Is Man merely a mistake of God’s? Or God merely a mistake of Man? ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
Since civilisation dawned world over, man has seen death and disease as a threat to his existence. Any mortal, or otherwise, who provided a solution to this problem was elevated to the status of Demi-God, and eventually, a God of Medicine. Civilisations and cultures across the board boast of their own Gods of Medicine, many of whom are still revered today in multiple forms.
Evidence from around 3500 BCE suggests that the Mesopotamians had developed a bipartite healthcare system which involved both the natural and the supernatural- an ‘Asu’ or Physician who dealt with herbal remedies and an ‘Ashipu’ or Sorcerer who dealt with the supernatural root of the illness. More often than not, disease was attributed to the Gods, with various Gods associated with different ailments and the only way to treat such patients was to appease the offended deity in the particular instance. Presiding over these healers was the Goddess Gula, whose temples of healing were hotspots of Medicine, but did not house any patients. This is in stark contrast to another civilisation, which we shall get around to in a while.
Dhanvantari- the Hindu God of Ayurveda
Talking about Deities of Medicine, it is rather befitting to take a look at perhaps the oldest deity associated with Medicine in Southern Asia -Dhanvantari- the Hindu God of Ayurveda. The Bhagavata Purana describes him as an Avatar of Lord Vishnu, who appeared from the Ksheer Sagar ( Ocean of Milk) with the much sought after pot of Amrit, during the Samudra Manthan (Churning of the Ocean). Popular folklore also attributes him(and sometimes his successors) as rulers of Kashi- an attempt at bringing a God from the Puranas to the masses. ‘Dhanvantari-Nighantu’ is a treatise on medicinal plants that is said to be a work of Dhanvantari himself, lending credibility to the fact that he might in fact be a man in ancient times who was far ahead of his peers when it came to healing ailments. His position as a Medicinal God has a direct extension in his portrayal in art- a mirror image of Vishnu with 4 arms and a leech & nectar held in 2 hands. The Medicinal God makes an annual appearance in most Hindu households on the day of Dhanteras- a festival popularly, albeit falsely, associated with ‘dhan’ or money. The festival is an ode to Dhanvantari’s status as the God of Medicine, with celebrations centred around wishing for good health for oneself and one’s family A GOI initiative has resulted in Dhanteras being celebrated as the National Ayurveda Day in India and the date is selected based on the Hindu Calendar. The mortal existence of ‘Dhanvantari’ is debatable, but the idea of worshiping the one who bestowed the gift of Medicine on mankind is not limited to the Indian Subcontinent.
Asclepius of Greece
Which brings our search for the Gods of Medicine to its next stop- Asclepius of Greece. One of the most famous recorded living Physicians of Egypt,Imhotep has been rumoured to be Asclepius himself, although no concrete proof towards this end has been brought to light yet. In fact, Egyptian Civilisation’s common knowledge about orthopaedics, dentistry and pharmacopeias had been a huge influence on the Greek School of Medicine, centuries before Imhotep makes his first appearance in history. Asclepius, a son of Apollo and the father of Hygeia and Panacea, was the driving force behind multiple ‘Asclepeions’ or healing temples. These temples were home to multiple priests who acted as physicians and treated patients. Patients were left overnight in rooms with non poisonous snakes crawling over the floors and would recount their dreams (or more likely nightmares) to the priests the next day and would head home with a personalised treatment plan based on the interpretation of their dreams. Asclepius’ Freudian methods aside,his legacy of asclepeions paved the way for the Father of Medicine- Hippocrates- who learned medicine at one of his temples.
With time, the world gradually inched towards religious ideas that give priority to monotheistic beliefs, ultimately weakening the power held by smaller deities. Christianity and Islam still have patron saints of healing and medicine, but the luster of these saints has been lost with time. Nations which began their journey with polytheistic religions gradually embraced monotheism through colonisation, but it is difficult to forget one’s roots after all. This is evident in the existence of another deity – Babalu aye.
At the peak of Spanish colonialism , the Yoruba people of Nigeria migrated to the Americas, especially Cuba, and brought along their beliefs in local deities known as Orishas. Saint Lazarus , a well known fixture of Spanish Catholicism, merged with the Orisha of healing and thus Babalu Ayé was born. Till this date, annual festivals in the honour of this deity are celebrated by the Cubans.
The Hands that Heal
The journey from being mortals to Gods for these deities was spread over a couple millennia in the least and embellishments kept on attaching to their tales just like a round of Chinese Whispers. The crux of the folklore around these men hasn’t changed though, which is the fact that anyone who brings good health to the people is a ‘God’ in his own right, a message which holds great brevity in today’s world, where medicine has been dubbed as the greatest money making tool by the common man. Deifying medical professionals has resulted in a work culture where the death of every patient is an alleged reflection of the doctor’s shortcomings and saving lives comes with the expectation of working tirelessly on a meagre pay without a complaint, since ‘Saving a life is its own reward’. Expecting fair compensation is a faux pas in the social circles, and doctors are firmly split into 2 factions in public opinion- the charitable miracle worker who does not care about compensation or the money monger who cannot guarantee every patient’s life but wants to be paid for the work he does. When doctors’ Unions stage protests demanding basic human rights, the focus is on how cruel medical professionals are for skipping their duties. The moral ambiguity of the masses when it comes to blaming healthcare workers for expected adverse outcomes and simultaneously working them down to their bones in settings with threadbare resources will, in due time, give rise to a generation of practitioners who gradually lose all empathy towards the ill.
Featured Images :