Alternative medicine, chiefly various Ayurvedic therapies and Chinese techniques are becoming increasingly popular both in the land of their origin and the Western societies. As in other fields of applied sciences, modern medical science also has failed to resist the onslaught of corruption, consumerism, and utilitarian motives. The deterioration in medical ethics, coupled with the limitations of modern scientific medicine in curing many diseases, has prompted many westerners to find alternative in the Eastern traditional methods of therapeutics. While globalization of economy, easy exchange of scientific knowledge, and a big leap in information technology have helped the spread of scientific medicine, it is equally true that eastern ideas and culture have also made their impact on certain section of western community.
The deterioration in medical ethics, coupled with the limitations of modern scientific medicine in curing many diseases, has prompted many westerners to find alternative in the Eastern traditional methods of therapeutics. Ayurveda is one such cultural exchange, which the Westerners feel might provide them with a holistic approach to their health problems. Ayurveda appears to profess a more humane approach towards the illness, which the modern medical practitioner appears to lack.
Ayurveda is one such cultural exchange, which the Westerners feel might provide them with a holistic approach to their health problems. Ayurveda appears to profess a more humane approach towards the illness, which the modern medical practitioner appears to lack. Patients feel that modern medical science has become too commercial, almost to the point of being labeled as unethical. In addition to the sophisticated gadgetry, the patients need tender loving care as well. Ayurveda practitioners may not have remedy for every illness or malady, but their approach towards the patient appears more kind and natural. The treatments prescribed also bring the patients in touch with the nature by way of herbal and plant medicines, seasonal do's and don'ts, diet and exercises with desirable emphasis on life style modification. Aromatherapy, massage, and similar simple, albeit sometimes costly and time consuming, techniques bring confidence in the heart of the patients. In addition, recent surge in the interest in science of spirituality - Vedanta and Yoga - has also contributed to the revival of Ayurveda in East and the West.
Moreover, as traditional Chinese and Indian systems of medicine overcome restrictions of their respective national boundaries, we are witnessing a tremendous spurt in publication of very good books on "Alternative modes of therapy". These books contain valuable insights in basic theories and practices of Eastern traditional medicine. Subject matter of such books is quite varied. There are books that deal with specific Ayurvedic therapeutics, for instance aromatherapy and natural oils. Many of the books compare and elaborate 'origins and development' of these systems giving us interesting insights into the basic philosophical foundation of the two great civilizations. While the Chinese system is based on the philosophical concepts of Tao and Yin-Yang, the Indian system is related with Samkhya philosophy of origin of manifest and non-manifest universe. Chinese medicine rests on the dynamic pillars of 'five substances', namely: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water; while Vata, Pitta, and Kapha are well-known Tridoshas on which whole of the Ayurveda is based.
When these two great ancient systems are put side-by-side and studied in their totality one notices much similarity in them. These similarities are more clearly perceived in the basic philosophical concepts of two civilizations. Differing climatic conditions, geographical peculiarities, and cultural disparities led to differences as far as diagnostic techniques and therapeutic procedures are concerned. Socio-political influence is a later addition that brought about more differences in these two systems of medicine.
In both the systems, use of herbs and plant medicine is quite significant. But the meridian theory based on the flow of life principles - Yin and Yang - brought in the use of acupuncture and acupressure in Chinese mode of treatment that is not so clear in Ayurveda. Significantly, however, Ayurveda considered holistic approach to maintain individual and social health, and hence Yoga exercises, diets, and regular and simple life style find dominant place in this system.
The Ayurvedic system of medicine is based on the ancient knowledge contained in Atharvaveda. It deals with the totality of individual and social health including preventive and curative aspects. In fact Ayurveda is a way of life based on certain emphasis on diet, life-style, and Yoga practices suitable for an individual according to his/her constitution. The constitution, in turn, is determined on the basis of the predominance of or loss of equilibrium in one or more of the humor, viz. Vata, Pitta, or Kapha. Based on the symptoms produced due to excess or deficiency of particular dosha, the vaidya or Ayurvedic practitioner chooses remedial measures in the form of herbs, plant medicine, salts of metals, etc.
Ayurvedic therapeutics has evolved into many branches for the benefit of the patients; heavy metal salts, dried extracts of medicinal herbs and plants, Panch-Karma (five way) therapies for cleansing, etc. are but a few to name.
Panch Karma (lit. Five acts) is a special techniques related to rejuvenation, cleansing, and healing practices. These five actions or procedures are 1) Shodhana - Principle practice, 2) Vamana - Emesis therapy, 3) Virechana - Purgation therapy, 4) Vasti - Enema therapy, and 5) Uttara Vasti - Douching. These procedures are advocated to the person depending upon his/her body constitution, chronicity of illness and other factors. The idea is to cleanse the body of excess of specific bodily humor: dosha and malas - toxic wastes of metabolism. Through these 'Pancha Karma therapies the person attains the balance of the three doshas thereby regaining health.
Before the 'Pancha karma' therapy, certain preliminary rejuvenative preparations are needed. These are called Shamana therapies. These include massage - Abhyanga and Snehana, and fomentation - Svedana. Following the 'Pancha Karma' treatments, third phase of healing is advocated. This includes diet, exercises, Ayurvedic herbal tea and other preparations, and plant medicines specifically designed for each person. These are essential to sustain the results of previous treatments. Although promising, the procedures described are cumbersome and require trained persons to carry them out. Added to this is a novel way of treating the patients with 'essential oils' which are the fragrant essences distilled from the various parts of the plants, viz. root, stem, leaves, flowers, fruits, bark, or the whole plant. This is also called as aromatherapy.
Until the advent of modern scientific way of study, any system that gave relief to patient from his/her symptoms used to be designated as a therapeutic system. Whether the system was properly analyzed, researched, and organized did not matter much. Subsequently, with the development of modern medicine, the system that did not give observable, predictable, and reproducible results was relegated to background. Thus faith healing, naturopathy, Ayurveda, Chinese medicine, and homeopathy all were beaten back during the onward march of modern medicine.
Thus, many 'scientifically oriented persons' look at Ayurveda with skepticism. But it is futile to compare Ayurveda and Modern medicine. As regards Ayurveda today, any attempt to seek scientific rational explanation based on the statistical data, laboratory investigations and study of the cases on double blind trial etc. will be of no avail. This science will take longer time to come with scientific explanations for its effectiveness. But one thing is common to both: Both modern medicine and Ayurveda attempt to give relief to the suffering patients.
Medical Science and spirituality
Despite all such modern and ancient modes of therapies, it is all too natural to find human body falling ill from time to time and old age crippling the body frame. This is true for whole humanity. Pain and fever are common symptoms, almost universal. Control of infectious diseases and prolonging life through modern interventionist mode of therapy has lead to improvement in life expectancy. But with it have come many age related degenerative and neoplastic diseases. Thus, heart disease, stroke, and cancer have become the leading causes of mortality. Moreover, chronic diseases of kidneys, lung, brain, liver, joints, etc., and stress related psychosomatic illnesses cause significant morbidity in general public.
Some spiritually oriented researchers, for example the group led by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, lead us towards clearer understanding of physiological, psychological, socio-economic, and spiritual factors in the development of these diseases and restoration of health. They emphasize the point that, in the last analysis, ill health is caused due to our forgetfulness - Pragya Aparadh - of our true nature; our estrangement from the source: the universal consciousness.
These authors come out nicely with the meaning and importance of health based on the interpretation and teachings of the Vedic Literature. They provide guidelines for maintaining a balanced psychophysiology and life-style. But most of all, it is about inner discovery, about realizing that as health unfolds, so does vitality, happiness, and many other positive attributes we all seek. Growth of supreme health and growth of higher state of consciousness go hand in hand, and this together leads to growth of complete psycho-physiologic integration.
The key to positive health is to develop such physiological state that would be able to sustain and express higher state of consciousness. This can be achieved by practicing meditation, leading life according to the principles of Ayurveda, and giving due consideration to vastu-sastra, jyotish, etc. Due to this changed vision and approach, our excessive concern for physical health shifts to spiritual health. This shift of focus towards supreme health 'becomes a delightful journey of discovering the infinite possibilities of our inner nature.'
A thorough analysis of Vedic meaning of consciousness and relative states of consciousness is essential for common man to accept and understand Ayurveda as a science. Some spiritually inclined physicists define the ultimate consciousness as the unified source beyond the subatomic level of modern physics. Thus, they try to relate to a particular way of interpretation of Vedic Literature. The reader not acquainted with the concepts of Vedanta, Samkhya, or related Indian philosophical traditions, may find it difficult to comprehend such interpretation and philosophical basis of Ayurveda. But as a serious and deliberate study, particularly when undertaken under the guidance of an expert teacher, such research will be extremely useful to scholars and honest seekers of the truth.
In the last couple of years many books related to Ayurveda and Alternate systems of Medicine were published, both in the east and the west. This article is a synopsis of these books, and points to the changing trends in the approach to health in the West.