Ayurveda deeply connects with nature and has an evolved epistemology

All health sciences should integrate and not just work in silos, since it is in unity that we find excellence. This is the reason behind the mushrooming of many new trans-disciplinary health centers around the globe.  Here, Dr. Darshan Shankar, founder of TDU (Trans-Disciplinary University of Health Sciences and Technology), a private university located in Bangalore, shares with us his experience of Ayurveda and what is required to make it global.

As managing trustee of FRLHT (Foundation for Revitalization of Local Health Tradition) and founder of TDU (Trans-Disciplinary University of Health Sciences and Technology) what is your vision for Ayurveda?

 While Ayurveda is our passion, we certainly respect the strengths of modern western health sciences and health care but also realize the limitations of both. 

Ayurveda’s strength derives from its deep connect with nature and its highly evolved epistemology. Ayurveda’s core strength stems from its incredibly holistic world view rooted in the observer-observed framework of Sankhya, its profound five valued logic derived from Nyaya and vaishika, its understanding of systemic change in life processes that use algorithms (sutras) based on refined qualitative parameters and pattern recognition. Ayurveda has remarkably insightful theory on disease progression (shad kriya kal) and chronobiology. It possesses an ecologically sensitive scheme of diagnostics (das- vid-pariksha).  It has demonstrated clinical acumen to observe, classify and establish causality   (karya karan vivechna).  It has core strength in prevention, wellness as well as treatment of NCDs.  Its strategies for immunity (vyadi shamta) and tissue regeneration (rasayana tantra) can lead new research at the 21st century frontiers of healthcare. Its systemic pharmacology (dravya guna shastra), its thousands of brilliantly designed food and drug formulations (bhaishaj kalpana) with undiscovered pharmacokinetics and dynamics can feed a new paradigm  of  drug discovery for syndromes and personalized nutrition science (nutrigenomics) for decades to come.  Its deep understanding of the influence of food, metabolism and lifestyle on physiological processes in particular phenotypes which correspond to genotypes, can guide epigenetics and predict   health trajectory of individuals. Ayurveda also has an inspiring symbiotic relationship with village based health traditions, wherein millions of homes and community based healers, use ecosystem specific plant resources for health security of humans, livestock and for agriculture. TDU believes Nobel prizes are waiting to be won from the emerging trans-disciplinary field of Ayurveda-biology.    

Despite its strengths, Ayurveda has definite limitations. It’s theoretical frame cannot generate solutions for management of emergency and acute conditions. It’s understanding of molecular level change is nil. It has to learn a great deal from modern surgical technologies even if in yesteryears it pioneered and gifted surgery to the world. It needs to interface in an epistemologically informed manner, with molecular biology in order to discover its own mode of actions at the structural level. It needs to embrace tools of information technology to organize its enormous multifaceted data, in searchable formats.  

Looking ahead, TDU is convinced that Indian Health Sciences because of their systemic perspective combined with the molecular perspective of modern biology will extend and shape some of the frontiers of knowledge in health sciences in the 21st century.

The challenge before policy makers and investors in innovation is to strengthen and create competent institutions which have the capacity to design and execute bold, path breaking strategies, in education, health services and research, with trans-disciplinary foundations in Ayurveda & biology.

How Sam Pitroda and I got drawn to the traditional health sciences of India 

Sam’s story in quote: 

“Even though I was born in India and grew up in Orissa & Gujarat I cannot confidently say that I consciously recognised the fact or potential of India’s medical heritage when I was growing up or even in adult life, until it was deliberately brought to my notice. Of course I do know the remarkable fact that I and all my nine siblings were born at home and that we were all delivered safely by traditional birth attendants. It is also a fact that my mother and all of us subsequently lived healthy lives. This is perhaps a testimony to the richness of traditional mid-wifery, but it is only in hindsight that I recognise this experience to be my first direct exposure to India’s medical heritage”.

“My next exposure happened in the late eighties and nineties and then on, after I met Darshan Shankar. Let me go recount how the encounter with Darshan happened. It was sometime in 1986, twenty five years ago, in the course of mobilizing civil society support for the Technology Mission on Health, that I had convened a meeting with grass-root NGOs in order to motivate them to participate in the implementation of the mission. Towards the end of my introduction on the goals and strategy of the mission, a young, earnest, bearded face got up from the gathering and asked me in a forthright manner, why is it that a national technology mission on health, has ignored the traditional health sciences like Ayurveda?”

Darshan’s story in quote: 

“As an urbanite, I had studied the natural sciences in school, college and university. However, this was knowledge inspired by western cultural & intellectual traditions. I was not exposed to any other form of knowledge”.

“Later, while working as a social activist, I lived in the Karjat tribal block, in Maharashtra for 12 years. There, for the first time in my life, I encountered medicinal plants and forests. I could not fail to notice, often with amazement, that the local Thakur, Mahadev Koli, and the Katkari tribals used many local plants and animals for health care. The methods of treatment I saw first-hand were incredible and impressed me deeply. Lactating mothers used Ipomoea mauritania (vidari kand) to enhance breast milk. The leaf of the common plant Calotropis gigantea (arka patra) was used to reduce a testicle swollen to twice its size (presumably hydrocele): the treatment worked in four days! The latex of the same plant applied on the skin could draw out a thorn from deep within. The fruits of Terminalia bellirica (bibhitaka) were used to treat dry cough. The roots and bark of Holarrhena pubescens (kutaja) could cure dysentery. Helicteres isora (muradasinge in Marathi) could stop diarrhoea. The ‘touch-me-not’ plant (Mimosa pudica or lajjavanti) was used to stop uterine bleeding, and the juice of durva grass (Cynodon dactylon) could dissolve gall bladder stones”.

“Chemists and pharmacologists unfortunately did not know anything of the biological activity of the entire plant, only of certain chemicals derived from it. The scientists I approached worked in reputed institutions like the IIT, the university of Bombay department of chemical technology and medical colleges. However, they could not help.   Hence in my pursuit of validation for local health practices, I was led to the learned, scholarly traditional physicians of Ayurveda”.

“As an Indian citizen, my exposure to the rich culture and knowledge of my own people inspired me. I felt inspired by the decentralised nature of India’s health knowledge and its two streams one oral and carried by millions and the other codified by physician scholars. But along with this pride, I also felt anger that this wisdom and these traditions were being neglected”.

“These feelings kindled in me a desire to do something to revitalise Indian medical traditions and demonstrate their contemporary relevance. In 1993, with the help of a very open-minded telecommunications engineer, who is also a great nationalist, I helped to establish the Foundation for the Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT) which has today evolved into a University.

Do you think Ayurveda will be the medical system of the future? Please share your thoughts on this.

Yes in the form of “Integrative Health Sciences”. India will need to create a uniquely Indian Integrative Health Science Platform, which is graphically presented below.

It is evident today that:

  • Multiple causative factors are responsible for all health conditions.
  • Single molecules for single targets is simplistic biology (with very limited applications for short interventions in acute conditions).
  • Observations of molecular changes at cellular level cannot be extrapolated at systemic level
  • Despite incredible insights at molecular level, systemic understanding of biology is at its infancy
  • Systemic Changes observed by Ayurveda can be interpreted at molecular levels

 What do you see as a future for Ayurveda?

 I see path-breaking outcomes that can transform health sciences globally.  The fields for global impact are listed below.











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