Mandala Of Indic Traditions
Ancient Indian Botany and Taxonomy
By Lalit Tiwari
Before the invention of microscope, and of course its super-cousin (SEM), the
microscopic world was not visible to humans. Microscopes made it possible to
study the vascular structures and their function in nutrient transport, as also
cellular basis of growth. But minute and careful observation of plants in India
dates back to a few thousand years. The ancient science of botany was quite
developed in its understanding of the plant kingdom, as also in taxonomy. Below
we give a glimpse of the various attempts in antiquity to classify plants according
to their properties.
The beginning of relationship between humans and plants can be traced back
to the prehistoric times. The Indus Valley people used to live in villages,
cities and towns, wore clothes, cultivated crops including wheat, barley, millet,
dates, vegetables, melon and other fruits and cotton; worshipped trees, glazed
their pottery with the juice of plants and painted them with a large number
of plant designs. They also knew the commercial value of plants and plant products.
There are sufficient indications to show that Agriculture, Medicine, Horticulture,
developed to a great extent during the Vedic Period. In the Vedic literature
we find a large number of terms used in the description of plants and plant
parts, both external features and internal structures; a definite attempt at
classification of plants and evidence that use of manure and rotation of crops
were practiced for the improvement of fertility of soil and nourishment of plants.
Even Rgveda mentions that Vedic Indians had some knowledge about the
food manufacture, the action of light on the process and storage of energy in
the body of plants. In the post-Vedic Indian literature there is enough evidence
to show that botany developed as an independent science on which was based the
science of medicine (as embodied in the Charaka and Susruta Samhitas),
Agriculture (as embodied in the Krsi-Parasara) and Arbori-Horticulture
(as illustrated in the Upavana-vinoda as a branch of Botany). This science
was known as the Vriksayurveda, also compiled by Parasara.
The most celebrated plant that
finds frequent mention in the Rgveda and later Samhitas is the
Soma plant. The Vedic Indians hail Soma as the Lord of
the forest (vanaraja). The botanical identity of Soma plant, however,
has not been decided till today. The probable candidates are Ephedra (a
Gymnosperm); Sarcostemma (flowering plant); and mushroom (a fungus).
The second most mentioned plant
was peepal or the Asvattha (Ficus religiosa) during the
Vedic period. The Rgveda refers to utensils and vessels fashioned
out of the wood of the Asvattha tree.
Some of the other trees that
find mention in the Vedas are: (i) Silk cotton (Salmalia malabaricum);
(ii) Khadira (Acacia catechu) (iii) Simsupa (Dalbergia
sissoo); (iv) Vibhitaka (Terminalia bellerica); (v) Sami
(Prosopis sp.); and (vi) Plaksa (Ficus infectoria);
lksu (sugar cane - Saccharum offcinarum) finds a mention as a
cultivated plant in the Atharvaveda, Maitaryani Samhita, and other texts.
The Vedic Indians knew about many flower-bearing and fruit-bearing plants,
like Palasa (Butea monosperma), two varieties of lotus - white
(pundarika) and blue (puskara), white lily (kumuda), cucumber
(urvaruka), jujuba (Zizypus jujuba), udumbara (Ficus
glomerata), kharjura (Phoenix dactylifera) and bilva
(Aegle marmelos), etc.
Written records, in the form
of manuscripts, are available in Sanskrit and several other Indian languages.
Sanskrit literature includes the Vedas, the Upanisadas, and epics
like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The lay literature includes
prose, poetry, and drama of a number of Sanskrit authors like Kalidasa, Magha
and Bhavabhuti, in whose works the information on plants is incidental
and given by way of comparison. Technical literature comprises medical works
like the Charaka and Susruta samhitas, lexicons like Medininighantu
and Amarakosa, as well as the encyclopedic works like Arthasastra
and Brhatsamhita. These works generally give excerpts of botany or
what is known as vrksayurveda. In addition, there are a number of exclusive
works under the title of Vrksayurveda. Parasara's Vrksayurveda is
supposed to be the most ancient work in actual botany, to have been composed
during first century BC and first century AD.
From the literary evidence it is clear that even in the
First Millennium BC, botany was fully systematized and taxonomy well developed.
Casual references to different
parts of the plant are found scattered throughout the Rgveda, and almost
complete details of plants are found in the Atharvaveda. Here we can
say that the Atharvaveda is perhaps the earliest recorded authority on
plant morphology. It presents an account of eight types of growth habits of
trees. These are: (1) Visakha (spreading branches); (2) Manjari
(leaves with long clusters); (3) Sthambini (bushy plants); (4) Prastanavati
(which expands); (5) Ekasrnga (those with monopodial growth); (6) Pratanavati
(creeping plants); (7) Amsumati (with many stalks); and (8) Kandini
(plants with knotty joints).
The Taittiriya Samhita
and the Vajasenayi Samhita explain that plants comprise mula (root),
the tula (shoot), the kanda (stem), the valsa (twigs),
puspa (flowers) and phala (fruits). While trees have in addition
skandha (the crown), sakha (branches) and parna (leaf).
Different kinds of plants are distinguished, namely, vrksa, vana
and druma (trees), visakha (shrubs with spreading branches), sasa
(a herb), amsumali (a spreading or deliquescent plant), vratati
(a climber), stambini (a bushy plant), pratanavati (a creeper),
and alasala (those spreading on the ground). The Vrksayurveda
of Parasara deals extensively with the morphology of plants. According
to Parasara, the vrksangas (parts of plant) are: patra
(leaf); puspa (flowers); phala (fruits); mula (root); tvak
(bark); kanda (stem); sara (heart-wood); svarasa (sap);
niryasa (exudation); kantaka (spines); bija (seed), and
Ancient literature has classified
the roots on the basis of their growth behavior and structures, like, sakha
sipha (root originating from the branches), krsnamuli (black coloured
root), sveta muli (coloured root), bahumuli (many roots), tripadi
(plant with three main roots), asta padi (plant with eight roots), sthulamula
(thick root), suksmamula (thin root) and jatamula (fasciculate
Some ancient Sanskrit works
also took notice of texture, colour, taste, surface etc. for morphological classification
for hairy stem; mrdu patra for soft leaf; komal patra for tender
leaf; and snigdha patra for rough thick leaf.
Shape: Dirgha patra
for long leaf; mandala patra for rotund leaf; and visala patra
for broad leaf.
patra for white coloured; rakta patra for red coloured; nila parna
for blue coloured; suvarna parna for gold coloured; and dhumra parna
for smoke coloured.
Taste: Svadu patri
for sweet leaf; amla patra for sour leaf; katu patra for leaves
with spines; and tiksna patra (hot taste).
Surface: Romasa patri
for with hairy outgrowth; and randhra patri for leaf with holes; and
valka patri for bark-like.
for one leaflet; dvipatrika for two leaflets; tripatrika for three
leaflets; catuspatrika for four leaflets; pancapatrika for five
leaflets; saptaparni for seven leaflets; and bahupatrika for a
number of leaflets.
There are some other botanical
terms, which can be identified with the modern terms, like pedicel (stalk of
flowers) is called prasava bandhana (means the attachment to the mother
plants); puspacchada, jalaka (calyx); puspadala (corolla);
kesara (androecium); paraga (pollen); and varataka (pistil).
Some examples about inflorescences are also present in ancient texts like, manjari
(racemose inflorescences), stabaka, guccaka (cymose inflorescences),
srihastini (helicoid cyme), chatra (umbellate), etc.
Udayana, in his Prthviniraparyam,
says that in plants there is life, death, sleep, waking, disease, drugging,
transmission of specific characters by means of ova, movement towards what is
favourable and away from what is unfavourable. The Buddhist logician Dharmottara
in his Nyayavindutika records the phenomenon of sleep in certain plants,
in the form of contraction of their leaves during night. Gunaratna, in his Saddarsana-samuccaya,
enumerates different characteristics of life: (1) the plant passes through three
stages of infancy, youth and age; (2) they have regular growth; (3) their various
kinds of movement are conditioned by sleep, walking, response to touch or need
for support; (4) plants deal with wounds and laceration sustained by their organs
and make use of drugs to overcome wounds as well as diseases; (5) assimilation
of food from the soil is determined by requirements of plans for growth; (6)
recovery from wounds and diseases by the application of drugs; (7) dryness or
the opposite due to sap; and (8) special food favourable for impregnation.
Sankaramisra in his Upaskara
mentions that after a wound or laceration, there is natural recuperation
due to the growth of organs (bhagnaksatasamrohana). The Santiparva
of Mahabharata enumerates several physiological principles including
the sense of touch, hearing (response to sound), vision, smell, irritability,
etc, in respect of plants.
As to the physiology of nourishment,
scattered references amply indicate the knowledge that plants receive their
nutrients from the soil in the form of solution through the agency of the root.
The use of padapa for the root, as already pointed out, is significant.
Santiparva explains the phenomenon of ascent of sap in the following
lines, “the tree sucks water from its base (root) with the force, and along
with air, water is drawn up the tree”. Dixona and Joly explained this theory
only in 1894.
The nutritive value of absorbed
water and its role in plant metabolism is clearly illustrated in the following
lines of the Santiparva “the water absorbed by the plant is converted
into food under the influence of agni (energy) and maruta (air),
and due to this, plant can grow”.
Vrksayurveda of Parasara,
explained the food preparation in the leaf. According to Parasara, “the watery
sap obtained from earth (parthivarasa) is transported from root up to
the leaf through syandana (xylem). There it gets digested with the help
of chlorophyll (ranjakena pacyamanat) into nutritive substance and a
Several Sanskrit texts also
describe the movements of the plants. According to literature, plants show movements
towards a direction, which is favourable to them, and move away from a direction
unfavourable to them.
The sensitiveness property of
the touch-me-not plant (Mimosa pudica) is also clearly described in some
The concept of flowering at
different times during a day - morning or evening -has also been observed by
the ancient botanists.
Many references to plant diseases
and their treatment are also available in the Vedic literature. According to
S. Sundara Rajan, the Atharvaveda explains the destruction of corn due
to insect pests. Vinaya, the famous Buddhist text, describes the blight
and mildew diseases. A much later text, Sukraniti, gives a detailed account
of danger to grains from various agents such as fire, snow, worm, insect, etc.
Gunaratna, in his Saddarsanasamuccaya, observes that plants are afflicted
by diseases, displacement or dislocation of flowers, fruits, leaves and barks
in the same way as the human body suffers from jaundice, dropsy, emaciation,
stunted growth of finger, nose, etc., and respond to treatment like human bodies.
According to Varahamihira, plant
diseases are caused by cold climate (low temperature), wind (dryness) and sun
(heat) and indicated by the yellowness of the leaves, non-or under-development
of buds, dryness of the branches and the exudation of the sap. He also described
the treatment: the paste of ghee, vidanga (Embelia ribes) and mud kneaded
in the infected parts and then diluted milk should be sprinkled over the area.
Agnipurana prescribes a mixture of vidanga with rice, fish and
flesh. Agnipurana and Brhatsamhita suggested following treatment
when a tree is not producing flowers and fruits: the hot decoction prepared
of kulattha (horsegram, Dolichos biflorus), masa (blackgram,
Phaseolus mungo), mudga (greengram Phaseolus radiatus),
tila (Sesamum indicum) and yava (barley) in milk. Cool
the mixture and sprinkle it on trees.
Consciousness in Plants
Ancient Indians believed that
plants as living organisms possess consciousness, but it remained dormant and
was not comparable to Indian animals. Manu writes that the plant has a latent
consciousness, which is capable of perceiving both pleasure and pain.
In Mahabharata, Santiparva
explains that the plant has life, touch, feel, smell, vision, and hearing
The technical term used for
seed is vija. The seed is enclosed in a vessel called vijakosa.
The endosperm is called sasya and the cotyledon vijapatra. Parasara
used the term vijamatrka to denote cotyledon and recognizes monocotyledonous
(ekamatrkavija) and dicotyledonous (dvimatrkavija) seeds.
Germination of a seed is called
ankurodbheda, which means sprouting of the seed to life; ankura
means seedling. According to Susruta, proper season, good soil, requisite supply
of water and good seeds are required for germination of the seed.
Gunaratna observes in his commentary
that the seeds of vata (Ficus indicum), pippala (Ficus
religiosa), nimbu (Melia azadirachta), etc. are germinated
during the rainy season under the influence of dew and air.
Parasara also gives the descriptive
commentary on the process of germination in Vrksayurveda. According to
Parasara, “during the sprouting up of the seedling (praroha), its body
receives nourishment from the cotyledons. This nourishment enables the seedling
to grow until its root develops and comes of its own. The cotyledons dry up
as soon as the seedling is able independently to receive nourishment directly
from the soil of the earth”.
Reproduction, Sex and Heredity
Ancient Indian literature also
deals with sex, genetics, and reproduction of plants by fruits, seeds, roots,
cuttings, graftings, plant apices and leaves. Buddha Ghosa, in his Sumangala-vilasini,
a commentary on the Digha Nikaya, describes some of these methods under
such terms as mula-vija (root seed), khandabija (cuttings), phaluvija
(joints), agravija (budding) and bija-bija (seed). Atharvaveda
and Arthasastra describe the propagation by seed (bija-bija or
vijaruha) and bulbous roots (kandavija), respectively. The method
of cutting (skandhavija) is described in the Arthasastra, Brhatsamhita
and Sumangala-vilasini in the case of sugar cane, jackfruit, blackberry,
pomegranate, vine, lemon tree, asvattha (Ficus religiosa), nyagrodha
(Ficus bengalensis), udumbara (Ficus glomerata) and several
others. Some ideas related to sexuality in plants are noticeable in the Harita
and Charak Samhitas. Charak recognized male and female individuals in
the plant called Kutaja (Hollerhina antidysenterica), and the male categories
of plants bearing white flowers, large fruit and tender leaves and the female
categories characterized by yellow flowers, small fruits, short stalk, etc.
The Rajanighantu mentions the existence of male and female plants in
the plant Ketaki (Pandanus odoratissimus). The male plant
is called sitaketaki, and the female is called svarna ketaki.
Regarding heredity, Charaka and Susruta mention that the fertilized ovum contains
in miniature all the organs of the plants, for example the bamboo seed containing
in miniature the entire structure of the bamboo tree, and further that the male
sperm cell have minute elements derived form each of its organs and tissues.
Such ideas closely resemble Darwin’s ‘gemmules’.
Plant Taxonomy & Nomenclature
In ancient times, plants were
named to mark:
(1) Special associations, like bodhidruma (Ficus religiosa),
asoka (Saraca indica) and Sivasekhara (Datura).
(2) Special properties such as medicinal, domestically useful, etc.,
like dadrughna (Cassia fistula), arsoghna (Amorphophallus
campanulatus), kusthanasini (somaraji), dantadhavana
(Acacia catechu), karpasa (cotton) and lekhana (reed).
(3) Morphological characteristics, e.g. shape of leaf, number of leaflets
in a compound leaf, shape and colour of flowers, etc., like kisaparni
(Achyranthes sp.), asvaparnaka (Shorea robusta), pancangula
(Ricinus sp.), tripatra, saptaparna, vakrapuspa
(Sesbania grandiflora) and satamuli (asparagus sp.).
(4)Local association and environmental association, like saubira (Zizyphus
jujuba), magadhi (Jasmine), vaidehi (Pepper), jalaja,
pankeruha (lotus) and maruvaka (Ocimum sp.).
(5)Other peculiarities, like vakrapuspa (plant having curved flowers),
vranari (enemy of boils) for the plant Sesbania grandiflora;
kantaphala (having spiny fruits), ghantapuspa (possessing bell-shaped
flowers) and mahamohi (great intoxicator) for the plant Datura alba.
According to S. Sundara Rajan, in the ancient Indian texts, the nomenclature
of the plants was generally based on the plant’s botanical characters (paricaya
prjnapikasamjna) and their therapeutic properties (guna prajnapikasamjna).
Classification of Plants
Plants were classified in accordance with three
distinct principles, botanical (udbhida), medicinal (virecanadi)
and dietetic (annapanadi).
The Rgveda divides plants
roughly into three broad classes, namely, Vrska (tree), Osadhi
(herbs useful to humans) and Virudh (creepers). Plants are further subdivided
into Visakha (shrubs), Sasa (herbs), Vratati (climbers),
Pratanavati (creepers) and Alasala (spreading on the ground).
All grasses are separately classified as Trna, flowering plants are Puspavati,
and the fruit bearing ones are Phalavati. Leafless plants are placed
under the group, Karira. The Atharvaveda has classified plants
into various categories based on their morphological characters and other properties,
such as Prasthanavati (spreading), Sthambini (bushy), Ekasugna
(with single whorl of calyx), amsumati (having many shoots), Kandini
(jointed), Visakha (having extending branches), Jiivala (lively),
Nagharisa (harmless) and Madhumati (very sweet).
Some ancient scientists, like
Manu, Charaka and Udayana, etc. also classified the plants in various classes.
Manu divided plants under eight
classes as follows:
(1) Osadhi- plants bearing abundant flowers and fruits,
but withering away after fructification, e.g. rice, wheat.
(2) Vanaspati- plants bearing fruits without evident flowers.
(3) Vrksa- tress bearing both flowers and fruits.
(4) Guccha- bushy herbs
(5) Gulma- succulent shrubs
(6) Trna- grasses
(7) Pratana- creepers which spread their stems on the
(8) Valli- climbers and entwiners.
According to Charaka
and Susruta Samhita the plants are categorized into four classes: (1)
Vanaspati- which bear fruits but not flowers, (2) Vrksa or vanaspatya-
which bear both fruits and flowers, (3) Virudh- which creep on the ground
or entwine, (4) Osadhi- annual herbs which wither away after fructification).
Susruta subdivides Virudhs
into two groups, pratanavatya (creepers with spreading stem on the grounds)
and gulminya (succulent herbs), and Charaka subdivides Virudhs
into lata (creeper), gulma and osadhis into annuals or
perennials bearing fruits and grasses which go without fruits. He further divided
the plants into 50 groups based on their physiological actions and diseases
they cure,and flowering plants into the following seven heads based on dietetic
principles: 1) Sukadhanya (cereals), 2) Samidhanya (pulses), 3)
Saka varga (pot herbs), 4) Phala varga (fruits), 5) Harita
varga (vegetable), 6) Ahayogi varga (oils), and 7) Iksu varga
The Vaisesikas classify
plants under seven heads, e.g. Vrksa, Trna, Osadhi, Gulma,
Lata, Avatana and Vanaspati. Defining the characteristics
of the various groups Udayana’s Kiranavali, remarks that Vrksas
are plants with trunk, branches, flowers and fruits; Trnas are exemplified
by ulupa like plant; Osadhis are plants like kaluma which
die after fruition; Gulmas are plant like bhata, latas
are represented by kusmanda, a species of Cucurbita; Avatanas
are plants like ketaki;i and Vanaspatis are trees which produce
fruits without flowers.
According S. Sundara Rajan,
the Vanausadhivarga of Amarakosa identifies plants under three
categories, mushrooms (citra, aticatra and phalghna), parasites
(Vanda and Vrksadani) and epiphytes (Vrksaruha and
In his Vrksayurveda,
Parasara developed a more elaborate classification. Parasara mentions two types
of plants: Dvimatrka (Dicotyledons) and Ekamatrka (Monocotyledons).
He further classified plants into families (gana vibhaga), like:
1. Samiganiya (Leguminosea): This family covers samivrksa,
a plant bearing simbiphala, (legume or pod, compound leaves held
on a common stalk and leaflets arranged like a feather). Flowers are hypogynous
(puspakrantabijadhara) and five-petalled, with gamosepalous
calyx and an androecium of 10 stamens. This family has three subtypes: vakra-puspa,
vikarnika-puspa and suka-puspa.
2. Puplikagalniya (Rutaceae)- In this family the plants bear
spines, odoriferous leaves and winged petioles, flowers are hypogynous (tundamandala)
with free petals and stamens. Fruits formed of superior ovary (puspa-krantaphala)
contain hairy succulent flesh and multiple seeds. Family has two subtypes:
kesaraka and maluraphala.
3. Svastikaganiya (Cruciferae)- According to the name, the shape
of the calyx looks like a svastika. The flower has four sepals, four
petals and six stamens, and a superior ovary (tundamandala). In the
inflorescence flowers are arranged in rows.
4. Tripuspaganiya (Cucurbitaceae)- The plant is epigynous
(kumbhamandala), which are sometimes unisexual. The flower has five
united sepals and petals and three stamens and a style with three-pointed
stigma (trisirsavarata). The ovary is trivartaka (tri-locular).
5. Mallikaganiya (Apocynaceae)- Plants having mixed
inflorescence and which are hermaphrodite (samanga), calyx and corolla
are united having five stamens, epipetalous (avyoktakesara). The
seeds having long fine hairs (tulapucchasamanvita).
6. Kurcapuspaganiya (Compositeae)- The flowers are sessile
and borne on a common axis, surrounded by a common calyx and look like a brushy
head (kurcakara). The ovary is inferior (puspasirsakabijadhara).
Detailed study of internal structure
of plants becomes possible only after the invention of the compound microscope.
But in the Rgveda, daru or the wood is distinguished from the
softer outer part of a tree. Taittiriya Samhita separates the outer part
into valka (outer) and vakala (inner) bark. The Brhadaranyaka
Upanisad shows more detailed picture in this field. According to Brhadaranyaka
Upanisad the five regions present in a plant are: tvak (skin or
bark), mamsa (soft tissues); asthi (wood or xylem), majja (pith),
and snayu (fibres both xylem and sclerenchyma).
But the Vrksayurveda of
Parasara gives more detailed and clearer description of the plant anatomy. According
to Parasara, there are tissue systems meant for the transportation of nutrients
and sap. The whole of the vascular system has been given the name sarvasrotamsi
(that which helps in the flow). This is divided into two categories, first
is syandana and second in sirajala, which is obviously xylem and
phloem, respectively. He explains that the syandana is involved
in the transportation of rasa, which is absorbed from the Earth (Prthvi)
to all parts of the plant body and sirajala (pl. sirajalani) helps
in the re-distribution of nutrition from the leaf to other parts of a plant.
But the most remarkable anatomical
observation made by Parasara relates to a detailed description of the plant-cell.
He gives a more detailed study than Robert Hooke who discovered the cell in
17th century. Parasara notes that the internal structure of the leaf consists
of innumerable compartments, which are filled with the sap. They are
the storehouse of sap (rasasrayah) and covered by a boundary-cell wall
or cell-membrane (kalavestana). The structure has five elemental principles
(pancabhautika gunasamanvita) as well as a colouring principle
(ranjakayukta), and cant be visible to the naked eye. The
thin boundary originates from a fluid (kalaladupajayate), which
is called protoplasm by the modern botanists.
The bulk of the Ayurvedic medicines
belong to the plant kingdom. And all the Ayurvedic texts deal with botanical
aspects, mainly the identification and categorization of plants as source of
drugs. The Charaka Samhita has a chapter titled Vibhagavidya, dealing
with the classification of plants and animals. The Susruta samhita, the
second Ayurvedic classic, also deals with several aspects of botany such as
morphology and taxonomy. Susruta also provides classification of plants on the
basis of medicinal properties.
Thus we see that the ancient
scientists did realize the need to classify plants according to their various
properties. In some cases they come close to modern calcifications. Some of
the descriptions, especially by Parashar, make one wonder if they could magnify
the views of plant parts for more detailed study.
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Ghose, A. K. 1971. Botany:
The Vedic and Post-Vedic Periods. In A Concise History of Science in India
(Ed.) D. M. Bose, S. N. Sen and B.V. Subbarayappa. New Delhi: Indian National
Science Academy. Pp. 375-392.
Majumdar, G. P. 1982.
The history of botany and allied sciences. In Studies in History of Science
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