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Ayurveda: The History and Practice in the British Colony

And the Modern World


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Introduction

In the modern world, many vanity and health products are marketed as

“Ayurvedic” and “all-natural”, as yoga and homeopathic treatments are gaining attention

in media and promoted by celebrities. However, Ayurveda is more than just a trend. It is

an indigenous medical practice that roots from religion, Indian history, and the exchange

of knowledge across civilizations in the South Asian subcontinent. Through this paper, I

aim to explore the following questions: What is Ayurveda? How has colonialism

impacted its practices and reception? And what is the role of Ayurveda in the modern

world? I will begin with defining the ancient medical practice of Ayurveda and its

background, followed by an examination of foreign and colonial influences on the

practice, and conclude with an explanation how Ayurveda is carried out today.

Through the researched information, the paper will argue how British Colonialism

westernized the ancient humble practice of Ayurveda, and changed it from a medical

practice that focused on treating patients by incorporating the relationship between the

gods and the body and the balance of forces, to a health and beauty commodity marketed

to improve the economy.

Definition and Teachings of Ayurveda

Ayurveda dates back more than three thousands years, and it is a representation of

Indian tradition and beliefs. Prior to the ancient practice of Ayurveda, the civilizations

that preoccupied the South Asian peninsula introduced hints of medical knowledge to its

people. The city of Mohenjo-Daro introduced intricate drainage and sewage systems, as
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well as communal baths to promote sanitation and hygiene as keys to maintaining public

health. The Harappan civilization is still highly praised for its ‘Great Bath’, as it is

considered a “cornerstone in the study of the development of international public health”.


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As sanitary practices were incorporated into the daily lives of those living in the Indus

Valley region, prehistoric health and medical practices were of concern as well.

However, while archaeologists were able to discover the ancient drainage systems and

baths that were derived from efficient water supply systems, other prehistoric medical

practices of the South Asian subcontinent are remained as a mystery to this day.

The Indus Valley region was invaded by the light-skinned Aryans around 1500

BC. As they migrated into India, the Aryans brought along their own understandings of

health and medicine that stemmed from their traditional values and religious beliefs.

Vedic medicine, which was derived from the Sanskrit liturgical knowledge of the Veda,

was introduced and then systemized as Ayurveda.2 The origin of Vedic medicine itself,

is ambiguous and is still a topic of debate. Numerous scholars claim that the medical

practice was derived from the Hindi gods, while others say animals and/or plants
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contributed to its development. Ayurveda is a methodical compilation of the Vedic

knowledge of the gods, plants, and animals. ‘Ayu’ comes from the Sanskrit word meaning

‘life’ or ‘duration of life’, while ‘veda’ means ‘knowledge’ or ‘science’. Therefore,

Ayurveda is translated as the knowledge or science of life itself.4

1 Islam, Md Nazrul. Repackaging Ayurveda in Post-colonial India: Revivalism and


Global Commodification. Master's thesis, 2008. Hong Kong. 47

2 Ibid,. 48
3 Ibid,. 49
4 Ibid,. 50
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Similar to Hippocrates’ four humors, the Aryans believed that life, or ayu, was

consisted of four parts: atta, mona, indrio, and sharer. When translated, the four parts are

defined as the soul, the mind, the senses, and the body, and each part has a specific

function in the body to maintain harmony and balance. When the balance of an individual

‘s body is disrupted, he or she would experience physical, mental, or spiritual illnesses or

disorders.5 Moreover, the concept of doshas is heavily implanted in ayurvedic teachings

as well. The three functional parts that make up doshas are: vata (motion and wind), pitta

(transforming process and bile), and kapha (cohesion and phlegm).6 The three doshas

must be constantly in balance as well, in order to have a healthy state of mind, body, and

spirit.

The teachings of Ayurveda are told in two classical epics written by its authors,

Charok and Susrut. The two epics, also referred to as compendiums, are essential to

Brahmanic tradition, and are called the astango ayurved. The astango ayurved is made

up of eight chapters: Salya tantro (surgery), Salakya tantro (ophthalmology), Kaya

chikitsha (internal medicine), Bhuta bidya (psychiatry and demonology),

Kaumarabrithya (pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology), Agada tantra (toxicology),


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Rasayana (rejuvenation), and Vajikarana (virilization). Bearing in mind that these

compendiums have been around for thousands of years, it is truly impressive how

5 Islam, Md Nazrul. Repackaging Ayurveda in Post-colonial India: Revivalism and


Global Commodification. Master's thesis, 2008. Hong Kong. 50
6 Carlos J. Moreno Leguizamon. "Dichotomies in Western Biomedicine and

Ayurveda: Health-Illness and Body-Mind." Economic and Political Weekly 40, no. 30
(2005): 3302-310. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4416938. 3308
7 Islam, Md Nazrul. Repackaging Ayurveda in Post-colonial India: Revivalism and

Global Commodification. Master's thesis, 2008. Hong Kong. 51


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complex and detailed the knowledge related to medicine and health the Aryans possessed

was.

Susrut wrote about each of the eight branches meticulously in his compendium.

Salya tantro refers to the procedures necessary to treat wounds, burns, cuts, and such.

When a foreign object such as wood, rock, or metal enters the body, surgery was taken

place in order to remove the object and to restore health. Salakya tantro treats diseases

that have occurred in the ear, eye, mouth, or nose, while Kaya chikitsha deals with those

related to fever, diarrhoea, mental disorder, and skin disease. When gods, spirits, demons,

and other supernatural or theological forces disturb the spiritual or mental balance of an

individual, Bhutabidya is referred to. Kaumarabrithya manages issues related to child

caring and breastfeeding, Agada tantro treats illnesses cause by snake bites, and other

poisons, and Rasayana deals with aging, physical strength, and chronic diseases. Finally,

Vajikarana handles sperm count, sexual ejaculation, and those related to reproduction. 8

The examination of the patient and the diagnosis of the disease are what make up

ayurvedic diagnosis. 9 When diagnosing a patient, the ayurvedic medical practitioner has

to take in count the patient’s lifestyle, diet, family history, body building mechanism, sex,

mental state, and such. When treating a patient, the healer uses one of the two main

principles of ayurvedic treatment: samanya or vishesha. Samanya takes in count the

“interconnectedness” between the patient and the natural, while vishesha focuses on the

concept of balance.10

8 Islam, Md Nazrul. Repackaging Ayurveda in Post-colonial India: Revivalism and


Global Commodification. Master's thesis, 2008. Hong Kong. 52
9 Ibid,. 54
10 Ibid,. 55
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The ancient practice of Ayurveda is complex in its roots and carries not only

medical knowledge, but also the culture and religious beliefs of the Aryans and

civilizations in the Indus Valley region. Ayurveda was practiced to treat illnesses of all

the mind, body, and spirit, and its effectiveness allowed the practice to remain for

thousands of years. However, with the introduction of western medicine and British

administration, the teachings of Ayurveda were slowly disturbed.

Ayurveda During British Colonialism

Even before the arrival of British colonists, India had been a target of invasion by

multiple outsiders for political, economic, and religious reasons. When Christian

missionaries and European merchants infiltrated India in the 1500s and beyond, Western

allopathic medicine started to enter the subcontinent. The British East India Company

took authority over the nation in 1765, which then contributed to the British colonialism

years after. In the nineteenth century, the British took administrative power over the

civilization, and they patronized allopathic medicine and made it the mainstream practice.

While Ayurveda was initially recognized by British authorities, it later became

subjugated as Western medicine was promoted to be the only cure for sickness and

diseases.

In order to strengthen the army of colonial India, European medicine was taught

to Indians. Simultaneously, the employees of the Court of Directors in London were

encouraged to look into ayurveda and unani medical practices. This then led to the

foundation of Calcutta’s Native Medical School in 1822, where 20 students were enrolled
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to learn both indigenous and Western medicine.11 The school demonstrated the first

attempt to teach integrated medicine in India.

However, this attempt was thwarted a few years after when Governor General

Lord William Bentinck saw the integration of Ayurveda and biomedicine as pointless. In

1833, Lord Bentinck and his committee decided that the Native Medical School should

teach variations of Western medical sciences in English. In February 1835, Calcutta

Medical College was formed and several other colleges followed, teaching only Western
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allopathic medicine in the English language. Moreover, because it was economically

inefficient to send in medical experts from Europe to India, the British administration set

up institutions that trained Indian nurses and other paramedical staff Western medical

practices. The combination of the colleges and professional training institutions

supported by the colonial administration encouraged the advancement of allopathic

medicine throughout colonized India.

Ayurvedic practitioners worried that their ancient medical practice would lose its

value, as western biomedicine became the norm. An ayurvedic practitioner, kabiraj Rai

Mohun Ray, wrote to Sir Charles Elliot, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, asking to

build a college that would specifically teach Ayurveda, but was rejected.13

The Medical Registration Act was passed by the British administration in the

1910s and imposed compulsory registration of allopathic medicine, leaving ayurvedic

practitioners unable to become registered practitioners. In addition, only those who

11 Islam, Md Nazrul. Repackaging Ayurveda in Post-colonial India: Revivalism and


Global Commodification. Master's thesis, 2008. Hong Kong. 81
12Islam, Md Nazrul. Repackaging Ayurveda in Post-colonial India: Revivalism and

Global Commodification. Master's thesis, 2008. Hong Kong.,. 82


13 Ibid,. 83
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followed Western medicine were given the title ‘Doctors’, according to the Medical

Degree Act.14 Slowly but surely, during British colonialism, Ayurveda began to decline

as the state did not support or recognize its practice, and as Western allopathic medicine

replaced it as the official medical practice of India.

Throughout the British rule, not only was the ayurvedic practice frowned upon by

the state, but also the introduction of Western culture changed the diets of Indians and the

production of ayurvedic drugs. While most Indians continued their rural lifestyles, British

colonialism changed the lifestyle of those in urban cities. Dietetic habits and lifestyles

were key parts of ayurvedic practices, and as the lifestyle and diets of Indians changed

throughout British colonialism, Ayurveda would never be the same it was before the

introduction of Western culture and knowledge.

Ayurveda in the Modern World

After the decolonization of India, the new government promoted medical

pluralism that believed that a health policy, which included both traditional Indian

medicine and westernized biomedicine, was essential to the population’s health.15 In the

1970s, the Indian System of Medicine and Homeopathy was founded, and it greatly

14 Hardiman, David. "Indian Medical Indigeneity: From Nationalist Assertion to the


Global Market." Taylor Francis Online, September 14, 2009.
15 Nisula, Tapio. "In the Presence of Biomedicine: Ayurveda, Medical Integration and

Health Seeking in Mysore, South India." Anthropology & Medicine 13, no. 3
(December 2006): 207-224. Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition, EBSCOhost
(accessed November 27, 2016).
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influenced the revival of Ayurveda after years of being stigmatized and subjugated during

British colonialism.16

The Indian National Congress drew from their observations during British

Colonialism that national efforts were essential to restore Ayurveda, and founded

schools, colleges, and hospitals. Instead of trying to go against Western medicine,

Ayurveda was revived through the integrated medical education that combined the two

practices. By 2003, there were 53 public and 1567 private undergraduate colleges in India
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teaching Ayurveda, and 30 public and 29 private postgraduate colleges. The current

Primary Health Care model of India epitomizes the collaboration of allopathic and

indigenous medicine. Its centers, which extend all the way to rural India, are stationed

with a mix of allopathic practitioners, homoeopaths, and ayurvedic practitioners.18 In the

1970s, the Central Council of Indian Medicine was established, allowing ayurvedic

practitioners to become registered physicians.19 This led to the decline of apprenticeship,

as ayurveda practitioners were required specific training under a curriculum in order to be

considered a registered practitioner, changing the practice and method of education of the

ancient practice.

However aside from those who integrated Western and indigenous medical

knowledge, suddha (pure) Ayurveda was believed to be self-sufficient, and some Indians

believed that it should remain independent from other practices.20

16 Islam, Md Nazrul. Repackaging Ayurveda in Post-colonial India: Revivalism and


Global Commodification. Master's thesis, 2008. Hong Kong. 81
17 Ibid,. 143
18 Ibid,. 103
19 Ibid,. 147
20 Nisula, Tapio. "In the Presence of Biomedicine: Ayurveda, Medical Integration and

Health Seeking in Mysore, South India." Anthropology & Medicine 13, no. 3
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As the state gave support and acknowledged Ayurveda as a legitimate medical

practice, companies began to use the medical practice in a commercial way in order to

improve the economy of the new nation. There has been a major shift in the use of
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Ayurvedic, as it is now commonly marketed as a health and beauty commodity. Large

drug manufacturers such as Dabur India, Hamdard, Zandu, and the Himalaya Drug

Company started applying modern outlooks on ayurvedic medicine in order to revive the

nation by marketing it as a symbol of Indian civilization. They linked their products to

the ‘Golden history’ of the Gupta and Mogul Dynasty and the contrasting modern
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technology and studies. The most popular categories of ayurvedic products today are

cosmetics and health supplements.23 In response to the change and commercialization of

Ayurveda, some Indian practitioners argue that the change allows Ayurveda to thrive and

expand in the modern world, while others oppose the transformation, stating that it is not

representative of the original ancient teachings.

In recent days, Ayurveda and other traditional nonconventional medicines are

often approached first to treat health problems and diseases. The more expensive and

toxic treatments that usually come with side effects, western biomedicine, are therefore

referred as a second option. Ayurveda was been successful in emerging into the global

medical market, as marketing strategies of multinational and national pharmaceutical

(December 2006): 207-224. Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition, EBSCOhost


(accessed November 27, 2016). 211
21 Bode, Maarten. "Taking Traditional Knowledge to the Market: The Commoditization

of Indian Medicine." Anthropology & Medicine 13, no. 3 (December 2006): 225-236.
Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 27, 2016). 226
22 Ibid,. 231
23 Islam, Md Nazrul. Repackaging Ayurveda in Post-colonial India: Revivalism and

Global Commodification. Master's thesis, 2008. Hong Kong. 174


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were adapted to promote it.24 It has rebranded itself as an alternative to Western

biomedicine, and appeals to both the Western world and India with its combination of

Ayurveda, yoga, naturopathy, and spirituality.25

Ayurveda is now marketed as a natural remedy that treats common everyday

discomforts such as muscle pain, headache, indigestions, and rashes, as well as chronic

illness including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and arthritis. Moreover, as of the end of the

twentieth century, Ayurvedic medicine has become easily accessible, and over ninety

percent of its products are over-the-counter drugs that do not require any medical
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prescription. From herbal medicines, surgical procedures, and balanced diets,

Ayurveda is now a capitalized commodity that is marketed to provide both health and

beauty.

These findings prove that political and governmental support is key for medical

practices to exist and expand. Moreover, economic appeals promote drug companies to

spread the medical teachings and help the growth of the practice.

Conclusion

Instead of being a medical practice that concerns the relationship of the body and

the natural world, and the balance of forces, Ayurveda is now a health and beauty

commodity that is valued for its lower toxicity, effective advertising, unconventional

24 Islam, Md Nazrul. Repackaging Ayurveda in Post-colonial India: Revivalism and


Global Commodification. Master's thesis, 2008. Hong Kong. 210
25 Hardiman, David. "Indian Medical Indigeneity: From Nationalist Assertion to the

Global Market." Taylor Francis Online, September 14, 2009.


26 Bode, Maarten. "Taking Traditional Knowledge to the Market: The Commoditization

of Indian Medicine." Anthropology & Medicine 13, no. 3 (December 2006): 225-236.
Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 27, 2016). 226
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approaches to medicine, and failure of allopathic medicine to treat certain diseases.

Originated when the Aryans invaded and migrated in the Indus Valley region, the ancient

medical practice went through various experiences and forces that makes Ayurveda what

it is today. It was initially a complex medical practice that incorporated religious and

medical beliefs brought by the Aryans, and was then disrupted by British colonialism,

where Ayurveda was not recognized as a proper medical practice by the state. Once India

was freed from colonial rule, the new national government revived the practice by

integrating Western allopathic education and Ayurveda. As Ayuveda became recognized

by the state and was provided support, pharmaceutical approached Ayurveda as a means

to help the nation’s economy. British colonialism transformed the middle class of India,
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and created a great consumer audience for ayurvedic drug companies to advertise to.

While it is not the same authentic Ayurveda that was practiced by the Aryans thousands

of years ago prior to European contact, Ayurveda still remains as a practice that is

concerned with dietetic habits, herbs, and health, and prides itself for being a key element

to Indian history and culture.

27Islam, Md Nazrul. Repackaging Ayurveda in Post-colonial India: Revivalism and


Global Commodification. Master's thesis, 2008. Hong Kong. 29
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Works Cited

Bode, Maarten. "Taking Traditional Knowledge to the Market: The Commoditization of

Indian Medicine." Anthropology & Medicine 13, no. 3 (December 2006): 225-

236. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 27, 2016).

Carlos J. Moreno Leguizamon. "Dichotomies in Western Biomedicine and Ayurveda:

Health-Illness and Body-Mind." Economic and Political Weekly 40, no. 30

(2005): 3302-310. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4416938.

Hardiman, David. "Indian Medical Indigeneity: From Nationalist Assertion to the Global

Market." Taylor Francis Online, September 14, 2009.

Islam, Md Nazrul. Repackaging Ayurveda in Post-colonial India: Revivalism and Global

Commodification. Master's thesis, 2008. Hong Kong.

Nisula, Tapio. "In the Presence of Biomedicine: Ayurveda, Medical Integration and

Health Seeking in Mysore, South India." Anthropology & Medicine 13, no. 3

(December 2006): 207-224. Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition,

EBSCOhost (accessed November 27, 2016).