New Internationalist

Ancient knowledge could overhaul India’s health system

Tumeric powder [Related Image]
Tumeric is an excellent natural remedy for many ailments. Jon Connell under a Creative Commons Licence

Ayurveda is an ancient Indian system of medicine, tried and tested over a few thousand years. It’s a way of life that goes beyond addressing ill-health, to encompass a lifestyle conducive to good health: there’s a huge difference in this approach.

I was hooked on ayurveda about a decade ago when an ayurvedic healer (vaidyan) suggested that it could help my insulin-dependent, diabetic husband. I was willing to try anything if there was a chance it would work. So we trotted off to the Ayurvedic ashram. I was hopeful, he was cynical.

However the world’s most cynical person would have had to agree that bringing down an insulin dosage from 60 units to 30, in exactly two weeks, is a successful treatment. What I hadn’t expected was that it would work miraculously for me too, getting rid of decade-long gynaecological problems that I hadn’t expected to resolve. Most Indian women – and I suspect other women from poorer nations – entering their fifties endure all kinds of health issues stoically. They don’t expect much. There’s not much help available for older women, it’s considered part of life. And so life goes on. They just live with discomfort and pain for the rest of their lives.

Last week my husband Stan was in excruciating pain. We were relieved to discover that it was ‘only’ shingles and not something more sinister. After a week of agony, our vaidyan friends suggested special oils and a paste of ground neem and turmeric. Stan says it felt like putting his leg in ice water. The relief was instantaneous.

I write about this because I am constantly amazed at the inexpensive, simple and effective treatments available to us in India. And I feel that these remedies should spread to people around the world. Yet few of us Indians use them. Shingles is painful and neem is not a remedy, yet there is no western medicine cure and treatment includes anti-depressants and anti-inflammatory drugs. The pain returns at night but it’s bearable during the day using the natural herbs from our garden.

Ayurvedic treatment can be expensive and unaffordable. As middle class Indians we hesitate to admit ourselves for a two week treatment because it costs around 40,000 rupees ($650) for the hospitalization. But we’re being penny wise, pound foolish. One overnight stay in a Bangalore hospital, with an MRI scan and other tests thrown in, cost over 10,000 rupees ($165). But when we are rushed to an Intensive Care Unit, we don’t crib about the price. We just pay up.

India can completely overhaul its health system if we use our ancient knowledge. A young doctor told me that every Saturday, in a city like Bangalore, the hospital is filled with IT techies getting treatment for computer related neck, back and spinal problems. Middle class Indians suffer from a D-Vitamin deficiency because they are tied to desk jobs and don’t see the sun!! We need to revert to yoga, and traditional health systems, and think about the food that we eat. Diabetes, hypertension, stress and heart disease have reached epic proportions. India has the highest number of diabetics in the world, even though the highest rate of the disease is in the Pacific island nation of Nauru.

We must cure ourselves. Our country needs to tear itself away from a pharmaceutical industry that rips patients off. That’s not to say the ayurvedic medicine industry is as pure as snow. It too is plagued by quacks and unscrupulous crooks who lace ayurvedic medicines with steroids for quick results, to get patients hooked to particular healers. It’s still important to know genuine healers and good ayurvedic centres of excellence, as it is with conventional healthcare.

There are no quick-fix solutions in ayurveda. One needs to persevere and make lifestyle changes that are difficult for people with hectic, erratic schedules. Fast food and rich food goes out the window too, if you take the regimen seriously. But it makes sense to opt for a system which will work towards good health and medicines without myriad side effects.

Our grandparents followed the system and enjoyed better health than us, their modern, multi-tasking, super-achieving, ambitious descendants. Ultimately, I think, they enjoyed life more than the young today. The folks determined to party every weekend to make up for not having a life six days a week!! We need to change, to get back our lives. Will we manage it? Ayurveda seems like a good first step.

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  1. #1 RICHARD ZIPFEL 18 Oct 13


    So interesting.

    I do not know Ayurvedic Medecine, but in earlier years I was deeply interested in complementary medicine.

    Also had a friend (Harvard psychologist) who brought Sioux wise men to have a dialogue with Lacanian psychoanalysts in Paris.

    Also read a book - Horse Boy – about an American Psychologist who tried all standard approaches to help her autistic son; and what helped in the end was horses and a traditional healer.

    I have not thought about all this much in recent years, but …...


  2. #2 Josantony Joseph 18 Oct 13

    As Mari says many ayurvedic treatments are based on simple and easily affordable natural herbs etc and yet the ayurvedic treatments can be quite costly when one is admitted to an ayurvedic centre. One of the primary causes for this is the intellectual property rights regime, where all knowledge is being patented. As is well known, there are companies and individuals around the world who are coming to countries that still have traditional therapies and then identifying the healing element and patenting that - this is known as biopatenting. And the copyright rules are such that UNLESS a traditional knowledge is 'written/recorded' somewhere it is up for grabs - obvioulsy a rule that is in favour of those who have the money to spend on identifying the root element and patenting these. As a result these remedies are gradually withdrawn from public use and only these companies can use them and sell them. And ayurvedic centres instead of understanding the dangers of such limitations on the spread of knowledge have got on the same bandwagon and have started closely guarding their knowledge and even patenting their treatments. Thus it spills over and even this knowledge then becomes expensive. Perhaps we should learn from LINUX in the computer world or the whole copyleft movement. Without this, such knowledge will once again become the exclusive property of those who have the capital... and it has been proved time and again, knowledge will not grow unless it is shared. Imagine if Louis Pasteur had patented the idea of the vaccine! And since the patent holder jealously guards his/her individual knowledge, knowledge which can only grow through free interchange and exchange, cannot grow beyond what a particular patent holder can manage to develop. Ayurvedic centres (well, all of us) need to get out of this 'profit' based approach to life.

  3. #3 ludwig pesch 19 Oct 13

    Yours is an insider angle long overdue in the debate on ’traditional’ and ’alternative’ or ’natural’ cures vs. the ’wellness’ and pharmaceutical industries' self-interest. Or urban vs. rural lifestyles, inextricably intertwined but no love story when you look at the inequality they are creating as we are writing: as always, there are the big players who will join in only for profit, and the guardians of knowledge who hardly know how to protect themselves from being exploited and pushed aside, and not even their heritage from predators working on the premise that the winner takes it all. And if supply doesn't meet demand, fill the gap with fake, even dangerous products as countless investigations have shown.
    Please watch the trailer, and if possible, the entire award winning documentary by Bangalore-based film maker Sunanda Bhat; it's on related issues played out in nearby Wayanad (i.e. near Gudalur): ’Have you seen the Arana’:
    Spreading an awareness on real choices among youngsters is probably the only way forward. Try to watch this documentary again with others, then discuss it. There are many viewpoints to consider, it's not black and white only, as Mari's blog has shown so beautifully (again).

  4. #4 Lucy Horitz 19 Oct 13

    Hi Mari

    It's interesting that ayurveda is held in high regard by at least some middle class Indians, whereas in the UK 'alternative' medicine is generally seen to be a bit wacky or hippy.

    I get really frustrated by how readily people pop pills in this country - the reliance on paracetamol at the first hint of a headache only makes people more dependednt, I'm sure.

    Perhaps the UK could learn from India and start to adopt some traditional medicines more widely.

    Lucy x

    PS Sorry to hear Stan was unwell - please send him my love!

  5. #5 Merlyn Brito 19 Oct 13

    Ayurveda is being brought into the mainstream by enlightened doctors & healers in the West and sometimes I marvel because they often speak about truths we grew up knowing. For instance, Indian cooking always incorporates turmeric & spices though we may not be aware of their curative aspects. It would be beneficial if we had a list of the authentic ayurvedic centers in India and also the sources for genuine ayurvedic products since the market is flooded with get rich quick imitators as Mari so wisely commented.

  6. #6 Josette 20 Oct 13

    Dear Mari, I was sorry to read about your and Stans health problems. Do take care of yourselves...!
    I agree that old remedies are often ignored in favour of pharmaceutical products which sometimes cost a fortune without giving better result.
    Pharmaceutical industry is a problem all over the world, often obliging the sick to face exorbitant expenses without much or any guarantee for better health.

  7. #7 Nirupama 20 Oct 13

    Just that all of us have to ’get back to basics’ of what our parents and grand parents thought us except for critical care. I hope Stan is feeling better now.

  8. #8 john dsouza 21 Oct 13

    I have learnt to have what I consider a healthy respect for all forms of medicine. Most of all preventive medicine, which I consider a separate school. The most important form of medicine is faith.. not blind faith in a religion or in allopathy or even ayurveda for that matter. The faith I am talking about is the faith in one own body.. the courage to listen to it, and act.
    Yoga, not the esoteric kind but simple meditation, pranayam etc.. does help you take a decision. Internet, particularly surfing many different sites help on zero in on what you want to do.
    But then ensure that you attend to the immediate issue, and get advice.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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