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The Subtle Approach to Ayurveda


Valuable observations on health need to be delinked from outdated theories, implausible conjectures and superstitions.


Essay and GS Paper 2: Issues relating to development and management of Social Sector/Services relating to Health

Mains Question

Ayurveda is now positioned to become a major player in the health and medical care system as a result of its growing importance in the treatment of modern diseases. Nonetheless, questions about its significance and efficacy arise frequently. Comment.


The Rich Heritage Facing Difficulties

  • Ayurveda, India’s traditional medicine, has been used for nearly three millennia.
  • This ancient system still serves the health-care needs of millions of Indians today.
  • The adaptation of a traditional knowledge-system for modern use presents challenges that, if ignored, can jeopardise the welfare of its users.
  • Several issues that the Ayurvedic establishment has long failed to address are discussed here.

Ayurveda’s Evolution in India

  • Pre-Independence Era:
  • The British Raj regarded Ayurveda as unscientific, mystical, and a religious belief, and thus sought to destroy the system.
  • The teaching of Ayurveda at the Calcutta Medical College was suspended in 1835.
  • The Bhore Committee (established by the Government of India in 1943 under Sir Joseph William Bhore) made recommendations in favour of modern medicine, so Ayurveda did not receive support to modernise during colonial times.
  • However, many orientalists among Britishers indirectly benefited Ayurveda by recovering the vedic texts. It compelled its opponents to reconsider Ayurveda and acknowledge the science behind it.
  • In addition, the Indian freedom struggle and subsequent national uprisings and social reforms gave Ayurveda new life.
  • During this time, many Ayurvedic physicians had formed a professional organisation, began publishing journals, and were actively involved in the freedom struggle.
  • Post-independence India
  • It was proposed that Ayurveda be integrated with modern medicine in post-independence India. It was argued that a unified system would be superior to Ayurveda as a standalone science.
  • Though there were islands of excellence in the old Ayurvedic institutions in Kolkata, Benares, Haridwar, Indore, Pune, and Mumbai, there was a surge in the growth of well-planned medical colleges and universities in the post-1960s, particularly in Gujarat and Kerala.
  • However, Ayurveda received a boost in 2014 with the establishment of the AYUSH (Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy) Ministry.
  • It has established an effective communication network with all stakeholders, enabling education and research, as well as the conservation and preservation of Ayurveda.

Facts versus speculation

  • For obvious reasons, Ayurveda’s ancient treatises cannot be expected to retain their entire relevance.
  • They include both useful and obsolete sections.
  • As a result, a dispassionate examination of their contents is required before prudent practical application.
  • Valuable observations about health promotion and illness management must be carefully separated from outdated theories, implausible hypotheses, and socio-religious superstitions.
  • Placing such conjectural ideas alongside modern physiology and implicitly equalising the truth value of both is a serious flaw in the current approach to Ayurveda.
  • Teachers of Ayurvedic physiology have the unenviable task of constantly attempting to reconcile ancient speculations with established scientific facts.

Purely speculative

  • This unfortunate situation has resulted from two major factors, one theoretical and the other epistemological.
  • The Ayurvedic tridosha theory is a crude model devised by the ancients to systematise their medical experience.
  • This heuristic model was used to classify clinical features of illnesses as well as therapeutic measures to manage them.
  • Speculations on these topics were also woven around the same model in the absence of a cogent understanding of the biological processes underlying health and illness.
  • As a result, the theory contains both heuristically tenable and purely conjectural aspects.

Priority Areas

  • A priority area in Ayurvedic research is recasting the theory in a way that retains the relevant aspects while discarding the obsolete ones.
  • The Ministry of AYUSH research centres (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy) have been oblivious to this important work, and their omissions have resulted in the theory being retained lock, stock, and barrel.
  • As a result, outdated pathophysiological hypotheses have become entrenched in the current approach to the subject.

The factor of Yoga’s everlasting relevance

  • Another factor that has stifled Ayurvedic renewal is the widespread belief among its academics that ancient texts, because they were divined by sages in deep yogic states, have timeless relevance.
  • This concept of epistemic superiority stems from G. Srinivasa Murti’s hugely influential memorandum on the Science and Art of Indian Medicine, which was included in two reports: the Usman Committee (1923) and, later, the Chopra Committee (1948). The flawed idea, which runs counter to the yukti-vyapashraya (reason-based) character of classical ayurveda, has prevented the field from demystifying its theories and implementing long-overdue reforms.
  • In short, epistemic superiority has elevated ancient medical writings from revisable scientific treatises to dogmatic scriptures.

A renewed call for reform

  • A recent article in the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics re-emphasized the need to reform and modernise Ayurveda.
  • According to the report, the anatomy and physiology contained in the Ayurvedic classics are mostly outdated, and the official approach to this subject is misguided.
  • It has also revealed the ecosystem influences that led it to take the wrong approach to the subject, as well as the negative consequences of that approach.
  • In addition to resulting in a travesty of truth, such misinterpretations in a practical field like Ayurveda risk leading to dangerously incorrect clinical decisions.
  • While petitioning for a scientific examination of Ayurveda’s foundational theories, the professor hopes that Ayurveda students will be able to study current anatomy and physiology without reservation.

New Models and Researches

  • Reverse Pharmacology:
  • The conceptual framework of “reverse pharmacology,” championed by a researcher in Mumbai, was a very interesting research development in Ayurveda.
  • It is defined as the science of integrating documented clinical experiences and experiential observations into leads for drug development through transdisciplinary exploratory studies.
  • In the traditional model, pharmacological research comes before clinical validation by several years, and the entire process can take 15-20 years and cost billions of dollars before a successful drug is released into the market.
  • New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative (NMITLI):
  • It is a flagship scheme to catalyse innovation-centered scientific and technological developments as a means of achieving global leadership for Indian industry.
  • It aims to establish, capture, and maintain India’s leadership position by combining the best capabilities of publicly funded R&D institutions, academia, and private industry.
  • On a global scale, the Ayurvedic medicine system is one area of promising industrial potential for India.

The fundamental truth and the Way Forward

  • The Ministry of AYUSH needs to wake up and take notice of the points raised here.
  • Academics earning handsome salaries from government-run AYUSH institutes must recognise how sinful it is to hand over an unprocessed proto-science to gullible children and then mislead them into thinking it is a super-sophisticated advanced science.
  • As a medical system, Ayurveda is extremely valuable for its observations, only marginally for its theories, and completely useless for its speculations.
  • The sooner the establishment accepts this fundamental truth, the better it will become.

November 2023