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Pharmacopoeia of Organic and Inorganic Substances

Initially, Ayurvedic pharmacopoeia was based on use of organic subtstances of plant and animal origin. It would be wrong to say that Ayurveda is herbal, although the number of plant substances used outnumber those of animal origin. The first pharmacopoeia of Ayurveda included substances predominantly of plant origin supported by those of animal origin and only supplemented by inorganic substances. Ayurveda advocates a four-fold approach to study drugs a) Nomenclature, b) Identity, c) Properties and d) Application called technically in saMskRta as nAma, rUpa, guNa and yukti jJAna. Ayurvedalays greater emphasis on yukti jJAna i.e., the knowledge of application of drugs. The texts say that the physician who knows how to use a drug is superior to a physician who is merely acquainted with the name and form of a drug.


The nomenclature used in Ayurveda for drugs can very well be called the polynomial system of nomenclature. According to this system, each drug is denoted by many names. Each name describes an aspect of the drug, either morphological or medicinal. Put together, like a jigsaw puzzle, the names enable one to develop a sketch of the drug.

Drug names are divided into various categories depending on what information they provide on the drug. Thus, we have names, which denote characters common to many drugs, and names, which denote characters unique to a drug. There are names that denote morphological characters and names that denote medicinal properties.


Lexicons state that the ultimate criteria to identify a plant or animal are on the basis of jAtiliGgas. The concept of jAti roughly corresponds to the scientific concept of species.jAti means 'to be born'. It indicates the mould out of which living forms are created. jAti is a unit of life that propagates itself through reproduction. And the idea is that the unique characteristic of a life form is genetically transmitted. As the texts declare, 'Paddy grows from paddy seeds and wheat from wheat'. Indeed a mango seed develops into a mango tree and not an apple tree.

jAti liGgas are thus characteristics unique to a species of life. However, elaborate and multilevelled documentation of jAtiliGgas is not seen in Ayurvedic texts.


Ayurveda looks at properties of drugs from two viewpoints. The drug in itself and the drug as it interacts with the body. Pointing out the fact that drug action is the net outcome of what the drug does to the body and what the body does to the drug, Ayurveda provides a dynamic framework to understand drug action.

The dravya (drug), rasa (taste), guNa (properties), vIrya (potency), vipAka (post-digestive taste) and karma (drug action) constitute key reference points to understand pharmacology in Ayurveda.

dravya, rasa and guNa indicate what the drug is before it is introduced into the biological system. vIrya indicates what the drug does to the body and vipAka indicates what the body does to the drug. karma is the final therapeutic action exerted by the drug.


Ayurveda considers application of drugs for therapeutic use under two main headings. a) Formulation and processing and b) Administration and follow up.

Before formulation, drugs are conveniently classified into various groups based on multiple criteria like part used, habit, medicinal properties and the like. Such groups are called as vargas.

Formulation is like making a team whereas grouping is only an aid to formulation. vargIkaraNa or grouping is like putting all the batsmen in one group, wicket keepers in another group and bowlers in yet another group. A team cannot be made out of batsmen alone or bowlers alone for that matter.

In making a formulation, different ingredients are put together to perform different functions to achieve a common goal. An Ayurvedic text points out that formulation is like the coming together of King and the courtiers. Each formulation has a leader drug and many assistant drugs.

There are two types of formulations — a) yoga and b) gaNa. Yogas are formulations that have been designed to tackle specific disease conditions whereas gaNas are formulations that can work in a wide range of conditions. Just as there are task forces that tackle specific problems or a wide range of problems.

Pharmacopoeia of inorganic substances

In the medieval period, there was a shift in focus from organic substances to inorganic substances. Organic substances were generally found to be distasteful, working slowly and had to be applied after considering multiple variables. Therefore, inorganic substances were looked at as an alternative. It was realized that specialized concepts and techniques are necessary to use inorganic substances safely and effectively. Usage of inorganic substances in medicine branched out into a separate discipline and even attained the status of an independent philosophical system called the rasezvara darzana.

Mineral drugs are also studied using the fourfold approach — nomenclature, identity, properties and application. Since most mineral substances are highly toxic, they have to be purified before use. Purification often reduces efficacy. And unpurified substances can be highly toxic. Therefore complex methods of purification were devised to achieve both safety and efficacy of drugs made out of inorganic substances.

Nomenclature and identity

The polynomial system of nomenclature is used in rasazAstra with the exception that many names are secretive in nature. Compared to organic substance based Ayurveda, rasazAastra is esoteric in nature and highly mystified. Mythological stories have been woven to describe the various inorganic substances used in Ayurvedic medicine. Thus, mercury is the semen of Lord ziva and Sulphur is the menstrual blood of pARvatI.

Grouping and Properties

The purpose of rasazAstra is to convert inorganic substances into a form that can be assimilated by living forms. Plants being the primary metabolizers, the food makers, so to say, are indispensable for converting inert matter into a form that can be assimilated by living forms. rasa is the essence of food that is finally converted into the tissues. The term rasazAstra means the technique of converting inert substances into rasa, or a form that living organisms can assimilate.

rasazAstra is an attempt to bypass the factory of plant life and directly convert inorganic substances into a form that is bio-assimilable. The inorganic substances used in rasazAstra are therefore, organized into various groups depending on their utility in this regard.

mahArasas, sAdhAraNarasas, uparasas, ratnas, uparatnas, viSas and upaviSas are the major categories under which inorganic substances are grouped.

The properties of these substances have also been described using the framework of the rasa-guNa-vIrya-vipAka-karma concept. In addition, their toxicity and utility in drug processing have also been described.


There are mainly two aspects in the processing of inorganic drugs — a) zodhana or purification and b)mAraNa or incineration. The aim of the first process is to reduce the toxicity of the drug without reducing its efficacy and the second process aims to convert the purified substance into a form that is bio-assimilable.

Many steps are involved in these two major processes.

Application of organic substance based Ayurveda is done on the basis of meticulous consideration of many variables like constitution, climate, place, the doSas and so on and so forth. But the medicines prepared by the principles of rasazAstra can be used without such considerations.

The hallmark of inorganic preparations is that they can be used in extremely small quantities, without consideration of many variables and they produce quick results.

However, to prevent toxic effects and ensure optimum efficacy, one has to follow strict dietary and behavioral regimen.