Most rational people have an open mind on different types of medicine. What is labelled as alternative medicine — in contrast to allopathic or modern — seems to have become increasingly popular, especially here in India. Various forms of therapy and medicine come under this category. The late former Prime Minister Morarji Desai was an avid follower of urine therapy, repulsive for most of us. He never took any modern medicines, not even vaccinations, which used to be essential for travel abroad. Yet, he kept remarkably healthy and lived to a ripe old age. Cow’s urine is considered therapeutic by many Indians.
The use of magnets for alleviating joint pains, especially of the knees, is also practised. The ostensible theory is that even if there is enough cartilage still there, it can be regenerated by electromagnetic waves, and thereby make movement easier. I know of a friend living in the US who came to India to get such treatment. She could not climb steps and walked with great difficulty because her knees gave too much pain. But before getting a knee replacement, which the American doctors had advised her, she decided to try magnetic therapy. It worked wonders for her, as the cartilage did indeed regenerate and give her relief, at least for a couple of years. However, there are others who have tried such treatment, alas with no improvement. Then, there are some who swear by the oil massages administered in Kerala for arthritic pains.
In 2014, the Indian Government set up an Ayush Ministry, Ayush being an acronym for Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy. Siddha is similar to Ayurveda, the main difference being that Ayurveda is in Sanskrit, whereas Siddha is in Tamil. Unani is the Perso-Arabic traditional medicine, popular in Mughal times and apparently has an ancient Greek origin connected to Hippocrates. Homeopathy, founded in 1796 by a German physician, Samuel Hahnemann, is perhaps the most controversial of all these forms of medicine. It somehow has a big following in India. Many dismiss it as quackery, since its medicines are tiny, sweet white pills. Another friend of mine swore by it, as it had cured his severe asthma. His wife, a doctor, was sceptical. She decided to test the pills at a laboratory. She found them to be pure cortisone, a drug which does cure asthma temporarily, but its constant use has serious side-effects. China’s best-known alternate medicine is acupuncture, the insertion of thin, long needles in certain parts of the body to treat various ailments.
The present government, in its nationalistic fervour, has gone all-out to promote Ayurveda, which its adherents claim goes back some 5,000 years. Yoga is an integral part of Ayurveda, and presently the best-known person who has linked the two is Baba Ramdev. However, there were others before him who were just as popular. In the 1960s and ’70s, there were Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Dhirendra Brahmachari, both of whom became immensely wealthy and influential. Mahesh Yogi was the guru of “transcendental meditation” and claimed to be able to do “yogic flying” and levitation, without really providing proof. The Beatles became his followers, until there were charges of “sexual misconduct” against him. “You are just like us,” a disillusioned John Lennon told him when leaving his ashram. Brahmachari was Indira Gandhi’s yoga guru, and reportedly very close to her. He owned a fleet of cars, several sprawling ashrams, planes and airfields, even a gun factory. He died unlamented in one of his planes which crashed. I recall another “guru” who claimed that he could walk on water. He set a date in Bombay, as it was then called, when he would accomplish his Christ-like supernatural feat. Before an array of cameras and reporters, he trod on water in a tank — and sank like a stone.
Ramdev seems to have been the smartest of the lot. He has deftly used his political clout to acquire large tracts of land at ridiculously-low concessional rates, to set up lucrative ashrams and farms. He has also cleverly converted his yoga skills and popularity to build an Ayurvedic medicines and products empire. Even those who scoff at the efficacy of alternative medicines have to admit that Ayurveda’s use of various medicinal plants and herbs has produced products that are effective and have credibility.
Nevertheless, the reality is that the major medical breakthroughs and the discovery of vaccines and drugs that have saved tens of millions of lives worldwide have not been made by alternative medicine, but by allopathic doctors and scientists.
No major discoveries or medical breakthroughs have been made by Ayurveda or any other alternative medicine. The bark of the Cinchona tree, it was found a couple of centuries ago, produced a substance that countered malarial fever. It became quinine, a cure for malaria that is still used. However, it was an accidental discovery, not an Ayurvedic formulation. Admittedly, there have been disasters with some modern medicines. Thalidomide was meant to help pregnant women. Many who took it produced deformed babies.
Still, a large number of Indians repose a great deal of faith in Ayurveda and its medicines. Sadly, that faith has been badly dented by Ramdev’s recent claim that his company had found a “100 per cent cure” for Covid-19. Fortunately, the authorities did not buy that line, though they have said he can call it an “immunity booster”. All the top medical researchers in the world, including the WHO, have said that a reliable vaccine to counter the virus is at least a year to 18 months away, probably more. For Ramdev to claim that he has done all the necessary clinical trials is patently absurd and false. He has done a huge disservice to Ayurveda and eroded much of its credibility.
— The writer is a veteran journalist
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