A Sanskrit scholar narrates a pandemic story from an ancient medical text warning about the perils of polluting nature and human health


Mary-Rose Abraham: For more than three decades, scientists have been warning us about climate change. The recently released IPCC report was the latest to tell us that if we don’t reduce emissions, the consequences are and will be disastrous for us and Earth.

But humans destroying the natural world is nothing new, and neither are the warnings we’ve heard all along. That’s why we’re re-visiting this story from ancient times. Every time we hear it, we’re surprised just how relevant it is to our current planetary crisis. 


MRA: Today we have a story for you. It’s a story set in ancient India, thousands of years ago. 

Gayathri Vaidyanathan: It takes place in Kampilya. That’s the capital of the ancient kingdom of Panchala. It was once ruled by a king whose daughter’s name was Draupadi. That’s a name you’ll probably recognize. She’s one of the main characters from the Mahabharata.

MRA: But our story doesn’t come from this Hindu epic. Instead, we’re looking at a completely different source. An ancient medical text. It’s a story from one of the oldest books on Ayurveda.

Dominik Wujastyk: We have two major encyclopedias that have survived to the present day, slightly bruised and battered, but we’ve got them. One is associated with the name Charaka and the other with the name Sushruta, who are editors of the versions that we have, and these works both have something to say about epidemics. So it is actually pretty wonderful that we can turn to a work written 2,000 years ago that actually describes epidemics.

MRA: That’s Dominik Wujastyk, and he’ll be narrating our story. 

GV: And as he said, it’s a story about epidemics and pandemics. With some surprising relevance to our current global situation.

MRA: The Ayurvedic texts were written in Sanskrit, so Dominik’s a good person to take us through it. He was the curator of the Sanskrit health and medical manuscripts at the Wellcome Library in England for two decades. And it’s a language he’s studied since college.

DW: When I was a PhD student in Pune, I had the opportunity to work with a wonderful, wonderful teacher, Vaman Balkrishna Bhagavat, who was a very eminent pundit working in Pune at that time, and this is in the late ‘70s. He was very revered and a very sweet, gentle man and spoke beautiful Sanskrit.

And because he didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Marathi, we only had Sanskrit as the common language. So he spoke to me in Sanskrit and I tried to speak back to him and gradually over a period of a year and working with him, I got a little bit able to speak Sanskrit. Mind you, we were speaking about Sanskrit grammar, about Panini and grammar. So it was a somewhat narrow topic that we were always talking about. I don’t think I could go to the market and buy my vegetables in Sanskrit.

But since that time, I haven’t really been in an environment where there was anybody to speak to or listen to. So it’s been a written and read language for me mostly.

GV: Dominik dusted off his Sanskrit and recited the first part of the story for us. 

DW: (Sanskrit) So, perhaps you didn’t need too much of it, but that gives some sense of the sound.

MRA: Dominik will tell us the full story … in English. This is your bonus episode of Scrolls & Leaves … called “Chatroom.” I’m Mary-Rose.

GV: And I’m Gayathri. A quick note before we get started. It would really help us if you could tell a friend about Scrolls & Leaves … or maybe even rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

MRA: Ayurveda is the oldest form of codified medicine in India. And to better understand our story, let’s quickly go over how it views the human body. 

DW: The central idea is that every person has their own very special constitution, particularly made of three substances: wind, bile and phlegm. A person may have too much or too little of one of these in their body, and that causes them to be ill. And so, the physician will look at the person. They will diagnose their particular type of personality and a balance of humors. And then they will come up with a remedy.

GV: Okay, so if everybody is different, how does ayurveda explain an epidemic or a pandemic, which is basically when everyone gets the same disease?

DW: In fact, 2,000 years ago, the Charaka samhita actually frames this as an explicit question. It actually asks this very question, how can we explain something that’s the same for everybody?

The compendium of Charaka was probably composed in the form in which we have it in the first or second century AD by an author Charaka himself who was a person we think. We don’t really know anything about him, except that he did this. He says that he is re-editing the work of his teacher, Agnivesha and Agnivesha’s teacher was someone called Atreya. 

So this is a story about Atreya. So Atreya is walking in Kampilya which is near Farrukhabad, in UP,  just sort of southeast of Delhi. By the way, in the description of Charaka, Lord Atreya is walking with his pupils on the banks of the river Ganges. But the river Ganges, the course of the river has moved today. So the main course of the Ganga is actually quite a long way away from modern Kampil. But there is an old riverbed of the old Ganges. You could actually see it on Google Maps, which is quite fun.

We have a good idea really down to a few kilometers about where this event may have happened, or at least where it was fictionally, if it’s fiction, where it was located fictionally but I don’t see any reason not to think that something like that this exactly this or something very like this may have happened. 

So yes, so Lord Atreya, Punarvasu Atreya, is walking on the banks of the Ganges at Kampil. And he’s surrounded by his pupils and Agnivesha, the teacher and sort of predecessor of Charaka, says we can see that the environment is going bad. There are worsening conditions. Partly it’s celestial events like the sun and the moon are a strange color. But also one can see that the plants are not thriving and the herbal medicines when we collect them are not as strong as they usually are. We’re not getting the quality that we would expect. 

And the teacher says yes, these are the signs of an impending epidemic. And it’s very important that you should collect as many herbs now as you can, while they are still as good as possible, because you’re going to need them when the epidemic strikes. And then Agnivesha asks the question that we’ve been talking about. He says, how can a single disease cause an epidemic all at once amongst people who do not have the same constitution, diet, body strength, sympathetic action, mentality or age? So when people are different in all of these categories, how can they all get the same disease? 

And the teacher Atreya answers, well yes, it’s true, that people are different. But there are conditions which are in common. And when these are discordant, diseases arise at the same time and with the same characteristics, and they cause the epidemic destruction of a locality. 

MRA: Does the story talk about what these kind of bad conditions would be?

DW: There’s some rather eloquent and beautiful descriptions about corrupt water, corrupt air, and so on. When describing, for example, what corrupted water looks like, they’ll talk about that it smells bad, the air smells bad. It hasn’t got the right color. And it tastes wrong, and it looks turbulent. But then also that water birds abandon it, and that there are not not many fish in it. And it’s unpleasant.

And it’s rather similar with Charaka’s description of air. He says if the air is wrong, if it’s stagnant, if it’s too harsh and gusty or too hot or too cold, too sort of damp at the wrong time, or if you hear howling sounds and so forth. It’s contaminated with bad smells, fumes, sand, dust or smoke, then the air is bad. So these are the kinds of description from 2,000 years ago, that were given by the professional doctors as ways of recognizing a degraded environment that was going cause the risk of pandemic outbreak. 

There’s one other element to the Ayurvedic explanation though, because in this ancient conversation at Kampil that is recorded for us, the conversation moves on. And Agnivesha, the student presses his teacher Atreya and says, what so you know, you’ve told me that the environment becomes corrupted, and that causes a whole lot of people to become ill all at once. But what causes the corruption? Why does that happen in the first place?

And Atreya, the teacher says it’s unrighteousness, it’s adharma and he particularly names the leaders, the rulers, the politicians. He says, when the leaders in a district or a city or a guild or a community, when they transgress virtue, they cause their people to live unrighteously. So he’s talking about how the lack of righteousness amongst the leaders of a country can spread out and affect everybody and lead to the degradation of social conditions. And the degradation of the environment.

GV: This is all feeling very familiar. I mean, it sounds so much like what’s causing the destruction of our environment now, and our current climate crisis. 

DW: We’re all used to rolling our eyes when we think about greedy corporations or the building of great factories that pump out pollution without control. So I think the connection between greed and the degradation of the environment is completely clear. I mean, we do all know that. It’s what the green movement is all about. It’s saying we need a different economic model. We need a different way of taxing people and corporations. And you know, we want all the things that modern corporate and capitalist structures have given us. You know, we like the modern world.

But if they’re unregulated or improperly regulated, then I think we do suffer from excess. The pooling of resources in one place. The growing gap between the rich and the poor. These are all well-known things that everybody’s talking about. And 2,000 years ago in India, the doctors were talking about it in very much the same terms.

I find it very interesting that these ancient texts are definitely based on observation. They are not as precise as we would like. They’re not talking like somebody from the year 2020 you know who’s with the whole of the scientific communications infrastructure that we have today. But given their situation in a much simpler agrarian and early urban civilization, 2,000 years ago, they are amazingly observant and they’re getting quite a lot of it right.

It seems to me there is a golden opportunity here to think seriously about what these ancient Ayurvedic texts are saying. The idea that we need to be curators of our environment. And that’s a strong message coming from the ancient Ayurvedic tradition, that you should look after the air, the water, the land and the cycle of the seasons, that these are things that are critical and that if we allow them to degrade through greed, through industry, through acquisitiveness, through adharma, then we will suffer. We will have epidemic diseases. And I don’t think even a modern epidemiologist would argue with that.

MRA: You were listening to Dominik Wujastyk on Chatroom on Scrolls & Leaves. If you want to learn more about the topics we discussed today, you can find some links on our website, www.scrollsandleaves.com. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks for another Chatroom. See you then.

Listen to An Ancient Pandemic Story here.

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