Hypernationalist love for pseudo science

Some ayurveda practitioners have told me that doctors prescribing allopathy medicines often advise patients not to opt for ayurveda. Such doctors are anti-nationals,

Ayurveda is one of the oldest medical systems in the world and we should be proud of it. How can anyone oppose ayurveda when the whole world is showing interest in it and trying to find remedies of diseases that modern medical science cannot?

S.Y.Naik,Indian Health Minster (Alternative Medicine- Ayush)

Image courtesy http://hindu.bz/indian-ayurveda-mother-earths-medical-system/

Image courtesy http://hindu.bz/indian-ayurveda-mother-earths-medical-system/

Yes, in modern India practicing scientific medicine is an anti-national act. Pointing out lack of scientific evidences for most of the therapies in Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine, is blasphemous. Saying, based on current evidence, that Yoga can’t cure anything, will make you enemy of the state. If you say there is not much difference between  “medicinal” values of excretory products of cows and buffaloes, you might be asked to go to Pakistan. Saying Ayurvedic medicines have toxic effects on kidneys, among many other adverse effects, can make you a hate figure.

This hyper nationalist love for Indian traditional systems and beliefs is not just a Hindu right-wing phenomenon. It is prevalent across the political spectrum. It’s jingoistic rhetoric reaches a crescendo during times like this, when the Hindutva party, the BJP,  is in power.

Thus the announcements of marketing of new Ayurvedic drugs for x or y illness are made in Indian Parliament or through widely publicised government press conferences. “Scientifically validated Ayurvedic drug launched” screams the headlines. For proud Indians, Ayurveda is always right, and needs only validation from modern science. For them there are only two types of Ayurvedic therapies, one that is already validated by science and the others that are yet to be validated by science because modern science has yet to reach that level.

With such an irrational mindset, patients many time land up in big trouble.  Many opt for pseudo scientific therapies first, and there by delay getting proper diagnosis and treatment. Some shift to new “scientifically validated” Ayurvedic drugs widely available as over the counter product, to their peril. Recently one of my patient, a man who teaches science, whose Diabetes was well controlled, shifted to a widely publicised new Ayurvedic product on his own. He came back to me after few weeks with a very high blood sugar. When I asked him why he  chose to change medicine even though he was doing well his answer was this.

“I thought being a product of premier scientific research institute of Indian government, it must be effective as claimed. Also I do not want side effects of long term use of “English” medicines. As you very well know Ayurvedic medicines are always safe”.

I became interested in how these products get “scientific validation” and so did some research. What I found was most of these products come into market after a single shoddily done small clinical trial. It’s true that many are randomized clinical trials.  Most of these trials are single centred, and the papers are rarely published in journals. Even if it is published it is usually not in a peer-reviewed journal.  The benefits obtained are usually very modest.Most of these studies report side effects as nil.

It is not my contention that Ayurvedic medicines have zero medicinal value. Basic tenets of Ayurveda, it’s tridosha theory, is pseudo science. The herbs used in Ayurveda may or may not have medicinal values. Like all therapies they are sure to have adverse effects too. My contention is hyper nationalist rhetoric is killing scientific evidence gathering. Main aim of some of India’s premier science research organisations has now become validating Ayurveda by any means possible. Scarce public resources are wasted on dubious research for nationalistic goals.

This is in stark contrast with the way China developed anti malarial drug artemisinin, that eventually led  to award of Nobel prize to You you Tu. What they did was a rigorous scientific quest for an effective remedy from among thousands of herbs which are supposed to have medicinal value against malaria. They rejected all traditional medicines which failed in scientific tests. They did not announce victory and rested in its laurels when they found a modest benefit. They continued their research until they could identify the useful molecule in the herb,, modified it several times in the laboratory, so that it will have a prolonged shelf life and least adverse events. The Nobel prize for artemisinin was not an honor for traditional medicine, but an honor for rigorous following of method of science to get a useful product for humankind.

If India could follow this example, some time in future, Indian scientists may be able to show the world a truly effective drug from among Indian medicinal herbs. Then it will not be part of pseudo science, but part of scientific medicine like artemisinin. Then Indians can have real nationalist pride of their scientists, unlike the current hyper nationalist manufactured irrational pride of their traditional therapies.



  1. Numenaster says

    Thank you for this. China did the right thing on artemisinin, but the state of medical research in China is very mixed. The majority of research supporting acupuncture comes from the mainland, and the quality of that research is such that attempts to replicate it outside China are very rarely successful.

    • Arun says

      Yes, quality of research in general from China is questionable. But can’t help appreciating them for artemisinin.

  2. says

    Do Ayurvedic texts from 109 years ago claim any success with diabetes?
    I suspect any long term success would come after insulin became a treatment.

    • Arun says

      Ayurvedic texts do describe Diabetes and prescribe exercise for it. They also mention some herbs of questionable efficiency.

Comments welcome