Sanskrit and Science – the necessary links for propagation of Ayurveda in the west.

Dr.Vijayendra Murthy BAMS,MS, BNat,MPH

Ayurveda, by migrating to the west both as a knowledge system and a health care modality, reinvents itself repeatedly in multiple forms as Indian traditional medicine, spiritually based healing modality, natural health care, life style and wellbeing approaches. In its journey, Ayurveda’s identity has shifted from personal lifestyle approaches to a profession needing clear definitions, scope of practice and regulations. Currently, when traditional systems of health with ethnic origins are becoming part of the public debate in health care services, Ayurveda finds itself in a blurry state, as its application is unclear outside its cultural home ground of India, Sri lanka and Nepal. With in this context, we as representatives of Ayurveda are faced with the painful questions;

Is Ayurveda just part of the eco-journey of modern hippies? A trend, a health subculture- or is it a health care system that improves and restores health? Is there ground to the allocation by the medical community that Ayurveda in the west is pseudoscientific as it overly relies on controversial practices, which include implicating consciousness, or the soul’s faculties of projection and imagination in the healing process.

In this article I will explore the circumstances of Ayurveda’s presence in the west to cast light on the jump from a holistic health care system on the Indian subcontinent to an alternative movement in the west. This ethnological glimpse at Ayurveda’s status in the west can enable an outlook on the future of Ayurveda as a health care system. This is extremely important for safeguarding Ayurveda’s future as transplanting Ayurveda to the west should not result in mutilating its identity. In fact, the influences from western Ayurveda combined with eastern Ayurveda should enhance Ayurveda’s potential to be a holistic health care system irrespective of its cultural locations. I recommend that alongside scientific evaluation of Ayurveda’s efficacy and effectiveness for its presence in health care, embracing Sanskrit culture within western Ayurvedic thinking is paramount for a correct representation of Ayurveda.

Perceptions of Ayurveda as an ‘alternative’ approach to health In western countries, Ayurveda falls under the broad category of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). This can be demonstrated by examining the definition of Complementary and Alternative Medicine by O’Connor et al (1997, p. 49);

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is a broad domain of healing resources that encompasses all health systems, modalities, and practices and their accompanying theories and beliefs, other than those intrinsic to the politically dominant health system of a particular society or culture in a given historical period. CAM includes all such practices and ideas self-defined by their users as preventing or treating illness or promoting health and well-being.

As in the description of CAM by O’Connor et al, Ayurveda equally accommodates a broad landscape of interpretations of holistic systems of health care and at the same time raises questions on the multiple manifestations of Ayurveda. The notion of being alternative in Ayurveda is subject to differences in perceptions ranging from ‘alternative’ as a cultural term to that of the technical definition of being ‘an alternative’ to conventional health care. Furthermore, due to the ongoing discussion on legislation and policies specific to the Ayurvedic modalities in Europe, the UK, USA and other developed economies, Ayurvedic education and practice is highly unregulated and poorly defined by the respective professional organizations. Besides this as well as the argumentation by professional associations for self-regulation of traditional and complementary and alternative medicine an array of technical definitions, political structures and subjective perceptions has accumulated and created a ‘quick sand’, on which Ayurveda’s representation is continually evolving.


Ayurveda as a counter culture

It has been widely accepted that Ayurveda’s adoption in the West was originally associated with alternative cultural movements such as Transcendental Meditation that was inspired by holistic and universal concepts in eastern philosophies. These sparked a sense of affinity towards eastern cultures and lifestyles. Yet Ayurvedic traditionalists think that due to the incompatibility between eastern and western philosophies, (Sankhya, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Vedanta) Ayurveda can hardly be explained through a western paradigm. During its history on the Indian subcontinent before its migration to the west, Ayurveda developed through the influences by a conglomerate of medical as well as social, cultural and  political movements. Although from a historic perspective, Ayurveda’s spread to western countries continues its incorporation of multi-cultural influences, there are apprehensions amongst Ayurvedic professionals regarding the authenticity of Ayurveda in western cultures. The exotic flair of many Ayurvedic practices combined with the circumstances of its arrival during an epoch of countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s in America and Europe, further feeds into these controversies, which go as far as criticizing Ayurveda as derailing from healthcare into pseudo-philosophical wellness counseling and Spa-practices. Affinity for concepts of holism, non violence and consciousness by western alternative and spiritually inclined movements, may explain the interest in Ayurveda in western societies but also raises questions regarding the role assigned to Ayurveda in a secular culture as a substitute for mysticism or religion. In as much as western post-modern passion for holism helps Ayurveda evolve in the west, it is necessary to connect to the original context of Ayurveda’s approach. This core of Ayurveda is based in the eternal dharma of Sanskrit culture the absence of which distorts Ayurveda.


Looking at holism through a reductionist prism

The dichotomy between western and eastern Ayurveda is one of a discourse between different epistemologies. The western reductionist model can be seen as what constitutes western explanations of Ayurvedic concepts and principles. The Cartesian reductionist system considers knowledge as the result of reducing material reality to its functional basic components. Synthetic eastern thought on the contrary, considers reality form a holistic, rather than analytic perspective. Knowledge in the eastern paradigm arises ultimately from the oneness of the knower and the known, whereas in westerns science the notion of objectivity is paramount which is obtained through separation between the observer and the observed. Many western adaptations of Ayurveda focus on principles, which, when translated in to modern terms, are often misunderstood or distorted. For example, the emphasis on Vata diet, Pitta diet and Kapha diet or teas for Vata, Pitta and Kapha are contrary to the holistic Ayurvedic explorations of properties of foods and spices. An Ayurvedic practitioner with eastern thinking would not see the need for labeling diets for Vata, Pitta and Kapha constitutions. Although Ayurveda is applied knowledge and therefore can take pragmatic routes for its delivery, the practitioner for her or his expertise in Ayurveda is required to see Ayurveda through its own prism. This can be facilitated through engagement with Sanskrit language, which when removed from an Ayurvedic practitioner’s mind distorts Ayurvedic thinking. While an Ayurvedic practitioner with an eastern mind can be an artist of healing, a practitioner of western mindset is forced to practice Ayurveda as a craftsman. This is because, thought structures are imbedded in language and language forms an essential part of culture. As Ayurveda is communicated through the medium of Sanskrit, unless one can be Sanskrit literate, the reductionist outlook limits one’s ability to be holistic as far as Ayurveda is concerned.


Need for a unified representation of Ayurveda

In addition to the challenges of deciphering Ayurveda in to western thought and western language, repackaging the healing tradition in the language of contemporary science is another ongoing reason for controversy. The rapid transnational growth of Ayurveda and its increasing application as an alternative therapy poses questions regarding its rigor as a health science. In addition, practicing Ayurveda in a commercialized setting can mean walking a fine line between translating Ayurveda for being understandable in the west while maintaining the lure of the exotic. In addition to being labeled traditional and ethnic, Ayurveda’s connotations as Natural health, Spiritual Healing, Wellbeing therapies, and New Age Ayurveda diverts Ayurveda’s application from being a health care modality. While Ayurvedic lifestyle practices can become a cornerstone in health maintenance, we must recognize that self-care is mostly private. Within a professional level, Ayurveda risks concerns regarding its accountability, if it cannot demonstrate its generalizability and transferability. For this to occur, there is a need for a unified representation of Ayurveda. This implies understanding Ayurveda’s original Sanskrit and modern scientific methods. Both of these are essential for competency in Ayurvedic practice. On the other hand, the current non-Sanskrit versions of Ayurveda and the non-health science approaches to Ayurveda delivered as Ayurvedic education and health services can produce Ayurvedic consumers but not necessarily Ayurvedic professionals. Although in the current democratic settings within capitalist societies, cherry picking knowledge and acquirement of skills may be possible, for the continued survival of a health care system such as Ayurveda, immersion in its original form, scientific enquiry and unified representation are essential. The multiplying diversified forms of representing Ayurveda and its simplification may eventually lead to Ayurveda’s disappearance as a holistic health care modality.


O'Connor, B., Calabrese, C., Cardena, E., Eisenberg, D., Fincher, J., Hufford, D., et al. (1997). Defining and describing complementary and alternative medicine. Alternative therapies, 3(2), 49-57.