50 Great Decoctions Explained By Master Charaka – Maha Kashaya

By Dr Raghuram Y.S. MD (Ay) & Dr Manasa, B.A.M.S

Maha = great
Kashayas = decoctions

The Maha Kashayas are one of the wonderful concepts explained by master Charaka in Sutra Sthana chapter 4, named as Shad Virechana Shatashritiya Adhyaya. This chapter explains five hundred herbs by using which the decoctions can be prepared and grouped into 50 groups of 10 herbs each. These 50 groups are called Maha Kashayas.
Read – Charak Samhita Sutrasthana 4 – Shad Virechana Shatashriteeya Adhyaya

Maha Kashayas

Maha Kashayams –

They are 50 great decoctions. Each decoction comprise of 10 best herbs used to induce that action mentioned in the name of that decoction.
Example – Hridhya Mahakashaya means the best decoctions for supporting heart functions. The 10 herbs mentioned in this list are cardiac tonics. The decoction can be prepared out of each ingredient of the great decoction individually.

  • Any great decoction is thus made up of 10 individual decoctions. The total number of decoctions is 500 i.e. 50 great decoctions x 10 individual decoctions.
  • The physician can also prepare decoctions using 2 or 3 or all ingredients mentioned in a great decoction, as per need. Thus, the number of permutations and combinations of decoctions becomes innumerable.
  • Generally the term decoction is used for shruta type of pharmaceutical preparation mentioned above. But the ingredient of the great decoction shall also be used in other forms i.e. juice, paste, cold infusion or hot infusion as per the skilful decision of the physician, plan of treatment or need of that particular form in that particular case. This is because all five types of pharmaceutical preparations are called as kashayas.
    Read – Ayurvedic Medicine: Introduction, Importance, Types and Myths

A bird eye view of the great decoctions

The context of Maha Kashayas i.e. ‘great decoctions’ comes in Bheshaja Chatushka segment of Charaka Samhita Sutra Sthana.

Bheshaja Chatushka means 4 chapters related to the discussion of herbs which can be used in wide array of pharmaceutical preparations. This includes the first four chapters of Sutra Sthana.

Understanding the necessity of explaining 50 great decoctions from pre-contexts i.e. the relationship of this concept with previous chapters of the segment –

  • Chapter 1 – Deergham Jivitiya Adhyaya, Charaka touches upon the classification of substances including sources of medicinal herbs. He categorized different herbs based on its ability to pacify morbid doshas and contaminate the tissues, those of animal and plant origin, those whose roots, fruits etc could be used as medicines, and has given the names and origin of herbs, minerals and other substances which can be used as medicines. He has also given importance to categorization and classification.
  • Chapter 2 – Apamargatanduliya adhyaya he touches upon the herbs used in Panchakarma group of treatments for purifying the body and classifies them in different groups. Later he describes the gruels. Here also he has given specific gruels in relation to names of certain disorders and also dosha specific gruels like vatanulomana peya. Most of the gruels are oriented towards curing abdominal disorders, seeing their names. Probably these are also hints towards using these gruels to strengthen the digestive fire which has got weakened after purifying therapies, as a part of samsarjana krama i.e. dietetic protocol mentioned for patients who have taken purifying treatments, mainly emesis and purgation.
  • Chapter 3 – Aragwadhiya adhyaya, Charaka touches upon the external applications for the sake of external cleansing (bahirparimarjana).
  • Chapter 4 – Shadvirechanashatashritiya Adhyaya, Charaka enumerates 600 vamana virechana yogas i.e. formulations which can be effectively used in administering emesis and purgation. After mentioning the sources of decoctions and five kinds of pharmaceutical preparations, Charaka details the 50 great decoctions. Thus the explanation of great decoctions in fourth chapter has been made to complete the formatting of the segment dealing with medicinal herbs (Bheshaja Chatushk) and also beholding the chronology of the contents of previous four chapters.
    Read – Acharya Charaka – Work, Samhita, Legacy, Chapters, Description

Clinical Significance

Clinical significance of great decoctions
The explanation of 50 great decoctions given by master Charaka are used as guidelines for practicing. Many of the 500 herbs mentioned by master Charaka in this context are either not available or not have maximum potency as probably they used to have in olden days.

We can format the great decoctions or the ingredients contained in them according to the availability of the herbs today.
Read – Jeevaneeya Gana Herbs of Charaka: Review, Medicines, Benefits


Important observations regarding the great decoctions –

Great decoctions serve both external and internal cleansing. They are multi-utility compounds.

The ingredients of the great decoctions seem to be the best possible herbs of choice in that given condition.

The great decoctions and their ingredients look like the first description of disease specific and dosha specific remedies. Example, Arshoghna Mahakashaya and its ingredients are targeted towards treating piles.
Read – Haemorrhoids: Ayurvedic Treatment, Medicines, Remedies

Some decoctions are named according to the action they render in the body when they are administered. They have a supportive role rather than a curative role. They may be used to strengthen the tissues and make the body healthy after the body has been cleansed. Example – Jivaniya Mahakashaya and its ingredients are targeted towards nourishing the tissues. Similarly Brimhaniya Mahakashaya and its ingredients are focused to promote bulk of the muscles and nourish the body.

Some decoctions and their ingredients enable formation of tissues. Example – Shukrajanana great decoction enables formation of good quality and quantity of semen. On the other hand Shukrashodhana great decoction purifies the semen and doesn’t form the tissue.
Read – Shukra Shodhana Gana: Semen Detoxifying Herbs: Review, Formulations

There are some great decoctions which are add-ons for formulations used in cleansing treatments, to fortify the action of purification. Example – Vamanopaga and Virechanopaga great decoctions and their ingredients enhance the action of emetics and purgatives respectively.  
Read – Vamanopaga Gana: Emesis Aiding Herbs: Review, Benefits, Formulations


What to infer from the information given about great decoctions?
Great decoctions are multi-dimensional medicines mentioned in this context.

The description pertains to the best possible herbs used in that particular category, available at the time of documentation. With evolution some other herbs would have taken their place as the best, as the herb or herbs of choice for that condition.

These decoctions have been mentioned from the point of view of lakshana udaharana i.e. actions of an herb(s)
In vaya sthapana mahakashaya i.e. anti-ageing great decoction, the term anti-ageing indicates the lakshana i.e. primary action of the great decoction and all 10 herbs included in the great decoction become udaharana.

Here the term udaharana means examples. Thus the great decoction are explained with a purpose of explaining the main action or purpose of the great decoction and the ingredients included in them as examples of herbs which does the mentioned action or serve the purpose named against the name of the great decoction.
Read – How To Make A Remedy With Any Ayurvedic Herb?

By mentioning lakshana and udhaharana, master Charaka has tried to tell that these 50 categories of great decoctions and the 500 ingredients used as examples of herbs used for that purpose is just for understanding the concept. 50 is not a limitation. A wise physician will follow the guidelines and plan his own decoctions and great decoctions.

The secret message is also to make the physician to understand herbs properly in terms of their pharmaceutical properties and actions and their clinical relevance. If one can study an herb properly he will be capable of preparing the needed forms of pharmaceutical preparations as per availability of herbs and as per need of the same. Examples may be many, but following a systematic explanation, the author has confined the mention of 10 best herbs available at that time for that category.
Read – Mustard Benefits, Types, Usage, Side Effects, Research

Sanskrit Verse

This verse explains –

‘There is no limitation in expanding a subject in discussion. At the same time a brief description will not be suitable and enough for those having limited intellectual resource. Therefore master Atreya has explained these concepts in moderation, neither too details nor too simplified. For those who have very limited intellectual property, the explanation of 50 great decoctions including 500 ingredients is enough. For an intelligent physician who has good inferential, analytical and skillful mind, nothing is a limitation. He will even understand the unsaid and will plan up the unexplained’.
Read – Pippali – Long Pepper Fruit Uses, Dose, Side Effects

The enlisting is an important pointer towards the arrangement of ‘earliest fully fledged Ayurveda pharmacy’.

The mention of these herbs may indicate that these herbs might have been available in most seasons and most days in comparison to the disease specific or dosha specific herbs.

The categorization was an indicator and a call for agra sangrahaniya i.e. judicious collection and preservation of herbs beforehand. If the medicines are collected and grouped according to their utility and pharmaceutical uses, they can also be used in off-seasons when the medicines are not available.
Read – Black Pepper- Piper Nigrum Benefits, Usage Dose Side Effects

Great decoction consisted of herbs available in all seasons. Example, if among the 10 herbs in a great decoction, if some herbs are needed but not available in Spring season, Charaka made sure to include other herbs which could easily be available in that season. So seasonal availability was probably rounded up.

With clinical application we can rate the best acting herb in the list of ten and make them as preferential choices in our clinics different conditions in a given disease. Example, while prescribing deepaniya great decoction i.e. stomachies and digestives one physician may find long pepper to be the best and the other may find ginger to be most effective. Both physicians may exchange views of their observations.
Read – Deepaneeya Gana Herbs Of Charaka: Review, Benefits, Formulations

Are Mahakashaya, best medicines?

Are the great decoctions and their ingredients the best generic medicines?

I will accept that the ingredients of great decoctions as first and best generic herbs known to the mankind in the old era if it satisfies the below mentioned criteria

  • If the same herb mentioned in a list of great decoction is available
  • If it is proved in this era that it has the same qualities in spite of undergoing evolutionary changes,
  • If its clinical efficacy as mentioned in the classics is proved even now,
  • If the same combination works effectively in destroying a disease,
  • If research works prove the results time and again,
  • If it is successful on successive clinical trials
    Read – How To Study Ayurvedic Herbs? How To Understand Ayurveda Herbs Easily

My Ayurvedic generic herb or medicine in 2019 for a given condition may be the same or different from what has been mentioned in the classics. If the herb or compound mentioned in classics doesn’t give satisfied results, I will take the clue from classics and work on different combinations according to the timeline in which I am practicing.

50 decoctions

The 50 kinds of great decoctions elaborated in Charaka Samhita

  Name of the great decoction Intended action of the great decoction
  Jivaniya Nutrients, providing nutrition
  Brimhaniya Weight promoting
  Lekhaniya Weight reducing herbs
  Bhedaniya Purgatives
  Sandhaniya Union promoters
  Dipaniya Stomachics / Digestives
  Balya Strength promoters / tonics
  Varnya Complexion promoters
  Kanthya Voice promoters
  Hridhya Cardiac tonics
  Truptighna Appetizers
  Arshoghna Anti-hemorrhoidals
  Kushtaghna Skin disease remedies
  Kandughna Anti-pruritics
  Krimighna Antihelminthics / vermicides
  Vishaghna Antidotes / anti-toxic herbs
  Stanya Janana Galactogogues
  Stanya Shodhana Galacto purifiers
  Shukra Janana Spermopoietic
  Shukra Shodhana Sperm purifiers
  Snehopaga Adjuvant in oleation therapy
  Swedopaga Adjuvants in sudation therapy
  Vamanopaga Adjuvants in emetic therapy
  Virechanopaga Adjuvants in purgative therapy
  Asthapanopaga Adjuvants in non-oily enemas
  Anuvasanopaga Adjuvants in oily enemas
  Shirovirechanopaga Adjuvants in errhine therapies
  Chardi Nigrahana Anti-emetic
  Trishna Nigrahana Anti-thirst herbs
  Hikka Nigrahana Anti-hiccough herbs
  Purisha sangrahaniya Intestinal astringents / constipatory
  Purisha Virajaniya Correctives of fecal pigments / fecal coloring
  Mutra sangrahaniya Urinary astringents
  Mutra virajaniya Correctives of urine pigments/urine coloring
  Mutravirechaniya Diuretics
  Kasahara Bronchial sedatives / antitussives
  Shwsahara Bronchial antispasmodics
  Shothahara Anti-dropsy and anti swelling herbs
  Jwarahara Antipyretics
  Shramahara Anti fatigue herbs
  Daha prashamana Anti burning syndrome herbs / medicines controlling burning sensation
  Shita prashamana Calefacients / anti-cold herbs
  Udarda prashamana Anti-urticaria herbs
  Angamarda prashamana Restoratives
  Shula Prashamana Analgesics
  Shonita sthapana Haemostatics
  Vedanasthapana Anodynes
  Samjna sthapana Resuscitatives
  Praja sthapana Procreants
  Vaya sthapana Rejuvenators

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