It leads us to see an apparently bewildering phenomenon, namely the intense contempt  expressed for the physicians and surgeons in the Indian legal literature. The usual way of expressing this contempt is to declare that they are intrinsically impure human beings – so impure indeed that their very presence pollutes a place, that good offered by them is too filthy to be accepted and that even good offered to them turns into something vile. Here are just a few examples.

The law-codes of Apastamba declare that food given by a physician or surgeon is too filthy to be accepted by members of the higher castes. Gautama's law-codes assert that a Brahmin may accept food from a "trader who is not an artisan," but he must not accept food from an artisan or a surgeon who belongs to the group of intrinsically impure persons. The law-codes of Vasistha fully concur: food offered by the physicians is as impure as food offered by the harlots; and so on.

The three authorities just quoted are the most prominent of the earliest Indian law-givers, whose works – called the Dharma – Sutras  are usually placed between 600-300 BC. The legal contempt for the physicians and therefore also for their science thus dates back to a very ancient period. The later legal literature shows how it continues. Here is only on example. The most prominent of the Indian law-books is Manusmrti, the codification of which is usually dated as first or second century AD. Like the earlier law-givers Manu declares that it is prohibited for members of the higher castes to accept food from the physicians; what he adds to it is only a greater contempt for such food: "the food received from a doctor is as vile as blood as pus" – puyam cikitsakasya annam". But not merely this. The physician is supposed to be so impure that even food offered to him turns into something vile. Accordingly, Manu takes care to mention that like other intrinsically impure persons, the physicians are not to be allowed to attend sacrifices offered to the gods and manes, because their very presence destroys the sanctity of the sacrifice.

There is therefore no reason from the law-givers' point of view for a dvija   or member of the privileged class to go in for medical practice. This is already emphasized in the ancient law-codes of Vasistha  which declare that a Brahmin who makes his living by the practice of medicine forfeits his right to be considered a dvija. But this raises a practical problem. If medicine, in spite of its obvious use, is too derogatory a profession to be followed by the dvijas, on whom should its practice be entrusted? Manu answers that it must remain restricted among the Ambasthas : ambasthanam cikitsitam. Who then are the Ambasthas? Though historically they appear to be members of an ancient tribe, Manu wants us to believe in a fanciful genealogy of them which in intended to prove that they are varna-samkaras – or bastards in caste-nomenclature. They are born, says Manu, of the mating of Brahmin males with Vaisya females – quaint story which is evidently taken up from the ancient law-codes of Baudhayana, and which is reasserted by late legal authorities.

Such then is the contempt for medicine and its practitioners expresssed by the Indian law- givers. This, it is necessary to note; is not a stray thought. Beginning roughly from the 6th century BC, the Indian law-givers go on repeating it for a very long time – much longer than a millennium – because the late medieval commentators of Manu like Kulluka Bhatta, placed by Kane between AD 1150 – 1300, reiterate the contempt for the doctors and their science with great gusto. Yet there is something very strange about it, because nowhere do the law-givers care to explain the real ground for their contempt for medicine. The condemnation is just decreed, as if the sense of degradation and filth attached to medical practice is too obvious to require any explanation.

The Basis for the Reaction

Why do the law-givers take such an attitude? Apparently they feel that there is some strong reason for them to do so. What, then is this reason? We see this when we take note of the actual source and nature of Indian legal literature. This literature originates in the priestly corporations and has the primary purpose of validating the norm of hierarchical society, of which the priests are the earliest theoreticians. This is easily seen from the origin of Dharmasutras. Though in the course of time these acquire absolute authority in legal matters, they actually represent Indian law still bound by the umbilical cord as it were with the ancient priest-craft from which they are born. As Winternitz puts it, "the Dharmasutras originated in the closest association with the literature of the rituals… Hence they are neither a mere collection of rules, nor pure lectures on jurisprudence… They, exactly as the old manuals, had sprung up in the Vedic scholars, for the purpose of imparting instruction and were not written as codes for practical use in the courts of law."

Thus beginning from the days of its inception, Indian legal literature follows policy towards science prescribed by the Indian priest-class, from which, during its entire subsequent course, it seeks scriptural validity and therefore the highest sanction. But do the ancient Indian priests really formulate such a policy?

Interestingly enough, at least as far as medicine is concerned, the ancient priests do formulate such a policy. This is evidenced by Yajurveda   which is for us the first full-fledged piece of priestly literature. It declares, Brahmanena bhesajam no karyam aputah hi esah medhyah yeh bhisak: "  The Brahman must not practice medicine; because the physician is impure, unfit for sacrifice. But whys is the physician considered impure? The Yajurveda   gives us a startling answer to this. As translated by Bloomfield the answer is: "The practice entails promiscuous, un-aristocratic mingling with men. Put in modern terminology this means that the doctors are impure because their healing technique necessarily commits them to the democratic norm, which proves incompatible with the hierarchical aspirations defended by the priests. As the Yajurveda  elsewhere complains, "All sorts of people rush to the physicians."

We may briefly note here one point indicating the fabulous power acquired by this view in the consciousness of the priests. Vedic Scholarship asserts that among the Vedic compilations or sambitas, Yajurveda  is the latest. Between this full-fledged priestly manual and genuine early hymns that remain compiled in the Rigveda,  the time-gap must have been quite long. These early hymns, it is further shown by competent Vedic scholars, are unaware of the hierarchical aspirations which permeate the Yajurveda. Significantly, along with the hierarchical aspirations is absent, in the ancient Rgverdic hymns any contempt for medicine and its practitioners. On the contrary in the mythological imagination of the Rigvedic poets or seers, especially the twin-gods, Asvins or Nasatyas are highly eulogised for their medical skill. They are the physicians of gods and friendliest of friends of human beings. What then can the Yajurvedic priests do about these ancient gods? What they actually do is most amazing. Yajurveda  openly censures them, declares that they are degraded because of their medical career and even prescribes ritual purification for their medical past.

The sense of degradation attached to the ancient Asvins continues in the vast Brahmana literature that grows directly out of the Yajurveda. As the Satapatha Brahmana  declares: "The other gods said to the Asvins: we will not invite you, you have wandered much among men, performing cure.

Thus the literature does not spare even the ancient gods whose medical career commits them to the democratic norm. But these Brahmana texts mention another ground because of which medicine – or for that matter anything containing the promise of positive science in any sense has got to be censured from the viewpoint of hierarchical aspirations. The main basis of medical science, as we have already seen, is made of empirical data. Caraka-samhita and Susruta-samhita repeatedly claim that nothing is more important for scientific purposes than the direct observation of the facts of nature. It is mainly on the basis of direct observation that the rationalist medicine of ancient India aspires after the knowledge of nature as a whole because its representatives feel that there can be nothing in nature irrelevant for medical purposes.

With the emergence of hierarchical aspirations in the Vedic literature, however, it is all different. What is cared for is a system of behaviour by which a minority acquires mastery over others. What is needed for this is an ideology that draws some kind of a mystical veil on nature, so that the people can be persuaded to believe that things are not what they appear to be. The ideologists trying to validate the powers and privileges of the ruling minority have thus to begin with a distorted description of reality and therefore the technique of twisting, concealing and mystifying the actual nature of the world, along with everything that goes on in it. What cannot be tolerated from this point of view is the direct knowledge of nature, the understanding of natural facts as they are directly perceived.

Accordingly, the vast Brahmana texts take special pride in proclaiming that the purposive distortion of reality is one of their noblest missions. The typical priestly formula by which this mystification is eulogized is to claim that the gods themselves are fond of making things purposively obscure, mysterious, unintelligible: Paroksapriyahiva hi devab.

This priestly dictum repeatedly occurs in the Brahmana texts and we shall presently see how the great Upanishadic thinker Yajnavalkya wants to clarify its philosophical implication. For the moment our point is that if the gods are fond of concealing the actual nature of things, the mortals can search for the knowledge of nature as it actually is only by flouting the gods. Anything genuinely foreshadowing positive science is thus a sin or a sacrilege. Thus in short, the priests want to create an intellectual atmosphere in which any discipline aspiring to be a science in our sense has to be censured, condemned or despised as inherently impure. It is no wonder therefore that the Indian law-codes, which emerge directly from the priestly literature, should go on preaching for centuries a total contempt for medicine.

Courtesy : Science, Philosophy & Society
by  Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya


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