home - bulletin - article on scientific basis of Indian systems of medicine


by A. V. Balasubramanian, Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems, No: 30, Gandhi Mandapam Road, Kotturpuram, Chennai 600 085 Email: info@ciks.org, ciks@vsnl.com

The question of "scientific examination and assessment of traditional medicine has been with us for well over a century. There have been extensive debates and scholarly discussions but for the purpose of this article, we will just focus on the following :

* Are there any general criteria based on which we can call a knowledge system as being scientific and if so can traditional medicine be called scientific based on these criteria?

* Most of us who are brought up on a diet of modern western scientific theory and ways of thinking notice that there are a number of factors in traditional medicine different from what we can expect a scientific system to be. How do we come to terms with this?

Is Ayurveda a science? Let us take the example of Ayurveda as an illustration of traditional medical systems. What are the criteria based on which we can consider Ayurveda as scientific? There can be three types of criteria namely :

Methodological Criteria - It should be based on a sufficiently large body of observational data, and have a comprehensive and rigorous theoretical framework and the basis of legitimisation of all theory should be observation.

Epistemological Criteria - This presupposes that the above method is a legitimate method to qcquire knowledge about the subject and the knowledge acquired is always limited and subject to modification in the light of new data.

Sociological Criteria - Society must have a professional community with practitioners of knowledge in the above sense.

Let us have a brief overview to examine Ayurveda based on the above criteria.

The Ayurvedic texts mention of a large number of plants and plant products. The three major texts of Ayurveda list about 700 plants and 1,900 formulations. They discuss animal products from 165 species and a large number of mineral preparations are also mentioned. Quite often we find specific properties given for different parts of plants such as roots, fruits, oils etc. Animal products also encompass a range of animal parts including milk, flesh, urine etc. In fact the Ayurvedic classic Ashtanga Hrdaya states that - "There is nothing in this universe which is not medicinal..."

Ayurveda has developed its own theoretical framework to understand the structure and properties of all material things based on the theory of Pancha Mahabhutas (the five primordial elements) which analyses all the constituens of the universe based on the sensory organs that are employed to detect them. They have a theoretical framework based on the three doshas namely Vatha, Pitta, and Kapha to understand health and disease. The Ayurvedic Materia Medica lists the properties of literally thousands of plants as well as hundreds of animals and mineral products based on Ayurvedic concepts.

Ayurvedic literature contains adequate recognition and explicit statements on the limitations of the knowledge systems and its domain of applicability. Ayurvedic texts give indication that this knowledge system is the product of an active community of physicians that has well established norms to govern itself. There are rules regarding discourses between physicians, admission of students into the fold, ethics of practitioners and manners of setting disagreements and disputes. In fact it is interesting to see that much of the treatise of Charaka Samhita is in the form of a symposium wherein groups of Ayurvedic scholars take up a series of topics for discussion.

Thus there is every indication that Ayurveda is indeed a scientific knowledge system by all the above criteria.

However, to the modern trained mind there are a lot of questions and doubts since the manner of discourse and presentation of knowledge in Ayurveda is vastly different from modern sciences. Some of these pertain to issues such as - can we examine Ayurvedic tenets by modern scientific systems and validate them, what kind of experiments do people make in Ayurveda, how do they measure and quantify things and above all are traditional medical theories changing and evolving to meet the changing situation in the manner of modern medical theories. We shall try to answer some of these questions.

Is it possible or necessary to test and verify the truth of Ayurvedic prescriptions based on modern medical research. A classic example is the study of the root Sarpagandhi (Rauwolfia serpentina) by modern chemical methods. This research succeeded in isolating an alkaloid which was named as Reserpine. Observations have shown that Reserpine has several side effects which are not observed with the Ayurvedic preparation using the root. Simultaneously, the use of huge amounts of this root for extracting Reserpine on a commercial scale has rendered this plant scarce and has put it outside the reach of the ordinary village Vaidya and Ayurvedic practitioners. Hence the use of - modern research techniques must be taken up with due caution.