Descending and Ascending Knowledge - A Philosophical Comparison
From Ayurveda to Allopathy
It has been said that in the estimation of the world, India suffers today more through the world's ignorance of her achievements than from the absence of them. India's achievements in the field of medicine are a prime example. The ancient medical science of ayurveda, which is experiencing a renaissance at present, is perhaps the most sophisticated and comprehensive approach to health care the world has known. A comparison of ayurveda and allopathy—their methodologies, origins, curative approaches, and disease causation theories-raises serious questions. While modern medicine is thought to have replaced superstition and "folk" medicine, in comparison to ayurvedic science, allopathy could be viewed as but an extension of the guesswork and superstition it is thought to have replaced-a mere poking in the dark, unfortunately, at the expense of our planet and its life forms.
Why and how has such a great science as ayurveda been practically lost? The answer lies principally in foreign domination; a mentality that, incidentally, the allopathic mind-set gives rise to. The present day revival of ayurvedic treatment can also be understood to be the result of the conscious mind behind it-"The meek shall inherit the Earth."
Foreign domination lasted in India for over 1,000 years, beginning with the Moghul tribes and ending with the British Raj. At least it has formally ended with the British; but India has yet to reconstruct its great history, and in the meantime it continues to suffer from subtle foreign academic domination. While attempting to piece together the scraps of paper shredded by its foreign rulers, the world academic community continues to postulate a primarily Eurocentric view of cultural and scientific evolution. But the current upsurge of interest in ayurvedic science is not as much an interest in India and her history as it is a groping for meaning in a world dominated by atomism, that has left many unfulfilled at present, and even terrified about our future. When we speak of this ancient treatment system, we speak of a well thought-out world view which, if put into practice, can do much to remedy our modern-day maladies-biological, psychological, social, environmental, and spiritual.
In comparing these two methodologies, it will be necessary to first briefly examine the Vedic methodology. The ancient rishis (enlightened sages) employed a scientific methodology that allowed them to understand the mysteries of life, both spiritual and material. In addition to providing them with a thorough knowledge of the life processes, through this methodology they were able to analyze and determine the medicinal value of plants, minerals, and animals, long before the invention of microscopes, analytical chemistry, and other tools of the allopathic school. In contrast, the Western scientific method, which was not developed fully until the time when India had already fallen under foreign rule long after the Vedic age, is clearly inferior.
The Western approach is based upon three steps: 1) hypothesis, 2) experimentation and observation, and 3) theory or conclusion. Vedic science, on the other hand, uses three proofs, or pramana, two of which cover entirely the ground encompassed by the Western scientific method. This leaves a third type of evidence at the disposal of the Vedic scientist, giving him a decisive edge over his Western counterparts. As we shall see, this third means of acquiring knowledge takes us to the heart of the difference between these two approaches.
The first limb of the Vedic means for arriving at truth is pratyaksha, or direct sense perception, including the observations of others. The second is anuman or logical inference based on invariable concomitants, i.e. if A=B and B=C then A=C. Anuman is further supported by agreement in presence, agreement in absence, and non-observance of the contrary. Lastly and most importantly comes aptopadesh, or hearing from authoritative sources, i.e. saints or realized souls, for whom there is an observable criteria, and revealed scriptures, which are the writing of previous saints.
Conceptual Framework and Basic Concepts
Ayurvedic science's premise is that the health of the soul is primary, and everything else revolves around that ultimate state of well-being. Because it has a clear conception of consciousness, intellect, mind, and body, understanding them to be distinct hierarchical realities which evolve from the supreme consciousness to individual consciousness on down, this science is well-equipped to care for all states of disease. Physical, mental, emotional, social, and environmental diseases are all within its scope.
On the level of physical health, which is the primary if not exclusive concern of allopathy, ayurvedic scientists were at least as competent as modern allopaths in dealing with any ailment, including the necessity of surgical operations, which were done under herbal anesthetic. I mention this only because the accomplishments in the allopathic surgical field are touted as some of the greatest medical achievements of our time. Ayurvedic surgical insights are recorded in the Shushruta Samhita (1000 B.C.). Any number of modern-day operations, from routine hernia removals to complex organ transplants are mentioned therein. These, however, were not the pride of Ayurvedic treatments. They were last resort measures that were necessary only a fraction of the time in comparison to our modern medical analysis. This was so because of other advances in ayurvedic treatments and the world view that such holistic treatments are part of-one in which nonviolence is held as an esteemed virtute to be cultivated by all.
The Vedic rishis divided sentient beings into two broad categories: "moving"- humans, animals, birds, aquatics, etc.-and "non-moving," which included plants, and stones. This prevented such misconceptions as the "animal-metabolism" theory of Hippocrates, and the serious Descartian miscalculation that animals were little more than machines. The rishis understood the nature of consciousness and biological life processes in such a thorough way that not only could every substance produced by the animal, mineral, and plant kingdom be included in the materia medica, but also it allowed for the development of branches of ayurvedic medicine, which include the treatment of disease in animals and plants. The sensitivity of the rishis was such that they discouraged not only the exploitation of the animal kingdom, but the exploitation of the plant and mineral kingdoms as well, thus preventing the type of environmental crisis that Western science has brought upon us.
The basic psychosomatic life processes are delineated as vata, pitta, and kapha, or tridosha, provide the overall conceptual framework upon which to build a complete understanding of the living world. The doshadhatus are: 1) vata, which involves the breath or vital airs; 2) pitta, the bodily fires; and 3) kapha, which involves the bodily fluids. These were translated into English hundreds of years ago as wind, bile, and mucous. These three psycho-biological complexes are present in every living being, and health is said to be a perfect balance of all three.
The tridosha are the basic building blocks of life, and they make up the hierarchical complex called saptadhatu, or the seven tissues: 1) food nutrients, 2) blood, 3) flesh, 4) fat and connecting tissues, 5) bone, 6) bone marrow and cerebro-spinal fluid, and 7) semen or ovum. Besides doshadhatu and saptadhatu, a third dhatu: rasadhatu is described, the system of rasas or tastes. The rasas, which are six in number, are derived from foods and the environment. They nourish the bodily tissues in different ways and form the basis for ayurvedic dietetics and herbology. These six tastes-sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent—determine the nutritional value of foods and the medicinal effects of herbs, which are considered concentrated foods. These three systems-doshadhatu, saptadhatu, and rasadhatu are foundational to all ayurvedic understanding. The tridosha framework, which determines the individual constitution of each and every person, causes the medical practitioner to not only deal with every patient as a unique individual, but every disease as a unique disturbance.
All these systems are understood within the conception of the triguna, which views the phenomenal world in terms of its three principal modes of influence: sattva (clarity), rajas (passion), and tamas (darkness). These trimodal influences—the five gross elements, ether (space), air, fire, water, and earth—and the subtle elements of mind, intellect, and material ego comprise our biological and psychic bodies, and the entire world of material experience.
If there is any conceptual framework in allopathy from which its successes arise, it is the simplistic idea that all life is reducible to biochemical and ultimately molecular processes. This is opposed to ayurvedas acceptance of a hierarchical structure of realities culminating in the divine. Although allopathy's view is well formed, it has come about as a result of experimentation; it does not rest on a secure foundation of a fixed conceptual framework, but formulates concepts to serve the conclusions of ongoing experimentation. While ayurvedic understanding works from a broad base down to specifics, allopathy works backwards, coming up from the collection of data and phenomenon from which larger conclusions are then drawn—a clearly speculative, inferior approach.
The problem here is twofold: one, a view based solely on experimentally derived data is one that is subject to change when new and even contradictory data arises through subsequent experimentation, which is endless in this system. This unstable structure can totter at any time, and thus it would be difficult to build a stable society upon it. Entire schools of medical education, for example, and funding for all sorts of projects in a particular direction would be risky ventures. Everything could change in the instance that conflicting verifiable data arises. Although it seems laudable theoretically to experiment, go forward, and be prepared to change direction at any time, it is highly impractical on a societal level. This brings us to the second problem, which is that consistent data does arise regularly, challenging the existing paradigm. But due to the fact that there is so much at stake, it is often ignored, or experimentation loses its objectivity inasmuch as it continues with a view to produce only data that conforms with the existing world view. In other words speculation, which is what modern medicine is seeded in, invariably lends to loss of integrity. Ironically, it is often billed as the noble pursuit of truth.
No doubt experimentation is a valid means of acquiring relative knowledge, but it must be conducted within a larger framework which includes descending knowledge in order that it not degenerate into self-deception. Experimentation conducted within the ayurvedic tradition either rejects or accepts evidence based on whether it is or is not contradictory to descending knowledge, the spiritual world view.
The intuitive or divine origin of the ayurvedic tradition opposes the blind prodding of dead matter that makes up experimental Western medicine. While experimentation is an important part of pramana, in the ayurvedic tradition it is carried on within a larger conceptual framework based upon descending knowledge. Again, Western medicine is just a collection of identified systems, symptoms, and results lacking any guidance from higher intelligence. The ayurvedic tradition descends from higher intelligence, and is not subject, at least from the start, to the faults of conditioned human reason. The allopathic approach is much more akin to the superstitious medicine of uncivilized peoples than is the ayurvedic tradition, although modern medicine men would have it seem otherwise. Here the unbiased will have to ask themselves: "Is there perfect knowledge?" If the answer is "no," then we may as well stop there. But Western thinking assumes that there is perfect knowledge to which we can evolve, while the questionable means of evolution involves the utilization of imperfect instruments and human frailties. Vedic science also admits to perfect knowledge, but being that it is perfect, that knowledge is considered superior to mankind, and thus human society can attain it only if it chooses to reveal itself. Although the knowledge of the ayurvedic tradition is basically secular, dealing with the phenomenal world, the conception of the material world is one that descends from the spiritual plane.
Allopathy's rational methodology, it must be remembered, arose as a reaction to irrational European reliance on incantations and superstition that could be considered pre-rational spiritual sentiments, or a vitiated form of the rational spirituality of ancient India. It is an overreaction to unscientific medicine and pseudo-spirituality, neither of which are elements of ayurvedic teachings. It sprang not from the spiritual platform, but the speculative mental fabric of "religious" men of the time. Although the founding fathers of the new European era of reason "believed in God," their spiritual premise was so weak that they could not foresee that the new concepts they introduced would develop into the greatest nemesis of their ill-conceived spirituality. Not so for rational Vedic spirituality, however, which even today is having an impact on many of the world's greatest scientific minds, as is its subsidiary, the ayurvedic teachings.
Such teachings are paradigmatically different from the neo-Aristotelean paradigm reigning in Europe before the reactionary advent of modern medicine. While modern medicine's votaries sought to secure an experimentally testable method to replace ad hoc medicine, ayurvedic vaidyas (physicians) were employing their own scientific, experimentally testable methodology and divine insight within the dhatudosha framework.
Although modern medicine is credited with "successfully" treating infectious disease, it may really only have succeeded in causing what is now called chronic disease, which in turn it does not know how to treat. Because it arises as a reaction to another form of ignorance, it is only a half-ruth at best. Reactionary solutions are never complete solutions. A Hegelian synthesis has yet to appear to balance the antithetical movement of modern medicine and science. Many persons in the West are now attempting to resurrect Eastern healing systems and interface them with allopathy in such a synthesis. Although I will explore this idea in my conclusion, Eastern medicine is foundationally different from modern medicine, which makes such a synthesis almost impossible. Of the two foundations, the structural composition of conventional medical knowledge in the West rests on an enormous yet flimsy infrastructure of experimental achievements. Thus it lacks the comprehensive aura of true medical wisdom.
Dhanvantari - the father of the Ayurvedic tradition
Fundamentally different from each other are the Eastern and Western approaches to disease causation, and for that matter, as to what actually constitutes disease. In the Charaka Samhita, an authoritative ayurvedic text, we find the following: "As the age of truth declines, some people find themselves in possession of too much adana (greed), which leads to gaurava (heaviness in the body and mind). This condition leads to shrama (lethargy), which leads to alasya (laziness). Laziness leads to sanchaya or hoarding, which leads to parigraha or capturing what belongs to others. Parigraha leads to further greed and avarice (lobha). This chain of demoralized actions continues through treachery, falsehood, uncurbed desires, anger and wrath, vanity, hatred, cruelty, shock, fear, distress, sorrow, and anxiety. Then the bodies and the minds of the people deteriorate and become easy prey to disease. Thus even the span of life is shortened."
Further, Charaka describes an interesting condition he calls the epidemic of arms: "When greed, anger, avarice, pride, and vanity hold sway over people's minds, they, despising the weak and irrespective of the victim being their own kith and kin, take to invading and destroying each other." Thus the impact of immoral and improper action on disease causation is clearly indicated in the ayurvedic tradition. Charaka goes on to describe other causative factors, linking the overall mental, physical, and moral health of the people with the moral integrity of the heads of the family, village, city, state, and nation.
The Western medical system lacks a complete causative theory. Ayurvedas doctrine of karma, a well-developed and reasonable concept, which, simply put, extends the atomic notion that each action has an equal and opposite reaction into the moral realm, deserves to be distanced with dignity from the popular simplistic understanding of its principles often appearing on the lips of T.V. hosts in jest. This is especially so when at the same time biomedicine is now at an impasse on account of its primitive causation dogma, a theory that if really thought out could certainly bring a few laughs. Obvious causative influences—psychological, social, environmental, etc.—can not be admitted as such due to the reductionist world view of allopathy. But can any sane person continue to insist that the mind, the environment, and social circumstances do not directly influence our physiology or, worse still, insist that a hierarchical reality above the physical plane does not exist at all?
According to allopathy, disease is a result of invading organisms, metabolic imbalances, tissue degeneration, etc. In the model of infectious disease, for example, the invading agent is to be tracked down and killed. This approach is genocidal; it attempts to annihilate entire species of the vast microscopic world. According to the ayurvedic tradition, disease is an imbalance in nature, there is no question of killing. Free from the folly of attempting to kill everything, the ayurvedic tradition recognizes the inscrutable will of the Supreme, and the right to life of even the microrganisms. The attack-and-destroy methods of modern medicine are as foreign to the rishis of India as the modern battlefield is to their peaceful hermitages. What is the chance of allopathy achieving its goal of a germ-proof world, anyway? At present modern science is creating new germs, or the conditions which give rise to the appearance of increasingly resistant strains of viruses and bacteria. Thus the greatest causal factor of disease in allopathy may well be itself.
At the risk of sharp criticism I have highlighted several of the shortcomings of modern medicine. But if we consider the treatment of the ayurvedic tradition by modern medical advocates, it seems justifiable. Yet what the world needs is something more than that, although it is a necessary beginning. Modern medicine has fed the modern world the pill of propaganda to the point of mass addiction. Thus many of us need to be jolted from our firm faith in a system of medicine that is far from perfect. At the same time my criticism of allopathy comes on the heels of considerable discontent with modern medicine, both from the ranks of alternative medicine and allopathic quarters as well. That modern medicine needs help is no secret to the informed.
The last decade has seen a tremendous interest in alternative medicine, and recently the ayurvedic tradition in particular is receiving attention. The reasons for this are varied, from the ecconomics of costly research involved in allopathy, including the necessity of importation driving communities away from desireable self sufficiency, to the side effects of drugs, which in turn require more drugs ad infinitum. The doctor/patient relationship is also at a low ebb in allopathy, and many people are seeking more personal care and participation in cure.
Unknown to many is the fact that modern medicine has paid considerable attention to the ayurvedic tradition in search of medicinal plants from which to extract new and effective drugs. A number of world agencies have pinned their faith in traditional medicine including the ayurvedic tradition. WHO, UNIDO, and UNESCO all have recognized the importance of medicinal plants, encouraging research so that herbal medicines can be put to more efficient use. A convincing statistical presentation could be put forward such that one would think that the ayurvedic tradition and other traditional medicines are having a major impact on modern medicine. Yet almost all of the interest in the ayurvedic tradition in the allopathic medical community is aimed at finding herbal remedies, and the soul does not rest in herbal formulas. Its value is being determined today in allopathic quarters largely, if not entirely, through the measured effectiveness of its recommended medicinal plants, which allopathy uses in suppressing the "findings" of disease. Little if any consideration is being given to the philosophy of the ayurvedic tradition. But it is in the investigation of it's conceptual framework, its philosophical underpinnings, that hope for an improved medical care system for our modern world lies, not in adding herbal formulas to the edifice of allopathy. If there is to be any merger of these two medical traditions, it can only be one in which the broader foundation of the ayurvedic tradition is complimented by various experimental findings of allopathy, not vice versa.
It is no longer permissible to ignore the diseased condition of our environment, social conditions, and mental states, and continue to extol the virtues of our system of medicine. Modern medicine is shortsighted and narrow in its focus. In the long run, now some 200 years down the road, the scales are tipping; modern medicine may ultimately do more harm than good. Although concerns for conditions which lay outside the sphere of allopathy—but which allopathy contributes to negatively nonetheless-are being mobilized, it is questionable just how much of a change they can effect. The comprehensive world view of which the ayurvedic tradition is a part—a rationally spiritual one—may therefore be worth attempting to resurrect. This is especially so when at the same time interest in Eastern medicine and philosophy is surfacing in many Western scientific circles. If one questions just how much of this ancient science can be revived, the answer lies in the fact that it is descending knowledge. It can be revived in proportion to our realization of our utter necessity for higher guidance, to which Divinity is so sympathetic, lost as we are in a maze of guesswork.
An exhaustive comparison of these two medical traditions is a study well worth undertaking. From its methodology to its conceptual framework, consideration of origins, disease causation theory, and approaches to cure, the ayurvedic tradition has much to offer. The broader scope of Eastern medicine is hard to deny, and the ayurvedic tradition is clearly the mother of all Eastern medical disciplines, including Chinese and Tibetan medicine. If it appears to fall short on account of the advances in specialized fields of allopathy, that may in fact be to its credit. Implementation of the world view of the ayurvedic tradition could very well diminish the need for many of the "advancements" of allopathy.
The ayurvedic tradition is not on the same level as pre-industrial revolution medical developments in Europe, as many would like us to think. In fact, all of Europe owes an intellectual debt to India. Had this been recognized long ago, the development of European medicine, and science in general could perhaps have avoided the long detour they have taken in the form of modern science and medicine.