A new institute, with help from the Tatas, will integrate ayurveda with modern medicine to take medical pluralism forward.
Earlier this month, something unusual happened in India’s high-tech city of Bangalore. Tradition and modernity met in harmony and with a desire to look forward, not back. Ratan Tata, a Parsi, belonging to the most anglicised among Indian communities, and head of a multi-billion-dollar business empire that draws its life blood from knowledge born out of science, inaugurated a research centre that had ‘ayurveda’ as part of its tag line.
The Institute of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine (I-AIM), with a 100-bed hospital, funded by Tata Trust, will try to create a new space for medical pluralism by integrating modern allopathy with the traditional systems of medicine recognised in India — ayurveda, siddha, unani, homeopathy and Tibetan medicine (Swa-rig-pa).
It will cover the entire range of activities that a public research hospital does — treat patients, conduct research, train medicos and carry out an outreach programme that will seek to rope in large numbers of families in promoting preventive public health in a new cost-effective way, using traditional practices.
At the inauguration, Tata referred to the general perception that traditional medicine belonged to the world of witch doctors and acknowledged that most were unaware of the rich tradition of Indian ayurvedic medicine. He then went on to express the hope that the next 20 years would be able to pay a tribute to the scientists working at the center for their role in putting “India on the international map in an area that is rich in Indian tradition”.
The need that the centre is trying to address is the dilemma being felt by modern medical science. The patent pipeline — particularly for blockbuster drugs that help fund future research — is drying up. That means, new powerful cures are not being discovered. But simultaneously there seems to be no breakthrough for conditions like cancer, diabetes or even the common cold. So existing knowledge has, obviously, reached a plateau.
The boundaries of knowledge, all that is acceptable to the keepers of received wisdom, have to be necessarily redrawn — something that Darshan Shankar, the founding spirit behind the whole exercise, has been doing for nearly three decades. In the early eighties he discovered a till-then unknown tribal health tradition among the Thakurs in coastal Maharashtra. This led to the setting up of NGOs, medical colleges and research centres that were covered under the rubric of Lok Swasthya Parampara Sambvardhan Samiti.
Then a chance meeting between Darshan Shankar and Sam Pitroda, the telecom icon and knowledge leader, changed the future of the former’s work. Foundation for the Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT) was born to take the work of the Samiti forward.
FRLHT has since 1993 done signal work in securing and safeguarding the knowledge and practices of India’s traditional systems of medicine. Known sources of information, like manuscripts, have been secured and the knowledge of medicinal plants stored and digitised.
The country’s entire stock of such plants has been housed in 87 forest gene banks and a herbarium has collected 70 per cent of the medicinal plants used by Indian systems. Some of the most endangered plants are being preserved on LRLHT’s campus. Plus, systematic interaction has been initiated with groups of traditional healers, so that their practices do not die out.
Having so secured the store of knowledge inherited from the past, Darshan Shankar now wishes to use it and take it forward with the new centre. At the hospital, modern diagnostic tools, plus parallel ayurvedic systems, will measure medical conditions before, during and after treatment. But the treatment itself will be 100 per cent based on ayurveda and yoga.
Shankar says that “health seeking behavior shows no single medical system has all the answers. Complementary and alternative systems of medicine are being sought out and this is resulting in a move towards integrative healthcare and medical pluralism.”
“At I-AIM we want to create enormous new human resources to spread this new integrative science, this medical pluralism. We will try to put to use the conservation, recording and validation that we have done so far. We want to work with folk healers and households, have a focus on health education for millions as part of a preventive programme and do it by using modern dissemination tools.”
What additionality can ayurveda bring? Darshan Shankar explains that science does not draw a distinction between the brain and the mind. Thinking is seen as a neural phenomenon. In yoga and ayurveda, the mind is independent of the brain, the mind’s impact can be reflected in the brain. So this is not a physical or biological process but a metaphysical one. “In science, we use the senses to perceive, measure and record. It is not possible to read a thought through the senses. But the shastras use the mind to do so.”
He explains further that “science breaks up things” in order to study them, ayurveda studies the whole. “The relation between the whole and the part is at the root of the trans-disciplinary research that we will be undertaking.”
He is heartened by the fact that hardcore practitioners of modern medical science are already acknowledging the existence of traditional systems of knowledge. The Apollo group, for example, wants to introduce integrative healthcare in its hospitals. As the world moves towards “medical pluralism”, there is an enormous opportunity for India, which has well-developed traditional systems to draw upon.