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Ancient Greek Art of Medicine Still Practiced in Today’s India

Ancient Greek medicine
The Ancient Greek Art of Medicine is Still Practiced in Today’s India. credit: Wellcome Images/ wikimedia commons CC-BY-4.0

The Ancient Greeks gifted India numerous things, including architecture, sculpture, coins, amazing food, and the Greek language and script. However, one of the greatest gifts was the ancient Greek art of medicine, or “Unani” as Indians refer to it.

The term “Unani” is an alternation of the word “Ionian” since Ionian Greeks were the first Greeks that came in contact with the Indians.

The Hellenized king of North India, Kanishka (1st century CE), patronized traditional Indian medicine experts (Ayurveda), such as Charak and Sushruta, who are still considered amongst the greatest scholars of the ancient Indian school of medicine. Surprisingly, ancient Greek medicine has much in common with this Indian system of medicine, but one may wonder how this came to be.

Hippocratic Oath or Maharishi Charak Shapath?

Illustration of the story of Hippocrates refusing the presents of the Achaemenid Emperor Artaxerxes
Illustration of the story of Hippocrates refusing the presents of the Achaemenid Emperor Artaxerxes. Painting by Girodet, 1792. Credit: Public Domain

Recently, in Madurai, India, the Dean of the Madurai Medical College was removed after students took the Maharshi Charak Shapath, an Ancient Indian oath for doctors, instead of the usual customary Hippocratic Oath. In February of this year, the National Medical Commission (NMC) recommended that the Maharshi Charak Shapath replace the Hippocratic Oath in medical colleges throughout India.

However, Union Health Minister of India, Dr. Mansukh Mandaviya said that it will not be forced on medical students and will, on the contrary, be optional after the Indian Medical Association (IMA) rejected this modification.

The irony is that this is probably quite unnecessary, as Kanishka was a thoroughly Hellenized king who patronized Maharishi Charak and made him his court physician. But the question is, if such is the case, then why should the Hippocratic Oath be replaced by the Maharishi Charak Shapath?

In fact, there is no need for such a change, as it is known that the ancient Greek system of medicine and Ayurveda co-existed in India. Indeed, for centuries, both have been promoting the noble cause of health throughout India collaboratively.

Greek Medicine, or Unani Tibb

Unani medicine was developed in ancient Greece and is based on the teachings of Hippocrates and Gallen.

The oldest and most predominant of all is Asclepius, who is portrayed as a tribal chief and a skilled wound healer—rather than a practitioner of medicine—since physicians did not seem to be much appreciated at the time. In Homeric times, physicians were of inferior standing and considered craftsmen rather than noblemen.

In the Odyssey, physicians are placed in a class with other itinerant laborers, and in the Homeric epic, Asclepius is not even recognized as the son of the god Apollo (Homer, 1925). It is only after 700 B.C. with the Asklepion myth told by Hesiod and many others that Asclepios becomes the son of the god Apollo and therefore a semi-god.

This upgrading of Asclepius’ position signified an upgrading of medicine and a simultaneous re-orientation of medical care, as per Yannis Tountas from the Center for Health Services Research Department of Hygiene and Epidemiology at the University of Athens Medical School.

Asclepius (center) arrives in Kos and is greeted by Hippocrates (left) and a citizen (right), mosaic, 2nd–3rd century AD.
Asclepius (center) arrives in Kos and is greeted by Hippocrates (left) and a citizen (right), mosaic, 2nd–3rd century AD. Image source: Wikipedia.

Asclepius represents the healing aspect of the medical arts. Of all the traditional medical systems being practiced today, ancient Greek medicine has the most in common with Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of medicine. Both systems are constitutionally based and deal with the relative balance of certain vital fluids or humors and changes in lifestyle as needed to foster health. Each humor, or dosha as called in India, has its own basic constitutional type, and mixed types exist.

Hippocrates used the concept of the four humors. Although the groundwork of humoral physiology and pathology had already been laid by his predecessors, Hippocrates finally brought the theory of the four humors into its classical form. During the 13th to 17th centuries, as formerly mentioned, ancient Greek medicine had its heyday in India. Amongst those who made valuable contributions to this system at the specified time period were, to name but only a few, Abu Bakr bin Ali Usman Kashani, Sadruddin Dimashqui, Bahwa bin Khwas Khan, Ali Geelani, Akbar Arzani, and Mohammad Hashim Alvi Khan.

At present, the ancient Greek system of medicine, with its own recognized practitioners, hospitals and educational and research institutions, forms an integral part of the national healthcare delivery system of India. The government of India provides increasing support and funds for the manifold development of ancient Greek medicine as well as other indigenous medical systems to take full advantage of these systems in healthcare and delivery to the masses.

Principals of Greek Medicine

Apollo, Chiron and Asklepios, 1st century AD fresco from Pompeii.
God Apollo, Chiron the Centaur, and Asclepius, 1st century AD fresco from Pompeii. Image source: Wikicommons.

Hippocrates once said: “The body of man has in itself blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile; these make up the nature of the body, and through these he feels pain or enjoys health. Now, he enjoys the most perfect health when these elements are duly proportioned to one another in respect to compounding, power and bulk, and when they are perfectly mingled.  Pain is felt when one of these elements is in defect or excess, or is isolated in the body without being compounded with all the others.”—The Nature of Man 

As per the book Hippocrates in a World of Pagans and Christians, by O. Temkin, the  ancient Greeks’ apprehension of health and illness was based on the theory of the four so-called fluids. These were blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. In turn, these were premised on the theory of the four elements—fire, earth, water, and air—and their four corresponding qualities—heat, dry, humid, and cold. All these theories have as a starting point the number four. The number four was of great significance for Pythagorean philosophy, which dominated the pre-Socratic period. 

The Turkistani Family, Strong Proponents of Greek Medicine

Lord Harding, the then Viceroy (in centre) in a meeting at Sharif Manzil, residence of Hakim Ajmal Khan (in front, second from left).
Lord Harding, the then Viceroy (in center) in a meeting at Sharif Manzil, residence of Hakim Ajmal Khan (in front, second from left). Image source: Government of Delhi.

Many eons later, this system of medicine developed into an elaborate medical system by the efforts of Arabs, such as Rhazes, Avicenna, Al-Zahravi, and Ibne-Nafis among others.

The chief ancestors of the family to which Hakim Ajmal Khan, a great scholar of ancient Greek medicine in India, belonged and originated from, were residents of Kashgar, the famous city of Turkistan in Central Asia, which is now in modern-day China. His ancestor, who came to India, held a leading place in the service of the Emperor Babur. When Babur invaded India, Hakim Ajmal Khan’s ancestor was given the command of one thousand horses.

He was a close companion in all the Emperor’s adventures. Hakim Mahmud Khan was the father of Hakim Ajmal Khan, and Hakim Sharif Khan was his honored grandfather. Hakim Ajmal Khan had a very large ancient Greek medical practice in not only Delhi but in the whole of northern India, and people throughout India turned to and consulted him. His house in Delhi was famous for it’s open-hearted hospitality. During his days, the School of Unani (Greek) Medicine at Delhi became celebrated not merely in Delhi itself but throughout the Middle East, Near East, and even all the way to Constantinople, Cairo, and Bokhara.

According to C.F. Andrews, a supporter of India’s freedom from British rule, there were students from countries as distant as Turkistan and the Former Yugoslav Republics at the ‘Tibbiya’—the college of Greek medicine of the Turkistani family.

The Turkistani Doctor of Greek Medicine

Hakim Ajmal Khan, Turkistani Indian practitioner of Greek medicine.
Hakim Ajmal Khan, Turkistani Indian practitioner of ancient Greek medicine. Image source: Government of Delhi.

Hakim Ajmal Khan completed his studies of ancient Greek medicine under Hakim Abdul Jamil of the Siddiqui Dawakhana in Delhi. Hakim Ajmal Khan believed that Greek and Ayurvedic medical systems should work together in tandem. To this end, he founded the Ayurveda and Unani (Greek) Tibbiya College in Karol Bagh in Delhi. Ajmal Khan traveled quite a lot, and it was naturally at Constantinople that he stayed the longest. There, he was entertained and given permission to see all that would help him in his establishment of a medical college at Delhi.

The visit to Constantinople made a lasting impression upon him, and it was, in fact, after his visit to Constantinople that his deeper interest in the Turkish question pertaining to the sustenance of the Ottoman Caliphate began. He also spent many days at Cairo and visited El Azhar. In both Egypt and Turkey, he found many of his old students, and they became re-acquainted. He was given the warmest of welcomes.

Hakim Ajmal Khan took a keen interest in promoting the expansion of ancient Greek medicine, thereafter, and thus actually founded a total of three institutions. The first was the Central College in Delhi while the second was the Hindustani Dawakhana, his dispensary of Greek medicines. The third of these was the Ayurveda and Unani (Greek) Tibbiya College in Karol Bagh in New Delhi.

Another institution that Hakim Ajmal Khan was instrumental in founding was Aligarh Muslim University in Aligarh in the state of Uttar Pradesh. This was under the directorship of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, which still has a Tibbiya College named after him. In opposition to the more traditional Lucknow school, Hakim Ajmal Khan proposed the absorption of Western ideas and concepts into the Greek system of medicine.

Functioning Indian Colleges Dedicated to Greek School of Medicine

A view of the Ayurvedic and Unani Tibbia College (Circa 2000).
A view of the Ayurvedic and Unani Tibbiya College (Circa 2000). Image source: Government of Delhi.

There are several medical colleges dedicated to the study of the ancient Greek art of medicine in India. The National Institute of Unani (Greek) Medicine (NIUM) Bangalore is as an autonomous organization under the Indian government which has been in operation since 2004. This institute is being further developed as a model of post graduate study, teaching, training, and research in the ancient Greek system of medicine.

There are currently forty-six medical colleges in India teaching ancient Greek medicine as per The National Commission for Indian System of Medicine, a statutory body constituted under the 2020 NCISM Act. The ancient Greek school of medicine has received official state protection in India, and the state has been playing an active role in promoting it. Hence, like many other Greek elements in India, even ancient Greek medicine has been influenced by local knowledge. Indeed, this is indicative of the evolvement of knowledge throughout the centuries, the result of which is the years and years of sharing and caring.

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