ayurveda in Europe?

Dominik Wujastyk ucgadkw at UCL.AC.UK
Wed Feb 10 16:49:51 UTC 1999

On Mon, 8 Feb 1999, Bo Klintberg wrote:

> 1) When was ayurvedic knowledge introduced in Europe?

See Zysk, Medicine in the Veda (Delhi, 1996), pp.261-276, "Bibliographical
Essay", which is a good historiography of European ayurveda studies.

See also Arion Rosu, Un demi-siecle de recherches ayurvediques: Gustave
Lietard et Palmyr Cordier, travaux sur l'histoire de la medicine indienne.
Documents reunis e presentes (Paris, 1989), which has a long and important
historiographical introduction.  There is a brief but useful summary in

> 2) Was the knowledge transferred by Arabian scholas (al-Biruni, et al)?

Yes, there were Arabic translations of several major ayurvedic texts.
These were not very influential, however, with the exception of
at-Tabari's Firdaws al-Hikma, which was a popular Arabic work written in
c.850 and gave a longish summary of ayurvedic ideas.  See Manfred Ullmann,
Islamic Medicine (Edinburgh, 1978), p.20 et passim.

> 3) Does the knowledge in the Ayur-vedic scriptures talk about the
> circulation of the blood? (i.e. is it possible that Harvey could have
> gotten the idea from ayurveda?)

No, this is completely impossible.  There is no concept of blood
circulation in pre-modern Sanskrit texts, ayurvedic or otherwise. The
metaphors tend to be agricultural: irrigation, ebb and flow, flowing
through, but not round.  The heart is most commonly described in ayurvedic
literature as a downward facing lotus.  I am not aware of more detailed
descriptions, for example of the ventricles.  Nor is there any awareness
shown of the crucial question of how the blood gets to the left ventricle
and into the arterial system (which is also not distinguished in ayurveda
from the venous system).

These issues were taken up by Islamic scholars in the thirteenth century.
Ibn-an-Nafis of Damascus, in particular, wrote a commentary on Ibn-Sina's
al-Qanun in which he made a number of penetrating remarks about the exact
functioning of the heart, lungs, and blood.  He clearly understands that
the blood cannot pass through the heart's septum (i.e., between the
ventricles). He dismisses Galen's theory of an invisible passage which
would carry the blood through the septum.  Ibn-an-Nafis effectively
describes the circulation between the heart and the lungs, moving in and
out of the ventricles separately without crossing through the heart. See
Ullmann, pp.68f.  In this he was correct, and appears to be the very first
physician to understand this issue.  His description stops short, however,
of a full description of blood circulation a la Harvey.

There no evidence that Harvey knew anything whatsoever about ayurveda,
although it is not impossible that he may have been acquainted with some
Arabic medical works.  I'm afraid I simply don't know.  It seems very
unlikely.  Further, the descriptions by Harvey of his own experimental
work establish beyond reasonable doubt that he developed his ideas

> 4) What are the best, from an academic, scholarly, standpoint, books on
> ayurveda? And where do I find references about transmission issues?

Modesty forbids, of course.

The classic work Indian Medicine by Julius Jolly (1901, Eng. tr. repr.
Delhi 1977) is still very useful, since it functions as an index to the
original texts on a wide range of important and well-organized topics.

See also the recently announced History of Indian Medical Literature by G.
Jan Meulenbeld (Groningen 1999, ISBN 90 6980 124 8) which is extremely
important, and will revolutionize the field with a mass of new information
on all aspects of the history of ayurveda.  Five volumes, fl. 1100!  Has
many passages on transmission issues.

There are many other books that could be mentioned.  See the
bibliographies to Zysk's Medicine in the Veda, and my Roots.

Best wishes,

Dominik Wujastyk
Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine
183 Euston Road
London NW1 2BE, UK
FAX: +44 171 611 8545

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list