Epidemics and Crisis Management

in Pre-modern South Asia

Epidemiology in the Bhelasaṃhitā

The Carakasaṃhitā (CS) has its own chapter on epidemics (3.3) and the Suśrutasaṃhitā (SS) deals with collective suffering within the frame of its chapter on the seasons (1.6). But what about the Bhelasaṃhitā (BhS)? This poorly preserved early āyurvedic compilation, like the CS, belongs to the school of internal medicine, and could provide precious insights, supplementing the scene depicted in the other two Saṃhitās.

Chapter 1.13 in the BhS bears the title “on the distinctions according to land and people” (janapadavibhaktīya), alluding to the epidemics chapter in the CS (“on the destruction/affliction of land and people”, janapdoddhvaṃsanīya). Despite this similarity, the contents of these two chapters differ largely. While the CS chapter focuses on epidemics, collective suffering, and lifespan, BhS 1.13 begins with endemic diseases, then switches to causation of mass mortality events and related countermeasures. This is followed by a discussion of fever and certain diseases that we would nowadays understand as contagious ones. However, such an understanding hardly existed at the time when these lines were composed.

Structure of BhS 1.13

While the chapter contains various other interesting aspects, I would like to focus here on the two stanzas on mass mortality (janamāra):

meghe ‘varṣati varṣāsu hemante yatra varṣati   
ṛtuvyāpattisamaye janamāraḥ pravartate.  (8)

"Where the cloud does not rain in the rainy season, but rains in winter, in case of a seasonal deviation mass mortality takes place."

atropavāsī dhṛtimān rato viprābhivādane 
mantrauṣadharataś cāpi janamārāt pramucyate. (9)

"There, those who are fasting, who are steadfast, who are inclined to obeisance towards the brahmins, who are also inclined to mantras and medicines get freed from the mass mortality event."

The first stanza simply connects cases of mass mortality to seasonal climatic disturbances. The second one suggests countermeasures against such incidents, focusing on remedies that we would mostly associate with the religious domain. Despite the differences of the mentioned chapters in CS and SS, we find similar statements there:

BhS, SS and CS on collective suffering

While these chapters and their accounts of epidemics differ in other aspects, they largely correspond regarding the natural causes and the countermeasures. It seems that the BhS preserved the most basic (and probably most original) form of this concept, due to the fact that there this topic was simply presented side by side with other related topics. The authors or editors of the CS and the SS, on the other hand, decided to broaden the topic and elaborate it in different directions.

The illustrations in this blog post are taken from the slides for my presentation on 19 December 2022 in the discussion group “History of Science in Early South Asia” at the “Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine”: https://doi.org/10.17613/wn0a-rb05.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *