The Eight Limbs of Ayurveda

Ayurveda was formally organized into eight sections or branches called Astanga (“eight-limbs” of) Ayurveda.  A founding sage was chosen at the conference to head a committee on each branch and to write the defining text.  All the texts were written in Sanskrit, the language of the Aryans.  This formed the basis for the different schools and traditions that evolved over the ensuing centuries.  The names of the chairman from each branch are known, but many of the texts were lost and only available as a result of references from existing texts.

The eight branches of Ayurveda are:
1.    Internal medicine: Kayachikitsa Tantra
2.    Surgery: Shalya Tantra
3.    Ears, eyes, nose and throat: Shalakya Tantra
4.    Pediatrics: Kaumarabhritya Tantra
5.    Toxicology: Agada Tantra
6.    Purification of the genetic organs: Vajikarana Tantra
7.    Health and Longevity: Rasayana Tantra
8.    Spiritual Healing: Bhuta Vidya

Internal Medicine

hospitalKayachikitsa Tantra is the Ayurvedic branch that deals with internal medicine treatment (chikitsa).  Common internal diseases such as fever, diarrhea, tuberculosis etc. are found here.  It is the most well developed branch of Ayurveda.  Lord Atreya Punarvasu founded the school of internal medicines.  Lord Atreya lived in the area of Punchanada, the area of Punjab, India.  As a student of Bharadwaja, he is believed to have lived about seven hundred years BC.  He had six devoted and advanced disciples called Agnivesha, Bheda, Jatukarna, Parasara, Harita and Ksarapani.  Lord Atreya encouraged each of them to write unique books about internal medicine.  As a result of this command, they each wrote a book entitled according to their personal name, including the Agnivesha Samhita, the Bheda Samhita, and the Harita Samhita etc.  Of these, the Agnivesha Samhita was judged by the doctors of the time to be the best, most authentic and most complete text of internal medicine.  As a result, it was handed down through the centuries.  All the original copies have been lost, but Charaka, a famous Ayurvedic scholar who lived circa 1st century AD, renovated this book from an original.  Therefore the text of Agnivesha is now known by the name of Charaka Samhita.  The text of Agnivesha presents in detail the results of the historical conference.  The other texts written by the disciples of Atreya Punarvasu, except for the much smaller Harita Samhita, have never been found.

Lord Atreya’s school of internal medicine continues to exist, and remains the basis of the traditions of the Ayurvedic physicians of Nepal, India, Pakistan etc.  Throughout the centuries, there have been many famous Ayurvedic scholar physicians who have preserved the unique knowledge of Ayurveda as well as contributing new understandings about disease treatment.  Centuries have passed, but the basic principles of Ayurvedic internal medicine have not changed while the methods and treatments have continued to evolve.  All authentic Ayurvedic physicians believe this to be because Ayurveda is based upon unchanging universal truths.


img_0276Shalya Tantra is defined as the section of Ayurvedic surgery.  The school of surgery was founded and run by Dhanwantari Divodasa.  A contemporary of Atreya Punarvasu, he was the king of Kashi, a section of Banarasa, India.  He had many devoted disciples.  Some of the ones whose names are known include Susruta, Aupadhenava, Vaitarana, Aurabhra, Puskalavati, Karavirya and Gopurakshita.  As with the students of Lord Atreya, they all were asked to write unique texts on surgery.  Their texts are known by their names such as Susruta Samhita, Aupadhenava Samhita etc.  All these texts except the Susruta Samhita were lost.

Susruta was a son of Kaushika, and lived in the area of Koshi River, Nepal.  The text of Susruta is considered the best, most authentic and most complete book of Ayurvedic surgery.  In addition, the Susruta Samhita presents in detail the entire fundamental principles and subjects of Ayurveda.  In fact, the Susruta Samhita is the only original book dating from the great conference that talks in detail about the eight sections of Ayurveda.  Nagarjuna, a famous surgeon of the 1st century AD, renovated the Susruta Samhita.

The surgical school of Divodasa is no longer flourishing.  The practice of surgery today is limited only to minor operations such as the lancing of boils, handled by the few holistic (general practice) Ayurvedic physicians.  In the history of Ayurveda, during the medieval period, the physicians (vaidyas) could be called holistic or general practice healers because they were trained in all the different subjects of Ayurveda.  Such general medical training is of benefit for common people or village doctors.  But in practice, such training without the support of specialists was counterproductive.  For example, the ancient Ayurvedic knowledge of surgery was well developed in the time of the rishis and munis, and was prestigious and well known throughout the ancient world.  The medieval healers, however, did not preserve nor develop this tradition, because they had little time to study and practice surgery with all its complex knowledge and specialized manual skills.

Eyes, Ears, Nose and Throat

img_0119Shalakya Tantra is defined as the Ayurvedic division of otorhinolaryngology (EENT) and ophthalmology, dealing with the diseases of the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and throat.  Eye specialist Videhadhipati Janaka, the King of Videha, ran the ancient school of Shalakya Tantra.  Videha was located within what is now known as the district of Janakapura in Nepal.  Janaka, like the scholars heading each of the other schools, was charged with compiling the practical knowledge gained by different physicians of his era in his field of Shalakya Tantra.  He wrote the first authentic textbook in the field, the Videha Tantra.  This text was lost.  However, the physician Susruta, his well-known contemporary and the head of the surgical school, quoted sections of the Videha Tantra in detail in his classic Susruta Samhita, devoting an entire section to the Shalakya Tantra.

In the years following the origin of the school of Videhadhipati, numerous scholars–Janaka, Nimi, Kankayana, Gargya, Shataki, Saunaka, and Chakshusya, among others– contributed their unique knowledge to this field of disease.  Their original commentaries and books are not available, having also been lost.  Our knowledge of them comes from existing references to their books.  One of the most important sources is the Madhava Nidana, written by Madhava in the 13th Century.  Atankadarpana by Sri Kanthadatta in the 15th century also contains many commentaries.  This Ayurvedic section has not developed.  A few of its practices are still practiced by general practitioners who have limited knowledge.


img_0501Kaumarabhritya Tantra is defined as the Ayurvedic section of pediatrics, dealing with children’s health and children’s diseases.  The school of pediatrics was founded and run by Maricha Kashyapa, the contemporary of Atreya Punarvasu.  He lived in Gangadwara in the area of Haridwara, India.  He had many disciples, Vriddha Jivaka being one of them.  The original text of Vriddha Jivaka written under the guidance of Maricha Kashyapa is called Kashyapa Samhita or Vriddha Jivaka Tantra.  It was lost, but Vatsya, a famous pediatrician of 5th century A.D, renovated this text from an original, so it is now available.  In this school, the names of Parvataka, Bandhaka, and Hiranyaksa are known as important specialists and writers.  Their texts are not available, but references to their texts are found in different commentaries.

The school of pediatrics has been preserved in the tradition of Buddhist physicians of Nepal, who are well known as the spiritual healers.  Almost all diseases of children have to be treated with the basic theory of spiritual healing that is based upon religious practices.  Buddhist Ayurvedic physicians have a strong reputation within pediatrics.


Agada Tantra is defined as a section of toxicology, dealing with food poisoning, snakebites, dog bites, insect bites etc.  The school of toxicology was founded and run by Kashyapa, also known as Vriddhakashyapa, another contemporary of Atreya Punarvasu.  He lived in Taksashila, Pakistan.  His text was called the Kashyapa Samhita.  This, however, is a different book than the Kashyapa Samhita of pediatrics.  This text is not available now but the references of this text are found mentioned in different commentaries.  Some other texts written by Alambayana, Ushana, Saunaka, and Latyayana were known to exist.  However except for references to them, the original texts are no longer available.

The traditional practice of toxicology is still practiced by different families of vishavaidyas (poison doctors) who claim to be specialists in toxicology.  In fact, their knowledge is quite limited compared to earlier physicians, but people in the villages still benefit from their ability to deal with poisonous bites.  In ancient times, it was the job of Vishavaidyas to protect members of the royal families from being poisoned, as well to poison enemies of the kings.  One method was to use vishakanyas (poison girls).  These women would begin to take poison in small doses starting in childhood, developing immunity as snake handlers or beekeepers do now.  Later on, when they were grown, their kiss or bite could poison enough to paralyze or kill.

Purification of the Semen and Uterus

img_0380Vajikarana Tantra is defined as the science of purification of male and female genetic organs.  The main aim of this science is to provide proper knowledge about sex, and to determine and teach techniques and practices that are important to produce healthy children.  The study and practice of this subject has no specific text or school of specialists, and is included as a part of Ayurvedic internal medicine training.  The knowledge gained in this field historically has always been presented in the texts of internal medicine.  For example the special chapter of Vajikarana Tantra included in Charaka Samhita is very worthwhile, as is the knowledge found in the texts of Susruta, Vagbhata and others.

Good Health and Longevity

Rasayana Tantra is defined as the science of practices promoting long life and good health.  It deals with the problems of untimely old age and poor immunity.  As with semen and uterus purification, this subject is not located in any specific text or tradition of specialists.  The unique knowledge gained by rishis and munis in this field, in general, is recorded in the texts of internal medicine.  The present prestige and success of Ayurvedic internal medicine is largely dependent upon the successes of Rasayana Tantra medical practices.  These medicines can be very effective, and have a wide range of medical application.

In the medieval period, there were many renowned Siddhas who claimed to have the power to control death.  In general, the Siddhas were not doctors, but religious philosophers and practitioners, of whom most were less advanced spiritually than the legendary rishis and munis.  They were interested in immortality, and so were drawn to the Rasayana Tantra.  As a result of their interest and investigations, Ayurvedic “alchemy” developed, primarily using purified heavy metals combined with other unique and often very potent medicinal substances.  The Siddhas brought to light many new recipes for rejuvenation, and caused a revolution in the Ayurvedic theory of treatment.  Many of the alchemical medicines are poisonous in their pure form however, and are often illegal for use outside India and Nepal.  Ayurvedic physicians maintain that their purification methods remove all toxicity, but this has not been confirmed by modern science.  The present practice of internal medicine is strongly influenced by the alchemical medicines discovered by the Siddhas.

Ayurvedic alchemy is divided into two schools, the Hindu school and the Buddhist school.  The head of Hindu school was the physician Adinatha Siddha and the head of Buddhist school was the physician Nagarjuna.  In their lineage are listed the names of many famous Siddhas who contributed to the development of alchemical medicines.

Spiritual Healing

img_0230Bhuta Vidya is defined as a science of spiritual healing.  It deals primarily with the mental diseases, children’s diseases, and diseases that do not follow the theory of Tridosha balance.  This subject does not have a specific text.  Rather it is directly linked with the Atharva Veda and other religious texts.  The theory of spiritual healing, in general, is based upon chanting or sound therapy, called Mantra in Sanskrit.  Mantras are composed using specific vowels and consonants.  Hindu and Buddhist religious practitioners believe that the repetition of mantras links them with deities, and yields supernatural powers that can be used to cure many diseases.  Almost all religious texts contain many different Mantras composed by Rishis, Munis and Siddhas.  The priests of different eastern religious sects during special ceremonies transmit the Mantras to their devoted disciples.  This tradition of using religious ceremonies to transmit the Mantras still exists with the families of priests.  In one sense, the practice of spiritual healing connected to the activities of priestly lineage has never broken its ancient spiritual connections.  The traditional priest families of Nepal, India etc. still have good reputations for their skills as spiritual healers.

Following this brief historical background, the past and present condition of Ayurveda should be clearer.  This contextual information is essential for readers who are interested in advancing the study of the Ayurvedic healing science.

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