SOME years ago I was in Tokyo (Japan) to attend an international conference on oriental studies which included archaeology and other related subjects and Ayurveda also. I took some time off from archaeology section and went to the Ayurveda session which was arranged in another huge hall.
I was surprised to see over one thousand delegates from different parts of the world including Russia, USA, England etc. I saw huge photographs of Dhanvantri, Charaka, Sushurta and Patanjali adorning the dais. That was for the first time I saw a photograph of Dhanvantri, the mythological divine doctor of India adorning the dais in a foreign land.
According to our tradition, he was a divine doctor and the inaugurator of Ayurveda. He is not mentioned in the vedas. The first reference to him is found in Kaushika Sutra (8th century BC). His origin is traced to the famous episode of churning the ocean of milk. It is said that Lakshmi came first followed by Dhanvantri draped in pure white with a pot containing amrita or the divine elixir which made gods immortal. Bhagavata Purana considers him as the twelfth incarnation of Vishnu. He is considered as a specialist in treating the poison from snake bite. As he also good at treating other diseases also, gods requested him to be their physician.
Mahabharata described him as the son of the king of Kashi by name Dhanva. He got the knowledge of medicine from sage Bharadwaja. This consisted of eight branches such as Shalya, Sakalya, Kayachitisa etc., and Dhanvantari later taught these to his disciples. To give him a human status, some texts refer to him as one of the nine gems (scholars) of Gupta emperor Vikramaditya. A doctor who could prescribe one hundred medicines was a Vaidya; a person who knew two hundred medicines was called a Bhishak and a physician who knew three hundred medicines was called Dhanvantri.
Dhanvantri is credited with a large number of books on Ayurveda of which Dhanvantri Nighantu is most famous.
The Bhagavata Purana gives a graphic description of the iconographic features of Dhanvantri. He is handsome with long and stout hands, reddish eyes, neck resembling a conch shell, blue in complexion and young in appearance, has an yellow cloth, decorated by garlands, stance like a lion and holding a pot containing nectar. The shilpashastra texts like Vishnudharmottara codified these characters.
There are many interesting stories about Dhanvantri. Once, Indra’s wife Sachidevi became sick and required urgent treatment. God suggested that Dhanvantri be requested to attend on her. But Indra refused because Dhanvantri was not one among the gods and his status was lower and hence decided to invoke Shiva himself. Shiva appeared and told Indra to approach Dhanvantri who alone is capable of curing the disease of Sachidevi. Without any other way, Indra approached and requested Dhanvantri. He readily agreed and cured Sachidevi of her illness. Thus the vanity of Indra was humbled by the plan of Shiva himself. Dhanvantri’s status increased among the gods, and they began to show more respect to him.
According to another story, snake king Vasuki sent snake queen Manasa against Dhanvantri to kill him and his disciples, because they were curing the snake bites among the people. Thus nobody used to die of snake bite and they were all praising Dhanvantri and his disciples. The snake king and queen felt that this was an insult to their power and prestige. At this point Shiva emerged and chastised Vasuki and his wife for their hatred against Dhanvantri who was respected even by gods. Vasuki fell at the feet of Dhanvantri and apologised to him for his action.
Though there are many temples for Vaidyanatha Shiva, the temples for Dhanvantri are rare. In the same manner, the sculptures of Dhanvantri are also rare. The famous Sri Ranganathaswamy temple of Srirangam has an interesting connection with Dhanvantri and the part played by Ramanujacharya in this. There is a shrine for Dhanvantri in the fourth prakara of the temple. There are stone records of Hoysala kings dated 1257 and 1493 AD which mention gifts to this temple of Dhanvantri. Dr Padmaja and Dr Chitra Madhavan of Chennai have furnished some interesting incidents relating to this shrine.
Ramanujacharya was a great devotee of this temple and had emotional attachment. Different types of offerings (naivedya) were being offered to the deity in large quantities. One day when Ramanujacharya visited this temple, he found Sri Ranganatha to be sick. Ramanujacharya was very sad because his favourite god was suffering from some disease. Immediately he made enquiries about the food offered to the deity the previous day. He was informed that the deity was offered Jambu fruit (nerale or jamoon) along with curd and rice.
Ramanujacharya immediately understood that the combination of Jambu and curd had caused cold to the deity and hence he is sick. He ordered that a medicinal decoction (kashaya) be prepared and shown to Dhanvantri for his approval in his shrine and this should be carried to Sri Ranganatha and offered to him before the closure of the temple every night. Thus the practice of offering to the deity is more than 800 years old. Thus, Dhanvantri is believed to be capable of curing even Vishnu also. That is the greatness of Dhanvantri, the divine physician and the founder of Ayurveda. Even today people recite Sanskrit verses praising him to get cured from disease. His birthday is celebrated the next day after Deepavali.
(The writer is former Head, Department of Ancient History & Archaeology, University of Mysore.)