Charak Monument in Yog Peeth Campus,Father of Medicine & Surgery (Photo credit: Wikipedi
By Heidi Nordlund
instructor, Dr Bharat Vaidya
Who was Caraka and when did he live? Was Caraka the author of the Ayurvedic medical text Caraka Samhita? Many scholars and philosophers have contemplated the answers to these questions and presented different theories. This paper will discuss some of these hypotheses and draw comparisons between the Caraka Samhita and the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali.
The Bower Manuscript, written in Sanskrit, was discovered in 1889. It points to the existence of a forgotten Buddhist civilization in Chinese Turkestan and offers evidence for Caraka's name as being a medical authority by the beginning of 6th century 600AD (Wujastyk). Caraka is mentioned in Chinese texts as the physician of the Yuezhi King Devaputra Kaniska of the late 5th century AD (Wujastyk). While this tale of associating Caraka and King Kaniska is the only evidence before the Bower Manuscript, professor Hermann Georg Jacobi and Dr. Augustus Rudolf Hoernle believe that Caraka lived some time between 200BC and 800BC (Bharat). P.V. Sharma places Caraka at 200-300BC, at the juncture of Maurya-Sunga periods (Agrawal). However, there is no mention of Buddha or his philosophies in Caraka's writing, thus it is likely that he preceded Buddhism (c. 500BC). Additionally, the style of Caraka's writing is similar to that of the Brahmanas and Upanishads (c. 800BC) (Agrawal). According to Agrawal, further evidence supports the belief that Caraka lived during 800BC; Caraka is described as an evil god in a branch of the Yajurveda, A1-Beruni describes the term Caraka to stand for an intelligent person, and according to Kasikavrtti, Vaisampayana, a disciple of Vyasa is known as Caraka (Agrawal). Vyasa was the author of the Mahabharata which dates back to 800BC (Wikipedia).
According to Mukhopadhyaya, Caraka must have been famous before Panini's time because Panini wrote special sutra for him and Agnivesa (Panini, Iv.3.107; iv.1.105) (Agrawal). Shaina Bal shares that Panini is most commonly believed to have lived 520BC to 460BC (Indopedia), which supports the hypothesis that Caraka resided during or earlier than 500BC.
Caraka is often referred to as the author of the Caraka Samhita (Wikipedia, Charaka Samhita) which is considered to be the most authoritative text on Ayurveda (Sivaraman). There is a tale that describes how Caraka became the author of Caraka Samhita; Caraka was the name for the sage King Sesha, who is referred to some to be the recipient of Ayurveda. When Sesha experienced the sickness on earth, he was moved with pity and incarnated as the son of a sage to alleviate disease; he was called Caraka because he had come to the earth as a spy. Based upon older works of Agnivesa, he composed the Caraka Samhita (Williams). According to Caraka Samhita, the order of transmission of the Ayurvedic knowledge is as follows; Brahma, Daksa, Prajapati, the Ashwini twins, Indra, Bharadvaja, Sage Atreya Punarvasu and his six disciples out of whom Agnivesa taught Caraka (Sivaraman, Bharat).
While Cara, in Sanskrit, can mean a spy, it also means moving, and Caraka is commonly translated as a wanderer or wandering physician (Williams, Bharat). Agrawal states that "the name Caraka is associated with Vedic, post-Vedic and even pre-Vedic sages" and can refer to both a personal name and a name of a clan or school to which they belong. Some scholars believe that the developers of the compilation of Caraka Samhita were different from any pre-vedic, vedic or post-vedic sages (Agrawal). Considering Caraka to mean wandering physician suggests that the Caraka Samhita is not contributed by one person alone but instead by a clan (Bharat).
A different hypothesis all together of whom Caraka was is believed by some; that Caraka and Patanjali, who is often considered to be the father of Yoga, may have been one and the same person (Halpern, Agrawal). In many ways Ayurveda and Yoga are closely related which could make ground to this claim. Let us look at some of these similarities. Patanjali is believed to have written a medical text; this is mentioned in the ancient prayer to sage Patanjali (Ramaswami):
yogena cittasya padena vācām
malaṁ śarīrasya ca vaidyakena
yopākarottaṁ pravaraṁ munīnāṁ
Through Yoga, of the mind, by
grammar, of language
Through medical science of the body,the drosses,
The one who eradicated, to Him of the lineage of sages,
To Patanjali, I remain offering my salutation
Another translation of the same prayer is available by Paramahamsa Prajnanananda,
With folded hands I give my love and respect to the great sage Patanjali, who presented us with three valuable things: a systematic yoga philosophy to purify the mind, knowledge of grammar with which to speak consely, and Ayurveda to keep our body healthy and strong. (Prajnanananda)
Caraka was not only a physician, but also a moralist and philosopher. In the Caraka Samhita, a number of religious and moral instructions are given with reference to hygienic rules as well as the importance of striving for attainment of the following three objectives: preservation of vitality, gaining of wealth and peace within and all around (Winternitz). It is described that sins such as lust is responsible for a variety of diseases, and different practices are offered which are useful for optimal health. By eliminating desires, we can free ourselves from misery; "desire is the root cause of all miseries" (Sharma & Dash, SA, 1/94-97). According to Mishra (p. 164), the methods described in Caraka Samhita are similar to the Yama and Niyama teachings in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra. In the second Niyama in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra (Sadhana Pada, s. 42), it is explained that if we are established in Santosha (contentment), we will always experience exceptional happiness (Prajnanananda). In the Caraka Samhita (SA, 1/138-141), it is also described how happiness and misery are experienced due to the mind, sense organs and the objects of senses. When the mind is concentrated and set aside so that the Soul can express its true nature, happiness and misery disappear. This experience is known as Yoga and by continuous practice eight supernatural powers can be attained (Sharma & Dash):
- Entering others' body/mind, and/or knowledge of past and future
- Thought reading
- Doing things at will
- Supernatural vision
- Supernatural audition
- Miraculous memory
- Uncommon brilliance
- Invisibility when so desired
Comparing these eight attainments with the teachings of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, we find in the Vibhuti Pada, (s.16,19,21,37,42) that by practicing yoga of Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi, knowledge of past and future, others' mental images, and invisibility is attained; from this knowledge, clairaudience, clairvoyance, supernormal hearing and seeing arise (Satchidananda). Furthermore, according to Satchidananda (Vibhuti Pada, s.46), there is also reference to eight siddhis (supernatural powers) in the Yoga Sutra, these are: anima (becoming very small), mahima (becoming very big), laghima (very light), garima (heavy), prapti (reaching everywhere), prakamya (achieving all one's desires), isatva (creating everything), and vasitva (controlling everything).
The fourth Yama in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra (Sadhana Pada, s. 38) is about self-control (Brahmacharya), and if we are firmly established in self-discipline, we achieve immense strength, vitality, excellent memory, beauty and confidence (Prajnanananda). Additionally, if we are free from greed (practicing Aparigraha, the fifth yama in the Yoga Sutra, Sadhana Pada, s. 39), it is possible to remember our past lives (Prajnanananda).
While there are similarities, the language used in Caraka Samhita and the Yoga Sutra is different (Bharat). In addition, Caraka Samhita emphasizes Yoga used as a vehicle for good health while Patanjali portrays Yoga as the path to Samadhi (liberation and Enlightenment) (Bharat). These are important differences which to many scholars is evidence enough to conclude that Caraka and Patanjali indeed were two different people. Which of the two was born first is also up for discussion. Caraka is believed by some to have lived before Patanjali (Agrawal), however, it is difficult to know when Patanjali lived; he could be older than sage Vyasa and Lord Krishna because Vyasa wrote a commentary on the Yoga Sutra by Patanjali, thus Patanjali may be more than 5000 years old (Prajnanananda, p. 10).
In conclusion, there is evidence that Caraka lived some time between 800BC to 200BC and that he was a medical authority. Caraka was a student of Agnivesa and involved in the compilation of the Caraka Samhita but it is likely that a clan of people contributed to the writings. Whether Caraka of Patanjali was the same person or who lived first is in need of more research, however, based upon the differences in how Yoga is applied in the Caraka Samhita and the Yoga Sutra, it is unlikely that Caraka and Patanjali were the same person.
Agrawal, D.P. About The Date Of Caraka, The Famous Ancient Physician. Retrieved on
December 15, 2009, from
Bharat, Dr. V. (2009) History of Ayurveda. From class lecture at Alandi Ashram on October 16.
Dasgupta, Surendranath (2003) A history of Indian philosophy, Vol. 2. Motilal Banarsidass. P.
431. Retrieved on December 18, 2009, from
Halpern, Dr. Marc (2005) Yoga and Ayurveda: Children of the Vedic Teaching. Retrieved on
December 18, 2009, from
Indopedia (2004) Panini (scholar). Retrieved on January 16, 2010, from
Mishra, Dr. Yogesh Chandra (2008) Ayurvediya Kriya Sarira: A Textbook of Ayurvediya
Physiology. Chauwkhambha Publications, New Delhi, India.
Mukhopadhyay, G. N. (1983) On the medical authorities. In History of Science in India (Ed.
Debiprasad Chattopadyaya). New Delhi: Editorial Enterprises.
Prajnanananda, Paramahamsa (2009) The Ten Commandments of Yoga. Prajna Publication,
Ramaswami, Srivatsa (2008) On Patanjali. From Vinyasa Krama. Retrieved on January 15,
2010, from http://www.vinyasakrama.com/On_Patanjali
Safaya, Raghunath. Contribution of Kashmir to Indian Literature. Excerpts: 'Kashmiri Pandits:
A Cultural Heritage' Edited by Prof. S. Bhatt. Retrieved on December 18, 2009, from
Satchidananda, Sri Swami (2005) The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. Integral Yoga Publications,
Yogaville, Virginia, USA.
Sharma, P.V. (1992) History of Medicine in India. Delhi: Indian National Academy of Science.
Sharma, R.K. & Dash, Bhagwan (2007) Caraka Samhita. Vol. II. Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series
Office, Varanasi, India.
Sivaraman, Krishna (1989) Hindu Spirituality: Vedas through Vedanta, Vol. 1. The Crossroad
Publishing Company. P. 339. Retrieved on January 16, 2010, from
Wikipedia (2010) Charaka Samhita. Retrieved on January 16, 2010, from
Wikipedia (2010) Mahabharata. Retrieved on January 16, 2010, from
Williams, M. Monier (2002) A Sanskrit English Dictionary. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, New
Winternitz, Maurice. History of Indian Literature - Vol. III. Retrieved on December 12, 2009,
Wujastyk, D. (2003) The Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from Sanskrit Medical Writings.
Penguin Classics. P.4. Retrieved on January 16, 2010, from