Acharya Atreya – legacy, works, contribution to Ayurveda

Article by Dr Manasa
There were many great ancient Ayurvedic legendary persons who have composed excellent treatises, but they all learnt under some great Guru. Acharya Atreya was one of the greatest teachers of Ayurveda who preached, taught and spread the fragrance of this natural healing system.


Atreya was the son of sage Atri.
He learned the science of life, Ayurveda, from his teacher, sage Bharadwaja.
He in turn taught Ayurveda to his disciples.

sage - Rishi

Agnivesha (the author of the famous Charaka Samhita, one among the greater trio of Ayurveda or Brihat Trayees), Bhela, Jatukarna, Harita and Ksharapani were some of his reputed students. All these students went ahead to write important treatises related to Ayurveda and thus kept alive the chain of propagation of this holistic science of health and life.

Names, references

Other names and designations of Lord Atrey
Atreya was also addressed by other names. They are, Bhagawan Athreya, Punarvasu Athreya, Krishna Atreya and Chandrabhaga.

Bhagawan, literarily means ‘professor or God of knowledge of creation and dissolution of the world; birth and death of creatures and also both material and spiritual sciences’.

As Atreya possessed all the above said qualities, he was rightly called aas Bhagawan Atreya.
Since Atreya was born during the dominance of ‘Punarvasu star’ (one among the stars in the Hindu calendar), he was called as Punarvasu Atreya.

The words ‘Punarvasu’ and ‘Atreya’ are used together in Charaka Samhita and Kashyapa Samhita.

Krishna Atreya or Krishnatreya is his popular title. We can find a reference in Mahabharata quoting Krishnatreya as the ‘famous teacher of medicine’.

Even in Charaka Samhita, Atreya is often called by the name Krishna Atrey, probably because he belongs to Krishna Yajurveda Sakha (clan) or for having Krishna Varna (dark colour).
Atreya was also called as Chandrabhaga (son of Chandrabhagi), being the resident on the banks of river Chandrabhagi.

Bhikshu Atreya and Punarvasu Atreya
We come across another name called Bhikshu Atreya, related to Ayurveda. He was a Buddhist and was a reputed teacher. Bhikshu Atreya was the teacher of Jivaka, who worked as a professor of medicine at the University of Takshashila. He was not the preceptor of Agnivesha, Bhela etc. we cannot find any references in the history of Jivaka which explains that Jivaka and Agnivesha studied together. Thus we can conclude that Bhikshu Atreya and Punarvasu Atreya are not synonyms of the same persons. They both were different teachers, not one and the same.

Atreya Sampradaya

Atreya’s school of teaching (Atreya Sampradaya)
Atreya was the best teacher of Ayurveda and was highly qualified in the branch of Kayachikitsa (general medicine of Ayurveda), which happens to be one of the elite branches among the Ashtanga Ayurveda (8 branches of Ayurveda).

His teachings were more of medicines and less of surgical implications. The treatment principles were framed on systematic understanding of the disease and its process which was dependant on strong and comprehensive theoretical and practical knowledge of Ayurveda basics.

His school of medicinal teaching was known as ‘Atreya Sampradaya’ or ‘Kaya Chikitsa Sampradaya’.

Punarvasu Atreya was adjudged as the best teacher from the methods he adopted to instruct his disciples. He is also known for his unparalleled methodology of ‘arranging and classifying the subjects’.

Specialties of Atreya’s teachings –
Discussion of each topic takes place like an interaction between the teacher and disciples – At the beginning of each lesson, Punarvasu Atreya announces the definite subject he proposes to expand and detail in the ongoing chapter. Following the pledge of his teacher, Agnivesha, the most brilliant disciple of Atreya puts questions in order to spotlight the salient features of the subject proposed. Afterwards, the teacher while expanding these salient points covers the whole field of the proposed subject. Occasionally there are intelligent interjections by Agnivesha asking for clarification on certain points.

Example, While Atreya is explaining the types of Vaidyas (doctors) as Pranabhisara and Rogabhisara, Agnivesha intervenes and asks a question, ‘How can we distinguish a real physician from a quack?’. Then Atreya delineates the differences between the quack and real physician in a most impressive manner.

Call for views – The disciples were given the liberty to express and put forth their views. After proposing the subject to be expounded and detailed the disciples and other contemporary scholars are invited to offer their individual views. Example, discussions on the subject Vata (12th chapter of Sutra Sthana of Charaka Samhita) and Rasa (26th chapter of Sutra Sthana of Charaka Samhita) are the best examples for such deliberations.

The summary – The expertise inputs and the brief summary of proceedings and deliberations was ultimately put forth by Atreya after having listened to the views of each of the learned persons and disciples present in the discussion. Atreya used to announce his final opinion on the topic of discussion at the end.

Different from Socratic Method – Atreya’s teaching methodology is somewhat different from Socratic Method, known as teacher-disciple dialogues. It is in its form more ancient and related to the Brahmanical method of discussion.

Spirit of teaching and learning – In the discussions of Atreya and his students, an element of spirit of teaching from the teacher’s side and learning from the student’s side is clearly visible. There is a true spirit of inquiry and desire for discovering and accepting the truth on a subject without hostility and prejudices.

Methodical and scientific way of teaching – Atreya taught ‘medical science and its basics’ and regarding the ‘herbs and medicines’ in a methodical and scientific way. The stage of rational medicine began with Atreya.

Scientific detailing of basics – Atreya explained in detail, the concepts of Tridosha and Pancha Mahabhutas (5 basic elements of nature). The theory of Rasa and its influences on metabolic and physiological functions and its application in therapeutics was propounded. The concept of Rasa (taste of medicine), Guna (quality of medicine), Virya (potency of medicine), Vipaka (post digestion effect of the medicine) and Prabhava (gross effect of the medicine) was explained scientifically in a comprehensive way. With the above concepts the ‘science of medicine’ passed on from the empirical stage to the scientific stage.

Concept of Unmada – insanity – Prior to Atreya, it was believed that Unmada may have to a religious or demoniac origin. While explaining insanity Atreya observes that neither the Gods nor the Demons had anything to do with it and it results due to the irregular diet and regimen and must be corrected by suitable remedies. Hippocrates of Greece also opined that the cause of insanity was no longer divine but human.

To sum up –
If you have a good teacher who can put seeds of ‘comprehensive and reasoning learning’ in your minds, you would conquer the world with that knowledge. Teachers like Punarvasu Atreya were pioneers of Ayurveda. Ayurveda, as a science and system took wings under their patron. They not only propagated Ayurveda, but also made sure that it fell into the hands of right disciples like Agnivesha who could carry ahead the legend of Ayurveda. Hence Atreya can be called as ‘the father of scientific medicine’ and the first preceptor to teach medicine in a scientific and methodical way.

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