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The magic of Ayurveda

By Ajit Balakrishnan
December 09, 2006 12:23 IST
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Here I was in the middle of a working day lying on my back on a worn mattress in a tiny room separated from the next patient by an old sari draped over an aluminum rod, waiting for my turn with the doctor.

The path to this place in one sense was hard to find. I had to push past a shop selling ready-made dosa mix and another one piled high with stainless steel utensils in a part of Bombay that had still to outgrow its 19th century origins as a housing tract for textile mill workers.

In another sense, my path to this tiny room could have been foretold. It was the middle of 2001 and the last few months had been tough at work. A hard-won listing on the Nasdaq stock exchange was now threatened to be undone, the internet economy had plunged into a bottom less pit, and eager advertisers who had vied to be on our home page would now not return calls.

I was downing whiskies indiscriminately adding many kilos to my normally athletic frame, there were dark rings under my eyes. And then I was felled by an excruciating pain in the lower back. My usual ports of call for health issues, Bombay's glitzy high-tech five-star hospitals, had no answer other than dark hints about surgery when a friend seeing my plight suggested ayurveda.

Ayurveda! I am as supportive as the next guy of traditional Indian culture and things. I faithfully wear a dhoti and sit cross-legged on the floor and eat out of plantain leaves at family weddings. When my religiously inclined mother was still alive and needed to visit a temple I'd drive her there and wait patiently in the car outside.

I dutifully sit through Bharat Natyam performances and make donations without complaints when the Ganesh pooja folks come around every year. But how could unscientific, unproven, unlabelled potions be of help when modern medicine had proposed surgical treatment?

The first day's "treatment" did not do much to reduce my scepticism. After a massage of the back and legs I was escorted into a corner for a "steam treatment" of the affected lower back area: a home pressure cooker outfitted with a rubber tube did the job. The doctor gave me an unlabelled bottle of multicoloured pills.

"What's in these pills", I asked?

"Don't worry, they are safe."

"Why don't you list the ingredients on the label?"

"If I do that, others will copy them", he said.

In the next few weeks, my scepticism slowly gave way to amazement. The combination of massage, the pressure-cooker-based steaming, unlabelled secret-potion pills and yoga gradually eliminated my lower back pain. And all for a few hundred rupees a week.

Why did this system, if it so obviously "works", get so marginalised in the modern world?

When I checked the government of India's health ministry's website, in the grand tradition of the Indian policy establishment of blaming everyone but ourselves, it held "the advent of foreign invasions" and "the Britishers who did not encourage these systems" responsible.

Dr Deshpande and Dr Ranade of the Pune Ayurveda College go even further in the blame game: "The golden age (of Ayurveda) ended", they write  "when waves of Muslim invaders inundated northern India between the 10th and 12 centuries.

The Muslims slaughtered sages and monks as infidels, destroyed the universities and burned the libraries..the British (who arrived shortly afterward) denied state patronage to Ayurveda.closed down existing schools."

Yet, the answer may lie elsewhere.

Just as the industrial revolution undermined home-based Indian hand spinning and weaving first by centralising manufacture in factories and then applying machinery to speed up production, healthcare too went through an "industrialisation" in the late 19th century. Instead of caring for the sick at home, hospitals sprung up in Europe.

Instead of making patients cook up their own medicines from herbs, companies sprung up, which identified the active ingredient in herbs and produced these ingredients from cheaper synthetic sources. Instead of depending on undisclosed ingredients and secrecy a patent regime allowed innovators to appropriate for themselves the profits from their innovation.

The Germ Theory of Disease, that great paradigm change, dealt the next blow to Ayurveda. Louis Pasteur in France and Robert Koch in Germany demonstrated that infectious diseases are caused by germs and that specific diseases are caused by specific germs. Based on these insights, drugs were soon discovered for infectious diseases.

Epidemics that had hitherto laid waste to millions of humans were gradually eliminated. The discovery of antibiotics in the 1940s dealt Ayurveda its final blow.

Ayurveda's refusal to use the tools of organic chemistry early enough to make it medicines affordable for the masses, its rejection of the Germ Theory of Disease, and the consequent inability to deal with the common man's illnesses of cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis, and small pox are what marginalised it. Not foreign invasions and colonialism.

Medicine is now in the middle of another paradigm change. The insights of organic chemistry that drove the last one are giving way to the microbiology-driven biotech era. Will Indian policymakers gracefully incorporate these new insights and allow ayurveda to evolve into a living science or will they continue blaming invaders and colonialism?

Ajit Balakrishnan is the founder and chief executive officer,
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