For over a century various physicians, philosophers and scholars have used medicine or medical science to define health. This has contributed to the emerging issues around medicalisation of human experience and changed the dynamics around control and power within the health system. While modern biomedicine has made immense strides in medicine and surgery, it has overshadowed traditional forms of medicine, until more recent times when traditional medicine has witnessed a resurgence in popularity. Although the roots of modern medicine can be traced back to various medical traditions the current “modern medicine” approaches view traditional medicine with suspicion. However, due to increased interactions (interestingly, also due to ‘globalisation’) and geopolitical changes (with the rise of China and India, among others), we see a growing demand and spread of various health traditions globally – see for example this Nature news report from last year. Traditional forms of health care often take different – very diverse – approaches to bringing the person to a state of “good health,” and customisation would take into account diverse components in terms of food, medicine, lifestyle and cultural aspects.
The Indian health system recognises seven traditional systems: Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani, Yoga, Naturopathy, Homoeopathy and more recently Sowa-Rigpa (Tibetan system of medicine). Of these, Ayurveda is probably one of the best known. It has even spread to neighboring countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal and has influenced other traditional systems in South Asian countries like Thailand and Tibet. In recent years, Ayurveda has gained popularity and recognition as a complementary or alternative approach to modern medicine in western countries.
As a practitioner of Ayurveda myself I am well-acquainted with its benefits, and yet acknowledge the controversies surrounding this system of health. In this piece I put across my arguments for why I believe Ayurveda can play a role in health and wellbeing of people in the 21st century.
I’d like to begin my argument with our lifestyle. Our modern-day pace of life is increasingly having a negative impact on our physical, mental, social and spiritual health which is manifesting itself in symptoms such as burn-out, anxiety, loneliness, etc. Ayurveda can help to guide us to addressing some of these issues. But first, what is Ayurveda?
The term Ayurveda consists of two words,
The potential impact of Ayurveda, also in this day and age, I’m convinced, rests on its basic principles and a rather unique concept of health, that include the understanding of five elements (panchamahabhuta- ether or space, air, fire, water and earth), constitutional types (Prakriti – Vata, Pitta and Kapha) , as well as in its personalised approach to diagnostics and treatment. The study of Prakriti evaluation has indicated that Ayurveda can easily classify humans into phenotypes irrespective of ethnicity, geography and race. This way of understanding the human constitution leads to a better understanding of health and well-being. In order to achieve health, Ayurveda not only deals with the physical and the mental
While dealing with the mental, social and environmental aspects of health, Ayurveda proposes concepts like
Sadly, current strategies used to “modernise” Ayurveda are based on human-centric biomedical approaches leading to the medicalisation of Ayurveda. These modern strategies have neglected the ancient multidisciplinary and holistic approach which not only considered health and well-being of humans but also of plants, animals and environment. Ayurveda branches like Vrukshayurveda (Ayurveda for plants), Pashuayurveda (Ayurveda for farm animals), Hastiayurveda (Ayurveda for elephants), have lost their place in this approach. It is clear that this medicalisation has narrowed the holistic perspective and potential of Ayurveda. Processes like standardisation and unification of Ayurveda education have neglected the local and regional variation and pharmaceuticalisation has reduced diversity and availability of medicine to less than 10%. We need to bring back this lost perspective not only to Ayurveda but also to use this holistic way of thinking to fill gaps in our current biomedical model of health care delivery. The ancient knowledge of Ayurveda is as relevant today as when it was recommended for the first time.