The Doctrine of the Three Humors in Traditional Indian Medicine and the Alleged Antiquity of Tamil Siddha Medicine

By Scharfe, Hartmut | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December 1999 | Go to article overview

The Doctrine of the Three Humors in Traditional Indian Medicine and the Alleged Antiquity of Tamil Siddha Medicine


Scharfe, Hartmut, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


1. SIDDHA AND AYURVEDA

THIS STUDY REALLY BEGAN IN 1968 at the Second World Tamil Conference in Madras, where the organizers had arranged for an exhibit of traditional Tamil medicine, with a large number of Siddha(1) practitioners present. Theirs was obviously an ancient art, and attempts have been made in recent decades to give it wider currency.(2) Just how old is Siddha medicine and how does it relate to the better known Ayurveda, since one can immediately see that they have much in common and are practiced side by side in south India? My interest was aroused, as one who had strayed from the family profession of medicine, and I felt an urge to bring light to this mystery of medical history.

Almost from the beginning I was confronted with conflicting claims put forth in the strongest terms. Tamil practitioners tend to insist on the highest antiquity for their tradition, whereas V. Raghavan, the noted Sanskrit scholar, once told me years ago that Siddha medicine is nothing but a derivative of Ayurveda. If one views these claims against the background of tension persisting between the propagandists of Tamil culture, on the one hand, and brahmins (even Tamil brahmins), on the other, which has marked much of this century, one might be tempted to reject both claims as biased. But the claim of Ayurveda is backed by one obvious trump card: the terminology of Siddha medicine is overwhelmingly based on Sanskrit. Siddha texts speak of the three tatu or tocam, i.e., vata, pittam, and cilettumam, undeniably Tamil reflections of Sanskrit dhatu, dosa, vata, pitta, and slesman, as the basic constituents of the body; the same is true for much of the anatomical vocabulary: kayam 'body,' nadi 'nerve, artery,' nayana 'eye' are found even in the titles of various Siddha texts, such as Kaya-karpa, Nadi-nul, Nayana-viti.

One Siddha practitioner countered (in conversation) with the argument that it was fashionable for many centuries to replace old Tamil names and terms with more "prestigious" Sanskrit expressions, just as we see a replacement of the old place names Cirrampalam (frequently in the seventh-century Tevaram; e.g., at 1.1) or Tillai (Tiruvacakam 8.5) with today's Citamparam (Chidambaram)(3); older Kutantai and Kuta-mukku "Pot-nose" by Kumpakonam (i.e., Kumbha-ghona).(4) Still, it would be difficult to accept such a massive change of terminology in a medicine that--at least in minds and statements of contemporary practitioners(5)--prides itself in being distinctively Tamil.

Several authors have attempted to demonstrate the high antiquity of Siddha medicine by alleged references to Siddha practices in the old Sangam literature.(6) We can see that these references to human anatomy and certain treatments indicate that two thousand years ago the Tamils had knowledge of and names for certain parts of the human body (who would have doubted that?) and that they knew of some practices of treatment and healing. The word maruntu "medicine, medication" is common in the Sangam poems, and there are references to medical men maruttuvan (pl. maruttuvar); two poets have the word attached to their names: Maruttuvan Tamotaranar (i.e., Damodara)(7) and Maruttuvan Nallaccutanar.(8) Some form of medical practice can probably be found in any society; but there is nothing that points specifically to the practice of Siddha or of Ayurveda medicine in the time of the Sangam poetry.

The first reference to Ayurveda is found in Cilappatikaram V.44, where ayulvetar "experts in Ayurveda" are said to live in the center of town next to priests and astrologers.(9) The Cilappatikaram is one of the later Sangam texts and is now tentatively dated by K. Zvelebil to about A.D. 450.(10) Still later, probably, is the Tirukkural,(11) which states in stanza 941: "The three, having wind (vali) as first, as they (i.e., these three)(12) increase or diminish, will cause disease (noy)." This is an obvious reference to the wind, bile, and phlegm that play a crucial role in the pathology of both Siddha medicine and Ayurveda. …

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