How 5,000-year-old ayurveda taught a Cornell-and-Harvard-trained doctor not to fear cancer

Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya is a practicing physician-scientist, assistant professor and author. A 2014 senior Fulbright Scholar, she is Clinical Asst Professor of Family Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. She has recently completed a mid-career PhD in Ayurveda at Banaras Hindu University, Bharat. She degrees in medicine from the universities of Harvard, Columbia and Pennsylvania. She tells Grin why the discovery of the ancient Hindu system of medicine, ayurveda, changed her life. And in the podcast along with this interview, she also talks about how ayurveda taught her not to fear cancer. You can listen to the podcast here.

Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya believes that ayurveda is quite wrongly under-valued.

Is Ayurveda scientific?

By scientific, most people mean valid. Validity has more to do with beliefs and social values than with the examination of Truth. If we assess whether a system of healing is scientific, two discussions dominate the conversation: whether the system has a systematic replicable body of evidence, and whether the system is logical.

The wisdom of Ayurveda certainly has a systematic replicable body of evidence, which has propagated itself through analysis and practice continuously over 5000 years and among millions of people. Even today, people know that when they put turmeric on a skin wound, it stops bleeding, or if they take a teaspoon of triphala before bed, their bowel movements are softer.

The science behind why this works is now being analyzed using phytochemistry and molecular modeling, but before these tools were available, Ayurvedic scientists used potent powers of observation of Nature to assess how things work.

The judgment of scientific medicine also revolves around logic. The logic of Ayurveda requires a larger frame of reference than that used by mainstream medicine today. Ayurveda includes not only the material world of what we can see and understand using modern tools, which go from the orders of magnitude of nanometers (10–9) to terameters(1012).

Ayurveda uses frames of the most subtle existence, known as suksma in Sanskrit, such as yocto-meters (10–24) as well as the mega-macroscopic level, such as yotta-meters (1024). Knowledge of these spans of space and time, which smoothly encompass the conversations we have in Ayurveda and ancient Bharatiya sciences are now just emerging in the modern sciences of physics, geology, chemistry, astronomy, nanosciences, botany, and engineering.

The logic of Ayurveda involves a different set of terminology that spans the magnitude it understands. Doshasgunas and dhatus refer to principles of movement, transformative capacities, and stability, of, in and around the body, as well as material qualities that describe a body in relation to the environment, and the way the material body moves between Being as energy and as matter. The logic is illogical for those who cannot appreciate wave and particle theory of physics, or who think the health of a person is simply a sum of the chemicals we contain.

Ayurveda is in fact misunderstood only by those who do not know how to move between grand and miniscule frames of reference. They label ayurveda as spiritual or illogical rather than subtle and profound. Those who grow up with Ayurveda are not confused. Remember that 60% of Bharat’s population still knows Ayurveda.

Why has Ayurveda, till now, failed to get suitably scientific recognition? And is that changing? If yes, how?

Until 250 years ago, Bharat’s GDP was about a third of the world. Just as everyone in the modern world knows what a suit looks like, at that time the world knew spices, silk, cotton and mahogany, ayurveda and surgery from Bharat.

A Greek physician named Ctesias took the knowledge of Susruta via his time in the court of ArtaXerxes II of Persia to his native island near Kos and likely handed it to Hippocrates. The book was probably in the library of Alexandia. And, the worlds of Persia, Arabia, and Egypt knew the medical literature of the Vedas from the trading ships that sailed from Bharat and China with silk, iron, woods and furs. Bharatiya spices and oils and herbs were coveted because they worked.

When the British arrived and disassembled Bharat’s praachin gyan as part of their agenda for conquering Bharat, the knowledge was subsumed into the culture of food, clothing and rituals of daily life, so that people were not penalized for using the outlawed medical system of Ayurveda. Over the last 200 years, the knowledge has survived in pockets of Bharat, and is slowly re-emerging.

The pink elephant in the room is the pentaverate that is ruling the medical science world today: the biotechnology magnates, the health insurance industry, the hospital corporations, the biomedical doctors group like AMA, and of course the pharmaceutical industry.

Together, their very prototypic capitalist agenda is to suppress anything that threatens their power base. So, they spend a lot of their abundant money lobbying against any medicine or any invention that will reduce their profit. Ultimately, it harms the patient, but it also keeps their coffers filled.

What we do not realize it that we as patients vote with our feet. If we choose to use ‘natural medicines’ or take health into our own hands, it destabilizes their coffers. So they need us to keep harping on scientific validity, rather than healing ability or how we actually feel. People are taught to ignore evidence such as

(a) mainstream medicine is the third leading cause of death in the USA,

(b) side-effects of medicines are often more potent than the main effect of the ‘medicine’ and we are taught to ignore the side effects,

(c) medicines only cost so much because we are willing to buy insurance that pays for them, and

(d) there is plenty of hard-core evidence that many of the drugs and procedures of mainstream medicine either do not work significantly on most people or are marginal compared to natural alternatives.

Luckily, we have an emerging group of thinking individuals who maintain their logic and observational power and quietly search out the systems of healing that work. And they usually find Ayurveda.

Why is the Ayurvedic system valuable? What important and specific contributions does it make to our understanding of the human body and its well-being?

Ayurveda is valuable because it works to heal the subtle parts of our Being as well as the material chemical structures of our body-sense-brain Being. It uses the knowledge and wisdom of other beings on the planet as part of the ecosystem of scientific technology.

For example, wild animals in Bharat know which plant to go to for treatment. They get injured and they go find a plant and rub on it or eat it. They know how to treat their illnesses. This science is called zoo-pharmacognosy because modern biologists noticed its potent awareness of animals, but have not yet deciphered it.

Another example is the knowledge of modern botanists, that the best nanotechologists are not engineers but rather the trees. Trees also fix metals into enzymes and create powerful antibiotics, enzymes and tools to heal themselves and make their world happen. Ayurveda already incorporated these sciences into its toolbox of treatments. As we watch what the bhasmananoparticle medicines do to clear cancer and collect clinical evidence, the irrefutable knowledge is emerging into biomedical science that there is something profound about bhasmas.

Some of the surgical techniques of Susruta and ancient practices of Ayurveda work better than our modern surgical techniques, such as kshara-sutra for ano-rectal fistulas, or oil applications such as nasya or shirodhara for the head and ENT to cure neurological diseases that cannot yet be resolved using biomedical science.

Ayurveda also understands the process of preparing the patient’s body for a treatment, called ksetrikarana, so that the treatment works optimally. It has a regimen of bringing people into places where the moisture, the heat, the dryness, and the heaviness of the medicines can be taken into the body optimally. Ayurveda understand the body’s physiology in all its variations, in several environments, in ways that modern mainstream medicine does not.

As an example of the pathetic ignorance of the current system, look at the food we feed patients. Look at the dry, artificially lit environment in which patients are kept in the ICU. We have so much evidence that strobe lights are bad for our neurological systems, and that dryness produces cracks in our tissue integrity, yet we do not listen to the evidence of our own mainstream science. The doctors and nurses are generally not kind, and they do not practice self-care. The logistics do not favor care, compassion, and healing attitudes. And then mainstream medicine asks about wellness…

(This article was first published on on February 27, 2019 and has been reproduced here in full.)

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