Scientific Exchanges Between Ancient Tibet and India
by D.P. Agrawal & Lalit Tiwari

It is interesting to note that East-to-East mutual technological exchanges among Asian nations were quite frequent in the past. The Silk Road must also have played a significant role in the spread of early technologies. For example, the Bower Manuscript (mss), which is named after its discoverer, was found in 1890, in Kuchar, in Eastern Turkestan, in a Buddhist monastery on the great caravan route to China. The large medical treatise called Navanitaka forms the second part of the Bower mss. The date of that mss falls in the second half of the fourth century AD. It is believed that Buddhist monks played a significant role in the transmission of medicinal and metal technologies among the Asian countries.

Tibet was in a unique position to receive such knowledge both from China and India. In India Ayurveda is the elite medicine system, which was already systematised and written down. But it derived its materia medica from the still older folk medicine systems. For example, the Himalayan Medicine system knows more than a thousand herbs of potent medicinal value. Almost three-fourth of it constituted the Ayurvedic materia medica. Many of the herbs have different uses in Ayurvedic and Himalayan systems. The Tibetan system seems to be a unique, and very effective, amalgam of the indigenous, Himalayan and Ayurvedic traditions. It seems to be a harmonious blend of both the Desi (Lesser) and Margi (Greater) Indian Traditional Medicinal Systems, as also its own indigenous system. In the 7th Century AD, a deliberate attempt was made in Tibet to combine the Indian, Greek and the Chinese medicine systems with the local traditions.

History of Tibetan Medicine System

The Tibetan medicine seems to be a creative combination of the Indian medical traditions, which it imported with Buddhism from India and many forms of Chinese medicine. These multiple layers of medical knowledge and traditions merged with pre-Buddhist Shamanic traditions and have continued to develop up to the present as a thriving and highly effective indigenous medical system. The Himalayan System too has a Shamanic component, as we will discus below. The philosophical basis of Tibetan medicine is rooted in Buddhism. Thus the Buddhist medical system is more than merely the study of anatomy, physiopathology and pharmacopoeia; it is also a guide to 'right living' and involves the spiritual aspects of healing as well.

The ancient religion of Tibet was known as Bon. Some scholars trace back the Tibetan system thousands of years before Christ. Chebur Trishe, the second son of Shenrab Meo, the founder of the Bon religion (long before Buddhism), found a medical text at Shanshung, near mount Kailash. The Buddhists believed that Buddha (567 BC) taught medicine to one and all, in the Royal Palace at Udiyana, in India, where it was compiled in Sanskrit from the original Marying or Shanshung Yiggen language, different from the present Tibetan language. The 28th King of Tibet, Lhathothori Nyantsen introduced the medical science along with Buddhism by inviting two Indian physicians, Vijay Gajay and Billa Gazema from Bodh Gaya, in Bihar. A son of Vijay Gajay, Dungyi Tharchok, learnt the system from his father and became the first personal physician of the King. This established the medical practice based on Buddhist teachings. It is said that Emperor Songtsen Gampo (617-650 AD), the most powerful ruler of Tibet, invited three famous medical scholars: Rishi Bharadwaj from India, Hsuan-Yuan Huang-ti from China and Galenos from Rome. They jointly compiled seven volumes of the medical treatise, Mijigpe Tson-ja, that combined the best elements of all the three. Such international scientific collaboration in the 7th Century AD is simply amazing.

In the 7th century, King Songsten Gampo adopted Buddhism in Tibet. He was responsible for the international medical conference in Tibet, inviting physicians from India, China, Nepal, Byzantium and Persia to translate their medical texts into Tibetan. The ideas exchanged and knowledge imparted became the foundation of what is now considered one of the oldest complete medical systems in Tibet. The king sent his scholar Prime Minister Thon-mi-Sam-bho-ta in 645 AD to India to learn both secular and religious literature. He translated a number of Indian works in Tibetan language. In the Tibetan medicine system the most popular medical text is called Rgyud bzi (lit. Catus-tantra, a compendium of four treatises). According to the introductory paragraph in this work, the title of its Sanskrit origin was "Amrta Hrdaya Astanga Guhyopadesa Tantra". Actually, in the 8th century AD a Tibetan scholar, Vairocana, studied this work from Candranandana of India and translated this into Tibetan.

Philosophy of Tibetan Medicine System

The Tibetan medicine system is essentially based on the Buddhist philosophy. According to them the universe is composed of four basic elements, sa (prithivi-mahabhuta), chu (jala mahabhuta), me (agni mahabhuta) and rlun (vayu mahabhuta). But in Ayurveda the fifth element akasa is also present. The Tibetans also believed that the individual is an exact replica of the macrocosm.

Tibetan Physician

The definition of the physician is one who heals all pain and practices medicine to promote good health. According to the Tibetan medicine system, "The doctor is responsible for healing the disease. Giving advice is also up to the doctor. The patient is responsible for the causes and must curb them to maintain / restore their health."

Drugs and Diet in Tibetan Medicine System

Like Ayurveda, in the Tibetan medicine system also it is believed that a person suffers from diseases when there is a change (beyond a certain limit) in the equilibrium of Nes pas (dosas) and Lus zuns (dhatus). Drugs and food, prescribed by the physician depend on taste and are of six types: sweet; sour; saline; bitter; pungent; and astringent.

In its us of ingredients also, the Tibetan system bears close resemblance to the Himalayan System. The Tibetan medicine basically depends on herbal products but many animal products like musk, bear-bile, cow-bile, different types of milk and minerals and metals are also used. The medicine is administered in the form of decoction, powder, pills, syrups, oils, wine, buttery form, ashy form, etc. The medicine may be constituted of a single herb or a hundred of them. For example, a medicine called Agar 35 (Agar sonya) has 35 different kinds of herbs. The physician is expected to be knowledgeable in the herbs, their characters, potent effects, their synergy, etc.

The Ayurvedic system was well organised and reduced to writing and therefore was easy to incorporate in the Tibetan System, through exchange of scholars and translation of texts. But there seem to be some common elements between the Himalayan and Tibetan systems. During their journeys the Tibetan scholars and monks must have come across the Himalayan folk physicians too.

Lets have a brief look at the Himalayan Medicinal System.

Himalayan Medicine System

The Himalayas have a great wealth of medicinal plants and traditional local knowledge.

The Indian Himalayan region alone supports about 18,440 species of plants (Angiosperms: 8000 spp., Gymnosperm: 44 spp., Pteridophytes: 600 spp., Bryophytes: 1736 spp., Lichens: 1159 spp. and Fungi: 6900 spp. of which about 45% are having medicinal property.

The Traditional Himalayan Medicine System (THMS) was a folk tradition and was transmitted through the word of mouth across the generations. They treat both humans and their animals using traditional methods. They employ generally herbal products like resin, bark, root, etc., also soils, minerals and animal products and tantric (Shamanic) practices.

The Himalayan people use magico-religious therapies, like the Tibetans whose medicinal system is also basically based on Shamanic practices. Among the magico-religious therapies the Himalayan people practice Jagar, Thau-dham, Bhabhuti, Tantra-mantra, etc. to placate the local gods and supernatural powers. The mystic-priest, with the help of hymns, drives the spirit away. Before leaving the patient, the spirit may ask for some rice and pulse or for the sacrifice of a cock, pig, goat etc.

Thus the Tibetan medicine is an amalgam of the Ayurvedic medical tradition, which it imported with Buddhism from India, the Himalayan System, and many forms of Chinese medicine, which were gradually incorporated. These different ingredients of medical knowledge and traditions merged with the pre-Buddhist Shamanic traditions. Like Ayurveda, the Tibetan medicine system is more a way of healthy living than merely a system of treatment of diseases. They developed many new concepts of health, disease, treatment, etc in addition to the ones used in Ayurveda. Their materia medica is a vast collection of many life saving drugs.

Bibliography and Sources:

Badoni, Arun & Kiran Badoni.2001. Ethnobotanical heritage. In: Garhwal Himalaya: Nature, Culture and Society (Eds. O. P. Kandari and O. P. Gusain.). Transmedia, Media House, Srinagar, Garhwal. Pp: 127-147.

Changbhar, S.W. 1993. Brief introduction of Tibetan traditional medicine. In Traditional Medicine. (Ed.) B. Mukherjee. New Delhi: Oxford-IBH.

Dash Bhagwan. 1992. Tibetan medicine. In History of Medicine in India (Ed.) P. V. Sharma. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy. Pp. 453-465.

Gaur, R. D., J. K. Semwal & J. K. Tiwari (1984). A survey of high altitude medicinal plants of Garhwal Himalaya. Bull. Med. Ethnobot. Res., 4(3-4): 102-116.

Jayasuriya, A. 1997. The Future of Complementary Medicines. Colombo: Medicina Alternativa International.

Leslie, Charles. 1998. Asian Medical systems: a Comparative Study. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidas.

Maikhuri, R. K., S. Nautiyal, K. S. Rao & K. G. Saxena.1998. Role of medicinal plants in the traditional health care system: a case study from Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. Current Science, 75(2): 152-157.

Pande, P. C., D. S. Pokharia & J. C. Bhatt (Eds.). 1999. Ethnobotany of Kumaun Himalaya. Scientific Publishers, Jodhpur.