Indian Journal of Dermatology
: 2013  |  Volume : 58  |  Issue : 6  |  Page : 413--416

Skin in health and diseases in Ṛgveda saṃhiṭa: An overview

Amiya Kumar Mukhopadhyay 
 Consultant Dermatologist, Skin Clinic, Asansol, West Bengal, India

Correspondence Address:
Amiya Kumar Mukhopadhyay
DQPranabDQ Ismile (Near Dharmaraj Mandir), Asansol - 713 301 Dist-Burdwan, West Bengal


Ṛgveda is the oldest religious book of the Aryans. It picturises the early lives of the Aryans. We get mention of various diseases in this Veda. Skin - both in health and diseases had caught attention of the Vedic sages. Skin was not merely an organ of attraction and look but its colour was important socially. Mentions of various diseases like leprosy, guinea worm, jaundice etc., are interesting. Mention of different disorders of the nails and hair are also there, though in a very primitive and mystic form. Management strategy was consisted of herbs, amulates, chanting of mantras, touching the body, uses of water and sunrays etc. This may be presumed that this Veda founded the base for the Βyurveda of the later period.

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Mukhopadhyay AK. Skin in health and diseases in Ṛgveda saṃhiṭa: An overview.Indian J Dermatol 2013;58:413-416

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The oldest religious documents of the Aryans, the Vedas and the Āvestā, are not only a collection of religious texts but also represent the various aspects of the ancient Aryan life. The exact period of origin of the Vedas could not be ascertained. Famous Vedic scholars like Maxmullar, Kaegi and others, although not very certain, placed the beginning of the Vedic literature during the 13th century B.C., or even earlier.[1],[2],[3],[4] Ṛgveda is considered the oldest of all Vedas.[5],[6]

The word “Veda” literally stands for “Knowledge,” and is derived from the Sam. skr.t “Vid,” philologically related to Greek “(F) oἶδα,” Gothic “wait,” German “weiss,” Latin “vid,” English “wit,” etc.[7] The vast literature of the Vedas were systematically compiled and divided into four parts: the Ṛk, the Sāma, the Yajur and the Atharva. The Ṛgveda Saṃhitā is divided into 10 mandalas or books containing ṛks; each ṛk is again divided into verses of two stanzas. There are 1028 sūkṭas and 10552 ṛks in this Veda.[3],[4]

Of the four Vedas, the medical topics have been dealt primarily in the Atharvaveda, and the subject has been thoroughly discussed by various authorities.[8],[9] The Ṛgveda in contrast contains a lesser extent of medicine, and it requires further study and critical appreciation. This present article has endeavored to search, compile and discuss skin, its various diseases and related subjects. Before we proceed further, we should keep in mind that the medical terminology and/or meaning of the disease(s) (e.g., leprosy) may not be the same as we mean it today. For proper pronunciation of the Vedic hymns, diacritical marks have been used and a table of transliteration has been appended [Table 1].{Table 1}

 Medicine (Health Science) in the Vedas

The study of the Vedic medicine has attracted scholars from all over the globe. Although a religious text, the Vedic literature gives an idea regarding the diseases, the philosophy and way of management in the ancient world, although in a primitive and mystic manner. This gigantic literature “represented the very best in speculative thinking apart from containing numerous references on drugs, diseases and stars.”[10] It is clearly evident that there were healers for the diseases during the Vedic era:

“śaṭaṃ ṭe rājan bhiṣajah sahasraṃ urvī gabhirā sumaṭiṣṭe asṭu.” Ṛgveda.I.24.9.

“O King, hundreds, nay, thousands are your healers (then why are you suffering so?)”[11]

In this period of the magico-religious medicine, the diseases were largely considered either a wrath of various gods and supernatural powers or a noxious act of the demons. Even then, a rich pharmacopoeia widely spread in the Vedic literature is quiet significant. It has been rightly mentioned: The Oṣadhi-śukta is the first documentary evidence of the study of plants botanically and pharmacologically.[12] Various sages like Āngirasas, Sāmbu, Jamadagni, and Kaśyapa were well known for their expertise in discovering and recognizing new herbs for remedial purposes.[13] The mention of tṛdhatu in the Ṛgveda may indicate a rudimentary beginning of the tṛdosa theory - the theory of three humors by indicating vāyu (air), pitta (bile) and kapha (phlegm).[13]

 Skin Care in Everyday Life

Along with the mention of skin ailments in the Ṛgveda, the care of the skin in health was also given an important place. The daily care of the skin and use of perfumes was very much prevalent:

“imā nārirvidhavāh supatnīrānjanena sarpiṣā saṃ viśaṃtu.”

“Let these unwidowed dames with noble husbands adorn themselves with fragrant balm and unguent.” Ṛgveda.X.18.7.

Hair styling and hair care were also very popular among both sexes:

“śwityanco yatra namasā kapadirno dhiyā dhīvanto asapanta tṛtsabah.”

“There where the white robed Tṛtsus with their braided hair, skilled in song worshiped you with homage and hymn.” Ṛgveda. VII.83.8.

 Skin, Hair and Nail and Their Diseases

Among the diseases, leprosy, hair diseases, etc., were mentioned repeatedly in the Ṛgveda: “…ghoṣāyai cit pitṛṣade duroṇe patiṃ jūryantyā aśvinau adattam.” Ṛgveda.I.117.7, 19.

Ghoṣā was healed from her leprosy and could get married by the grace of the divine physicians Aśvins. Similar incidence has been mentioned in the hymn I.117.8 where the physician duo, Aśvins cured Śyāva of leprosy.

The hymn 50 of Book VII gives a picture of a condition that is very much indicative of the guinea worm disease affecting the skin and other body parts:

“yadvijāmanparuṣi bandanaṃ bhubadastībantou pari kulphou ca dehaṃ

agnistacchocannapa bādhatāmito mā māṃ padyena rapasya bidattasaruh.”

“Eruption that appears upon the twofold joints, and that which overspreads the ankles and the knees, May the refulgent Agni banish far away: let not the winding worm touch me and wound my foot.” Ṛgveda. VII.50.2.

The word rapas used in these verses was imagined to be an activity of the demon, probably a worm-like creature (? guinea worm) that used to affect the feet and joints causing wound.

Yellowness of the body or jaundice has been mentioned in Book I:

“śukeṣu me harimāṇaṃ ropaṇākāsu dadhmasi atho hāridraveṣu me harimaṇaṃ ni dadhmasi.”

“Rising this day, O rich in friends, ascending to the loftier heaven, Surya, remove my heart disease, take from me this my yellow hue” Ṛgveda.I.50.12.

Hair disorders have also found place in this Veda: Verse 126.7 of Book I perhaps was an example of hypertrichosis - a condition considered an annoying feature in female during this period. On the contrary, scanty hair was also considered as a setback for a lady. Apālā, the Ṛṣikā of the hymns, had some hair disease and in the verse could be seen praying for the growth of hair in her body as well as on her father's scalp:

“imāni trīṇi viṣṭapā tānīndra bi rohaya śirastatasyorbarāmādidaṃ mā upodare.”

“O Indra, cause to sprout again three places, these which I declare,- My father's head, his cultured field, and this the part below my waist.” Ṛgveda. VIII.80.5

“asau ca yā na urbarādimāṃ tanwaṃ mama atho tatasya yacchirah sarva tā romasā kṛdhi.”

“Make all of these grow crops of hair, you cultivated field of ours,my body, and my father's head.” Ṛgveda. VIII.80.6.

Whether it was any genetic hair disease was not conceivable from the above text.

The yakṣmā or consumption had been mentioned in almost all vedic literatures. Terefore, it may be assumed that it was a common disease during the ancient days. A hymn of Book X mentioned about it describing the affection of the hair and nails:

“mehanādbaṇāmkaranallaombhyaste nakhebhyah yakṣaṃ sarbasmādātamanastamidaṃ bi brhāmi te.”

“From what is voided from within, and from thy hair, and from thy nails, From all thyself from top to toe, I drive thy malady away.” Ṛgveda.X.163.5.

“angadangallomno lomno jataṃ parvaṇi parvaṇi yaksaṃ sarbasmādātamanastamidaṃ bi brhāmi te.”

“From every member, every hair disease that comes in every joint, From all thyself, from top to toe, I drive thy malady away.” Ṛgveda. X.163.6.

 Skin and its Appendages: Its Importance in Social Life

The Ṛgveda provides us with some interesting information about the implication of skin color on the social life of that period. The non-Aryan inhabitants with darker complexion were placed in the lowest and outcast group of the social system. As is evident from verse 100.18 of Book I of the Ṛgveda, the fair-skinned Aryans had camaraderie among themselves in everyday life.[14]

Sometimes, a particular hair style had remained the identity of a particular class of people:

“śwityanco mā daksiṇataskapardā dhiyaṃjinnāso abhi hi pramanduah”

“Those who wear hair-knots on the right, the movers of the holy thought, White-robed, have won me over.” Ṛgveda.VII.33.1.

The Vaśiṣthas used to sport kapardā or cūdā on the right site (single lock of hair kept at the head at tonsure) as their class identity.[15]

 Management of Skin Diseases: A Brief Overview

In Vedic medicine, the management strategy of diseases was composed of a complicated method of chanting mantras, offering oblations and performing some intricate rituals. Along with these, there were use of medicines in the forms of herbs, organic and inorganic materials and some procedures like anointment, hydrotherapy, cauterization, etc.[16] The physicians required to have knowledge about medicinal properties of plants:

“yatrouṣadhih samanmataha rājānah samitāmiba bipraha sa ucyaṭe bhishakbaksohamība cātanah.”

“He who hath store of Herbs at hand like Kings amid a crowd of men -, Physician is that sage's name, fiend-slayer, chaser of disease.” Ṛgveda.X.97.6.

Anointment was a common method of therapeutic measure practiced by the Vedic physician. It is evident from hymn X.161 that the physician used to recite the mantra and touch the various parts of the body of the diseased with his hands anointed with ritually prepared clarified butter (ghee).

In verse VII.50.2, mentioned earlier, the description is very much suggestive of the use of fire for cauterization.

Some of the hymns like that in verses 50.11-13 of Book I are suggestive of knowledge of heliotherapy, particularly in the treatment of yellowness of the body.

The Vedic seers also used water for the management of various diseases (?Hydrotherapy):

“apsu antar amṛtam apsu bheṣajam apām uta praśastaye devā bhabata vājinah.”

“Amrita is in the Waters; in the Waters. there is healing balm:

Be swift ye Gods, to give them praise.” Ṛgveda.I.23.19.

“apsu me somo abravīd antar viśvāni bheṣajā agniś ca viśvaśaṃbhuvam āpaś ca viśvabheṣajī.”

“Within the Water - Soma thus hath told me - dwell all balms that heal, And Agni, he who blessth all. The water holds all medicines.” Ṛgveda.I.23.20.

A physician used to use his tender touch for the remedial purposes. It was of course not very clear if it was a type of massage therapy or part of the hypnotherapy or simply touch therapy (as is used these days in the alternative system of medicine):[16]

“ayaṃ ye hasto bhagavānayaṃ me bhagabattarah ayaṃ me viśwabhesajohayaṃ śivābhimarśanah.”

“Felicitous is this mine hand, yet more felicitous is this. This hand contains all healing balms, and this makes whole with gentle touch.” Ṛgveda. X.60.12.

The rejuvenation of the aged as in the case of sage Cyavāna (Ṛgveda I.116.10, 117.13, Ṛgveda.V.74.5, Ṛgveda. VII.71.5, R.V.X.39.4 etc.) and that of sage Kāli (Ṛgveda.I.112.15;X.39.8) was a fascinating description of an esthetic approach toward the aging skin and its ailments during the Vedic era.


The Ṛgvedic literature is the reminiscent of the remote pat of the Aryans and is the oldest book of the Aryan family of nations.[17] The mention of various diseases, their remedies and even the use of iron prosthesis for the severed leg in war (Ṛgveda.I.112.10, Ṛgveda.I.117.15) is a fascinating example of developed medical thinking of the Vedic era. Although the skin and its ailments occupy very little space, its mention in such an ancient literature during the early part of the history is noteworthy. As the early medicine and its methodology described in the ṚgVeda was the cornerstone on which the edifice of the exceedingly well-organized medical system of Āyurveda - the science of life - was built, further researches may throw more light about skin and its diseases.


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