Buddhism and Medicine: A Look at the History of Healthcare

buddhism medicine

Given the context of the global pandemic of Covid-19, it becomes necessary to understand and reflect upon the healthcare systems of the past. The past always has something to teach us, even if does not match up to the technological standards of the present day.

The webinar Buddhism and Medicine hosted by the SOAS Centre of South East Asian Studies, in association with Puthisastra University, and APSARA National Authority (ANA), set out to understand the elaborate healthcare system and services that existed in 12th century Cambodia under the Khmer or the Angkorian Empire and wider role of Buddhism and healing.

Social Distancing in Ancient Cambodia

The earliest evidence that we have of an extensive national health care system comes from Cambodia in the 12th century, nearly three centuries before the establishment of Europe’s first hospice for the poor and the needy in Beaune, France in the 15th century. This feat was possible under the leadership of King Jayavarman VII. He was raised as a warrior prince and is known for waging a war against the neighbouring eastern kingdom for another 22 years.

Apart from his military prowess, he is known to have unified the Angkorian Empire and carried out multiple building projects, one of which was the construction of 102 hospitals throughout his realm. Whether the number 102 held a religious or any other significance is something that is not known to us. Of the 102 hospitals that were supposed to have existed, 64 have been identified. The hospitals were built outside the main city wall for the purpose of socially distancing the sick from the healthy and for providing the patients with a bit of quiet scenery.

The king had a huge royal ceremony, complete with pomp and show, where he would distribute medicinal herbs and antidotes throughout the empire. These herbs and medicines would come out of his personal treasuries and collections. The knowledge of which herbs to use for particular ailments was available to the Cambodians since the 7th century, if not earlier. Some of the products used in these medicinal mixtures included wax, honey, sesame, gold, and coriander.

Buddhism and the State

The panellists went on to discuss the reasons as to why Jayavarman VII would take up the project of building hospitals. One of the ways we can understand this is his affiliation and association with Buddhism. One of the principles that Buddha, the founder of the religion propagated was to ease the suffering of others and provide support and help to everyone around oneself. Another argument presented was that the building of the hospitals was a strategy in gaining legitimacy, stability, and loyalty from the subjects and encouraging them to accept the path of Mahayana Buddhism.

The Travelling Monks

The event also briefly touched upon Buddhism and medicine in other parts of Asia which included India, China, Vietnam, and Nepal. All these countries, including Cambodia, share a history of Buddhism and medicine because of the way Buddhism travelled and spread. As the Buddhist monks travelled, they took medical knowledge with them, and that information also interacted and absorbed into the new cultures it came into contact with.

Religion and Healing

Another important point raised was the fact that religion is inherently associated with certain ways of healing. The meditative aspect of Buddhism has been linked with the principles of healing for as long as Buddhist traditions have emerged and existed. It is believed that the basis of the Buddhist corpus of knowledge on medicine comes from the ideas enlisted in Ayurvedic texts in India (where Buddhism as a religion took birth). But the Buddhists expanded on that knowledge and made it central to the tenets of Buddhism. Texts such as the Satipatthana Sutta which travelled all over the Buddhist world talk about elements such as the body, its organs and fluids, mindfulness and meditation – a canonical and highly influential text still studied today.

Surabhi Sanghi is a SOAS Digital Ambassador, pursuing a master’s degree in South Asian Studies and Intensive Language (which also means she gets to be in London for one whole extra year). She has a background in history and is interested in the religions of South Asia. She is a dog person and her only wish is to be able to pet all the dogs in London.

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