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Bad Medicine, Fake History, Postcolonial Complicity: Ayurveda in the Time of COVID

Bad Medicine, Fake History, Postcolonial Complicity: Ayurveda in the Time of COVID

Palm leaves of the ‘Sushruta Samhita’ from Nepal, stored at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo: Public domain

  • “What we have got here is a let-them-eat-cake COVID-care regime: five-star hospitals for the rich and the powerful, Ayurveda for the masses.
  • “Ayurveda and yoga as symbols of Hindu sciences have always been a part of the Hindu nationalist worldview.
  • “For more than a century, proponents of Ayurveda have been honing a style of argument which I call ‘strategic inclusivism’,” says Meera Nanda.

The following is the full text of a lecture that historian of science Meera Nanda delivered at the ‘Dismantling Global Hindutva’ conference, held online on September 12-14, 2021. The text has been lightly edited for style.

I will start with bad medicine and give a brief overview of the Narendra Modi government’s promotion of potentially dangerous Ayurvedic remedies to fight COVID-19.

I will move on to the theme of fake history. I will look at the workings of what I call “strategic inclusivism” through which modern Ayurveda has claimed parity with modern science, while fending off the scientific scrutiny of its foundational axioms and truth-claims.

Finally, I will argue that postcolonial critics of science have let us down. For many decades now, they have been raging against the very idea of objective truth as a mask for Western power. For many decades, they have been clamoring for alternative ways of knowing that can put modern science in its place. In their zeal to challenge the hegemony of modern science, these critics turned a blind eye to the questions of testability, reliability and validity of the truth-claims of alternative sciences.

Now that we have so thoroughly dismantled the idea of objective truth, what grounds are we left with to challenge Ayurveda’s bogus remedies and flawed epistemology? What is even worse is that the postcolonial arguments for celebrating the “hybridity” of Indian science are precisely the arguments that the Ayurvedic establishment uses to clothe their pseudoscience in the fancy dress of science.

Bad medicine: Ayurvedic remedies for COVID-19

From the start of the pandemic in early 2020 through the deadly second wave in India in mid-2021, the Ministry of AYUSH approved a number of Ayurvedic remedies, either as antiviral cures or as immunity boosters. These drugs do not require prescription, and can be combined with allopathic treatments. I will not go into all the details but briefly look at what was approved and how it was distributed.

Four ayurvedic herbal drugs make up the core of the AYUSH treatment plan: Samshamani vati, Baba Ramdev’s Coronil, ashwagandha and AYUSH 64. Samshamani vati and Coronil contain a herb called guduchi, or giloy, which has been found to cause serious liver damage in a number of studies in India, Europe and the US. The Ministry of AYUSH downplayed these well-attested toxicity studies, preferring the time-worn defense of “thousands of years of use.”

AYUSH 64 was released 40 years ago as a cure for malaria, which it failed to do. This failed antimalarial drug was “repurposed” as an antiviral based on computer modeling and the sum total of one clinical study, which was so shoddy that even the advocates of Ayurveda found faults with it. At a time when people needed safe and reliable treatment, AYUSH became a purveyor of potentially dangerous drugs.

In May 2021, AYUSH announced that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliate, Seva Bharati, will be the government’s partner for distributing AYUSH 64 and a Siddha drug, Kabasura Kudineer. Within days, reports poured in of RSS men and women handing out this stuff in BJP-ruled states. States like Haryana paid millions of tax-payer rupees in buying and distributing Ramdev’s Coronil, and a similar pattern was observed in Gujarat for homeopathic drugs.

What we have got here is a let-them-eat-cake COVID-care regime: five-star hospitals for the rich and the powerful, Ayurveda for the masses. If AYUSH has so much confidence in its own remedies, why did the AYUSH minister, Shripad Naik, not pop some Samshamani vati when he tested positive for COVID-19 ? Why did he go for plasma therapy if AYUSH 64, or Ramdev’s Coronil, could clear the virus?

Also read: As AYUSH Minister Gets COVID-19, It’s Time to Get Serious About Ayurveda

Fake history

I now turn to the historical question of how we got here.

The proximate causes are clear enough: Ayurveda and yoga as symbols of Hindu sciences have always been a part of the Hindu nationalist worldview. It was no surprise that after coming to power in 2014, Modi lost no time in upgrading AYUSH from a department under the Union health ministry to a full-fledged ministry. The funding for AYUSH went up, new teaching and research institutes were created, Ayurvedic treatments were covered under the Ayushman Bharat Yojana, wellness tourism was promoted, and ‘Dhanvantri puja’ was declared ‘National Ayurveda Day’.

But there is a deeper history as to how we got here. For more than a century, proponents of Ayurveda have been honing a style of argument which, borrowing from Paul Hacker and Willhelm Halbfass, I call ‘strategic inclusivism’. Hacker defined the Indian style of inclusivism as “claiming for one’s own worldview what belongs in reality to another, foreign or competing system, [at the same time] treating the foreign elements as if they are merely lower stages on the way to one’s own worldview” (p. 411).

When applied to modern science, strategic inclusivism takes the following form: “When you, modern scientists, say X, it is what our sages meant when they said Y; and our Y is better because it contains and goes beyond your X.” This amounts to an attempt to beat modern science at its own game by claiming the game itself.

Inclusivism is no ordinary hybridity or syncretism. Syncretism is about mixing concepts, symbols and practices from different traditions. Inclusivism is more like a hostile takeover: it lays ownership claims on the prestige-enhancing concepts and practices borrowed from alien traditions. Like all hostile takeovers, it erases the distinctiveness of what is taken over: modern science is scrubbed clean of its innovative, tradition-challenging epistemology and turned into a “merely materialistic” and “reductionist” way of knowing what was already known to our sages.

Ayurveda has been playing this inclusivist game since Ayurvedic vaidyas began to organise into professional bodies around the beginning of the 20th century. Two well-known physicians – Kaviraj Gananath Sen (1877-1944) and Srinivas Murti (b. 1887-?) – laid the intellectual foundations for the hostile takeover of modern medicine. The jingoism of Modi, Ramdev and the AYUSH establishment is a product of this takeover.

At the core of this takeover bid is the claim that Ayurveda was not merely a rational, proto-scientific enterprise within its own conceptual categories – but that it was scientific in terms of the methods of modern natural sciences; that Ayurveda was modern from its very inception. The empirical tradition that began with Galileo and got institutionalised under the influence of Francis Bacon – the tradition that insisted upon experimentally demonstrable and quantifiable evidence – was read back into the methods of Charaka, Sushruta and other ancient physicians.

But, and here is the rub, the empiricism of modern science was simultaneously claimed and ridiculed in favor of the ‘Eternal Truths’ of Ayurveda. Indeed, the same Srinivas Murti who breathlessly described the “shared ground” between Ayurveda and modern scientific method went on to give a rousing defense of shabda pramana, invoking the authority of the apta, the spiritual masters who knew the Vedas. The word of the apta, Murti insisted, is legitimate empirical evidence because it is based on “direct observation” of the yogic masters, who did not need toys like microscopes or X-rays, but could see the unobservable levels of reality in their minds that had been perfected by yogic sadhana.

It is this certitude in the eternal Truth (truth with a capital ‘T’) of what is written in Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita that has kept the tridosha theory of Ayurveda outside the purview of scientific scrutiny.

Apologists like Murti, Gananath Sen and a whole line of those who followed in their footsteps, began to deploy the language of biochemistry, physiology and physics to describe the three doshas, gunas and ojas, and launched the embarrassing spectacle of laying priority claims, without evidence, for everything, including germ theory, vaccination, blood circulation, complex surgeries and genetic engineering.

But they simultaneously decried and ridiculed Western medicine for constantly revising its periodic table and coming up with ever new theories of disease, while celebrating the Eternal Truth of our panchabhutas, tridoshas and tri-gunas, which never needed revising. Thus, modern science was at once included and subordinated – appropriated for its prestige in the modern world but rendered toothless when it came to an objective examination of the foundational axioms, remedies and medical practices of Ayurveda.

This two-step dance – claiming scientific legitimacy but avoiding scientific scrutiny – is precisely the operating principle of the AYUSH ministry. The same ministry that was furiously whipping out “scientific” evidence for COVID medicines, has no compunction in declaring Ayurveda to be a “holistic science” that can’t be tested by double-blind clinical studies.

In 2019, AYUSH tried to censor any research in ayurveda that was not first vetted by AYUSH experts in order to protect the “public image” and “sanctity” of the tradition. The ministry justified this gag order on the basis that “the principles, concepts and approaches of AYUSH systems and their drug-based interventions are not at all comparable to the prevalent modern medical system.” AYUSH let the cat out of the bag: claim the seal of approval of science to push its remedies, and claim incommensurability when threatened by falsifying evidence.

Pseudoscientists around the world have a lot to learn from AYUSH!

Postcolonial complicity

I now turn to how postcolonial science studies have unwittingly legitimised the hostile takeover of science I have just outlined.

The AYUSH ministry’s two-step dance is exactly what was to be expected from the kind of hybridity that Gyan Prakash celebrates in his much-cited book, Another Reason (1999). For Prakash, and his numerous fellow-travelers, how the 19th century Hindu thinkers managed to hybridise science of their colonial masters with their own archaic knowledge systems is a sign of their agency. It shows that Indian intellectuals living under colonialism were no copycats who obediently mimicked the science of the white men.

For Prakash, this stitching together of the ancient and the modern is not to be decried as a hostile takeover by our nativists, as I do, but something to be celebrated as an act of self-assertion and creativity of the colonised people.

Interestingly, Prakash spends considerable amount of ink on Srinivas Murti’s “negotiations” with modern science and lauds him for asserting “Ayurveda’s ineluctable difference” while announcing Hindu Vedas as the “original home of modern science”. This, in Prakash’s telling, was a “profoundly contestory proposition,” (p. 230) an act of “tremendous creativity” and an act of anti-colonial resistance (p. 229).

What makes it “contestory” and “anti-colonial”? It is contestory because, by hitching modern science to the spiritual traditions of Hinduism, nationalists were able to challenge the false universality of Western science with their own claims of Hindu universality. This translation of science into a Hindu idiom allowed Indians to present “Hindu culture as universal knowledge” (p. 89) and not merely a religion of the Hindus. Hindus could now show that Western knowledge was not the only kind of universal knowledge, but that Hindus, too, possessed a knowledge-tradition that was equally universal.

Herein lies the heart of the problem: For postcolonial science studies, the universality of Western science is purely a matter of raw imperial power. So any discourse that challenges it is by definition anti-imperialist. The contrary position which I adhere to – that modern science’s universality lies in its robust procedures that enable it to get our descriptions of the real world as right as possible – is condemned as a sign of “mental colonisation,” or a whiggish positivism.

The problem is that the postcolonial view of facts as social constructs of power leaves us with no grounds to ask: are the Ayurvedic theories of disease and health objectively true? Do they allow us to get the underlying reality of the suffering body right? These questions of objective validity of Ayurveda can’t even be meaningfully posed, let alone answered, in postcolonial science studies.

Yes, Hindus can present “Hindu culture as universal knowledge” by clothing it in science – and that is exactly what they have been doing since Vivekananda’s famous Chicago address. Yes, we can try to beat the West at its own game by claiming to be born scientific “5,000 years ago”. But at what cost? As the fiasco of Ayurvedic medicines in the time of COVID-19 has shown us, pride hath a fall.

Meera Nanda

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