Ayurveda - a distinctive approach to health and disease

The enormous complexity of human body offers scope to conceptualize its dynamic organization in a number of ways such as structural, biochemical, functional, etc. The conventional western medicine views the body from a structural perspective, whereas ayurveda, the ancient medical system of India, understands the human body from the perspective of functions/tridoshas (vata, pitta and kapha). These different viewpoints of ayurveda and western medicine have resulted not only in the use of different terminologies and metaphors to explain the human system but also in their different approaches to health and illness. This article focuses on the distinctive approach of ayurveda to health and disease and the science behind it.

THE world is going through an unprecedented and extraordinary health scenario. Unprecedented because ill health is increasingly becoming a major problem and a fact of life and many diseases are vying with each other to take the top slot as formidable health hazards. Extraordinary because with all the technological advances, the large body of knowledge available about human biology and the great strides made in taking care of the illness of the humanity, there seems to be increasing levels of challenges ahead and significant limitations at hand. Extensive research inputs from disciplines ranging from physics, chemistry, pharmacology, biology, biochemistry and engineering to mathematics, form the backbone of western medical science both in terms of its understanding as well as diagnosis and treatment of diseases. But, despite huge amounts of money spent on medical research, not only have a number of diseases increased in prevalence but some diseases also defy the state-of-the art of diagnosis and treatments 1,2.

On the other hand, if one looks at the health scenario in India, one finds that in the not too distant past (precolonial India), Indians were leading a healthy lifestyle and were health literate3,4. The then prevalent medical systems like ayurveda were handling effectively, ailments, surgical cases (like cataract, removal of urinary stones, otoplasty and rhinoplasty) and even some medical emergencies (like snake bites)3–5. They had even practised innoculation till the British banned it around AD 1802/ 1803 (refs 6 and 7). But, starting with colonization and the subsequent meteoric ascent of western medicine and its widespread popularity, all indigenous systems of medicine were swept into near oblivion 8,9. Now, an increasingly chemical-weary population has begun turning towards alternative approaches during illness not only in India but the world over. The wheel has thus come a full circle. The growing interest in ayurveda has prompted a relook at this ancient medical science of India.

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About Author: Dr. Rama Jayasundar is a Professor in the Department of NMR, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi. She has an unique and unusual carrier trajectory. A PhD from University of Cambridge (UK), she is trained in physics and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR). While pioneering biomedical NMR work in India, she enrolled as a full time student, in the 5 1/2 years ayurvedic medical course at the age of 41, after obtaining official permission from AIIMS. What is striking is the fact that she did plus two biology (a pre-requisite for medical entrance) at the age of 40 to gain eligibility for medical admission in India. Despite securing admission for MBBS from top medical universities in India and abroad, she opted for medical degree in Ayurveda (BAMS - Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery).

She has many publications and awards to her credit in the field of biomedical NMR. Her current research interests harness the distinctive facets of her expertise to shed light on the scientific basis and working of ayurveda. Utilising her training in physics, experimental science, ayurveda and allopathy for innovative research in ayurveda, she is its most powerful advocate at national and international levels.

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