Let Ayurveda flourish freely: The Tribune India

Dinesh C. Sharma

Scientific commentator

During the first week of July, the Hindu University of Benares (BHU) organized a national seminar on various aspects of the New Education Policy (NEP). The policy suggests far-reaching reforms in the current education system, including medical education. One of the many ideas proposed is the promotion of “pluralistic choices in health care” and to make health education “integrative”. It has been suggested that all students of allopathic medicine should have a basic understanding of Indian systems of medicine like Ayurveda and vice versa. While the NEP, with all these provisions, is being discussed, disconcerting voices have emerged about the current Ayurvedic curriculum. In a faith-based article in the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, a professor of Ayurvedic physiology at BHU pointed out serious shortcomings in Ayurvedic education in India. Kishor Patwardhan’s article raised eyebrows because he is a renowned Ayurveda researcher and the author of popular textbooks on Ayurvedic physiology.

The methodology of rationalizing everything contained in the ancient texts is used by the ideological and political supporters of Ayurveda to claim its supremacy.

The discipline of Ayurveda is based on the ancient text, Charak Samhita, and its interpretations by Sushrut and Vagbhat. From time to time, commentators and scholars have interpreted and rewritten these texts. Over the past centuries, these texts have been reinterpreted in the light of new emerging knowledge in anatomy, physiology, pathology, biochemistry, microbiology, etc. The aim of such interpretations has always been to conclude that Ayurvedic knowledge and contemporary medical concepts are similar or identical. The effort is to validate or rationalize ancient knowledge through the prism of modern discoveries. Patwardhan did the same as an Ayurveda teacher and textbook author. He confesses that he “consciously selected the most rational versions of ancient aphorisms to make them seem relevant” in modern times. Now he says his approach to justifying outdated ideas is flawed, despite having done it himself while teaching students and writing textbooks.

For example, Ayurvedic scriptures – as taught to BAMS (Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery) students – say that sperm (shukra) is formed in the bone marrow (majja) and circulates in the blood throughout the body. To substantiate this claim, modern textbooks speculate that shukra could be of two types – one meaning sperm and the other possibly being a substance found throughout the body, such as a reproductive hormone. Another example cited by Patwardhan is the role of the kidneys in the formation of urine. Although there is no hard evidence that the ancient Indians knew the physiology of urine formation, reinterpretations have been made to believe they did. These painstaking reinterpretations of ancient texts continue as new concepts and theories emerge – reinforcing the popular notion that the ancient Indians not only knew everything, but were also ahead of their time. What is disturbing is that such irrational and unscientific interpretations are part of the textbooks taught in hundreds of Ayurvedic universities across the country.

The controversy over excessive amounts of heavy metals like mercury and cadmium in some Ayurvedic formulations has brought many Ayurvedic products under the scanner in the United States and Europe. Instead of taking an evidence-based approach, proponents of Ayurveda have resorted to streamlining texts using modern concepts. They said that the concept of bhasma in ayurveda is akin to modern nano-medicine. Ayurveda was therefore ahead of modern science. The presence of heavy metals in medicines continues to be a major problem, with several cases of serious liver damage being reported. A Kerala liver specialist, Cyriac Abby Philips, regularly reports such cases in scientific journals and is sued for highlighting toxicity due to Ayurvedic formulations. In a tweet, he quoted a sloka from Astanga Hrdayam: “a dead black snake and four (killed) scorpions are put in a pot of milk and kept undisturbed for three weeks. Then it is churned and butter obtained and given to a rooster. The excrements of this rooster are collected, well reduced to powder and used as eye drops; thereby even a blind man will be able to see. This is all part of the Ayurvedic course curriculum.

The methodology of rationalizing everything contained in the ancient texts is used by the ideological and political supporters of Ayurveda to claim its supremacy. Science departments fund projects to find the “scientific basis” for claims made in texts, whether cow’s urine or the tridosha theory. The government does not want to allow a critical evaluation of the old systems. He wants to project ancient knowledge as practical, modern and scientific. Government health agencies have been scrambling to promote Ayurvedic management of Covid-19 and have backed unscientific claims by some Ayurvedic companies close to the ruling dispensation. A Manipur journalist has been jailed for questioning the use of cow urine to ward off Covid. Instead of taking notice of heavy metal toxicity, Ayush’s central ministry accused Philips of denigrating the old system of medicine. Ministry and Ayurveda purists can do the same with Patwardhan.

A critical evaluation is necessary. Ayurvedic medicines must undergo the same regulatory rigor of clinical trials for toxicity, safety and efficacy as new allopathic medicines. Only qualified practitioners should be allowed to practice medicine, and manufacturers in India’s drug system should be subject to standard manufacturing, quality, labeling and marketing standards established for modern medicine. The NEP provides an opportunity for the National Commission for the Indian System of Medicine to review the curriculum of Ayurvedic courses. Let Ayurveda flourish as a system of medicine free from ideological hold.

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