Across the world, there is an intense contest emerging between two paradigms of health and two paradigms of science. The first is holistic and sees connections between the health of the planet and our health. It is based on the ecological science of inter-connectedness. The second one is reductionistic, mechanistic and commercial. The mechanistic worldview sees us as separate from nature and each part of our body as separate from all others, as parts of a machine are. Health is defined as a commodity we buy from the pharmaceutical industry.
In the United States and Britain, intense debates are taking place over Obamacare and the NHS, on whether health is a public good or a privatised commodity for sale. In India, a multi-dimensional debate emerged when the was introduced in Parliament. The (IMA) called a strike to protest against this bill, after which it was referred to a parliamentary select committee.
There have been many objections to the bill. One element of the controversy is a contest between two paradigms of healthcare, the holistic ancient systems like ayurveda versus the “modern” allopathic system based on drugs and pharmaceuticals. The bill seeks to allow practitioners of ayurveda, yoga, naturopathy, unani, siddha and homoeopathy to practice modern medicine once they complete a short-term “bridge” course.
While the objection of allopathic doctors is to ayurveda and other traditional medicine practitioners being able to practise “modern medicine”, my objection is to the degradation and devaluation of one of the oldest and most sophisticated health systems being swallowed by a mechanistic, commodified system.
Ayurveda — the science (veda) of life (ayur) — is guided by 5,000 years of time-tested knowledge of health, nutrition and diet. I see it as one of India’s greatest gifts to the world, along with agro-ecology and organic farming brought to the West by Sir Albert Howard through his agricultural testament.
The holistic sciences like ayurveda are based on inter-connectedness and living processes while “modern medicine” is based on a mechanistic paradigm of separation, reductionism, fragmentation and on pharmaceuticals derived from the chemicals and dye industry over 100 years ago.
The mechanistic paradigm has transformed the diversity of knowledge systems into a hierarchy, privileging the mechanistic and reductionistic paradigm as the only science, pushing all other knowledge systems to oblivion or treating them as inferior. “Science” is derived from the Latin scire — “to know”.
Diverse knowledge systems are scientific within their own paradigms. Mechanistic reductionist thinking does not just reduce the world to fragmented parts, but also reduces our capacity to know. It tries to reduce the rich systems of knowledge of agro-ecology and ayurveda to a mechanistic basis, thus robbing the systems’ paradigm of its very strength. This is a “knowledge apartheid” which prevents us from obtaining real answers on how to live healthy lives. With the repeated failures and limitations of the reductionist approach to life, in agriculture and in health, the relevance of agro-ecology and ayurveda grows.
There is a growing awareness that the epidemic of chronic non-communicable diseases is related to our environment and food. We need holistic systems to understand the inter-connection between living beings and the earth so that we can live in ways that contribute to a healthy planet and healthy people.
The ayurvedic science of health is centred around food. Food is central to the well-being of the planet and people, their health and healing. Today, biological sciences are gaining an understanding that the body is not a machine; it’s a complex, self-organised and self-regulated ecosystem. The principles of self-organisation were identified by the ayurveda thousands of years ago. It has thus evolved as an ecological and a systems science, not a fragmented and reductionist one.
In a mechanistic paradigm, chemical, mechanical and genetic technologies become the measure of the sophistication of a health system. But technologies are tools. Tools must be assessed on ethical, social and ecological criteria. Tools and technologies have not been viewed as self-referential in Indian civilisation. They have been assessed in the context of contributing to the well-being of all. Ayurveda recognises that every part of the body is inter-related and that the digestive system plays an important role in both health and disease. We are now seeing the emergence of an epidemic of non-communicable chronic diseases related to food and the environment. They are referred to as lifestyle diseases. I prefer to call them food style diseases.
Today, Western science has begun to realise what ayurveda understood 5,000 years ago — that the body is not a machine and food is not fuel that runs this machine as per Newton’s laws of mass and motion. Food is not “mass”; it is living, it’s the source of life and health.
There is an intimate connection between the soil, plants, our gut and brain. Our gut is a microbiome which contains trillions of bacteria. There are 100,000 times more microbes in our gut than people on the planet.
To function in a healthy way, the gut microbiome needs a diverse diet and a diverse diet needs diversity in our fields and gardens. A loss of diversity in our diet creates ill-health. Because we are more bacteria than human, when the poisons we use in agriculture such as pesticides and herbicides, reach our gut through food, they can kill beneficial bacteria. The same chemical industry that brings us toxics in agriculture also controls “modern medicine” based on pharmaceuticals. Bayer and Monsanto are now merging.
The toxic chemical industry is responsible for many of the chronic disease epidemics we face. The chemicalisation of health has created new Iatrogenic disease which are the result of mechanistic chemical approaches and diagnostic and therapeutic procedures which result in adverse drug reactions and side-effects often more fatal than the disease being attempted to be cured.
The industrial health system and the mechanistic reductionist paradigm of health that it is based on cannot be the future of a healthy planet and healthy people.
Instead of degrading ayurveda by fitting it into the mechanistic paradigm, it is time to evolve a biodiversity of health and knowledge systems that recognise the ecology of health, our bodies and the connection of our health to the health of the earth.
We pray — Om Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah Sarve Santu Nir-Aamayaah| Sarve Bhadraanni Pashyantu Maa Kashcid-Duhkha-Bhaag-Bhavet| Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih! (Om, May All Beings Be Happy, May All be Free from Illness. May All See what is Auspicious, May no one Suffer. Om Peace, Peace, Peace.) Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah has been our philosophy and the objective which guides all science, technology and knowledge. Our sciences have been based on the recognition of the inter-connections and inter-relatedness between humans and nature, between diverse organisms, and within all living systems including the human body.