I was recently asked, rather last minute, to speak at a conference that was going on at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), in Varanasi India. The topic of the conference was “Recent advances and the role of basic sciences in Ayurvedic Medicine.”
As India seeks to align it’s tradition knowledge with the way we do things in the west, I’ve been witnessing a profound westernisation in the way Ayurveda is practiced in India: the numbered feeling of the patient, the hasty prescriptions for “herbal” tablets, and the mechanised method of pathology. As one friend here in India sought fit to mention: “they even have to to take ex-ray to tell if your arm is broken.” The principles of lifestyle management and deep ancient knowledge of the principles that underlie Ayurvedic theory are almost non-existent in the clinical setting.
In any case, here’s a rough transcript of the talk I gave at BHU on 19 October, 2014.
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. It’s a great honour for me to be here at Banaras Hindu University to give this talk about the place of traditional Ayurveda in the health care as well the limitations of rigorous science research. I come here today, not as a scientist but as a practitioner of yoga and alternative health including Natural Acupuncture and Ayurveda. What I want to share with you today doesn’t come from research and hard science, but from experience. As Ayurvedic medicine seeks to align itself with conventional modern medicine, it is leaving behind some of its greatest strengths.
Ayurveda as an addition to modern medicine is fine, but as an alternative it can be even better. As an alternative it can be a non-invasive, personable and preventative method of health care. As a holistic practice it can see the whole individual and his or her place in the community and not people acting merely as hosts for some disease. These are the strengths of Ayurveda. This is not to say there is no place for modern methods of pathology. And it does stand to reason that the healing herbs and practices of Ayurveda should also be tested and researched for affecy and side effects. But it’s also important to see the patients as individuals and to find treatments that will work for them on an individual level.
I’m sure you all know of the placebo effect. Alternative health practices are often criticized as being placebo effective and nothing more. But it’s also been proven numerous times that modern medicine often works in the same way. In 2002, an American College preformed a study to determine the effects of a common knee surgery. They split 180 patients into three groups, one of which received a sort a placebo surgery: an incision was made but no further procedure was performed before closing the wound. The results of the placebo group were actually better than the other two groups at certain stages of recovery. In the end, placebo was as effective as the actual surgery.
Many of the very effective medications on the market these days achieve results that are little better than the sugary placebos they are tested against. But science doesn’t like placebos because their action is metaphysical and science has no way of looking into this realm. But the truth is, placebos work. As of today, I know of no scientific instrument that can measure or observe kapha, pitta or vata. I ask you also, as scientists and researchers, in what lab can I go to see the tamas or the satwik or the rajas. All of us here can see it, trained in Ayurveda or yoga we can look around the room and size up almost everything using these principles. From just a few moments of looking at the person beside you, it’s likely you can begin narrowing down the types of illnesses that they might be susceptible to. These principles are the basis of Ayurveda and yet we have no way of obtaining scientifically sound evidence for their existence. Yet just like the placebos we know these principles work for both diagnosis and treatment.
What placebo effect shows us, is that as we move into the future of Ayurvedic health care, we have to begin looking at the stories that underlie the treatment and tailor the treatment to the individual. By placebo effect, anything can be a cure as long as it fits the belief patterns of the patient and the patient has the will power to overcome the disease. One of the main reasons for the rise in popularity of Ayurveda in the west is this personalized treatment protocol. In theory, Ayurveda approaches each person on an individual level. The Ayurveda practitioners forge a relationship with their patients that humanizes them and allows treatment to begin the moment diagnosis begins. The dehumanizing effects of the modern medical system are common knowledge.
heyam duhkham managatam
The other reason for Ayurveda’s rise in popularity is that it claims to prevent illness and disease before they begin. But it’s extremely difficult to create a scientific study to measure something that never happens. Most of us accept with faith and common sense that simple things like altering our diet, exercise regime and hygienics can reduce the occurrence of many diseases so that we don’t have to experience the discomfort of dis-ease. Research in prevention should remain the primary focus of Ayurvedic research. This is Ayurveda’s finest strength and this is what will bring Ayurveda into the main stream, leaving the cures devised thru the rigorous scientific approach until there is no other alternative.
Charaka has said, “There is no end to learning Ayurveda. You should carefully and constantly devote yourself to its study. Increase your skill by learning from all others without jealousy. The wise regard the whole world as their teacher, while the ignorant consider some to be their enemy.”
Thank you very much for your time here today.