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Dravyaguna: Origin and its Development

Ancient science of making drugs

 Humans have been making medicines to cure various ailments from the prehistoric times. During the Vedic age, there were two main categories: Osadhi (small plants) and Vanaspati (big plants). Later on, apart from the above two groups, two more groups Virudh and Vanaspatya were added. Besides plants, animal and mineral products were also used as food and drugs.

 In their learned essay, Dravyaguna: Origin and Development, Raghunathan and Dubey bring out some interesting aspects of the science of making drugs in ancient India. We present a summary below.

 It is believed that the first attempt to organize and explain plants was made in the Vedic period as its description is found in Osadhi-sukta in Rgveda (10.97.1-23; also in Atharvaveda (AVS), 8.7.1-8;11.6.16-17). In this portion of Rgveda, the characters, habitat, classification and usage of plants are described. It is clearly explained how the drugs after ingestion circulate in organs and joints where they act. Plants were also used as amulets to defend against evil sprits. This portion also tells that the physicians had an intimate knowledge of herbs and used them for destroying the invisible destructive agents and diseases.

 The Doctrine of Signature initially prompted the therapeutic use of drugs, which was based on similarity of colour or form, for example, the use of lac in haemorrhage, Manjistha (Rubia cordifolia) in various blood disorders, twisted fruits of Helicteres isora in twisting pain in abdomen, testicle-shaped seeds of Kapikacchu as aphrodisiac, Haridra (Curcuma longa) in jaundice, the perennial roots of Punarnava in anaemia and debility etc.

 In AVS welfare of humans is invoked through the plants grazed by cows, goats and sheep. It should be noted that the grasses form the diuretic and galactagogue groups and their effects would have been ascertained after observing them on animals.

 Some animals were specially attached to certain plants for their nutrition and protection. Not only animals but humans also observed the effects of the plants used as food or drug.  When Susruta says that drug is known from those who used roots, he means not only morphological characters of the plants but also the pharmacological effects.

 Evolution of basic concepts

Basic concepts that provide a reasonable explanation of the use of the drugs are based on the law of Uniformity of Nature. It was observed that both the drugs as well as the living body have Pancabhautika composition in common and if the drugs are used sensibly, they can alter the body components accordingly.

 There was of course the difficulty to identify the particular bhutika composition of the drug. Determining the bhutika character of six Rasas solved this problem. To identify the

taste of a drug was easy and the bhutika character of each Rasa was determined by observing its effects on Tridosa. For example, Madhura (sweet) Rasa settles Vata and Pitta and makes Kapha worse. It is known to be composed of Prithivi and Ap bhutas that are analogous to Kapha (consisting of the same bhutas) and different to Vata (because of solidity of Prithvi) and Pitta (because of coldness of Ap). Rasas became the index of the bhutika composition and pharmacological action of the drug and due to this reason Rasas occupied the most important position among the other perceptions of pharmacology.

 But such perceptions were not able to give satisfactory explanation of some phenomenon. For example, Pippali is pungent in taste but exerts anabolic effect on the body, which is different from its composition. Hence, it was inferred that the digestion also had to play a significant role on the fate of the drug, as all drugs have to pass through the digestive tract. The bhutika composition of the drug may persist as it is even after digestion, but in some cases it may be altered altogether fixing its future action. This phenomenon was explained by the concept of vipaka.

 During the Vedic period, it was believed that the action of drug was due to its inherent power, known as Virya. With the help of the law of Agreement in Presence and Absence, it was proved that the drug’s action relied solely on Virya. Virya was defined as having properties that produced similar ones in the body. At first, it was classified in to eight types on the basis of resultant actions, but later on divided into only two broad divisions: sita and usna.

 But Virya also could not explain the specific actions of drugs like emesis, purgation etc. It also could not explain the effects of magical charms, incantation etc. To explain the specific action of drug and also the subtle actions of divine therapy that could not be explained till now, a new concept known as Prabhava was developed.

 According to the Prabhava concept, the drug itself contains Guna (properties) and Karma (action). Properties may fix the nature and degree of Karma but Karma does not reside in Gunas but in Dravya. Drugs work on the basis of the law of similarity and contrariety, which means that drugs increase those body factors, that are similar in composition while decrease those that are contrary in the same.

 Although, some indications about all the above concepts are found in the Vedas, they are more clearly established in Ayurvedic Samhitas. The original treatises of Agnivesa etc. had built up the base laid down in the Vedic period but most likely it was only after the redaction of the ancient compendium by Caraka that these concepts attained their perfect state.



Drugs were classified on a different basis such as source, properties, action on different organs etc. Their action on different organs and organ systems were also defined in technical terms such as dipana, grahi etc. Caraka has defined fifty, while Susruta about thirty-seven groups of drugs. Various aspects of administration of drugs such as, amount, pharmaceutical forms, quantity etc. were also prescribed.

 Soma (known as the king of herbs) is described comprehensively in Rgveda. In CS and SS (Susruta Samhita) some other herbs that are supposed to contain divine powers (divya osadhi) like that of Soma were included, but as a result of non-availability and difficult access to them, these were dropped later in the Ayurvedic texts. Although these were dropped from the Ayurvedic texts, some other useful drugs replaced them and thus the number of drugs considerably increased from Rgveda and Atharvaveda to Ayurvedic Samhitas and to later Nighantus.  There are a large number of drugs that are not found in the Vedas. Sukanasa is not found in CS, but Susrata introduced it. In the same way, Gajacirbhata is found in AVS but is found neither in CS nor in SS. New synonyms were also discovered from time to time that added some extra information about the drugs, for example, a new synonym was coined by Susruta for Iksuraka. The synonym was Kokilaksaka that denotes the colour and the shape of the seeds. Similarly, Vagbhata has given the synonym Kasmiraja for Kunkuma that denotes its cultivation place Kashmir. He has also given the word Krimija for Laksa that tells that lac is originated from insects. Drahabala has also introduced many new drugs in CS such as Uccata that are found only in Dradhabla’s portion of CS. Nighantus strengthed the idea by introducing various new drugs such as Kupilu, Kumari etc. and coining the synonyms like Caksusya, Kasturi etc., but these were not mentioned in ancient Ayurvedic Samhitas. 

 In ancient times, spices, aromatics and other drugs were exported from India while other drugs like Bahlika (Hingu and Kesara), Madhuka (Glycyrrhiza) were imported to India, as India had trade connections with the outside world and drugs were exchanged through this route. The trade of Marica and Madhuka was also through the land-route and this is the reason they were also known as sthalapatha. Out of these Marica was exported and Madhuka was imported. 

 Literature on Drugs

The literature related to Dravyaguna is generally known as ‘Nighantu’. Nighantu contained synonyms that give a view about different characteristics of the entity and hence expose the hidden meanings. Nighantus in Ayurveda were also composed that give a description about drugs and food substances by the way of synonyms. It is believed that the ancient samhitas had nighantu as an appendix (in the body of their text). In the extant CS, the drugs and food substances are dealt mainly in bhesajacatuska and aharacatuska respectively and there is no Nighantu portion. A separate Nighantu named as Astanganighantu by Vagabhata came into existence on the drugs mentioned in AVH.

This tradition continues further and Nighantus like Paryaratnamala, Dravyavali, Madanadinighantu, Sabdacandrika, Nighantusesa, Hrdayadipaka and Sivakosa were composed.


But, these synonyms did not satisfy the physician who wanted to know more and more about the drug action with its rationale. As a result of this requirement, a new line of nighantus was started that along with synonyms, also described the various properties as well as the actions of drugs and foods. The initial form of this is seen in Vagbhata’s work where, drugs along with their actions and properties in a systematic order have been described under a separate heading. This tradition also developed with the composition of Dhanwantri-nighantu, Dravyagunasangraha, Sodhalanighantu, Madanavinoda, Kaiyadeva-nighantu, Rajanighantu and Bhavapakasa-nighantu. 

 Lexical Nighantus

Some important ones among the nighantus having only synonyms of drugs are described below:

1. Astanganighantu- The author is Vahata or Vahatacarya who is dated to 8th century CE. It contained the drugs enumerated in ganas of AVH. It also includes a section on miscellaneous drugs (Viprakirna dravya) that are outside the ganas.

 2. Siddhasaranighantu- It was composed by Ravigupta, son of Durgagupta, a Buddhist scholar. It contains 193 verses and a dravyavali at the end. It gives a description about the drugs coming in the ganas enumerated in the second chapter of the text. Emmerick has fixed its date at 7th century CE.

 3. Paryayaratnamala- It is popularly known as ‘Ratnamala” and was composed by Madhava, son of Indra Kara. According to Tarapada Choudhary the author of Madhavanidana and Paryaratnamala is the same and thus places him in the 7-8th century CE. But as the father of the author of Paryayaratnamala is Indra Kara while that of the Madhavanidana is Indukara, their identity cannot be proved. However, as Sarvanada quotes the Paryayaratnamala, it must be placed before that. Its date has been fixed at 9th century CE.

 4. Dravyavali- This is the source and ground material of the present Dhanvantarinighantu. It is not published.

 5. Haramekhalanighantu- This is composed by Mahuka, son of Madhava, grandson of Kavimandana and resident of Citrakuta. It is different from other nighantus, as it is in prose. The date of Haramekhla is fixed as 9th century CE.

 6. Madanadinighantu- It is also known by the name of Gananighantu as it deals with the drugs enumerated in madanadi gangs of AVH. The name of its author is Ravinandana. Candranandana as the author of the commenatary padarthacandrika of AVH. The following works of Candranandana are preserved in Tibetan Tanjur:

(a)   Vaidya Astangahrdayavrtti

(b)   Vaidya Astangahrdayavrttu bhesajanama-paryayanama

(c)    Padarthacandrika-prabhasa nama astanghradaya-vivrti

Pharmacological Nighantus

This group contains only one nighantu e.g. the Dhanwantarinighantu. Actually, it is a revised edition of Dravyavali that was enlarged by addition of properties and actions in description of each drug. Its author is Mahendra Bhogika. It is quoted by Ksirasvami (11th century CE) and as such is earlier than that. Later on some additions were made by Ahiphena, Agnijara, Jayapala etc. and also mercurial processing that belonged to 12-13 century CE hence, the date of Dhanvantarinighantu may be fixed at 10-13 century CE.


Raghunathan, K. and S.D.Dubey. 1992. Dravyaguna: Origin and Development: In (Ed) P.V. Sharma, History of Medicine in India. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy. Pp 391-397