stick to the part to which they are applied, which drink little blood, or which are poisonous, are not fit for use. When about to apply leeches on a person who has got a disease curable by them, the patient should be made to sit or lie

also when they are seized or caught, let them be put away while all that which is in their own belly is being purged: also they ought not to be put on except in a place not healthy:

down. The affected part, if free from pain, should be rubbed with a little cowdung and earth. The leeches should then be taken hold of and smeared with a mixture of turmeric and mustard reduced to a paste with water. They should then be placed for a while in a cup of water, till they are relieved of their weariness and afterwards applied to the diseased part. When being applied, their mouths should be left open and their bodies covered with fine white wet rags.

also anointments ought to be made around the place with paste that they may not touch the healthy place: also as often as leeches are applied, put over them a fine soaked cloth.

If they do not bite, a drop of milk or blood should be applied to, or a small incision may be made on the diseased part. If even by these means a leech cannot be applied, it should be changed for another.

A leech is known to have fixed itself to the part when it raises its shoulder and bends its head like a horse-shoe. When fixed it should be covered

If a leech does not stick let the place be anointed with milk or with blood: if it still refuses to bite, let another be applied in the place of it:

with a piece of wet cloth and a little water sprinkled on it occasionally. If the part bitten by a leech itches or is painful, it is a sign that the leech is drawing pure blood and it should be removed from the part.

If from fondness for blood it cannot be readily removed, a little rock-salt should be sprinkled on its head.[7]

but if you wish that they fall off, sprinkle their heads (mouths) with salts and keep them in a jar.[8]

There is thus unmistakable evidence here of the use of a chapter of the Susruta or some such work.

Then again several drugs, which are repeatedly mentioned in the Charaka and are almost exclusively Indian products, have been borrowed in the materia medica of Useibiah and others. The following may be taken as examples: Pepper,[9] lac, nard,[10] liquorice, assafœtida occimum, sanctum, bdellium, cinnamon, the chebulic myrobalans, calamus acorus, agallacha,[11] berberis asiatica,[12] myrrh, melia azadirechta, calotropis, (asclepias), and red sandal. To quote Gildemeister:

"Ex. hac Indiae parte asportatur agallochum Kumârense, quod inde nomen cepit." p. 156.

"Abuldhali Sindius dum Indiae regiones describit, dicit:

"Negarunt quidem sodales mei nec tamen istud praestantissimum est.

"Quando laudabatur India Indaque sagitta in campo caedis.

"Per vitam meam! terra est: in quam si pluvia decidit.

"Contingunt hyacinthi et uniones ei qui monilibus caret.

"Ibi originem habent muscus et camphora et ambarum et agallochum

"Et aromatum genera, quibus utuntur qui inodori sunt.

"Et odoramentorum species et myristica et spica nardi;

"Ibi ebur et tectonae lignum, ibi lignum aloes et santalum

"Ibique est tutia montis instar longissimi." pp. 217-218.

That the Charaka should be changed by Arabic writers into "Sarak," Susruta into "Susrud," Nidána into "Badan," Astánga into "Asankar" and so forth, need not at all surprise us. Such transformations can well be explained on phonetic principles. Moreover, one must remember that the Indian works translated into Arabic were sometimes derived from preexisting Phelvi versions, and in the migrations through successive languages, the names often got frightfully disfigured. A notable instance of this kind is afforded by the fables of Pilpay (Kalila and Dimna[13]) from which La Fontaine borrowed the idea of several of his fables as he himself acknowledges: "I shall only say, from a sense of gratitude, that I owe the largest portion of them to Pilpay, the Indian sage." It has now been made out that Pilpay or Bidpai is a corrupt form of the Sanskrit word "vidyápati" (master of learning).

Even long before the time of the Caliphs, India was the favourite resort of the students of medicine and other sciences. Thus Barzouhyeh, a contemporary of the celebrated Sassanian king Nashirván, (A. D. 531-572), visited India to acquire proficiency in the Indian sciences.[14]

Arabian indebtedness to India ignored by the European historians of chemistry.Thomson, Hoefer, Kopp, and Berthelot have done ample justice to the claims of the Arabians as the originators or, at any rate, as the propagators of alchemy in Europe in the middle ages. M. Berthelot, indeed, has recently shown that the ideas and theories, as regards alchemy, humoral pathology and physiology, which were promulgated in the writings of Geber, Rases, Avicenna, Bubacar and others, were essentially Greek in origin, though extended and improved upon by the Arabians. The French savant has, however, presented only one side of the shield.[15] In short, European historians of chemistry have scarcely one word to say on the indebtedness of the Arabians to the Hindus, who contributed not a little to the making of a Rases, a Serapion, or an Avicenna, who, in turn, were the chief inspirers of the European iatro-chemists down to the 17th century.[16]

Prof Sachau, however, does justice to the claims of India.Prof. Sachau, the learned translator and editor of Albérúní's India, however, does justice to the claims of both Greece and India in this respect, when he remarks:—

"The cradle of Arabic literature is not Damascus but Bagdad, the protection necessary for its growth being afforded by the Caliphs of the house of Abbas.

"The foundation of Arabic literature was laid between 750-850 A.D. The development of a large literature with numerous ramifications carried out with foreign materials, as in Rome the origines of the national literature mostly point to Greek sources. Greece, Persia and India were taxed to help the sterility of the Arab mind."

We cannot conclude this chapter better than sum up its substance in the words of Prof. Sachau:—

"What India has contributed reached Bagdad by two different roads. Part has come directly in translations from the Sanskrit, part has travelled through Eran, having originally been translated from Sanskrit (Pālî? Prâkrit?) into Persian, and farther from Persian into Arabic. In this way, e.g. the fables of Kālīla and Dimna have been communicated to the Arabs, and a book on medicine, probably the famous Charaka cf. "Fihrist," p. 303.

"In this communication between India and Bagdad we must not only distinguish between two different roads, but also between two different periods.

"As Sindh was under the actual rule of the Khalif Mansūr (A. D. 753-774), there came embassies from that part of India to Bagdad, and among them scholars, who brought along with them two books, the "Brahmasiddhānta" of Brahmagupta (Sindhind), and his "Khandakhādyaka" (Arkand). With the help of these pandits, Alfāzarî, perhaps also Yakub Ibn Tārik, translated them. Both works have been largely used, and have exercised a great influence. It was on this occasion that the Arabs first became acquainted with a scientific system of astronomy. They learned from Brahmagupta earlier than from Ptolemy.

"Another influx of Hindu learning took place under Harun, A. D. 786-808. The ministerial family Barmak, then at the zenith of their power had come with the ruling dynasty from Balkh, where an ancestor of theirs had been an official in the Buddhistic temple Naubehār i. e. navavihāra, the new temple (or monastery). The name Barmak is said to be of Indian descent, meaning paramaka, i. e. the superior. (abbot of the vihāra?). Cf. Kern, "Geschichte des Buddhismus" in Indien, ii, 445, 543. Of course, the Barmak family had been converted, but their contemporaries never thought much of their profession of Islam, nor regarded it as genuine. Induced probably by family traditions, they sent scholars to India, there to study medicine and pharmacology. Besides, they engaged Hindu scholars to come to Bagdad, made them the chief physicians of their hospitals, and ordered them to translate from Sanskrit into Arabic books on medicine, pharmacology, toxicology, philosophy, astrology and other subjects. Still in later centuries Muslim scholars sometimes travelled for the same purposes as the emissaries of the Barmak, e.g. Almuwaffak, not long before Albérūnī's time ("Codex Vindobonensis, sive medici Abu Mansur liber fundamentorum pharmacologiæ, ed. Seligmann, Vienna, 1859, pp. 6, 10, and 15, 9."

We shall finish with another appropriate extract from Prof. Macdonell's recent work[17]:—

So also Prof. Macdonell.
"In Science, too, the debt of Europe to India has been considerable. There is in the first place, the great fact that the Indians invented the numerical figures used all over the world. The influence which the decimal system of reckoning dependent on those figures has had not only on mathematics, but on the progress of civilisation in general, can hardly be over-estimated. During the 8th and 9th centuries the Indians became the teachers in arithmetic and algebra of the Arabs, and through them of the nations of the West. Thus, though we call the latter science by an Arabic name, it is a gift we owe to India."

We have thus far attempted to present our readers with a brief, hurried and necessarily imperfect survey of the gradual evolution and development of Hindu medicine and alchemy from the Vedic age onward. We hope we have been justified in dividing this entire range into four distinct periods, each characterised by fairly well defined features. There are of course no sharp lines of demarcation—the one imperceptibly merging into the other. These are (1) The Ayurvedic Period; (2) The Transitional period; (3) The Tantric period; (4) The Iatro-chemical period.

We shall now proceed to give a rough account of the chemical knowledge of each period—a more detailed description, especially of the Tantric period, being reserved for the second volume.



  1. …………"Abu'l Faraj Mohammed bin Ishak, surnamed au-Nadim, a native of Bagdad, first conceived the idea of a bibliographical dictionary. His Kitáb-al-Fihrist deals with every branch of learning. It gives the names of many authors and their works which have ceased to exist."—Hist. of the Saracens by Ameer Ali, p. 469.)
  2. Prof. H. H. Wilson in a Note appended to a paper by the Rev. W. Cureton entitled "A collection of such passages relative to India as may occur in Arabic writers" thus pithily summarises his own views:—"In medicine the evidence is more positive, and it is clear that that the Charaka, the Susruta, the treatise called Nidána on diagnosis, and others on poisons, diseases of women and therapeutics, all familiar to Hindu Science, were translated and studied by the Arabs in the days of Harun and Mansur, either from the originals or translations, made at a still earlier period, into the language of Persia."——Journ. Royal Asiatic Soc. old series, vi. pp. 105-115.
  3. "Zur Frage über die altesten Uebersetzungen indischer und persischer medicinischer Werke ins Arabische; Ziet. deut. morg. Ges. xi. pp 148 and 325.
  4. A Variant has "Astankar," which will be readily identified as the Astánga of Vágbhata (see p. xlvii.)
  5. "Schon vor Er-Rasid, vielleicht sogar gleichzeitig mit dem Uebergange indischer Astronomie nach Bagdad………haben sich auch indische Aerzte in Bagdad eingefunden." (Loc. cit. p. 499). "Arabische Quellen zur Geschichte der indischen Medizin."—"Zeit, deut, morg. Ges. 34, p. 465."
  6. "Dietz also in his Analecta Medica proves that the later Greek physicians were acquainted with the medical works of the Hindus, and availed themselves of their medicaments; but he more particularly shows that the Arabians were familiar with them, and extolled the healing art, as practised by the Indians, quite as much as that in use among the Greeks."—Royle: "Antiq. Hind. Med." p. 64.
  7. Dutt's Trans.
  8. The version of Rases, being in the "dog" Latin of the middle ages, is not always very intelligible to us.
  9. Dioscorides also mentions the three peppers. Arabian physicians of the tenth century also describe their properties. See Dymock, Warden and Hooper's "Pharmacographia Indica," III. pp. 176-183.
  10. "Nardostachys jatamansi," the Nardin of Dioscorides, called also "Gangitis," because the Ganges flowed from the foot of the mountains where the plant grows: ibid II. p. 234.
  11. For the discussion of agallocha (sans. अगुरु), see also "Script. arab. de Reb. Ind.," pp. 65-72.
  12. The extract of the wood was also known to the Greeks under the name of Indian Lycium. "Pharm. Ind.," I. 65.

    Cf. "Among the strictly Indian products, we have the two kinds of Pepper (long and round), Cardamoms and Ginger (?) ..... the "Dolichos," mentioned by Hippocrates and Theophrastus, as well as by later authors, is considered to be "Phaseolus Vulgaris, and to have been introduced from India in the time of Alexander." Royle: "Antiquity of Hindu Med.," Lond., 1837, p. 121.

  13. ". . . . . et malgrè l'espece de transformation que ce livre a dû subir en passant de l'indien en pehlvi, du pehlvi en arabe, de l' arabe en persan, on y retrouve encore des caractères frappans de cette origin . . . . ."—de Sacy: "Calila et Dimna ou Fables de Bidpai, (1816), p. 5.
  14. ". . . . . que Barzouyèh dans sa jeunesse, avoit déjà fait un premier voyage dans l' Inde, pour y rechercher des substances médicinales et de simples, et que c'était dans ce voyage qu' il avoit acquis la connoissance de la langue et de l'écriture Indiennes . . . . ." ibid, p. 23.
  15. Cf. "—les Arabes, héritiers et traducteurs de la science grecque."—Berthelot: "La Chimie au moyen âge," I., préface, ii. "Les sciences naturelles furent surtout étudiées aux ixe et xe siècles, dans la célèbre école des médecins syriens de Bagdad, attirés et protégés par leurs clients. Dioscoride, Galien, Paul d'E'gine furent ainsi traduits du grec en syriaque, puis en arabe; parfois même traduits directement dans cette derniere langue," ibid, iv. "Les califes recherchaient les savants syriens, à cause de leur habileté médicale…………or toute leur science venait des Grecs" ibid II., Introduction, iii.
  16. Speaking of Albert the Great and Roger Bacon, Kopp writes: "beide haben aus derselben Quelle, den Arabern, geschöpft." "Gesch. d. chem." I. 64. Draper equally ignores the contributions of the Hindus: e.g., "The teachers of the Saracens were the Nestorians and the Jews." "Hist. Intell. Dev. of Europe," Vol. I. p. 384, ed. 1896.
  17. "Hist. Sans. Lit." p. 424.