Anyone becoming a student or therapist of Thai Traditional Massage will, on one day or the other, get acquainted with Jivaka Komarabhacca (Jivaka Kumar Baccha, Dr. Shivago or Shivago Komarpaj, among other names), the so-called Father Doctor of Thai Traditional Medicine.
Jivaka and the Thai Healing Arts
Many things with respect to the Thai Healing Arts are attributed to Dr. Jivaka, most notably the disclosure of the 72,000 Sen Energy Lines (being the foundation of Thai Traditional Massage) and many herbal medicine recipes, among other feats.
In Thailand (and some other Asian countries), Jivaka is considered an important Buddhist Saint and patron with respect to health and healing. Thai people still pray to him to get cured of illnesses or thank him for healing, or for the knowledge of medicine he has handed down to humanity.
You will see Jivaka statues, paintings and other depictions across Thailand in Buddhist temples and monasteries (for instance, you will find a sculpture at the Wat Pho temple grounds in Bangkok – see the lead image of this post), in people’s homes, in massage therapists’ studios and parlors, and in Thai Massage schools.
The well-known Wai Khru ceremonies performed within the Thai Massage and Thai Medicine communities in Thailand will always address and honor him, and there are many chants and incantations referring to Jivaka, his knowledge and his help. Those who have studied Thai Massage in Thailand will most likely recall that very often their Thai Massage instructor would start the teaching day with honoring and thanking Dr. Jivaka, sometimes accompanied with chants and prayers.
Who was Jivaka Komarabhacca?
Dr. Jivaka is said to have been a contemporary of the Buddha (aka Siddhartha Gautama or Buddha Shakyamuni), the latter being the spiritual founder of the Buddhist religion, and he seems to have been the personal physician of both the Indian King Bimbisara and the Buddha. He was also Buddha’s friend, a devout Buddhist, and a patron of the Buddhist Order.
The Buddha himself is believed to have been born around 480 BCE (Before Christ Era) but this is still matter of dispute because some Buddhist lineages think the Buddha’s birth took place at 623 BCE, and others think it was 543 BCE. For what it is, it’s in this era we need to situate the life and activities of Dr. Jivaka.
Jivaka Komarabhacca is not only considered the patron of Thai Traditional Medicine, but he’s also seen as instrumental for the development of Ayurvedic healing knowledge in India, and in China some honor him as the creator of Acupuncture, even claiming that he was born with acupuncture needles and herbs in his hands. If Jivaka was an actual person or if he’s only a mythical figure is somewhat of a debate also.
Stories about Jivaka’s life can be found in early Buddhist texts. Nonetheless, we need to take into account that the earliest texts appear hundreds of years after the life of the Buddha, around the 1st century BCE. Also, if there existed something like Thai Massage in India at the time, it wouldn’t have been called “Thai Massage,” of course.
In the various stories, it’s widely agreed upon that Jivaka was a foundling (which resembles the story of Moses in the Jewish Bible) and grew up in the royal court of King Bimbisara. Jivaka later studied medicine and after that started his healing profession in Rajagrha, India. He gained himself a great reputation and was appointed the personal physician of King Bimbisara and the Buddha. Later, Jivaka became friends with the Buddha and a follower of his teachings, and he eventually even founded a Buddhist monastery, which today is known as the Jivakarama monastery.
Apart from Jivaka’s generally proficiency in the traditional healing arts, notably in herbal medicine, it’s also documented that he performed various kinds of internal surgeries. There are many bizarre accounts of miraculous or ingenious healing performances, and of course, we cannot avoid the thought that over time the stories about Jivaka have become somewhat embellished.
Nevertheless, Dr. Jivaka Komarabhacca was and is for many Buddhists and healers in a variety of Asian countries an important source of inspiration and devotion.