Asclepius and Dhanvantari

Asclepius and Dhanvantari – The Gods of Allopathy and Ayurveda


Story of Dhanvantari in Hindu medicine is as distinct as of Asclepius –the Greek God of Medicine.  Asclepius’ snake entwined rod is the symbol of modern medicine.  Asklepius was rescued by his father Apollo by cutting open the womb of his dead mother laid on funeral pyre.  Asklepius learnt medicine from his father, while others believe that the serpent licked his ears to pass on the secret knowledge of healing.  Name of each of the five daughters of Asklepius is associated with one or other aspect of good health.

Dhanvantari’s tale is different though similarly entangled in layers of mystery of healing and treatment powers.  There is mention of Dhanvantari in the Vedas as well as the Puranas, the Hindu religious texts.  There are several different legends surrounding the birth and powers of Dhanvantari.  It is also believed that Dhanvantari might represent a lineage of the healers or a tradition of healing which passed on to generations since time immemorial.

There is a famous tale in “Bhagavata Purana” about the God of Medicine in Hinduism.  On the advice of Lord Vishnu, both the gods (devas) and the demons (asuras) were looking for the nectar (Amrita) lying deep in the Ocean of Milk to gain immortality.  They joined together to churn the sea with the help of a huge mountain (Mandara) as the axle and the serpent (Vasuki) used as the rope around the axle.  A number of valuable items were churned out – a cow (Kamdhenu) which yielded enormous quantities of milk, the flying horse, the white elephant, moon and nymphs.  Finally emerged Dhanvantari, a handsome god with four hands, Clad in bright yellow silk, the god had a pitcher of nectar, a couch shell (Sankha), a wheel (chakra) and golden leech (jalookaa).   He laid the foundation of Indian tradition of medicine – the Ayurveda.

Myth and mystery have surrounded the origin of different systems of medicine though the Allopathy and ‘Ayurveda’ remain the two most commonly practiced systems of medicine in the Indian context.  Asklepius is the symbol of healing in modern medicine even though there is no mention of any treatise or text which can be directly attributed to him.  He was also believed to possess the powers to revive the dead.  He infused life into Hippolytus, son of Theseus who died following a tragic fall of a chariot after being exiled by his father.  Asklepius was killed by Zous, the Thunder God who was not happy at his action.  Later on, Asklepius is also said to be placed in the sky as a constellation of starts – ophiucus (serpent  bearer).

Dhanvantari carried a pitcher of nectar in his hand.  The pot was snatched by the ‘asuras’ potentially depriving the ‘devas’ of immortality.  Lord Vishnu therefore appeared after Dhanvantari in different incarnation of an enchanting damsel, Mohini who tricks the asuras to distribute the nectar to the ‘devas’ thus imparting them with immortality.  The true foundation of modern medicine was laid later by Hippocrates in 4th and 5th century BC.  Hippocratic oath specifically invoked Apollo, Asklepius his daughters – Hygeia and Panacea.

Both the examples also demonstrate how earlier narrations, sometimes believed to be mythical grew in a systematic fashion to develop into modern medicine which appears to be more logical as per our current beliefs and knowledge.  Immortality or revival from death seemed to remain the core of medical practice since the early periods.  There are different stories of prolongation of life and rervival from near death situations.  Death has not been conquered.  It again reminds of Asklepius who was prohibited to revive the dead by Zeus without his approval.

There were temples of both Asklepius and Dhanvantari where followers used to worship them for good health.  Dhanvantari continues to be worshipped by a large number of Hindus on ‘Dhanteras’ – two days before Diwali.  The day is considered as most auspicious for purchase of utensils or costly items of silver and gold to propagate prosperity.  There are a number of Dhanvantari temples particularly in some of the states of Southern India.

Asklepius temples were famous for their healing powers.  At some temples, sacred dogs were used to lick the wounds of sick patients while non-venomous snakes were left slithering on the floors where patients slept.

Both Dhanvantari and Asklepius have attained immortality even though they could not impart it to others.  Dhanvantari continues to teach a large number of students of Ayurveda through a number of colleges and institutions spread in India.  On the other hand, every student of modern medicine swears in the name of Asklepius in the Hippocratic oath.  Hippocrate, the “father of medicine” himself had possibly learnt at an Asklepius temple on the island of Kor.