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Vagbhata’s Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita and its importance to Indo-Tibetan Medical Studies

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Vagbhata’s Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita

and its importance to

Indo-Tibetan Medical Studies

by Suniti Kumar Pathak , Shedup Tenzin, Barbara Gerke


Eugeny Eugenovich Obermiller (1901-1935) wrote in 1935 on the
Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita:

"This work of Vagbhata is undoubtedly of very great importance for us, for it is a direct connecting link between India and Tibetan medical literature. It enjoys such a position because there is a complete and accurate translation of it in Tibetan language... On studying the original and translation together, it would become possible to establish correctly the terminological parallels in both the languages; we would know that such and such Sanskrit technical terms, words and expressions have equivalents in the Tibetan language permanently corresponding to them;... the translations of Sanskrit works into the Tibetan language were made by Tibetan translators with the greatest accuracy and the rules worked out for this were most rigid, aiming at uniformity in translations and terminology."

[Obermiller, E.E.: Ways of Studying Tibetan Medical Literature. In: Tibetan Medicine, Series No 12, LTWA. Dharamsala 1989. pp9.]

Sixty years later, Obermiller’s valuable suggestion still remains a desideratum. Several glossaries containing Tibetan and Sanskrit medical terms have been published, most in the form of appendices. An extensive encyclopaedic work, based on the original Indian and Tibetan medical treatises, remains an open area of research.

A question may immediately arise regarding this treatise: Why Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita, not Caraka and Susruta? The answer is simple: neither Caraka Samhita nor Susruta Samhita could cross the boundaries of India into Tibet whereas the Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita reached Tibet, probably through Nepal, in the 11th century AD.

The early Indian Buddhist community accepted compulsory instruction providing a general knowledge of medicine in their monastic education because Gautama Buddha personally taught therapy and medicine to his disciples.

The Vinaya Pitaka of the Theravada and Vinaya Vastu of Sharvastivada that came down to us in Pali and Sanskrit, respectively, include entire chapters on health management and medicine (Vesajja Vattu and Vesajja Bhastu). No monastic education was considered complete unless monks and nuns were conversant with medical therapies that enhance well being and promote longevity.

The early Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita is a systematised text of human illness and therapy in six sections (Sk. sthana) which incorporates the Eight Branches, known as Ashtanga Hridaya in Sanskrit, and yan lag brgyad pa in Tibetan:

1. The Body

This branch is dealt with in the first five sections of the text and covers the basic principles of health and disease, humoural physiology, pathology, anatomy, physiology, embryology, pathogenesis of diseases, purification therapies, principles of pharmacy and the preparation of recipes.

The latter section deals with miscellaneous diseases and the remaining seven branches, in 40 chapters, namely:

  1. Paediatrics
  2. Gynaecology
  3. Demonology / Psychiatry
  4. Toxicology
  5. Basic Surgery
  6. Rejuvenation Therapy
  7. Geriatrics

Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita earned priority among Indian Ayurvedic scholars and was included in The Great Triad (Sk. brhat trayi) of Ayurvedic literature. The treatise is written in 7120 easily understood poetic verses that embody the essence of Ayurvedic knowledge. Included without alteration are verses of Caraka & Susruta Samhita and Ashtanga Sangraha. The text was translated into Arabic in the late 8th century AD.

The Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita is not a Sutra text. As the name suggests it is a compendium (Sk. samhita). Unfortunately its author remains anonymous. However, there is sufficient evidence that the writer was indeed Vagbhata, a son of the physician Simha Gupta (Vogel, 1965; Murthy, 1991). Vagbhata (Literally: Superior in Speech) belonged to the Atreya lineage. Rishi Autri is said to have received the instruction from Punavasu who is reputedly the innovator of the ascetic medical system belonging to the Vedic tradition.

Presumably Vagbhata lived from 550 to 600 AD (Murthy, 1991). He revered the ancient Vedic precepts as well as Buddhist practices that were then popular in India. Both philosophies are exhibited with equal respect in his work. According to the Tibetan physician and regent of the Vth Dalai Lama, Sangye Gyatso (Tib. sangs rgyas rgya mtso, 1653-1705) Vagbhata was a Brahmin and later converted to Buddhism while studying in Magadha (Taube, 1981).

There have been misunderstandings in the identification of Vagbhata among Tibetan scholars. Although his name is usually translated as Pavo (Tib. dpa’ bo) or Pakhol (Tib. pha khol), Pavo actually refers only to Arya Sura and is not the true equivalent of Vagbhata. Sangye Gyatso mentions 21 names of Vagbhata in his Vaidurya Ngonpo (Tib. bai dur sngon po). In the Tanjur (Tib. bstan ‘gyur) colophon Vagbhata is specifically mentioned as the son of the physician Sanghaguhya (Tib. sman pa’i bdag po dge ‘dun gsang ba) and not Simhagupta (Taube, 1981).

The Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita was translated into Tibetan jointly by Janardara and Rinchen Zangpo (Tib. rin chen bzang po) during the 11th century AD and codified with its commentaries into the Tibetan Tanjur collection during the 14th century AD. The treatise is significant because it is the main medical work available both in Sanskrit and Tibetan, revealing the link between India and Tibetan medical literature. Today, various editions of both versions are available.

In a comparison of the terminology of Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita and the Gyushi (Tib. rgyud bzhi), the main treatise of Tibetan medicine, we find that the medical terms are generally identical (Obermiller, 1935). From a linguistic point of view this is important, without going into the controversial discussions whether or not the Gyushi are based on a Sanskrit translation.

Indeed, the Tibetans of the Transhimalayan region employed a genuinely indigenous tradition of medicine, steeped in the mythology of a Tibet that emerged from the waters complete with its vast mineralogical resources and abundant vegetation.

Bonpo Priests claimed that their own indigenous healing arts existed in their settlements in Gilgit, Guge and Purang within the Shangshung (Tib. zhang zhung). Certain Tantric curative and preventive therapies of health management may have spun off from holistic nature worship. The Kriya Tantra (Tib. bya rgyud), one of the four sets of Buddhist Tantra (Tib. rgyud sde bzhi), contains several rituals on healing in textual form that augment the oral tradition for medical applications. In comparison the Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita presents a more systematised method of medical therapy than that of the Bonpos and folk medical practitioners.

It is generally accepted that the written documents of the Bonpos appeared during the Gyurbon (Tib. sgyur bon) period, around the 11/12th century AD. There are no earlier remaining records of Bonpo medical practices in the Shangshung language or in bilingual form (Shangshung and Tibetan). Only a few Bonpo texts on health management are available in Tibetan.

Research Studies on

Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita

The Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita in Sanskrit has already been edited in several instances by Indian Ayurvedic schools (listed by Vogel, 1965; pp.17) and translated into principally Indian languages. No other Ayurvedic treatise has been dignified with more commentaries than the Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita. But of the 30 Sanskrit commentaries known, most are either lost or available only as incomplete manuscripts scattered throughout Indian libraries. Only one complete commentary (Sarvanga-sundara by Aruna Datta, early 12th century AD) and fives partial editions are available in print (Murthy, 1991).

Where the Sanskrit originals have either been lost or are merely suspected to exist one must refer to the Tibetan editions of those commentaries, e.g., the Padartha Candrika Prabhasa by the Kashmir physician Candranandana (10th century AD), or Vagbhata’s self-commentary on the Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita, the Ashtanga Hridaya Nama Vaidurya Kabhasya (Tib. yan lag brgyad pa’i snying po zhes bya ba’i sman dpyad kyi bshad pa). Complete translations of both texts are available in the Tanjur.

The Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita was mentioned by European scholars, like Georg Huth as early as 1895 and by Palmyr Cordier and Julius Jolly, in 1901. The treatise was translated into German by Luise Hilgenberg and Willibald Kirfel (Leiden, 1941). The first five chapters were later edited and rendered into English by Claus Vogel (Wiesbaden, 1965).

N. S. Mooss edited several commentaries of the Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita in the 1950s and 1960s and translated the Sutrasthana and Kalpasthana in the 1980s. A more recent work by K. R. Srikantha Murthy is a complete English translation with commentaries in three volumes (Varanasi, 1991, 1992, 1997 ).

Today, at a time of electronic networking, the Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita has been released as e-text onto the Internet in the Indology Archive for scholarly use. Presently, a volume of indexes and concordances to the treatise is in press at Groningen.

A comparative study of the Sanskrit and Tibetan version of Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita, including the English translation and an extensive descriptive compendium of medical terms, would certainly lead to a deeper understanding of the Indo-Tibetan relations regarding medical science. A bilingual version would assist Ayurvedic as well as Tibetan physicians reactivating a long vanished dialogue.

Furthermore, the comparative study of the Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita and the Tibetan Gyushi is necessary to promote deeper understanding of the Indian influence on the Tibetan medical culture and, in particular, the uniquely Tibetan aspects and influences of other neighbouring medical cultures that entered Tibet and can be traced in this main Tibetan medical treatise of the 11th century.


Cordier, Palmyr. Vagbhata. Etude historique et religieuse. In: Journal Asiatic. Paris 1901. P147-181.
Gyatso, Sangye. Vaidurya ngonpo (Tib. gso ba rig pa’i bstan bcos sman bla’i dgongs rgyan rgyud bzhi’i gsal byed bai dur sngon po’i ma lli ka). Peking Block Print. Referred here as quoted by M. Taube.
Hilgenberg, Luise and Kirfel Willibald. Vagbhata’s Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita. Ein altindisches Lehrbuch der Heilkunde. Leiden 1941.
Huth, Georg. Index of the works contained in the Tibetan Tanjur, Section mDo (Sutra) Vol. 117-124. Berlin 1895.
Jolly, Julius. Medicin. Grundriss der Indo-Arischen Philologie und Altertumskunde, No. 3.10. Strassburg, 1901. English translation by C. G. Kashigar: Indian Medicine, Delhi 1977.)
Mooss, N. S. Ashtanga Hridaya. Sutrasthana. English & Sanskrit. Kottayam 1980.
Mooss, N. S. Ashtanga Hridaya. Kalpasthana. English & Sanskrit. Kottayam 1984.
Murthy, K. R. Srikantha. Vagbhata’s Ashtanga Hrdayam. English & Sanskrit. Krishnadas Ayurveda Series 27, Vol. 1, Varanasi, 1991.
Obermiller, E. E. Ways of Studying Tibetan Medical Literature. in: Tibetan Medicine, Series No 12, LTWA. Dharamsala 1981; pp. 9.
Rinpoche, Rechung. Tibetan Medicine. Berkeley 1976.
Taube, Manfred. Beitraege zur Geschichte der medizinischen Literatur Tibets (Contributions to the History of Tibetan Medical Literature). VGH Wissenschaftsverlag, St. Augustin 1981.

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