Asceticism and Healing in Ancient India: Medicine in the Buddhist Monastery.
By Kenneth G. Zysk.
Oxford University Press: New York, 1991.
200 pp. $35.00 (hardcover).

The Buddhist tales about the legendary Indian physician, Jivaka, recount examples of his odd and effective cures, such as how he restored the protruding eyeball of a wrestler by pulling the tendons of his heels—a treatment developed from noticing that the eyes of a corpse floating in the river opened and closed as a fish nibbled at its heels.

In this scholarly history, Kenneth G. Zysk strives to uncover the roots of ayurvedic, or traditional Indian, medicine, in the observations, practice, and collaboration of groups of wandering healers, such as Jivaka. Zysk claims that it was through the work of countless itinerant doctors and ascetics that Indian medicine evolved out of the “magico-religious” tradition of the Vedic period into the “empirico-rational” tradition of ayurveda. By reclaiming this history, he refutes the notion that this medicine merely descended from the Hindu Brahmin class as depicted in their religious mythology.

The most significant characteristic commonly found among Zysk’s heterogeneous group of “barefoot doctors” is that they lived well outside the prohibitions of the Brahmin class. Their lives and travels among the villagers, their willingness to touch the sick and dying, their interaction with religious ascetics, and their keen observation of corpses promoted a sophisticated medical practice and theory.

In that particular milieu of Indian society this growing medical tradition entered the early Buddhist communities where it was codified and taught within scholarly monastic settings. Standards of behavior for doctors, nurses, and patients developed within the context of Buddhist monastic life. In addition, the institution of infirmaries evolved to serve monks, nuns, and eventually lay people as well.

Zysk presents his case crammed with evidence from a wide variety of Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, Greek, and modern sources. Unfortunately, the work suffers from a pedantic style of academic writing. And, although he catalogues a variety of medical practices, Zysk seems to lack any sense of the extent to which these medical traditions continue to be very much alive today. There is also the tendency to view the so-called magico-religious antecedents of the tradition in an exclusively historical or anthropological fashion. The author refers to “cults” of medical deities, but he displays little interest in the vital role religion plays in the practice of traditional Asian medicine.

Still this book is enjoyable and, in parts, compelling. As a student of Tibetan medicine, I have not been particularly satisfied with available studies about the early roots of the healing tradition in India. Zysk does the scholarship of Asian medicine a great service by reclaiming a significant piece of Buddhist history and placing it in its historical context with great detail.