Dhanvantari is referred to as ‘physician of the Devas’. The practitioners of Ayurveda celebrate Dhanvantari’s birthday on Dhanteras every year. It is believed in Hinduism that praying to Dhanvantari and seeking his blessings results in sound health for the worshippers.
But right throughout our history we see references to a lot of ‘Dhanvantars’ belonging to different periods of time, which raises confusion about the ‘real’ Dhanvantari. Was Dhanvantari just a mythological figure? Was there a ‘Dhanvantari’ who taught Ayurveda to Sushruta? This post is an attempt to seek answers to all these questions.
Before we proceed, let us first know the meaning of the word Dhanvantari.
The word Dhanvantari has 2 different interpretations:
(a) The word dhanus denotes the science of surgeryis and is only indicative (upalakshna). The one who has seen the end (anta) of it is Dhanvantari
(b) The word dhanvan means a desert. (Rigveda – V.36.1) .
So dhanvachara means he who moves in a desert
According to the sources we have, we find reference to four ‘major’ Dhanvantars. We will look at each of them.
1. Dhanvantari – the physician of the Gods
According to the popular legend, when the Gods and demons churned the ocean for Amrita or nectar, Dhanvantari emerged carrying a jar of the elixir on the day of Dhanteras.
There is a mantra in the Veda:
dhanvan iva prapaaasi
O Lord! You are like the place where water is distributed to travellers in a desert.
Thus, it is ‘believed’ that Dhanvantari is the incarnation of Lord Vishnu who came with a pot of nectar in His hand which is like prapaa (water spot) in the desert of worldly existence.
The Ramayana (Balakanda, Sarga 45) mentions Dhanvantari and describes him as a divine being who emerged from the milky ocean after a churning of 1000 years. He carried a kamandalu (water pitcher) in one hand and a danda (staff) in the other.
2. Sri Dhanvantari – the one who was taught Ayurveda by Sun
According to the tradition given in Brahmavaivartapurana, the creator of the universe, while studying the four Vedas, separated Ayurveda from them. He is then stated to have imparted the knowledge of this science to Bhaskara (Sun God). Surya, thereafter, wrote his own samhita on Ayurveda and taught the same to 16 disciples of whom Dhanvantari was the foremost. Each one of these 16 disciples, in his turn, wrote a separate treatise of his own.
3. Kasiraja Divodasa, surnamed Dhanvantari – believed to be an incarnation of the divine Dhanvantari and the one who taught Ayurveda to Sushruta
According to the Srimad Bhagavata Purana, it was Bhagavan Dhanvantari, who revealed Ayurveda to the world. He is worshipped even today as the presiding deity of medical science.
In the fourth shloka of Chapter 17 of Canto 9 of the Srimad Bhagavatam
kasyasya kasis tat-putro
The son of Kasya was Kasi, and his son was Rashtra, the father of Dirghatama. Dirghatama had a son named Dhanvantari, who was the inaugurator of the medical science and an incarnation of Lord Vasudeva, the enjoyer of the results of sacrifices. One who remembers the name of Dhanvantari can be released from all disease.
The only available work which fully reflects the contribution made by Kasiraja Devodasa Dhanvantari is the Susrutasamhita. It is seen from the opening passages of this work that Susruta, who was foremost among the disciples of the Kasipati, compiled the teachings of his preceptor.
Acharya Susruta has quoted Kasiraja Divodasa Dhanvantari as telling his pupils that “Ayurveda originally formed one of the sub-sections of Atharvaveda“.
The Visnupurana and the Harivamsa have, between them, furnished credible and consistent genealogical accounts of the dynasty to which Kasiraja Divodasa belonged.
The genealogical accounts, referred to above, show that Kasiraja Divodasa belonged to the royal line founded by Pururavas of the lunar dynasty.
According to the Harivamsa, Kasiraja Divodasa belonged to the line of Anena who was himself a descendant of Pururavas. Kasya, referred to in the Visnupurana genealogy, represents the fifteenth generation from Anena; Dhanvantari the third from Kasya and Divodasa the third form Dhanvantari.
Thus Dhanvantari, whom we may refer to as the Senior, was the great grandfather of Kasiraja Divodasa Dhanvantari.
Dhanvantari is stated to have divided the entire range of Ayurveda into eight divisions (the Astangas), each division representing a speciality. These specialities are:
(i) Kayacikitsa (Internal Medicine)
(ii) Kaumarabhrtya or Balacikitsa (Paediatrics)
(iii) Bhutavidya or Grahacikitsa (Psychiatry)
(iv) Salakyatantra (Otto-Rhino-Laryngology & Opthalmology)
(v) Salyatantra (Surgery)
(vi) Visatantra (Toxicology)
(vii) Rasayanatantra (Geriatrics)
(viii) Vajikaranatantra (The therapy for male sterility, impotency and the promotion of virility)
Several thousand years later, ‘modern medicine’ has been rediscovering many of the findings of the Kasipati and other early pioneers of Ayurveda.
4. Sri Dhanvantari – one of the ‘nine jewels’ that adorned the court of Samrat Vikramaditya.
There is mention of a Dhanvantari from the court of Samrat Vikramaditya where he was one of the Nine Jewels that adorned the court. This personality is said to be the author of ‘Dhanvantarinighantu’- a lexicon on drugs.
It is not appropriate to say whether Dhanvantari existed or not.
But it is very evident that all outstanding authorities on Ayurveda were honoured in ancient and medieval India with the honorific ‘Dhanvantari’.
Thus Dhanvantari refers not only to the progenitor of Ayurveda but is also associated with a rich medical tradition and a hierarchy in the history of medicine in India.
Let us seek the blessings of Dhanvantari through this mantra which has been taught in Ayurvedic colleges throughout India for several millennia.
Om shankham chakram jalaukam
dadhad amruta ghatam charu dorbhi chaturbhih
Sukshma svacch ati hridyam sukha pari vilasanam
maulim ambhoja netram
Kalam bhodojo valangam kati tata vilasan
charu pitam baradhyam
Vande dhanvantarim tam nikhila gada vanam
praudha davagni leelam
We bow to Lord Dhanvantari holding in his graceful four hands a Conch shell, a Wheel, a Leech and a pot of heavenly nectar.
Within whose heart shines the most pure and gentle beautiful blaze of light, which surrounds his head and emanates from his lotus eyes.
On the dark water whose body is luminous and gleaming.
Waist and thighs are covered in yellow cloth and by whose mere play
All diseases are vanquished as if by a mighty forest fire.