Jivaka | Physician to the Buddha

This retelling of the life story of Jivaka, great physician to the Buddha, was unearthed in the archive library of Dr. Bharat Vaidya. Originally published in the Pali journal Health, a Publication of Prabhuram Anant Pharmacy for the Upheaval of Ayurved, this account was written in 1929 by Raj Vaidya Harjivan Ratnaji Bhatt (pictured right). This story is based on an original script of Jivaka's life, along with a record of Jivaka's prescriptions, preserved and presented by Rev Ch. Damodar Swami, a Sanskrit Professor from Sri Lanka. This account was translated from Pali to English by Dr. Vaidya on December 2, 20111 . It is my honor to present this story to English readers who may wish to deepen their connection to Jivaka, and broaden their understanding of his life. Herein, may these exciting details serve to illuminate the life and times of Jivaka, the great physician to the Buddha. It is my hope that the biographical details of his life may enliven our contemporary approach to Ayurveda.

Jivaka's Early Life

Our allopathic friends are fond of referencing the great scientist Galen (130-200 CE) of Pergamum, the Greek physician who advanced the practice of medicine by integrating theory with observation and experience2, and William Harvey (1578-1657) who is credited with being the first western in the world to accurately describe the circulatory system and the role of the heart in pumping the blood3. What of Jivaka, the great Ayurved physician to the Buddha, who lived 2550 years ago?

Near Pāṭaliputra (modern-day Patna, capital of Bihar in India) on his way to auspicious Vashali, King Bimbisāra of Magadha asked, "Why do we not have a chief gold dancer like the beautiful and excellent dancer Aambapali?" Soon thereafter, Sālavati was presented to the king. Sālavati, famous for her mesmerizing dancing and magical voice, quickly ascended to the position of favorite courtesan. As would happen, she became pregnant, and birthed a baby boy. Sālavati, thinking only of her profession, called her servants and told them to put the baby boy in a basket and leave him in the rubbish heap behind the wall of the city4.

At that time, while walking to his gardens, the Raj Kumar Abhysingh (also known as Abhaya, commonly Abhayarājakumāra. See Abhaya in the "Dictionary of Pali Names" by G P Malalasekera (1899-1973), which is available as printed version from "The Pali Text Society, London"), prince of Magadha, saw a flock of crows screaming loudly in the distance, and instructed his servants to find out what was disturbing the crows. There, on the rubbish heap behind the wall of the city, they found the baby boy, alive. Moved by compassion, Raj Kumar told his servants to collect the baby and bring him to the palace to be raised by his lady servants. Prince Abhysingh gave the baby boy the name Jivaka, as he was rescued alive (jiva) out of the rubbish heap. As the young boy grew and tried to understand his position within the court of Prince Abhysingh, Jivaka asked the prince about his parents. The prince told Jivaka that he didn't know who the boy's mother was, but that he, himself, was Jivaka's adopted father. He explained to Jivaka the necessity of studying, saying "Without any art, knowledge or education it will be difficult to survive in the palace." And with that, Jivaka was instructed to begin his education.

Jivaka's Education and the Story of the Merchant's Wife

With this instruction, Jivaka traveled to the Takshashila district of Rawal Pindi Punjab, to see the great scholar of Ayurved, the Vaidya Jagzint Pundit. Jivaka implored that the Vaidya to accept him as a student of the art and science of Ayurved. Without taking a single penny from Jivaka, the Vaidya Acharya accepted Jivaka as his student.

Jivaka was a very intelligent and hardworking student. He would memorize his texts quickly, and worked diligently for his guru. As he advanced in his studies, he selflessly assisted other students in their studies.

Seven years passed when Jivaka asked his guru, "When will my schooling be complete?" To this, the guru instructed Jivaka to carry a shovel, and comb the entire district of Takshashila for that which could not be used as a medicine. Diligently Jivaka searched for any substance or herb devoid of medicinal properties. Dejected, Jivaka accomplished his task without finding anything that could not be used as a medicine. Certain of his failure, he returned to his guru, where he was congratulated on successfully completing his education. Jivaka was then provided with the means and money to return to his home in Magadha.

Setting out on foot, Jivaka walked to Saket, the city now known as Ayodhya, birthplace of Ram. In Saket, Jivaka ran out of money, and realized that the path ahead would be difficult without the means to travel. Steadfast, he decided to find out the value of his knowledge, and offered throughout the city his services as a Vaidya of Ayurved. Upon inquiring if there was anyone in the town needing treatment, he met a wealthy merchant whose wife had been unwell for seven years. He approached the home of the merchant, and told merchant's security guard to announce to the lady of the house, "A vaidya is here who would like to see her."

Hesitantly, the merchant's wife asked her security guard, "What kind of vaidya is he?" He reported to her that he appeared to be very young. She'd been treated by great Ayurvedic scholars, to no avail, and didn't trust this young stranger. To convince her of his trustworthiness, Jivaka told her that he would ask for no payment, but with confidence, instructed her, "When you are cured you can give me what you see fit to give me."

With this, she agreed to see him.

Upon examination of nadi, mala, mutra, jihva, netra, and rupa, (a subset of the ashtavidha pariksha, or the eightfold method of patient examination, nadi is pulse examination, mala examines the frequency, color, and consistency of bowel movements, mutra examines the color, frequency and sensations of the urine, jihva examines the condition of the tongue, and rupa is examination of the patient's body, or form, including demeanor), Jivaka determined that the lady needed treatment for her terrible headaches, and asked her servant to bring a quart of ghee. He mixed in medicinal herbs and used it as a nasya, a medicated sinus treatment (it is written by Rev Ch. Damodar Swami in the source article that the recipe of the medicine used by Jivaka is in an ashram in Gujarat, Babra, which would benefit other vaidyas greatly if published). He administered this nasya into her nose and it poured out of her mouth. As she spit it out, she saved it in a bowl. Jivaka considered her greedy for trying to keep the ghee after it was used for treatment.

She explained that she hailed from Madwar Village, and that she was taught to always remain in control, humbly using every resource as a steward, and that she intended to use the ghee to light the fires of the home for heat and cooking. Then she reassured Jivaka, "Don't worry, we will pay you."

He administered medicines, and thereby cured her 7 year complaint. Greatly relieved of her pain, she saw fit to pay him 4000 gold coins. Together her grandson and his wife paid Jivaka another 4000 gold coins each, and her husband, the merchant, offered 16,000 gold coins plus one male servant, one female servant, a horse and a palanquin.

With this, Jivaka returned home to Prince Abhysingh's palace at Magadha, where he handed over the entire sum to his adopted father for raising and educating him. The prince refused the sum, and instructed him to build his own home near the palace.

King Bimbisāra's Cure

At this time, the king had been suffering from bleeding hemorrhoids, which would cause his clothes to become red with blood. When the queen began making fun of him for his condition he became humiliated, and spoke to his son, Prince Abhysingh about his condition. Prince Abhysingh recommended he allow Jivaka to treat him.

Jivaka gave the king medicine to put under his nails and administered medicated ointments, curing his condition. For his treatment, the king offered Jivaka gold ornaments. Jivaka refused payment and asked King Bimbisāra to only remember his service to the king, saying, "I need nothing else."

To demonstrate his deep appreciation, King Bimbisāra gifted Jivaka a garden full of mango trees, a palace, 100,000 gold coins, and a small village within the district.

By this time, the king had become a devotee and sponsor of the Lord Buddha, and proclaimed that Jivaka would become the royal physician, serving the ladies and children of the court. He also offered the royal physician's services to the bhagwan Buddha and his monks. In this way, Jivaka became physician to Lord Buddha.

The Wealthy Merchant's Cure

Now again, during this time, a very rich merchant of Magadha had been unwell for eight years. Not a single Ayurvedic physician had been successful in treating him. When he came to Jivaka, Jivaka asked the merchant, "If I cure you, what will you offer me?" His simple reply was, "Whatever you request." Upon examination, Jivaka proclaimed that the merchant was to sleep on his back for 7 months, followed by 7 months on the right and another 7 months on his left side. He performed surgery on the wealthy merchant wherein he removed 2 large worms from his brain. During recovery from surgery, Jivaka told the wealthy merchant that he would likely die within a few days, that via excision he removed worms from his brain, and that his condition was incurable. Jivaka applied medicated ointment to his head wound, and prescribed the aforementioned sleeping arrangement to his patient. After only 7 days, the rich merchant complained that he could not sleep 7 months on his back. So Jivaka asked him to begin sleeping on his right side, and prescribed this sleeping position for 7 months. Again after 7 days the merchant complained, saying that sleeping on his right side every night for seven months was impossible. Jivaka then asked him to sleep a final 7 months on left side, and again, after 7 days the wealthy merchant reported that this too would be impossible. Using this strategy, aware of the merchant's disposition, Jivaka successfully treated the merchant with a sleeping pattern requiring 7 days on each side, resulting in complete recovery from his surgery within 21 days.

For his treatment and miraculous recovery, the rich merchant told Jivaka, "I am now your servant." Jivaka requested payment of 100,000 gold coins, and another 100,000 gold coins to be given to the king. For his life, the wealthy merchant generously granted Jivaka's request, paying the total sum at once.

Now at this time, Jivaka's reputation had spread far and wide.

King Prodhyod of Ujjeni

King Prodhyod (alternatively Pradyota or Pajjota, so named for having the same birthday as the Buddha, when the world became illumined as if by a lamp), of the city of Ujjeni in the kingdom of Avanti, suffered from pandu disease (pernicious anemia).5 (Some texts interpret King Prodhyod's condition to be a form of jaundice. See Cannda-ppajjota in the "Dictionary of Pali Names" by G P Malalasekera (1899-1973), which is available as printed version from "The Pali Text Society, London"). Hearing of Jivaka's great renown, King Prodhyod sent his ambassador to King Bimbisāra to request the services of his royal physician. On amicable terms, King Bimbisāra agreed, and sent Jivaka to the city of Ujjeni, to see King Prodyod. There Jivaka diagnosed the king and determined that the cure required medicine prepared in ghee. It was widely known that the king detested ghee, and so Jivaka asked the king if he'd take it. "Anything but ghee," was the king's reply.

Now, let me introduce the principle of tryhath - that there are three people whose demands one cannot refuse. These three are the king (or rajhath), a woman, and the child. However, in the king's condition, Jivaka knew that he required internal oiling with ghee. So, Jivaka thought to prepare a ghee with kashaya rasa (an astringent taste) so the king would be unable to recognize it as ghee. Having heard of the king's great temper, and his great dislike for ghee, he knew this remedy could cause the king's passions to flare, and that he may be driven to wrath. With deliberate foresight, Jivaka requested that the gate through the palace walls be kept open, explaining, "As a Vaidya, I require medicine from outside the palace walls, which the king may need at any time." He also requested the use of bhadravatikā, the king's fastest she-elephant, to travel in search of medicines. These requests were granted without delay.

Thereafter, Jivaka administered the "astringent decoction" to the king. As the Raja was drinking it, Jivaka ran to the elephant yard, hastened to mount the bhadravatikā, and fled the city.

As the king digested the medicine he discovered that Jivaka had given him ghee. "Bring Jivaka to me," he bellowed, but his body guards reported that he'd already left. With this, the king sent his personal servant Kāk after Jivaka, offering a large reward for his return. Kāk was reputed to be inhumanly swift, and could easily overtake the bhadravatikā, and so, he caught up with Jivak in Kashi.

There Kāk told Jivaka that the king requested his presence, and demanded that Jivaka return with him to Ujjeni. To buy himself some time, Jivaka offered some amalaki fruit and some water after his great sprint, which Kāk gratefully accepted, thinking it would not harm him. Kāk ate a large serving of amlaki and drank water, whereby his heart began to palpate slowly. Alarmed, Kāk asked Jivaka, "Will I live or die?" "You will be fine, and your king's health will return, but I will not return to the king," Jivaka replied. "I am leaving the king's she-elephant with you to return to Ujjeni."

As his heart rate slowed, Kāk felt sleepy, and at last drifted off to sleep. Before parting ways, Jivaka reassured Kāk that he would recover fully, and left as Kāk slept. (Other texts attribute Kāk's delay not to cardiac effect of the myrobalan amalaki, but to an herb or drug hidden in Jivaka's nail that he introduced into the myrobalan which caused Kāk to purge violently. See Kāka the "Dictionary of Pali Names" by G P Malalasekera (1899-1973), which is available as printed version from "The Pali Text Society, London". )

As Jivaka foretold, King Prodhyod was cured. To show his gratitude, King Prodhyod sent a costly rare shawl to Jivaka. In turn, Jivaka gave the shawl to King Bimbisāra to present to Lord Buddha. At this time, Lord Buddha's body was not fit. Lord Buddha revealed to his disciple Ayushaman that he had toxins in his body, for which he wanted to take purgation. Ayushaman Ananda called Jivaka, and Jivaka prepared medicine for Lord Buddha, which would bring on 9 rounds of purgation, and then administered a second medicine, to affect another 9 rounds of purgation. As Jivaka considered, he recalled that a prophecy told that the body of the bhagwan would have 19 rounds of purgation. Therefore, after a bath, he delivered a final purgation to the Lord Buddha. Bhagwan knew what Jivaka was thinking, and requested Ananda to prepare a hot bath. After the bath the Lord Buddha completed the final round of purgation and was cured. In his happiness, and asked Jivaka, "What do you want?" to which Jivaka replied, "Please accept the shawl that I presented to King Bimbisāra to give to you, and allow your disciples to discontinue the practice of wearing discarded clothes from the rubbish heap." Up to this time, the monks and disciples of the Lord Buddha wore the traditional clothing of the mendicant: discarded pieces of cloth, cut and stitched together, and dyed in a simple earth-colored dye, simple, serviceable kashaya-robes. When the Buddha granted Jivaka's requests, his monks and disciples were allowed to accept cloth offered by laymen and townspeople with which they, to do this day, fashion their robes. 6

King Kaushleshwar Prasenjit

Another friend to King Bimbisāra was King Kaushleshwar Prasenjit. King Prasenjit's favorite physician was Jivaka, to whom he gave a comforter. Again, Jivaka gave it to bhagwan Buddha, and asked that the Buddha give permission to the disciples to also use warm comforters.

Devoted to the Buddha, it is said that he gifted the mango garden given him by King Bimbisāra to the Buddha. Today, you can still visit this garden, known as the Jivakambavan near Rajgir, in the state of Bihar, India (also known as Amarvan garden).


  1. Damodar Swami, Ch. Rev., Professor of Sanskrit, Sri Lanka translated by Raj Vaidya Harjivan Ratnaji Bhatt, chief physician of Maharaj of Babra. Kombhar Bhrutya Jivaka. Health, a Publication of Prabhuram Anant Pharmacy for the Upheaval of Ayurved. April 1930; Vol 1: 136-166.

  2. Boylan, Michael. Marymount University. Galen (130--200 CE) from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, A Peer-Reviewed Resource. http://www.iep.utm.edu/galen/ Accessed on January 11, 2012.

  3. Wiegand, Susan. William Harvey (1578 - 1657) from the National Museum of Health. http://www.accessexcellence.org/RC/AB/BC/William_Harvey.php. Accessed on January 11, 2012.

  4. Venerable Pannyavaro. Jivaka, the Buddha's Doctor. http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhism/lifebuddha/2_19lbud.htm Accessed on December 1, 2011.

  5. Malalasekera , G.P. Prof. Sri Lanka. Buddhist Dictionary of Pali Proper Names. http://www.palikanon.com/english/pali_names/dic_idx.html Accessed on December 1, 2011.

  6. Karuna, Sr. Candana. The Tradition of the Buddha's Robe, a Dharma Talk by Sr. Candana Karuna at IBMC 9-24-06. http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma10/robe.html Accessed on January 27, 2012.

Alakananda Ma M.B., B.S. (Lond.) is an Ayurvedic Doctor (NAMA) and graduate of a top London medical school. She is co-founder of Alandi Ayurveda Clinic and Alandi Ayurveda Gurukula in Boulder Colorado, as well as a spiritual mother, teacher, flower essence maker and storyteller. Alakananda is a well known and highly respected practitioner in the Ayurveda community both nationally and internationally.

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