When Ayurveda Surprised Vivekananda

"It's better to wear out than to rust out", Swami Vivekananda used to often say. True to these words, having worked tirelessly for over a decade, his body began to wear out by his late thirties. Diabetes, obesity and related complications made his health most precarious. There was a condition of general dropsy with his feet especially swollen, making it difficult for him to walk. His body became so sensitive that the slightest touch would cause him acute pain. Sleep was hard to come. 

At this difficult juncture, at the fervent request of one of his brother monks, the Swami agreed to place himself under ayurvedic  treatment. The treatment came with an expectedly tough dietetic regimen. He was not allowed to drink water or take salt. He had to appease his thirst with milk! Although he scrupulously followed this regimen, the Swami was always sceptical of the treatment's efficacy. His scepticism becomes clear in the following conversation recorded by one of his disciples: 

Disciple: The treatment is doing you good I hope?
Swamiji: That I don't know. I am simply obeying the orders of my brother-disciples.
Disciple: I think that indigenous drugs such as the Vaidyas use, are very well-suited to our constitution.
Swamiji: My idea is that it is better even to die under the treatment of a scientific doctor than expect recovery from the treatment of laymen who know nothing of modern science, but blindly go by the ancient books, without gaining a mastery of the subject — even though they may have cured a few cases.
1

But Swamiji was in for a surprise. Despite his disbelief in the treatment, he began to improve! His official biography notes that after two months' use of ayurvedic medicines, he felt greatly benefited.2

Such counter-intuitive experiences are quite commonplace and warrant careful study. This study would not only clarify the case for medical pluralism but also facilitate a more prudent use of traditional medical systems.

The ground for Swamiji's initial scepticism of ayurvedic treatment was straightforward - the basic medical sciences (anatomy, physiology and pathology) contained in the ancient texts were unarguably primitive and outdated; clinical care based upon such outdated information is obviously worthy of utmost scepticism.

Such scepticism, though valid, is not tempered with a nuanced understanding of the way therapeutic discoveries happen. While it is true that advances in basic medical sciences do contribute to newer drug designs and better clinical care, a discerning student of the history of medicine would concede that many practices in clinical care are derived from the simple age old empirical method of 'trial and error' often supported by luck and serendipity. James Le Fanu, a leading medical intellectual of the UK, has elegantly shown in his chronicle of modern medicine, how the accidental discoveries of many wonder drugs were made completely independently of any biological understanding of the disease process: Hench's surprising discovery of the astonishing effects of cortisone in rheumatoid arthritis; or Laborit's astute perception of the 'euphoric quietude' in his surgical patients, which led to the psychiatric drug chlorpromazine.3

A simpler illustration would help the layman appreciate this point better. Almost everyone has had hiccups and the most well known home remedy for it has been to drink water quickly. This is clinical medicine at its simplest; its discovery involved the age old 'trial and error' method. It did not require the scientific understanding that hiccups are due to spasms of the diaphragm and that stimulating the vagus nerve by drinking water quickly controls these spasms! Water has been a remedy for hiccups since aeons before the functions of diaphragm and vagus nerve even came to be known.

The urgent concerns of clinical care and the 'trial and error' experiences that these concerns beget have been the source of several great medical discoveries. Ancient medical texts can serve as a rich repertoire of such researchable, if not employable clinical experiences. The Nobel winning discovery of the anti-malarial drug artemisinin had for its source a two thousand year old clinical experience documented in a treatise of traditional Chinese Medicine!

It is nobody's case that a prudent practice of medicine today does not require a sound understanding of the basic medical sciences. A practice of traditional medical systems that is not adequately informed by these sciences can, at times, be a recipe for disaster. But to suppose that ancient medical treatises, because of their deficient grasp of the basic sciences, can contain no valuable clinical information at all, is plain scientific naiveté. Let's rid ourselves of such naiveté and with open-mindedness remember what a great medical teacher used to often tell his students,

From too much zeal for the new and contempt for what is old,
Good Lord, deliver us.
4

References
  1. Vivekananda, Swami. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. Volume 7. Conversations XIX, XX. Mayavati: Advaita Ashrama
  2. Eastern and Western Disciples. The Life of Swami Vivekananda. p.633. Mayavati: Advaita Ashrama
  3. James Le Fanu. The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine. p.236. London: Abacus
  4. Robert Hutchison. Hutchison’s Clinical Methods. London: Saunders Elsevier

Author(s)

About:

G L Krishna is an Ayurvedic doctor practising in Bengaluru. "Nature he loves and, next to Nature, Art."

Prekshaa Publications

Prekṣaṇīyam is an anthology of essays on Indian classical dance and theatre authored by multifaceted scholar and creative genius, Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh. As a master of śāstra, a performing artiste (of the ancient art of Avadhānam), and a cultured rasika, he brings a unique, holistic perspective...

Yaugandharam

इदं किञ्चिद्यामलं काव्यं द्वयोः खण्डकाव्ययोः सङ्कलनरूपम्। रामानुरागानलं हि सीतापरित्यागाल्लक्ष्मणवियोगाच्च श्रीरामेणानुभूतं हृदयसङ्क्षोभं वर्णयति । वात्सल्यगोपालकं तु कदाचिद्भानूपरागसमये घटितं यशोदाश्रीकृष्णयोर्मेलनं वर्णयति । इदम्प्रथमतया संस्कृतसाहित्ये सम्पूर्णं काव्यं...

Vanitakavitotsavah

इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।

Vaiphalyaphalam

इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।

Nipunapraghunakam

इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।

Bharavatarastavah

अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...

Bharatilochana

ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...

Vagarthavismayasvadah

“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...