Ayurveda’s Perception Issues : Reasons And Solutions

Ayurveda’s perception in the minds of the average citizenry is somewhat vague, which this short essay seeks to analyse and where appropriate, to suggest solutions.

Although Ayurveda continues to be an oft-sought system of primary medical care in India, its perception in the minds of the average citizenry is somewhat vague and unfair. This perception, characterised by a certain trust-deficit, was succinctly articulated by the Prime Minister in his address at the sixth World Ayurveda Congress, when he said, “The biggest challenge to Ayurveda comes from its practitioners themselves; (even) they don’t seem to trust it fully!”. This short essay seeks to analyse the reasons for this trust-deficit and where appropriate, to suggest solutions.

Three main factors, complementing with each other, are at work marring the way Ayurveda is being perceived:

  1. The incompetence of the average Ayurvedic doctor
  2. Close-mindedness of Indian doctors trained in Western Medicine (Allopathy)
  3. The Intellectual slavery that India, as a nation, suffers

Each of these three warrants a careful analysis, but we would only look into them briefly here.

The average Ayurvedic doctor is out of sync with the intellectual climate of his times. His scientific world-view is narrow and its expression, archaic. The narrowness of his scientific world-view may be traced to the way Ayurveda is being approached and taught in our universities. The science-killing idea of textual immortality, the view that ancient medical texts remain relevant in their entirety, is at the root of the narrow scientific world-view that the Ayurvedic student inherits from his university education. Modern physiology, for instance, is being taught alongside the almost outdated Ayurvedic physiology, without an explicit dismissal of the latter. Both are treated equally for their knowledge-value. While the classics of Ayurveda contain first-rate clinical medicine, their content relating to the basic sciences of anatomy, physiology and pathology is almost wholly outdated. The former requires retention and development and the latter, a respectful burial.

This point needs elaboration. Patterns and progression of clinical manifestations along with the therapy known to ameliorate them constitute ‘clinical medicine’. When this is rationally reinforced with an understanding of the underlying physiology and chemistry, it graduates to become the more precise ‘internal medicine’. (Historically speaking, these terms came to be used in this technical sense since the nineteenth century.) Ayurveda is internal medicine only aspirationally; it actually is clinical medicine. Seeing it otherwise confers upon the rough and ready knowledge that it contains an artificial precision. Such a pseudo-precision is often aided by laboured misinterpretations of ancient aphorisms to suit contemporary scientific findings. This flawed approach results eventually in unwarranted clinical applications on the one hand and in a smothering of innovation on the other. Disconnect with reality, needless to say, is the recipe for scientific disaster. When the quality of science suffers, trust-deficit in it naturally follows.

It is obvious therefore that a rational approach to medical practice employing the Ayurvedic classics, first of all, requires a clear recognition of these vital facts. This recognition and the consequent change in approach will, at once, remove the unbearable cognitive dissonance that an Ayurvedic student endures. It will define his field of operation, expand his scientific world-view and make him more accessible to the educated patient. The inferiority he suffers in communicating with his more scientifically-trained allopathic counterparts will also disappear. What’s more, it will revitalise the great scientific traditions of classical Ayurveda.

While the incompetence of the Ayurvedic doctor is adequately recognised, not well-recognised is the close-mindedness of his allopathic counterpart. That the Indian doctor, trained in western medicine, cares not to even familiarise himself with the rich medical traditions of his long-lived civilisation, speaks ill of him both as a medical-scientist and as a cultural inheritor. Indifference to a three thousand year-old living medical tradition can only characterise a mind that pursues science for its baser rewards. This brazen close-mindedness, after all, is scientific incompetence by another name.

The priceless realisation that comes with a sincere study of science is that of its universality. Medicine, as science, is singular and universal. Medicine, as practice, can be dichotomous and varied. This vital understanding would make the allopath fairer and more open-minded in his assessment of Ayurveda. It would propel him towards researching Ayurveda for the great treasure it contains. There is the heart-warming example of Prof. M S Valiathan before us, whose important work on the genotypic variations underlying the Ayurvedic body-types, has been recently reported in the journal Nature. It is not out of place to mention that the latest Nobel Prize for Medicine has been awarded to a researcher in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Such an open-minded examination will go a long way in correcting the perception of Ayurveda, not only in the minds of doctors, but also in the mind of the patient community at large.

But, the problem of intellectual slavery that we, as a nation, suffer is too momentous an issue to have easy solutions. Who better than Vivekananda to articulate this problem? Addressing his countrymen, he said, “You are more dead than alive. You are in a hypnotised state. For the last thousand years or more, you are told that you are weak, you are nobodies, you are good for nothing and so on, and you have come to believe yourselves such.” All things Indian, from Vedanta to Ayurveda, have been victimised by this abhorrent mentality. That our school textbooks of science do not even allude to the great wealth of clinical medicine contained in the classics of Ayurveda is an eloquent testimony to this mentality. That best science students do not opt for Ayurvedic education is yet another proof of the same. Extricating ourselves from this dehumanising psychological state along with a vigorous self-assertion is the key to solve this serious problem. Once this is properly tackled, the other issues would simply melt away. A more enlightened State, with a strong scientific orientation and an equally strong rootedness in the great cultural inheritance of this ancient land, is the best bet against this sad state of affairs.

In conclusion, the reader may be reminded of the illuminating petition of one of the great medical teachers, Sir Robert Hutchison: “From too much zeal for the new, and contempt for what is old, Good Lord, deliver us”.

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.
G L Krishna is an Ayurvedic doctor practising in Bengaluru. His interests include Vedanta, Ayurveda and Life Sciences.
  • JRK

    Dr Krishna, I respectfully disagree strongly. These models of the body are the basis of clinical medicine, its differentiated diagnosis and application. The models allow an understanding of the dynamic equilibrium and its use is beyond just Ayurveda — I use it for Yoga and Tantra, much as Pantajali, Goraknath used it. To dismiss it, is to not see its core and great value, and its guiding light to the clinical medicine. So their description of the functioning of the human body was specific and for a purpose, and they still serve their purpose irreplaceably impeccably. The descriptions do not fit into western categories of anatomy and physiology, so requiring they fit is itself intellectual aggression. To bury it is to bury the functioning descriptors of enlightenment itself – the pinnacle of our cultural achievement.

    What you are against and rightly so, is the improper use of this ‘subtle physiology’ as anatomy/physiology and internal medicine. The latter are entirely based on external objects only and their observations, and has advanced so far beyond the counting of bones etc, and these need to be brought in to the Ayurvedic doctors training very deeply to help him account for the various ailments at a much more detailed gross analysis, and the known mechanisms of internal medicine that support the observations. The ‘subtle physiology’ acts as the guiding light to experienced Ayurvedic doctors in approaching newer approaches to investigations and knowledge of anatomy/physiology at any level of depth. The known correspondences should be celebrated. The others should be investigated to come up with conclusive research.

    The rishis were as rational, and Aurobindo uses the word super-rational . The rational mind uses axioms based on observed objects which can be external and internal . While the western rationality accepts the use of only external objects for investigation , Indian rationality accepts both internal and external objects. To deeply investigate the human body through every means possible both western and the older ayurvedic corpus of knowledge is very much in the spirit of Ayurveda. So I see no conflict in being introduced to both in an Ayurvedic college. Where the problem lies is in not being able appreciate their relationship with each other – ‘subtle physiology’ riding on top of ‘gross physiology’. So ‘subtle physiology’ is relevant and its knowledge is not an excuse for being shoddy at ‘gross physiology’ in education or practice. Incidentally this is the approach of TCM – Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners today. Every disease pathology, should have as detailed a discussion of the known factors from internal medicine inaddition to ayurvedic descriptions. I think that will make the Ayurvedic doctor extremely confident, his ability to investigate upgraded, modern, and if necessary engage in intellectual discussions with flair, since he will have knowledge of two related systems instead of one, and knowledge is power. In time people will recognize the competency of the doctor from both knowledge and outcomes, and with the right advertisement (Modern medicines credibility is inflated beyond facts by Ads) win back the adoration of the community.

    Now lets see what institutional mechanisms are needed to generate Mr. Valiathan. We need research institutions, and publications on the ‘basic science/foundations’ of Ayurveda that can bring external-object credibility to the foundations of ayurveda by modern investigations. Its also not enough to publish one more paper on the efficacy of different approaches to some disease. We need investigations into it as ‘preventative medicine’, the future of medicine – instead of playing catch up. Ayurveda should be presented , propagated as preventative medicine, to win credibility. We have no stakeholders in the system currently for this motive, since almost everyone steps in after disease. Its important for ayurvedic doctors to create these ayurvedic consultants who can visit enrolled houses and help them with their balance in health. Infant the ayurvedic doctors/consultants may be able to visit the houses monthly, starting with post hospital care for patient and eventually extending it to the family for a fee, advising them on diet, herbs, and suggest remedies before the on-set of disease, while alerting the family about possible future diseases. I am sure the community will love the care.

  • Audit Uscirf

    Dr G L Krishna made correct diagnosis.