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Cancer In Ancient Hindu Treatment Ayurveda – Diagnosis – What Hindus Knew About Cancer?

The entire text is an edited version of article found in the Encyclopedia of Hinduism Volume III to help readers to understand about cancer and its treatment in ancient Hinduism. Cancer is spreading like wildfire and the reason for it is pollution caused by human beings. The other main culprit is the use of pesticide and chemical fertilizer in foods. Hindus need to awaken and fight against this deadly disease which is causing hardships to millions of families. To start with at least make sure that your are not giving your children vegetables and meat that are filled with pesticide and hormones.

Cancer was known as arbuda in ancient Hindu treatment. It is found in the Sanskrit lexicon, Medinikosha. It is described as “that which has a fleshy outgrowth.’ Another meaning of the term is ‘a count of one hundred million.’ Arbuda is also referred to as himsa svabhava meaning of violent nature, or in this case, damaging nature. The term expresses the cancerous condition both at the macro and micro-molecular levels.
Arbuda was not considered asadhya (incurable) in Ayurveda.

Ayurvedic treatises do not identify it among the mahavyadhis (main diseases). In fact, there is not even a separate chapter dealing with it. This indicates that probably cancers were not as prevalent at that time in history as today.

Sushruta And Cancer Treatment

Sushruta (6th to 7th century BC), described arbuda, which also means a mountain, as utsedha pradhana (dominated by growth) and granthi sadrshya (tumor like) in nature. He also mentions two conditions adyarbuda and dvirarbuda, which are of immediate relevance.

Adyarbuda refers to the condition where arbuda, even after undergoing remission, reappears after some time at the same site. This signifies the invasion of the surrounding tissues and the fact that the malady is deep rooted.

Dvirarbuda is the condition where secondary growths manifest along with or as sequel to the initial ones, but at sites far removed.

This description corresponds well with contemporary understanding of metastasis and the formation of secondaries. Interestingly, skin cancer, an entity widely believed to be of recent origin, has also been mentioned in Sushruta Samhita where it is stated that rohin, the sixth of the seven skin layers, is the substratum of a variety of diseases including arbuda.

Discussion of Cancer In Various Hindu Texts

Major treatises describe arbuda long with granthi (tumor), apaci (srotule), gulma sopha (cyst), gala ganda (goiter), etc.

By the rule of adhikarana tantrayukti, which insists on coherence and relevance in the subject-matter of a chapter, and the established practice of including only germane subjects under one head, the implication is that arbuda is closely related to the other diseases.

However, in the light of information available now, instead of equating cancer with arbuda alone, it makes more sense to consider it in terms of the other diseases classed along with it.

Since arbuda is not listed as a mahavyadhi (great disease) in Ayurvedic texts, it appears that there was a low rate of prevalence of this malady in ancient India, and that it was curable.

Prognosis as in all sadhya vyadhis (curable diseases), was considered favorable depending on a series of factors, including sarva aushadhi kshama deha (a body capable of withstanding the rigors of medical intervention), yuvan (youth), puman (being of male gender), jitatman (being a mentally strong host), and that the site of the growth was not amarmaga (a vital point).

Further indications of a favorable outcome to treatment included: alpahetu (weakness of etiological factors), alpa agratrupa (minimal prodromal symptoms), alpa rupa (that symptoms are not pronounced and anupadrava (that no complications arise).

Also factors such as ekadoshamarga (that the disease follows a single pathway) and nava (that the onset was recent) were considered important.

Other factors considered influential, either to the progression or to the cure of disease, were dusya (tissue elements), desa (place), ritu (season) and prakriti (basic constitution). Success also required that pada chatusraya (the four therapeutic instruments), namely, bhisaka (physician), dravya (medicine), upasthata (attendant) and rogi (patient) be endowed with good qualities and that planetary influences favor remission.

Some of the other conditions mentioned in Ayurvedic medicine in relation to arbuda are:
  • Vitiation of saptadhatus (the seven fundamental tissues)
  • Especially rakta (blood tissue)
  • Mamsa (muscle tissue) and
  • Meda (adipose tissue)
  • Vatarakta and amavata (certain stages of rheumatism) and
  • Dusvisham (certain toxins).
The text also discusses etiological factors for the condition of arbuda. Among these are
  • Viruddhahara (food incompatibility)
  • Ama (accumulated food toxins)
  • Srotorodha (obstruction of channels)
  • Mamsahara parayanata (indulgence in non-vegetarian food)
  • Ojo visramasa(immune compromise)
  • Vega rodha ((suppression of natural urges)
  • Mano vyaha (psychic disturbances)

Study of Cells in Ancient Hindu World

Ayurvedic medicine, though without microscope, understood the body to be composed of innumerable units that were described as atishukshma (minute) and atindriya (imperceptible). It was also believed that active division and combination took place in them.

Vata, the chief among the tridoshas (somatic humors) was believed to be primarily responsible for this division and combination of cells.

Vata’s functional integrity was of paramount importance for balanced body physiology. 

Charaka (6th century BC to 7th century BC) calls it tantrayantraadhara, meaning ‘the upholder of structure and function.’ The structurally and functionally defective cancer cell, in a way, is nothing but an expression of vata-vitiation.

Cells And Reason For Cancer

As the body grows from infancy to adulthood, cells divide and subdivide until no more increase is required except for normal wear and tear of the body. As long as cells divide only when necessary and stopping when the job is done, cell-balance is maintained.
When vata becomes vitiated, the balance is disturbed and cell proliferation in total disregard to the physiological and structural needs of the body occurs.

The International Union against Cancer defines cancer as a ‘disturbance in growth characterized by excessive proliferation of cells without apparent relation to the physiological demands of the organs involved.’ This is in consonance with the Ayurvedic understanding.

Cells And Reason For Cancer

Ayurveda is holistic in practice, based on an understanding of reality in terms of integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of the constituent units. It discerns the human person in totality, believes in harmony with the macrocosm, and echoes the Vedic incantation proclaiming the oneness of the parts of the whole with the whole. Harmony signifies health and well-being. Disharmony is disease, death, and decay, Cancer is quintessentially, disharmony, disequilibria and dysfunction.

While normal cells, partaking required nourishment form the bloodstream, discharge their duties of division, growth and metabolism well within the limits prescribed by the body, cancer cells behave erratically. They betray the concept of holism in that they disregard the tenets of “oneness with the whole”. They assume an autonomy of sorts and grow at the expense of the whole body. Ironically, the unprincipled growth works in favor of the cytotoxic drugs used to kill them. Due to their perpetual state of hunger, they ingest these drugs more, while normal cells, with their much lower metabolic rate, are spared.

Treatment Methods Of Cancer In Ayurveda

Arbuda is classified in Ayurvedic texts under the category of diseases that are krchrasadhya vyadhis (curable but with difficulty). Treatment measures required are mentioned as Sastra (surgery), ksara (chemical cautery) or agni (thermal cautery).

The first line of treatment for all diseases, according to Ayurveda, is called nidana parivarjana (forsaking the causes), mainly unwholesome habits and practices that lead to a disease. 

Its mention reflects the influence of the various darshanas (schools of Indian philosophy) which dealt extensively with karya karana siddhanta (the cause effect theory) in ancient Indian medicine. By implication, nidana parivarjana is the avoidance of unwholesome ahara (food), vihara (activities) and acara (practices).

In this context, nidana parivarjana for cancer could mean avoidance of spicy foods, alcohol, smoking, pan-chewing and all such things with proven carcinogenic properties. Arbuda also calls for disease-specific measures including sadhana (purificatory techniques) and samana (palliative measures) at various stages.

Ayurveda also offers a tangential approach focusing on the mental faculty to harness its powers of healing. Ayurveda holds that the mind and the body are proximate principles related to each other like hot ghee (clarified or melted butter) and its container. The analogy suggests that just as hot ghee transfers its heat to its container and a hot container heats the ghee in it, the afflictions of the mind affect the body and vice versa.

Daivavyapasraya chikitsa advocates measures like mantra (chanting), anusadha dharana (wearing of potent substances), mani dharana (wearing pearls, gems etc), mangala karma (performing auspicious deeds), bali (performing ceremonies), homa (performing ritual offerings) niyama (observing moral codes), prayaschitta (atonement), upavasa (fasting), svastyayana (righteous living), pranipata (respect for elders) tirthagamana (going on pilgrimage), etc.

These measures often extend beyond the mundane physical plane and enter the province of metaphysics, reflecting the influence of astika darshanas (the theistic schools) in Ayurvedic treatment. There is the strong assertion of forces beyond human comprehension on the one hand and on the other, there is the attempt to encourage righteous living by laying down moral and ethical codes. Both of these constitute an attempt to bring about an attitudinal shift through positive assertions and suggestions to get the patient to belief in himself/herself and in his/her eventual cure. In the chapter on vranitopasanya (management of surgical patients), in his Samhita, Sushruta, the sage, unequivocally asserts, “one who has hope, gets well soon.” This cannot be truer than in diseases like cancer.

In contrast to western systems of medicine, the Indian system had the advantage of never being divorced from Indian philosophical thought. In fact, none of the Indian sciences, be it Jyotisha (Astronomy and Astrology), Vasuvidya (Architecture), Dhanurvidya (Archery), Natyashastra (Dramaturgy), or Samudrikasastra (interpretation  of physical signs) ever existed in isolation from one another. In fact, Ayurveda was considered an upaveda (a part) of Atharvaveda.

Philosophical speculation drawn literally from the major philosophical schools of Nyaya – Vaisheshika, Samkhya and Mimamsa form part and parcel of Ayurveda.

Sushruta even goes so far as to state that at time the physician would be required to work in tandem with the priest to protect the life of the patient. This would be of immense value to patients, suffering from chronic illnesses such as cancer, where love, care and positive suggestions harnessing the healing powers of supernatural forces could be as important as prescribed medicines in reinforcing the healing mechanisms of the body.

Source - 
Sushruta Samhita (1981) Edited by Atridev – Motilal Banarsidass
Ashtanga Hridaya with Sarvangasundari and Ayurvedarasayana Commentaries (1982) H.S. Bhisagacarya – Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office Varanasi.
Cancer (1992) S.M.Bose – National Book Trust New Delhi
Ayurveda Unravelled (1996) S. Dhanukar by National Book Trust New Delhi
Ashtanga Hridaya of Vagbhata (2005) translated by K. R. Shrikantha Murthy – Chaukhambha Academy.
Sushruta Samhita (2005) Translation – Chaukambha Orientalia Varanasi
Caraka Samhita (2000) Translation – P.V. Sharma, Chaukambha Orientalia Varanasi
Tridosa Theory (1996) V.V.S Sastri – Kottakal Aya Vaidya Shala
Muscular Dystrophy – An Ayurvedic Perspective In Aryavaidyan Vol XII (1999) by K Srikumar
Arbudavum Cikitsayum. In Ayurveda Prabhandavali (Malayalam) Volume IV (1972) by R Thirumulpad - Kottakal Aya Vaidya Shala
Charaka Samhita With Tantrarthadipika Commentry (1975) by J Vidyalankar – Motilal Banarsidass Delhi
Encyclopedia of Hinduism Volume III page 45 – 47 published by IHRF