Hindu God of Hope, Health and Healing—Dhanvantari
(Compilation for a discourse by N.R. Srinivasan, Nashville,TN October 2015)
Though names such as Asvins (the celestial physicians), Kasiraja Divodasa and terms like Bhisak and Bhesaja occur frequently in the Vedas, the name of Dhanvantri does not occur in them. Dhanvantri is considered to be a divinity and the god of medical science. Another Dhanvantri was the king of Kasi and the preceptor of Sushruta. A study of the puranas, the Harivasma and some later works shows that there were, in addition to the divine Dhanavantri, three other Dhanvantars who belonged to different periods of time. They were: (i) Sri Dhanvantari who, according to Brahmavaivarta, was one of the 16 disciples of Bhaskara, the sun-god, under whom he is stated to have studied Ayurveda; (ii) Kasiraja Divodasa, surnamed Dhanvantari, an incarnation of the divine Dhanvantari who, it is said, was no other than Lord Vishnu, the preserver and protector of the universe; and (iii) Sri Dhanvantari who was one of the 'nine jewels' that adorned the court of Samrat Vikramaditya. Some authorities think that the last-mentioned Dhanvantari was the author of the well-known lexicon on drugs, the Dhanvantarinighantu. We will confine in this discourse mainly to the Divine Dhanvantaris.
Outstanding authorities on Ayurveda, were also honored in ancient and medieval India with the honorific Dhanvantari title. 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. Hence we find puranic and historic records being mixed up and confusing. However t it is safer to include these were divine gifted by Lord Dhanvantari, avatar of Vishnu.
According to the ancient text ‘Charaka-Samhita’, the “Science of Life and Longevity” called now as Ayurveda is eternal and is revealed in each universe in each of its infinite cycles of creation and destruction. The origins of this ancient science of healing science of medicine are lost in antiquity. Today we are left with a portion of the vast ocean of information given to humanity in the past, yet its contribution in the field of medicine in incredible.
According to Hinduism, this healing science is generally revealed by great sages or Demigods and occasionally, the Supreme Lord Vishnu Himself who descends as the avatar (incarnation) Lord Dhanvantari and re-inaugurates the tradition of Ayurveda. Information about this extremely rare appearance of the God is found recorded in the ancient Uncommon Wisdom of Vedas, referred to Divodasa.
Devas, repeatedly defeated and killed by their more powerful cousins, the demons, approached Lord Vishnu, seeking the boon of rejuvenation and the gift of immortality. He then directed them to churn the primeval ocean in which were hidden the secrets of life and death. Finally came Dhanvantari the divine physician, holding the pitcher of Amrita, the elixir of life that could bestow immortality. They started praying to him ‘’Mrityor maa amritam gamaya”—Lead us from death to immortality.
Dhanvantari, a minor amsa avatar of Vishnu, is among twenty two incarnations of Vishnu mentioned in Bhagavata Purana. He begged Vishnu to assign a portion of the Vedic sacrifice offerings (yajna-bhaaga) to him. Since Lord Vishnu had already allotted that portion to the gods before his appearance and since nothing was left over, Vishnu advised him to appear among human beings in his next birth when he would become eligible to a portion of the sacrifice offerings due to his meritorious deeds. He is worshiped as the Hindu God of Medicine, the Master of Universal Knowledge, Physician of Gods and the Guardian Deity of Hospitals. There is even a temple built for him in Aryavaidyasala in Coimbatore within its campus. Dhanvantari is regarded as the original exponent of Indian medical tradition called Ayurveda, the ‘The science of Life.’
Not all the Avatars mentioned in Bhagavata Purana are included among thousand and odd names of Vishnu like Hayagrieva and Dhanvantari. Vishnu Sahasranama mentions the name Bhishja meaning Vaidya or Doctor and Bhishak meaning medicine for Vishnu. These names mentioned for the qualities of Vishnu refer to the Avatar of Dhanvantari only.
HARIVAMSA (Ch. 29) describes him as prosperous-looking, and says that after emerging from the milky ocean, he stood worshipping Lord Vishnu. Vishnu named him Abja. He then bowed down to Vishnu and said: “Oh Lord, I am your son. Allot a share of the sacrifices to me.” Vishnu replied: “Portions of sacrifices have already been allotted. Since you were born after the celestials, you cannot be considered as one of them. You will be born in the world of humans and then you will become a celebrity. In your second life, which will be in the Dwaapara Yuga, even from the time of your conception, you will have various occult powers. You will be born as god-incarnate. You will compose works on Ayurveda which will be well known in all parts of the world.”
The name Dhanvantari is derived as follows:
(a) The word dhanus is only indicative (upalakshna). It denotes the science of surgery. The one who has seen the end (anta) of it is Dhanvantari.
(b) The word dhanvan means also desert. Dhanvachara means one who moves in a desert There is a mantra in the Veda: dhanvan iva prapaaasi “Oh Lord! You are like the place where water is distributed to travelers in a desert”. Thus, Dhanvantari is an Oasis in the desert of worldly existence.
Puranas say Dhanvantari first appeared during the great churning of ‘Ksheera Saagara’ (the cosmic milk ocean) to deliver Amrita (the divine nectar of immortality or Elixir) for the nourishment and rejuvenation (out of the ageing curse) of the Demigods. Dhanvanatari appeared soon after the emergence of Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth. Dhanvantari, the foe of disease, death and decay was none other than an amsa or spirit of Vishnu. He brought with him the Life science of Health, known as Ayurveda, a bag of herbs (Oshadhi), a leech to suck out toxins, a knife to cut out tumors, a pestle and a mortar to prepare medicines and potions. Kalpavriksha (the wish fulfilling tree also emerged from the churning of the Ksheer Sagar (the cosmic ocean of milk).
The churning of the ocean of milk is a famous episode in the Puranas that represents the spiritual endeavor of a person to achieve Self-realization through concentration of mind, withdrawal of the senses, control of all desires, austerities and asceticism (This event is still celebrated in a major way every twelve years in the festival known as ‘Kumbha Mela’). The story is found in ‘Srimad Bhagavatam’ a major work that describes the ‘avatars’ in great detail. In ancient Indian tradition there were several medicinal schools like those of Atharvan, Atreya, Charaka, Sushruta, Behla, Agnivesa, Parasara, Harita, Vagbhata and Madhva. Of these, the ‘Great Three’ or Brihart-Triyams are the work of Charaka, Sushruta and Vagbhatta. Further there was the school of physicians headed by Atreya and of the Rasa Siddha-s, by Kasyapa. All these schools worship Dhanvantari as their benefactor deity and start their work with the worship of Him.
The Bhagavatam tells us, “He is strongly built; His arms are very long, stout and strong; His eyes are reddish, and His complexion is black. He is very young, He is always garlanded with flowers, and His entire body is fully decorated with various ornaments.” Lord Dhanvanthari is “dressed in yellow garments and ware brightly polished earrings made of pearl. The tips of His hair are anointed with oil and His chest is very broad. His body has all good features, and He is stout and strong like a lion. In His four hands, He carries an ‘Amrutha Kumbha (jug of holy nectar) along with ‘Sankha’ (a holy conch shell), ‘Sudarasana Chakra’ (The divine weapon-disc of energy) and ‘Jalooka’ (leech used for treatments)”. The Demigods consuming the nectar, got invigorated with eternal energy.
Many myths and legends surround Dhanvantari. Ramayana makes a reference to his Avatar in Balakaanda. According to the Epic he appeared two armed holding a sacred-pot (kamandalu) in one hand and the mendicant’s staff (danda) on the other. Brahamvaivarta-purana adds to the above description in Ramayana that he was proficient in Vedic lore and an expert in mystic science (mantra-tantra-visarada) and his Guru was Garuda (Vainateya). According to Bhaava Prakaasa, Dhanvantari was originally a physician of the gods in heaven. Indra sent him to earth to take care of the human beings who were beset with numerous diseases. Dhanvantari was therefore born in the royal household of Kasi (Varanasi) in the family of Baahuja. He showed ascetic tendencies even as a kid. But Lord Brahma persuaded him to accept the throne and he agreed to be Kasi-Raja, King of Kasi. During his ruler-ship he prepared a treatise on medicine for the benefit of humanity. This was his second appearance around 600 B.C.
Puranas vary as to his lineage. Vishnu Purana begins with Pururavas and goes through Ayush, Kshatra-vridha, Kasa, Kasi-raja (name of a king) and Deerghatamas before coming to Dhanvantari. His son was Ketumana whose son was Divodasa who was also named as Dhanvantari. Harivamsa begins the lineage with Suhotra who was the King of Kasi in the second Dwapara age. Suhotra’s lineage continued with Sala, Arshtishena, Kaasa, and Dirghatapasa who was also called Dhanva whose son was Dhanvantari. Dhanvantari’s son was Ketuman whose son was Bheemaratha whose son was Divodasa. Though we find the name Divodasa often in Rigveda we do not find any reference to Dhanavantari as such in Rigveda.
Dahanvantari is often identified with Divodasa of Kasiraja. Kasiraja was a sure celebrity though we do not know whether he was god or man. Divodasa mentioned in Rigveda is associated with gods of healing, the Asvins, Agni and Indra. Sankhyanagrihya sutra connects Divodasa to Bharadwaja who is mentioned as his guru from whom he learnt the art and science of medicine. Indra was the Guru of Bharadvaja. There is also an account that sage Atreya taught medicine to Bharadwaja.
There is a story in some Purana-s connecting Dhanvantari with Parikshit, the grandson of the Pandavas. When Takshaka wanted to bite Parikshit and kill him, a specialist in treating poisonous bites rushed to save the king. But Takshaka bribed and sent him back. It is said that the doctor thus sent back was Dhanvantari. But other references identify him with Kasyapa.
Brahma Vaivarta Purana (Krishnajanma Khanda) connects Dhanvantari with Maanasa Devi, a serpent Goddess. Once, Dhanvantari was going to Kailasa along with his disciples. On the way, Takshaka hissed and spat venom. Irritated, one of the disciples of Dhanvantari boldly plucked the diamond on the head of Tashaka and threw it on the ground. Hearing about this, Vasukui, the King of Serpents, threatened Dhanvantari with thousands of serpents under the leadership of Drona, Pundareeka and Dhananjaya. The poisonous breath of these snakes made the disciples of Dhanvantai swoon. However, Dhanvanatari made all of them recover with a powerful medicine and in turn made all the serpents swoon. When Vasuki came to know about this, he next sent the serpent-maid Maansa Devi a disciple of Lord Siva, to face Dhanvantari. Maanas Devi also made all the disciples of Dhanvantaari swoon. But Dhanvantari proved more than a match for her. He brought back his disciples to normal with his powerful medicines. When Maanasa Devi realized that she could not harm Dhanvantari or his disciples with her poison, she took the trisula (trident) given by Lord Siva and aimed it at Dhanvantari. At this point, Siva and Brahma appeared before them, pacified and sent them away.
The Bhagavata Purana refers to Dhanvantari as “smritamaatra aartinaasanah” (One who destroys all sufferings even when remembered). It is believed that Dhanvantari, Divodasa and Kasiraja are names of the same person who is “the first God and who freed the other gods from old age, disease and death”, and who in his Himalayan retreat taught surgery to Sushruta and other sages.
Dhanvantari’a appearance is celebrated each year on the 13th day (trayodasi) of the waxing moon before the Deepaavali.
There is an account of another Dhanvantari as Amritacharya. He appears to be an eminent medical scientist born in the Ambashtha caste. According to a work called the Ambhashtachara Chandrika, sage Galava once went to the forest to collect sacred Darbha grass and firewood. He walked for long and felt thirsty and hungry. He then saw a girl coming that way with water. She was a Vaisya girl called Virabhadraa. He quenched his thirst with the water given by her. Pleased with her, the sage blessed that she would get a noble son. The girl said she was still unmarried. Galava then made a figure of a male with dharbha grass and asked her to get a child from that figure. She got a beautiful baby boy. Since he was born to a Vaisya mother and Brahmin father (darbha-purusha created by the Brahmin Galava) he belonged to the ambashta caste. The boy was named Amritacharya.
There is a story connecting Dhanavantari with the Kumbhamela, world’s largest festival, which takes place once in twelve years at four different places--Hardwar, Allahabad, Nasik and Ujjain. When Dhanvantari emerged with the pot containing nectar in his hands contravening the original agreement that Amrita should be shared by both the groups equally, the demons forcibly snatched away the pot from Dhanvantari’s hands to appropriate the quantity to themselves. Selfishness and greed led to this disagreement, discontent and conflict. Vishnu took the form of Mohini the enchantress, and lured the vessel of ambrosia into her hands.
During the fierce battle that took place in the sky, a few drops of nectar fell in the four places referred above. Hence these places became sacred. Kumbhamelas are held at these four places to commemorate the divine event. Devotees throng to these places in tens of thousands to purify and rejuvenate themselves with the waters on this auspicious day, which are supposed to acquire the power and potency of Amrita for the occasion.
There is also a famous Dhanvantri who appears to be a historic person, although his precise identity is hard to be ascertained. He taught surgery and other branches of Ayurveda (Indian system of medicine) at the request of Sushruta to a group of sages among whom Sushupta was the foremost. Dhanvantari is regarded as the patron-god of all branches of medicine. While Dhanvantari is not credited with any medical treatise of his own, in the early accounts, there is a voluminous glossary and materia medica known as Dhanvantari Nighant. Even as there is the Hippocrate’s oath for allopathic doctors, so there is the Dhanvantari oath for Ayurvedic practitioners. This work is considered the most ancient of all medical glossaries available. The original work is said to have been in three recensions and the present version may have been based on one of them. This text in six sections deals with 373 medicinal substances, their names and synonyms and a brief description of their properties. Described as the ‘third eye’ for practicing physicians, it is extensively relied upon, despite several more comprehensive glossaries that have been compiled subsequently.
Amrita signifies Nissreyasa, moral and spiritual elevation ultimately leading to beatitude. Amrita signifies highest spiritual enlightenment. Anyone who is tired of the vicissitudes of life and is hankering for peace and bliss should seek it only in the highest spiritual enlightenment Amrita signifies that enlightenment. Dhanvantaari as the Avatar of Vishnu, aspect of Brahman for Preservation, is the custodian of Amrita. He is the Lord of Hope, Health and Healing. According to David Frawley (Ayurvedic Healing: 1989. Morson Publishing), “Within all of us is the archetype of the Divine Healer. What makes heals wound and restore the tissues? We say these are fibroblasts an Intelligence design; similarly white corpuscles. Within us He has designed certain minimal immune system. Even poison in small doses acts as cure! This Divine Healer is the true healer in all beings, not any particular individual or special personality. To heal others or ourselves we must set it in motion within ourselves. Dhanvantari represents this truth in the tradition of Ayurveda. His icon is found at most Ayurvedic schools and clinics. It is a reminder that however much we know or skillful we become, everything still depends on the grace of Spiritual Being.
Lord Dhanvantari: The God of Ayurveda
Posted by The Editor | Sep 03, 2015 | IndiaDivine.Org
The origins of the ancient healing science known as Ayurveda are lost in cosmic antiquity. According to the ancient text ‘Charaka-samhita’, this “Science of Life and Longevity” is eternal and is revealed in each universe in each of its infinite cycles of creation and destruction.
According to Hinduism, this healing science is generally revealed by great sages or Demigods and occasionally, the Supreme Lord Vishnu Himself who descends as the avatara (incarnation) Lord Dhanvanthari and re-inaugurates the tradition of Ayurveda. Information about this extremely rare appearance of the God is found recorded in the Vedic literature of ancient India.
The First Appearance of Dhanvanthari
According to Hinduism, he first appeared during the great churning of ‘Ksheera saagara’ (the cosmic milk ocean) to deliver Amritha (the divine nectar of immortality or Ambrosia) for the nourishment and rejuvenation (out of the ageing curse) of the Demigods. The churning of the ocean of milk is a famous episode in the Puranas that represents the spiritual endeavour of a person to achieve Self-realization through concentration of mind, withdrawal of the senses, control of all desires, austerities and asceticism (it is still celebrated in a major way every twelve years in the festival known as ‘Kumbha Mela’). The story is related in the ‘Srimad Bhagavatam’, a major work that describes the ‘avataras’ in great detail. Kalpavriksha (the wish fulfilling tree), and Shri Lakshmi (the Goddess of Wealth) also emerged from the churning of the Ksheer Sagar (the cosmic ocean of milk).
As they continued churning, a very wonderful male person appeared. The Bhagavatam tells us, “He was strongly built; His arms were very long, stout and strong; His eyes were reddish, and His complexion was black. He was very young, He was garlanded with flowers, and His entire body was fully decorated with various ornaments.” Lord Dhanvanthari was “dressed in yellow garments and wore brightly polished earrings made of pearl. The tips of His hair were anointed with oil and His chest was very broad. His body had all good features, and He was stout and strong as a lion. In His four hands, He carried an ‘Amrutha kumbha (jug of holy nectar) along with ‘Sankhu’ (a holy conch shell), ‘Sudarasana Chakra’ (The divine weapon-disc of energy) and ‘Jalooka’ (leech used for treatments)”. The story ends with the Demigods taking the nectar, drinking it and getting invigorated with the eternal energy.
There are Three Major Dhanvanthari Temples in Kerala – Thottuva, Nelluvaya and Prayikkara.Dhanwanthari’s Second Appearance
Around 600 BC, Lord Dhanvanthari took incarnation again as the son of the King Dirghatamas of Kasi in the royal household and became known as Kasi-raja Dhivodasa. He developed ascetic tendencies even as a young boy and started teaching Ayurveda seeing the misery of human beings afflicted by disease on earth. He taught Ayurveda to the sages and rishis (seers) who became his disciples. Later He prepared the ‘samhitas’ (the great texts) on Ayurveda in eight divisions (Ashtangas) for the benefit of humanity.
Lord Dhannanthari’s teachings are recorded in the Agni Purana 279-289, as well as through the teachings of His disciple ‘Susrutha’ – one among the two master scholars of Ayurveda (along with ‘Charaka’) and who is still revered to as the ‘Father of Surgery’. The ‘Bhagavatam ‘states “smritha-matrarti-nasanah” – one who remembers the name of Dhanvanthari can be released from all disease. Even today, in India, Deepavali (Diwali) – the Festival of Lights inaugurates with remembrance of Lord Dhanvanthari. For that, during dusk time, a lamp pointing toward North by North-East is lit at the entrance of the door step. Such is the welcome to Lord Dhanvanthari to bestow on all for the health and the happiness in ensuing life.
Mantra and Dhyaanasloka for Dhanvantari
This Mantra has 24 letters:
Om namoe bhagavate Dhanvantare amrita-kalasa-hastaaya sarvaamayavinaasaaya trilokanaathaaya Vihnave Swaahaa ||
The Dhyaanasloka is as follows:
Sankham chakram dadhadamritaghatam chaarudorbhischaturbhih |
Kaalaambhodoj-jwalaangam kati-tata-vilasacchaaru-peetaambaraadhyaam |
Vande Dhanvantarim tam nikhilagadavana-proudha-daavaagni-leelam ||
Dhanavantri Maha Mantra
“Om Namo Bhagavate
Amrutha Kalasa Hasthaaya
Sarva Bhaya Vinaasaaya
Sarva Roga Nivaaranaya
Trai Lokya Pataye
Trai Lokya Nitaye
Sri Maha Vishnu Swarupa
Sri Dhanvantri Swarupa
Sri Sri Sri
Aoushadha Chakra Narayana Swaahaa”
Amrutha Kalasa Hasthaaya
Sarva Bhaya Vinaasaaya
Sarva Roga Nivaaranaya
Trai Lokya Pataye
Trai Lokya Nitaye
Sri Maha Vishnu Swarupa
Sri Dhanvantri Swarupa
Sri Sri Sri
Aoushadha Chakra Narayana Swaahaa”
Meaning: We pray to the God, who is known as Sudarsana Vasudeva Dhanvantari. He holds the Kalasa full of nectar of immortality. Lord Dhanvantri removes all fears and removes all diseases. He is the well-wisher and the preserver of the three worlds. Dhanvantari is like Lord Vishnu, empowered to heal the Jiva souls. We bow to the Lord of Ayurveda.
1) Ramachandra Rao S.K., Vishnu Kosha, Kalpatharu Research Academy, Shankarmutt, Bangalore, India.
2) Devdutt Pattanaik, Vishnu, Vakila, Feffer and Simons, Mumbai, India.
3) Swami Harshananda, Hindu Gods and Goddesses, Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India.
4) Ramachandra Rao S.K., Darsanodaya (Early Indian Thought), Kalpatharu Research Academy, Shankarmuth, Bengluru, India
5) IndiaDivine,Org,. Lord Dhanvantari, The Lord of Ayurveda, Personal Communication
6) Wikipedia, Anudina Srivaishnava Poratal and other Internet sources.
[This discourse material is a compilation from the reference above as well as other sources for a prepared lecture for delivering at Vedanta Class of Sri Ganesha Temple which is gratefully acknowledged. I do not claim anything as original though I have included my explanations and comments elaborately suitably editing. Anybody is free to download partly or fully this discourse, modify and redistribute this as well as other discourses from the blog Hindu Reflections <nrsrini.blogspot.com> for spreading the wisdom of Vedas and scriptures further. These lectures are posted on the blog for the benefit of those who are not able to attend my lectures personally due to personal reasons or due to not living in Nashville or able to go through the various sources as I have done. ]