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Mythical tradition considers Dhanavantari as the son of Lord Vishnu. As various texts have it, soon after Dhanavantari saw Vishnu, after his emergence from Kshirasagara, he prayed him to consider him as his son and allocate for him his seat and a part of offering made at the yajna. Vishnu said that gods preceded him hence he could not be one of them but assured that in his next birth he would be born as one of the gods and then he would be lauded by independent hymns and would have his due share in yajna-offering. It all happened in due course and thus Dhanavantari was Vishnu’s son born by his blessings. Hence he has been conceived with Lord Vishnu like four-armed form, as also, as sharing some of his attributes, such as his ‘shankha’ – conch, and ‘Sudarshana-chakra’ – disc with such name, though having in his case different symbolic stretch. With the sound of ‘shankha’ he blunted the attack and extremity of illness and with ‘Sudarshana-chakra’, eliminated it completely.
Incidentally, ‘Sudarshana-churna’ – a medicinal powder with an identical name, is the timeless Ayurvedic drug compounding a number of antibiotic herbs and ingredients used for curing a wide range of fevers, and ‘shankha’ – cell, not merely the main source of calcium in Ayurveda, is also the name of the most deadly poison which on one hand kills by its mere touch, and on the other, is the most essential ingredient in many Ayurvedic medicines. ‘Shankha’ is also the name of a herb which by itself is one of the most effective tonics in Ayurveda particularly one that effectively fights summer-heat’s adverse affects. Obviously, the Ayurveda seems to have named two of its timeless products or inventions after name of its originator’s Vaishnava attributes.
Deity-like venerated, especially among those practising medicine in India, even allopathy, the tradition of casting/sculpting icons of Dhanavantari, enshrining them at work-place or even at domestic shrines, and lauding him with worship-hymns has been in prevalence since Puranic days. Major gods apart, among subsidiary divinities and subordinate gods Dhanavantari is the only one whose iconography has been duly prescribed, and hence his images have astonishing uniformity across centuries. Though the main image form perceives him as four-armed and standing with vertical stretch carrying the pot of nectar in one of his hands, as he might have emerged from below the ocean, texts from the South, so also the images cast there, perceive him with one form, while those of the North, with another. In South Indian tradition the pot of nectar and disc are held in his left hands, disc in the upper, and pot, in the lower, in the icons from the North they are carried identically in the upper and lower hands but on the right side. This distinction of the two sets of images still persists and can be seen even in this contemporary image from the South. Besides pot containing nectar, disc and conch, Dhanavantari images are seen carrying in one of their hands, as carries this image in its right hand, a leech, the water-born tiny animal that Ayurvedic practitioners used till recently for sucking out infected dead blood.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.