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Indian American Fulbright scholar to research ayurveda

March 11, 2013 14:12 IST

Kolkata-born Indian American physician Dr Bhaswati Bhattacharya, who practices holistic medicine in New York, has created history by being selected the first US scholar by the Fulbright Program to exclusively research medical ayurveda throughout India and teach at BanarasHinduUniversity in Varanasi as a Fulbright Scholar.

While there have been several Fulbright Fellows who have learned about ayurveda during their fellowships in India over the year, Bhattacharya is the first scholar and perhaps only physician selected to study and teach ayurveda as a Fulbright grantee.

Bhattacharya told Rediff.com, “There have been several people who have learned about ayurveda during their Fulbright years, and they have all been affiliated with either the Fulbright student grant -- called Fulbright Fellows -- or a foreign grant or they have studied ayurveda coincidentally.”

“And, it is great that they have contributed to the field, and they include Lokendra Singh, Celina de Leon, Sarah Anagnostou, Ram Karan Sharma, Mary M Cameron, Jonathan H Edwards, Wanda Dodson, and Shiva Ayyadurai.”

But she pointed out, “This is the first time a Fulbright Scholar has been selected not just to explore but to specifically research and teach ayurveda at the level of a professional.”

Bhattacharya also expressed elation over being “also the first MD to be selected to research in ayurveda,” and gushed, “This is so exciting because it has the potential to bring the ancient knowledge of ayurveda to a viable interface with modern medicine and biomedical science in a way that the skeptics can actually acknowledge it.”

“In modern terms, I am working on a technology transfer between the energy-based language of Sanskrit and the precision-based language of medicine,” she said.

Bhattacharya said she was thrilled that she had been invited to teach at BanarasUniversity and spend considerable time in Kashi, now known as Varanasi, “and home of the actual father of surgery, Sushruta. Kashi is a city full of contrasts, staunch intellectuals afraid of their emotions, and rigid priests filled with their ritualistic observances. In between are havens of understanding the Spirit.”

Bhattacharya said, “I will also be traveling throughout the country interviewing experts and elders, mostly in quiet locations. I hope to attend several conferences and find more resources for overcoming the obstacles to conveying authentic ayurvedic science to the naysayers, both westernised Indians in India and in the Western hemisphere.”

She said, “One of my stated objectives in the research section of my proposal is to publish collaboratively about immunity and Ojas with ayurvedic scholars who have less fluent medical language and English skills. I feel very committed to helping elders communicate and share their knowledge in a respectful way, not exploiting them, and not exploiting the truth.”

Bhattacharya received her Baccalaureate from the University of Pennsylvania and studied in the PhD program of Pharmacology/Neuroscience and received a masters in pharmacology from ColumbiaUniversity after which she attended HarvardUniversity’s School of Public Health and the KennedySchool and received a masters in public health.

She was the first Indian woman to speak at the Commencement ceremonies at HarvardUniversity. 

From Harvard, Bhattacharya pursued her medical degree at RushMedicalCollege in Chicago and after completion of her MD, returned to ColumbiaUniversityCollege of Physicians & Surgeons for residency in family medicine to get a license to practice medicine.

She then completed a residency in preventive medicine to train in clinical research and was immediately hired into a publishing company for peer-reviewed journals in alternative medicine. After a year, “I joined a hospital for clinical experience, academic involvement and heavy student-loan repayment obligations.”

During this time Bhattacharya completed trainings in holistic medicines, including nutrition, homeopathy, and began her studies in ayurveda.

Bhattacharya has been featured in a documentary called Healers: Journey into Ayurveda, worldwide on The Discovery Channel since July 2003. Alongside her private holistic and ayurvedic medical practice in New York City, she said, “I am dedicated to teaching allopaths and scientists about authentic ayurveda through the DINacharya Foundation in Kolkata.”

Besides her medical degree in allopathy, her master of science degree in pharmacology and masters in public health, she is a holistic health coach, a certified ayurvedic practitioner, an ayurvedic wellness and health counselor, a diplomate of the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine and a Fellow of the American Board of Preventive Medicine.

Asked how someone like her, educated and trained in western medicine at some of the most prestigious American colleges and universities, came to be so immersed in ayurveda and so passionate about it, Bhattacharya recalled that “soon after my finishing residency, I was contacted by Dr Ellen Tattelman, one of the faculty who supervised me during medical school and Dr Tattelman proposed that I get involved with a documentary film that was being made on ayurveda.”

“Being Indian, it was naturally assumed that I would be familiar with the ancient medicine of my native country. And, embarrassed to admit that I had learned nothing about ayurveda in medical school, public health school, or my PhD studies in pharmacology, I figured I could read a book and be able to help the filmmakers sufficiently.”

Bhattacharya said, “I found Robert Svoboda’s Ayurveda: Life, Health and Longevity and Deepak Chopra’s Perfect Health and interviewed successfully with the filmmakers.”

“For six weeks, I traveled through Kerala, documenting the before-after of cases of patients who were suffering from a variety of maladies -- nerve impingement, back pain, diabetes, cerebellar disease, cerebral palsy, stroke paralysis, arthritis. After 15 years of schooling, I had never seen the kinds of clinical results that I witnessed in those six weeks.”

Bhattacharya said, “This convinced me that I had to abandon the blind, dogmatic acceptance of a system of medicine that used artificially-controlled clinical trials and convincing doctors to have fear of believing in the placebo effect. The placebo effect is simply the body’s own ability to heal. The greatest evidence in the system of modern medicine is that it creates side effects and huge number of deaths from the complications of its medicines, apparently and obviously witnessed by millions of patients annually.”

“Specialists spent more time on individual organs and not on the whole individual. I began to study ayurveda as a system of medicine that unravels disease by looking at the whole body and how diseases simultaneously affect different parts of the body.”

Bhattacharya said, “Over the past ten years, I formally studied with ayurvedic physicians, known as vaidyas, here in the US, and since there are no university-based programs for ayurveda, I discovered a small network of schools that are privately maintained. I studied with the BAMS vaidyas teaching in these schools and continued to visit India to learn.”

“In 2007, I started the DINacharya Institute in New York, specialising in providing ayurvedic education to health professionals.”

Earlier, Bhattacharya was Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at Weill-CornellMedicalCollege, and as Director of Research at WyckoffHeightsMedicalCenter and the Director of the Department of Complementary & Alternative Medicines there.

She is the second of four daughters of Dr Bhairab and Manju Bhattacharya, ancestrally from Jessore, Bangladesh, who settled in Calcutta, then in Princeton, NJ in 1981, after years of living in India, Germany and England.

Bhattacharya said, “I have been back and forth between the US and Calcutta since childhood, and I have vivid memories of travelling a lot as a child. We lived between a house in Santoshpur, south Calcutta and Omaha, Nebraska. Later we went between Calcutta and Princeton, New Jersey, where my mother and one sister still live.”

“One of the greatest experiences of being ‘other’ was living as the only brown family in Ralston, Nebraska during junior high school. It etched in me a deep echo of being on the fringe, and seeing the frontier of the mainstream. Another was being so young. I started college at 15.”

An excerpt from Bhattacharya’s Fulbright application:

To promote better understanding of the clinical and biomedical aspects of ayurveda, I propose to use the Fulbright Scholar opportunity to unearth existing knowledge locked in academic silos in both the US and in India. Knowledge needed to dispel myths about ayurveda is currently scattered across several disciplines, including biochemistry, botany, neuroscience, nutrition, nanotechnology, agriculture, and gastroenterology.

Exploring the concept of Ojas, which roughly correlates with the current concept of immunity, I hope to relay its logic in modern scientific terms. Through interviews with scholarly elders, engaging educational discussions with young articulate physicians of ayurveda, and new clinical research protocols, I hope to create better understanding, publications, educational curricula, and open new avenues and resources for interdisciplinary collaboration between US-based researchers and India-based ayurveda scholars.

Image: Dr Bhaswati Bhattacharya

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC