The logic and beauty within Sanskrit that is needed to enjoy the Rasayana and Sasya sastras
By Ms Shanteri Pai Kochikar, VTT Scholar for the year 2003-04 and student, Mount Carmel College, Bangalore

In Sanskrit, there are 65 words to describe the various forms of earth, 67 words for water and over 250 words to describe rainfall.  Most Indian languages have borrowed much of their vocabulary and forms of expression from Sanskrit, not surprisingly, since this classical language is the oldest and the most systematic language in the world!  

The credit for systematising Sanskrit goes to the Sanskrit grammarians who wished to construct a perfect language which would belong to no one, and hence, belong to all; which would not develop and yet remain an ideal instrument of communication and culture for all people for all times to come. Thus was born a language "more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin and more exquisitely refined than either" (William Jones, Supreme Court judge, 18th century). 


Agriculture, Horticulture and Medicine had developed to a great extent during the Vedic period.  In the literature of the time, we can find several terms used to describe plants and plant parts, both external features and internal structures.  There are also definite attempts to classify plants and evidence that use of manure and rotation of crops were practised for the improvement of the fertility of the soil and nourishment of plants. The contents of the earliest of the four Vedas, the Rig Veda, show that the Vedic Indians had some knowledge about the action of light on the process of food manufacture by plants and storage of energy in the body of plants. 

In the post-Vedic Indian literature, there is enough evidence to show that Botany, or Vrikshayurveda, developed as an independent science on which were based:

¨  the science of Medicine (as embodied in the Charaka and Sushruta Samhitas);

¨  the science of Agriculture (as embodied in the Krishi Parasara); and

¨  Arbori Horticulture (as illustrated in the Upavana Vinoda). 

From literary evidence, it is clear that even in the first millennium BC, botany was fully systematized in India and taxonomy was well developed.  Parasara's Vrikshayurveda, composed between 1st century BC to 1st century AD is considered to be the most ancient work in pure Botany. 

Do plants have life? How do they cook their own food?

Ancient Indians believed that plants possessed consciousness.  Manu recorded that plants are capable of perceiving both pleasure and pain. Various Sanskrit texts, a thousand years or older, deal with the questions of plant life, their consciousness and nourishment, in some form or the other. 

¨  Vyasa's Mahabharata: "The tree sucks water from its base with force, and along with air, water is drawn up the tree." 

¨  Parasara's Vrikshayurveda: "The watery sap obtained from the earth is transported from the root up to the leaf through the syandana (xylem).  There it gets digested with the help of ranjakena pachyamanat (chlorophyll) into nutritive substances and a by product.

¨  Udayana's Prithviniraparyam: "In plants there is life, death, sleep, waking, disease, drugging, transmission Current Event of specific characters by means of ova, movement towards what is favourable and away from what is unfavourable",

¨  Dharmottara's Nyayavindutika "Plants sleep by contracting their leaves at night",

¨  Gunaratna's Saddarsana Samucchaya Enumerates the differenct characteristics of the life of plants,

¨  Sankaramisra's Upaskara "After a wound or laceration, there is natural recuperation due to the growth of organs."

Ancient Indian literature also deals with germination, reproduction, sexuality and heredity of plants. 

Plant Morphology (form and structure of plants) 

The Atharva Veda is, perhaps, the earliest record of plant morphology.  Based on the growth habit of trees, it classifies them into eight varieities:

¨  Visakha (spreading branches)

¨  Manjari (leaves with long clusters)

¨  Sthambini (bushy plants)

¨  Prastanavati (which expands)

¨  Ekasrnga (those with monopodial growth)

Current Event ¨  Pratanavati (creeping plants)

¨  Amsumati (with many stalks)

¨  Kandini (plants with knotty joints) 

Morphological classification of plants was also done on the basis of their texture, colour, taste, surface, roots, leaflets, etc.  And, it is amazing that the adjectives that were used in these classifications a couple of thousand years ago are words that continue to be used in the same sense, even today!  Amla patra, obviously referred to sour leafed plants, while mrdu patra are soft leafed ones.  Romasa patri, you could guess would have been used to describe a leaf with a hairy outgrowth, while bahupatrika  would be a leaf with a number of leaflets.  Suksmamula referred to plants having thin roots, and sakha sipha, to plants which had roots originating from their branches. 

That our ancient botanists had made a minute study of plants is also evident from the Sanskrit botanical terms that have been used in the literature of ancient India, for example gucchaka (for a type of inflorescence), paraga (pollen), jalaka (calyx) and varataka (pistil).   

Plant Pathology (Causes and Cures for Plant Diseases) 

¨  Gunaratna, in his Saddarsana Samucchaya observes that plants are afflicted by diseases and respond to treatment, just like human beings. 

¨  Varahamihira, in Brihat Samhita says that plant diseases are caused by cold climate, wind or the sun and the indications are the yellowness of the leaves, non- or under-development of the buds, dryness of the branches and exudation of the sap.  He also prescribes the treatment for the conditions.

¨  The Atharvaveda explains the destruction of corn due to insect pests

¨  Vinaya, a famous Buddhist text, describes blight and mildew diseases.

¨  Sukraniti gives a detailed account of danger to grains from various agents such as fire, snow, worm, insect, etc. 

Plant Taxonomy (classification into related groups)

In ancient India, plants were generally classified in accordance with three distinct principles -

¨  botanical (udbhida),

¨  medicinal (virecanadi) and

¨  dietetic (annapanadi). 

Sometimes, they were named to highlight their peculiarities, for eg. Vakrapuspa (for a plant bearing curved flowers), Ghantapushpa (for one having bell shaped flowers) and Mahamohi (for Datura alba, a great intoxicant). 

Amara, in his lexicon, Amarakosa, devotes an entire chapter - Vanaushadivarga - to classification of medicinal plants.  Therein, plants are identified under three categories -

¨  Mushrooms (Chitra, Atichatra and Phalghna)

¨  Parasites (Vanda and Vrikshadani)

¨   Epiphytes (Vriksharuha and Jivantika) 

In his Vrikshayurveda, Parasara developed a more elaborate classification. 

Plant Anatomy

A study of the internal structure of plants could be possible only with the help of the compound microscope.  But, our ancient scientists and seers appear to have made some of the most remarkable anatomical observations, several centuries before the microscope was invented!  

Parasara's description of the plant cell is a more detailed study than Robert Hooke's, though the latter is credited with having discovered the cell in the 17th century.  Parasara notes:

            The internal structure of the leaf consists of innumerable compartments, which are filled with sap.  They are the storehouse of sap (rasarayah) and covered by a boundary-cell (panchabhautika gunasamanvita) as well as a colouring principle (ranjakayukta) and cannot be isible to the naked eye.  The thin boundary originates from a fluid (kalaladupajayate) (which is called protoplasm by the modern botanists).   

How our ancient botanists could have made their discoveries is a matter of conjecture at present, though one of you could, perhaps, research the question in the future and come up with amazing results!  


Two factors gave an impetus to the development of Chemistry in ancient India.  These were the age-old desires of human beings to live forever and to get rich! 

The story of early Indian Chemistry begins in the Indus Valley (2600-1900 BC).  Chemical knowledge related to medicine was compiled in the Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita - the celebrated treatises on medicine and surgery, respectively.  Kautilya's Arthasastra described the production of salt and collection of shells, diamonds, pearls and corals.   

Pottery was mass-produced.  This could be regarded as the earliest chemical process, as large quantities were mixed, moulded and fired to achieve desirable qualities.    Polished grey pottery known today as Painted Grey Ware was unique to the period 1000-400 BC.  Northern black polished ware, which belonged to a later period, 600-200 BC, exhibits a golden gloss, which is still a chemical mystery as attempts to replicate it have not succeeded.

Burnt bricks were used for making houses, drains, boundary walls and public baths.   

Even cement had been used in construction!  A well in Mohenjodaro was found to have been built with gypsum cement - a mixture of sand, clay, calcium carbonate and lime!

Glass,which is a fused solid mixture of a number of substances like lime, sand, alkali and metallic oxides, have been made in India since 1000 BC.  In fact, the art was quite widespread and a high degree of perfection had been achieved. Glass of various kinds - coloured, colourless, transparent and opaque - have been found in Maski in south India (1000-900 BC), Hastinapur and Takshashila (1000-200 BC).  A traditional glass factory was discovered at Kopia in Basti district, Uttar Pradesh.  Medieval glass furnaces have been found at Mysore, and the art of glass making flourished in the Mughal period as well. 

Paper was used in India in the 7th century AD and the main medieval paper making centres were Sialkot, Zafarbad, Murshidabad, Ahmedabad and Mysore.  Soaps, dyes, cosmetics, perfumes, ink and alcoholic beverages were all made in India more than two millenia ago. 

Medicines were chiefly derived from plants, but several preparations involved processes like dissolution, distillation, sublimataion, precipitation, combustion, dilution and decocting.  The early invention of distillation in India, in fact, helped the production of pure zinc of industrial standards even in medieval India. 

Firearms have been mentioned in ancient Sanskrit texts and Rasopanishada - a text on alchemy - actually describes the preparation of gunpowder.  Sukranitisara, a 16th century AD text, gives the specific proportions of saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur and charcoal that are needed to make gunpowder. 

Mercurywas considered as the most potent of all substances and as possessing divine properties.  The silvery white metal had to undergo 18 processes of purification before it could be used for transforming base metals into noble ones or consumed internally to confer longevity or even immortality on human beings!   

Judith H Morrison, in her book, The Book of Ayurveda: A Holistic Approach to Health and Longegity says, "The logic and beauty within Sanskrit reflect the two levels needed to appreciate Ayurveda fully."  An understanding of this logic and beauty within Sanskrit is also needed to appreciate the Sasyashastra (Botany) and Rasayanashastra (Chemistry), developments and discoveries in which contributed greatly to the formulation of Ayurvedic principles.

 Shanteri Pai Kochikar was the VTT Scholar for the year 2003-04.  This article is based on the mandatory lecture that every VTT scholar is required to give under the auspices of Sri Tirunarayna Trust, based on the student's findings pertaining to the relevance of Sanskrit in modern times.