Ayurveda – Science or Pseudoscience?

According to ancient Indian medical practice, the word Ayurveda means – ‘the knowledge of long life’. Two ancient medical compilations – ‘Charak Samhita’ and ‘Susruta Samhita’ are generally considered as the root sources of Ayurveda. Undoubtedly, after the rudimentary senses of magical charms against diseases as prescribed in ‘Atharvaveda’, these two compilations mark a forward-leap towards the scientific development in medical science, in spite of having strange and confusing assemblage of science and its opposite. While modern philosophers have tried to explain these non-sciences in the light of serious modification due to contemporary and later socio-political influences (Brahminisation), we can easily guess what might be the condition of Ayurveda in this era of jingoistic nationalism. Moreover, the relevance of Ayurveda in this twenty-first century can be questioned with the help of modern evidence-based development in medical science.

“What should a menstruating woman do? She should wear white clothes and garlands! After every meal, chew betel nuts!” – such is the experience of students enrolled in BAMS. Ancient mythology-based propaganda, blind belief in the brahminised samhitas without questioning them, promotion of feudal and patriarchal concepts, unscientific bashing of modern medicines – these are the different points which AYUSH (Department of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy) wants to float through its numerous institutes of studies relating ‘alternative medicines’. AYUSH is now a full-fledged ministry from May 2014, when Narendra Modi-led BJP government took oath as the ruling party. Even if we ignore the socio-political influences then also the very foundation of Ayurveda, i.e., the three vital forces (or dosha) – vata, pitta, and kapha can be questioned in the light of modern evidence-based science. In a nutshell, vata is responsible for the working of the nervous system; pitta is the bile for digestion and other metabolic processes, and kapha is the nutrition supplied to the arterial system. Each of them is composed of one or two of the five basic elements – space, air, fire, water, and earth. Such a primitive level of materialistic understanding of human physiology was undoubtedly a great development in the era of spiritual mumbo-jumbo. However, the proponents of Ayurveda failed miserably in explaining what doshas are, where and how they exist, and in associating them with any physiochemical process in the body. Rather, they constantly try to evade such questions by citing the differences between the philosophy of Ayurvedic practices and modern medicine. The aim of this continuous push towards ‘alternative medicine’ (which even do not have proper scientific validation) in India and abroad is to create a market of billion dollars at the cost of human lives.

A document prepared by the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (a branch of the National Institutes for Health) states – “most clinical trials of Ayurvedic approaches have been small, had problems with research designs, lacked appropriate control groups, or had other issues that affected how meaningful the results were.” Those who are too nationalistic to ignore the above sum-up, they must note that even Ayurvedic practitioners decry the lack of evidence for its effectiveness. In Frontline magazine, Dr. M. S. Valiathan, a staunch advocate of Ayurveda, admits that “clinical studies that would satisfy the liberal criteria of WHO [World Health Organization] have been alarmingly few from India, in spite of patients crowding in Ayurvedic hospitals.” In 2004, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that lead, mercury, and arsenic intoxication were associated with the use of Ayurvedic herbal medicines. Dr. Ajay Kumar, a senior consultant and liver specialist at Delhi’s Indraprastha Apollo Hospital told the Indian Express (May 29, 2005) – “We come across cases of metal toxicity where the underlying cause is longtime use of Ayurvedic medicines.” However, one can witness the callous attitude of the Indian authority, as the same article reported that the joint secretary of AYUSH commented – “heavy metals are integral to some (Ayurvedic) formulations and have been used for centuries. There is no point of doing trials as they have been used safely and have mention in our ancient texts.” Mainly the practice of Rasa shastra encourages adding heavy metallic components in Ayurvedic formulations to increase the potency of herbs as claimed by the practitioners. However, it is not at all justified with enough evidences, and without proper chemical explanations this sounds like alchemy, not science.

The worrying fact is – presently in India, Ayurvedic medicines are not required to submit any proof pertaining to their safety or efficacy. In spite of this the draft National Health Policy 2015 suggests greater integration of AYUSH with modern medicine, a type of “cross-pathy” that the Indian Medical Association has strongly opposed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s