Buddha’s own physician Jivaka was a highly educated, extraordinary figure. Jivaka is well-known in Japan and China but not in India, largely forgotten in his homeland. He was an orphan who lived during the reign of Bimbasara. He was the child of a prostitute and was abandoned near the royal palace. Bimbasara’s son Abhaya brought up the little boy in the palace. By the time he was about thirteen years old. Jivaka realized that he was not a prince and decided to leave the palace to make something of himself. He travelled to Taxila, which lends credence to the assumption that Banaras had probably declined as a centre of Ayurvedic learning. Recognizing Jivaka’s genius, a great master accepted him as his pupil without enquiring into his background.
On the completion of his studies, Jivaka returned to Pataliputra where he gained great name and fame. He did the first trephining of the skull to remove worms. He operated on King Bimbisara for a fistula which had resisted a cure. He eventually became the Buddha’s physician.
As Jivaka came more into contact with the Buddha, he became an important supporter of the religion and eventually founded the Jivakarama monastery. He was a great philanthropist, charging exorbitant fees from rich merchants to donate it all to the Buddhist Samgha.
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In the texts, Jivaka is depicted performing complicated medical procedures, including those that could be interpreted as brain surgery. Pali texts often describe Jivaka giving treatments to the Buddha for several ailments, such as when the Buddha had a cold, and when he was hurt after an attempt on his life by the rebellious monk Devadatta.
The latter happened at a park called Maddakucchi, where Devadatta hurled a rock at the Buddha from a cliff. Although the rock was stopped by another rock midway, a splinter hit the Buddha’s foot and caused him to bleed, but Jivaka healed the Buddha. Jivaka tried to heal the Buddha using only objects that are regarded as reverential, such as parts of the lotus flower instead of herbs from trees.
Jivaka is honoured by Indians and Thai as a patron of traditional medicine, and he has a central role in all ceremonies involving Thai traditional medicine. Sometimes described as the “Medicine King”, Jivaka is honoured throughout Asian history by Buddhists, and to some extent by healers outside of Buddhism, as a model physician and Buddhist saint.