Ayurveda and Pandemics: Overcoming the Limitations of the Past

Right from the wake of this pandemic, many solutions and innovations have been proposed by the Ayurvedic system of medicine.  There is a newfound enthusiasm among the health conscious who are increasingly getting attracted to the benefits and solutions given out by Ayurveda. At this point, some very logical questions may arise. Where was Ayurveda till now? Why was this active involvement never seen before? Why has Ayurveda, claiming a history of over 5000 years, possessing several hundred thousands of medicines and with such strong foundational principles, not become a complete solution to the health problems especially in the management of pandemics by now?

This article intends to throw light on the possible limitations faced by Ayurveda previously in managing a pandemic and how it has overcome them today.

Almost all the ancient civilizations had developed their own systems of medicine. Documentary evidence suggests that out of these, Ayurveda was the most sophisticated and methodical. Until the introduction of the Western system of medicine during colonial rule, Ayurveda was considered as the primary health care system and served as the primary solution for all ailments prevalent at that time, pandemics included.

Physicians who got trained in this system of medicine were called Vaidyas. Some Vaidyas used to practice from their residence. Some used to move about and visit patients at homes. There were also Rajavaidyas (royal physicians), who prioritized addressing the health issues of nobles and royalty.

The Vaidyas mostly received training in medical sciences through Gurukulams and as inheritance. There were even monasteries and ancient universities like Nalanda and Taxila that taught advanced Ayurveda. Clinical Ayurveda has eight speciality branches (the aṣṭāṅgās). But unlike speciality departments of modern medicine, a Vaidya is expected to know all the branches of medicine thoroughly along with surgery. Exclusive training was given for identification, collection and processing of medicine along with knowledge of disease and treatments.

Pandemics and the morbidity related to them were not uncommon even in those days. Many health problems that fall into the category of communicable diseases like smallpox (masūrikā), leprosy (kuṣṭha), cholera (viṣūcikā) etc. were very prevalent. Ayurveda Vaidyas treated many such communicable diseases with great success but unfortunately they never seemed to have documented individual case centered records or notes. Perhaps such type of documentations were not warranted. Results themselves were proof enough and a conviction through a document may have appeared as an overkill in those days, especially when legal pursuit against doctors were unheard of or there were hardly any parallel or competing systems of medicine. Today, the only testimonials that remain of such great Vaidyas are the narrations from the very elderly people. Several of them who have survived pandemics have such fascinating stories about Vaidyas who had saved them and their families. It is interesting to observe that even the grandparents of the very people who are vehemently opposing Ayurveda may be owing their lives to Ayurveda.

Then what thwarted the development of Ayurveda into an independent sole solution for pandemics? Here are some possible reasons..

Person above Protocol

As mentioned above, Ayurveda was (and is) centered around a Vaidya. The individual practitioner and the logic of that person is pivotal in Ayurveda. Until recent times, Ayurveda was never a centrally managed process or protocol oriented system; on the contrary, it was a person oriented system. The extent of both the process and the medicines of a Vaidya was limited to a small area where that individual could reach physically. So even though solutions were available, it never got transcended to wider levels, by which a large number of people suffering the same condition could get treated by a particular Vaidya or his unique methodology. Some of these unique treatment methods were kept secret and were not shared even in a professional community. This limited the wider reach of a successful method. People, especially during a crisis, were simply not able to reach the expert physician or that physician may have not been able to handle such a huge load of cases individually as well.

Limited Access to Resources

Another limitation were the medicines themselves. The medicines used by Vaidyas were largely collected from their respective localities or direct contacts. So the knowledge and application of those medicines were mostly restricted to that locality. Moreover, a Vaidya may not have had huge stock to cater to a pandemic level crisis. It also appears that such crises were very common in those days as there are specific references in Ayurvedic texts telling Vaidyas to try and foresee a potential pandemic during certain seasons and stock up on medicines while they are still available and potent. 

The limitations of communication and logistics must have made things even worse by limiting quick and easy access to remote sources. Even the very sharing of a treatment methodology with a physician a couple of hundred kilometres away would have been a daunting task.

One science, many approaches

Every gurukulas and gurus had their own sets of combinations and diagnostic techniques that used to get passed on to only the students who studied and practiced under that guru. So the same disease may be managed by different Vaidyas using different methods. In short, even though they were all doing Ayurveda and following the same fundamentals, the practical application and the materials used would have been quite diverse in different regions. We have plenty of references in Ayurveda textbooks on seminars or debates to establish a methodology but considering the limitations of travel and communication, a quick grouping and discussion during a crisis to take the best step forward may not have been possible at all. So, the connection between the Vaidyas would have been limited. Because of this also, the message of efficacious combinations may not have gotten transferred to far off counterparts.

Deficient documentation

Even though a Vaidya is trained on a systematic way of case taking (using inspection (darśana), palpation (sparśana) and Inquiry (praśana)), and had their own sets of criteria of diagnosis and disease evaluation, a clinical documentation of their observations appears to have not been a mandate. The norm that existed then was evaluation of the patient and the disease and then right away administer the medicine combination either prepared by the Vaidya or by the bystanders of the patients under the supervision of the former. So only, the cases could not be up scaled to the next level for carrying out further analysis or reference by others. Showing the list of such case sheets to prove the Vaidyas credibility might have even been looked down upon as a shameless practice of self advertisement. In those days, a physicians glory and credibility was not on dead documents but on living patients.

So, has Ayurveda overcome these limitations? Yes! 

Here are some explanations..

Ever since the introduction of formal education in India, Ayurvedic academia also followed suit and started getting taught in formalized institutions. This resulted in formation of a proper curriculum, which helped modern day Vaidyas to get a standardized and unified form of Ayurveda education. Yes, there are glaring pitfalls when a traditional system is squeezed into a modernized curriculum, but we are certainly on the right track. A standardized educational system has evidently resulted in an optimized and focused vision of Ayurveda as a whole, something which would have never occurred in the times of India before foreign rule, which was mostly a loose stack of divided and warring princely states.

Today most organizations and individual practitioners in the Ayurvedic sector are following centralized protocols, standardized treatment modalities and diligent documentation supporting research to establish Ayurveda as an evidence based system.

Thanks to the advent of the internet and media, Ayurveda professionals are communicating with the world as never before. This has paved the way to proper discussions and sharing of experiences. Because of the advancements in print and visual media, the news about any methodology or a physician treating a specific condition etc. have greater reach to the masses. This has resulted in situations wherein these physicians are getting exposed to more and more similar cases from around the world, making it possible to generate data with statistical significance. So scientific re-validation also has become possible today.

No one has an exact data on how many thousands of literature and guidelines we have lost to time. But thanks to the latest digital revolutions in the fields of data storage, Big Data, block chain and data analytics,  Ayurveda sector is witnessing an information boom hitherto undreamed of. The unfathomable volumes of ancient Ayurveda literature are now being converted to digital formats and preserved. More importantly it is now possible to retrieve these data within seconds. 

Introduction of literature created and curated by Government supported Expert Panels, like Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia of India (API) and Ayurvedic Formulary of India (AFI), have helped in standardizing formulations and treatment procedures. The development of Ayurvedic Pharmaceutical industries, advanced logistics and storage is ensuring global reach of Ayurveda medicines. Regulatory rules and stringent application of Good Manufacturing Practices have also brought about quality and uniformity in this sector.

The modern day governments and exclusive ministries like AYUSH, are also taking special steps to promote indigenous systems of medicine, which include forming unified protocols for prevention and management of diseases, publicizing the same across the nation, supporting and funding research and development and so on. All of these endeavors are invariably resulting in the progress and greater acceptance of Ayurveda.

Thus it can be rightly concluded that Ayurveda and its core principles have never changed, from the time of its recollection by Lord Brahma (brahmā smṛtvā āyuṣo vedaṃ.. it is believed that Ayurveda came into existence when lord Brahma revived it and passed on to Prajāpati). Pandemics and the havoc associated with it are all still the same. What has changed today is the technology and socio-economic structure which is absolutely in favor of Ayurveda. At least now, this age old science is getting the acceptance and recognition that was due for a long time. People are realizing it and surpassing all propaganda to restrict their access to a healthcare system of their choice. 

Ayurveda has always been ready. It seems that the modern world is finally getting ready for Ayurveda. 

About author

Dr. Nair Ashwati Unnikrishnan

BAMS, MD (Ay) in Rasa Shastra and Bhaishajya Kalpana, Assistant General Manager- Bodina Naturals Private Limited, Kribs- Bionest,

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