The brouhaha over the claim by Patanjali headed by Acharya Balkrishna and its mascot Baba Ramdev that they have hit upon some therapy of coronavirus disease was always predictable. The Ministry of AYUSH, which has objected to the assertion by one of the best performing FMCG companies of India with a Hindu touch, was itself in the eye of a storm when it had claimed it could ‘cure’ the disease, not merely prevent it. The community of medical scientists complain that these acharyas of Ayurveda do not conform to the standard procedure of getting a drug approved for the treatment of any disease they claim to cure. While that is a valid concern, the picture is hardly black and white. First of all, Ayurveda is no curative system at all; it is a prescribed form of living that tries to keep human beings so healthy that they wouldn’t fall ill in the first place. Second, those who subscribe to the traditional medical regime cannot deny the fact that much of what was known to Charaka, Sushruta, Bhela, Atreya Punarvasu and Nagarjuna have not reached the present-day vaidyas. For more than a millennium, there has been no research and development in the field just as exploration hasn’t happened in Vedic astrology for ages either. The best practitioners, who work on the little knowledge that has trickled down the generations, do not inspire the kind of confidence in the state — needed to allow an individual or company dispense a preparation for mass treatment.
But, third and most important, if modern medicine is acquainted with a certain procedure of drug approval that the practitioners of the ancient therapeutic discipline are not at home with, it reflects poorly on the scientific temperament of the doctors, pharmacologists and chemists that they satisfy themselves by merely scoffing at the claims of Ayurveda rather than take hints from the claim and embark upon a quest to look for the possibilities that arise out of the ingredients. It’s a sad commentary on the state of mind of Indians that are products of reputed centres of science education of the country, who only serve big hospital chains, corporate laboratories and foreign government-funded research centres in the West, but not one of them qualifies as a discoverer, let alone an inventor. One will not be surprised, however, if some American or European firm, rather than challenging Ayurveda, takes a cue from a postulation of herbal therapy for COVID, turns one or more components thereof to a compound, fulfils the criteria of trials, patents it for 20 years and makes a killing from the sales proceeds. Then, of course, one group of Indians, copycats, will clamour for generic drugs and the other, cry babies, will lament that a suave West is selling to us a finished product made of raw materials extracted from India’s jungles!
To this end, AYUSH has not taken significant strides to bridge the gap. In operation since the first term of the Narendra Modi government, the ministry has yet to come up with a document on standards for Ayurveda, yoga, naturopathy, Siddha, Unani and homoeopathy that would be accepted by peers worldwide. So lost is it about standard procedures that it had on 5 May claimed to have found Ayurvedic as well as homoeopathic cure of COVID without caring to put the averment through a randomised controlled trial. The secretary in the ministry, Rajesh Kotecha, is as clueless about handling the cynical media. Equally ignorant of jargon in medical parlance, they posit, when scientists ask for peer-reviewed publications, that peers are on the payrolls of Big Pharma who would, owing to a conflict of interest, obviously not approve of a finding that is not from the mainstream!
India inherited a defunct education system devastated in the mediaeval era by Mughal and British impositions. The nation that was once the foremost performer in the field of medicine (as well as mathematics, astronomy and textile manufacturing) when the West presumed a pig’s excreta was a sort of panacea is now desperately looking for individual brilliance, as the system will take decades to reform. COVID-19 has thrown up an opportunity that warrants more than a belief in tradition from one camp and snide remarks about it from another. Won’t any mad scientist in any part of the vast geography, regardless of the medical discipline he or she belongs to, take up the challenge?