Life sciences in ancient indian texts

In the Indian knowledge system, there is a clear-cut classification of creatures as living and moving. At the primary level, any being which possesses the five senses of perception – hearing, feeling (of touch), seeing, tasting and smelling – is living. The plants are living since they posses these five senses, as brought out beautifully in a conversation between the sages Bharadwaja and Bhrigu, quoted later. Plants, while having life, are stationary; they have no locomotion and therefore they are called

Sthavara = that which is fixed = plants (Stha = remain in a place)

The next level of living things possesses locomotion, in addition to organs of perception. The entire animal kingdom – animals, reptiles, and birds – answers this additional test. Since the distinguishing characteristic of these beings is locomotion, these are referred to as:

Jangama = that which goes = animals (Gacchathi = goes)

The third in the hierarchy is the one which/who in addition to the tools of perception and action, also has the ability to think.

Manusyah = human (Man = mind)

(It looks as though the English word ‘man’ originated from the Sanskrit word for mind.) Another feature of the Indian knowledge system is the relevance of fundamental ideas across sciences. In Tarka (logic), Mimamsa (hermeneutics) and Vedanta (philosophy) sciences, these five senses of perception are applied in identifying and grading the elements of nature.

Elements Attributes
l. Space sound
2. Wind sound + touch
3. Fire sound + touch + form
4. Water sound + touch + form + taste
5. Earth sound + touch + form + taste + smell

Some examples in the area of natural science are given in this section, in this same order

• Plant Kingdom (Botany) and

• Animal Kingdom (Zoology)

Human related knowledge is dealt under Medicine.

Botany – Classification of plants

Tasam sthavarascaturvidhah – vanaspatayo

Vrksa virudhah osadhaya iti I Tasu apuspah

Phalavanto I Prantanavatyah stambinyasca

Virudhah I Phalapaknistha osadyaya iti II

Translated as – Amongst them plants are of four kinds:

  • Vanaspati – the large trees
  • Vriksha – trees
  • Virudha – herbs
  • Oshadhi – medicinal plants

Flora are four-fold:

  • Vanaspati – those that bear fruits without flowering.
  • Vriksha – those that bear both flowers and fruits.
  • Virudha – those that are stemless and which spread out (bushes).
  • Oshadhi – those that wither away once their fruits ripen.


Sushruta-samhita, Sutra-sthanam, Adhyayah 1, Paragraph 29 (6th Century BCE)


1. Vana + pati = the lord of the forest = large tree.

2. Vrksah = the one that gets cut = tree.

3. Virudhah = that which spreads/shoots = herbs.

4. Osadhih = osho deyathe atra = the basis for digestion

= medicinal plants.


Modern botany has 2-fold classification of plants.

Western Reference

In 1735, Carolus Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, classified plants in his book Systema Naturae.

Botany – Plants the Living

Sukhaduhkhayosca grahanacchinnasya ca virohanat I

Jivarn pasyarni vrksanamacaitanyam na vidyate II

Translated as – From the grasping of happiness and unhappiness, from the healing of wounds, I see life. Plants are sentient.

Tena tajjalamadattarn jarayatyagnimarutau I

Aharaparinamacca sneho vrddhisca jayate II

Translated as – Heat and light digest the water that is drawn by it (by the plant). From the transformation of what is brought in (the digested water) fluids comes into being; (therefore) growth occurs.

Vaktrenotpalanalena yathordhvarn jalamadadet I

Tatha pavanasarnyuktah padaih pibati padapah II

Translated as – Just as one draws water up by the mouth and lotus stalk, plant endowed with air, drinks (water) with its feet (roots).


Mahabharata, Santi-parva, Chapter 184, Slokah 16-18 (3000 BCE)


  1. Padaih pibati iti = Padapah = that which drinks with its feet = plant.


1.   Prof. Jagdish Chandra Bose, in the 20th century, managed to measure the reactions of plants, confirmed the faith of our sages and earned his Nobel Prize. He was honored as a Fellow of ‘The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge’, known simply as The Royal Society, in 1920.

2.   The 16th slokah would be superfluous if it were to merely make the point that plants ingest water through their roots. The thrust of the slokah is on the Pavanasamyukta = endowed with / in the company of air – i.e. the suction takes place because of air pressure.

3.   The above quotes appear in the form of a dialogue between sages Bharadwaja and Bhrigu in the Mahabharata.

Botany – Plants have Senses

Usrnato rnlayate parnarn tvak phalarn pusparneva ca I

Mlayate siryate capi sparsastenatra vidyate II

Translated as – Leaf, bark, fruit and flower fade from heat. Because it (plant) fades and decays, there is sense of touch.

Vayvagnyasaninirghosaih phalarn pusparn visiryate I

Srotrena grhyate sabdastasmacchrnvanti padapah II

Translated as – By the sounds of wind, fire and lightning, fruit and flower decay rapidly. Sound is received by the ear. Therefore, plants hear.

Valli vestayate vrksarn sarvatascaiva gacchati I

Na hyadrstesca margossti tasrnat pasyanti padapah II

Translated as – The creeper surrounds a tree; from all sides it moves. Unseen, path does not exist; therefore, plants see.

Punyapunyaistatha gandhaih dhupaisca vividhairapi I

Arogah puspitah santi tasmajjighranti padapah II

Translated as – Similarly, by a variety of good and bad smells and aroma, plants blossom disease free. Therefore, plants smell.

Padaih salilapanacca vyadhinam capi darsanat I

Vyadhipratikriyatvacca vidyate rasanam drume II

Translated as – By the drinking of water with their feet, by the exhibition of diseases, by the reaction to diseases, (sense of) taste exists in trees.


Mahabharata, Santi-parva, Chapter 184, Slokah 11- 15 (3000 BCE)

Zoology – Classification of Living Creatures

Jangarnah khalvapi caturvidhah

jarayujandasvedajodbhijjah. Tatra pasu-

manusya-vyaladayo jarayujah, khaga-sarpa-

sarisrpa -prabhrtayosndajah, krrni- kita-

pipilika-prabhrtayah svedajah indragopa-

manduka-prabhrutayah udbhijjah,

Translated as – The mobile – creatures are also fourfold –

  • Jarayuja – born off womb – animals, men, tiger, etc.
  • Andaja – born off egg – birds, snakes, reptiles, etc.
  • Svedaja – born of sweat – worms, insects, ants, etc.
  • Udbhijja – sprouting – the indra-gopa insect, frogs, etc.


Sushruta-samhita, Sutra-sthanam, Adhyayah 1, Slokah 30 (6th Century BCE)


Indra + gopah = rain + protected

= the one that is protected by rain = an insect called indragopa, red or white color insect.

Interesting Notes

She is a nice plantain – Another research study showed how the ancient Indian Botany, as documented in works such as Amara Kosha and Vriksh Ayurveda, has clinching evidence to show how refined our knowledge of botany was. For example, the sex based classification of plant kingdom using binomial nomenclature proposed in 17th century was already practiced in ancient India. There are repeated reference to the superiority of ancient Indian works in the field of astronomy, mathematics and other materialistic sciences such as Ayurveda.

  • International Conference on Ayurveda ‘Time for Alternative’ Perspective by Dr. Mahadevan