A Practice from the Past or an Answer for the Future?
The local plants and trees of southern India have many medicinal qualities. If local people are taught some of this ancient knowledge that once sustained many communities, herbal medicine can provide a natural solution to common sicknesses without the hassle of visiting a clinic. In this paper, I will explore the history of traditional medicine and the extent to which it is present in the local area of Auroville and its surrounding villages. I will also look at how communities across the globe are propagating this information. For my project, I have interviewed a local siddha vaidya, Logonathan, to better understand the status of herbal medicine. I have also taught local children about some basic herbal healthcare methods in order to spread some of this knowledge.
Expensive and frequently excessive medical procedures, healthcare costs and legal processes are all causes of immense stress and waste time and energy in societies across the world. The mentality of needing instant gratification and “quick fixes” permeates through the minds of many people. A common cold or fever often prompt a visit to the doctor; a few chemicals are received in order to provide the patient immediate relief. In many areas, such as the tropical environment of south India, plants and trees that possess the medicinal capability to cure these common ailments grow commonly in the tropical climate. These properties, however, are not as commonly known as they once were because modern medicine has made traditional, natural methods of treatment obsolete. The ancient practices of eastern medicine, such as ayurveda and siddha, are practiced by vaidyas who have inherited this knowledge from their ancestors; more recently, this knowledge has also been available in colleges around India. If this information is spread to the people, traditional medicine can regain its former prevalence and replace modern medicine as a more accessible form of treatment. I will look briefly at the history of ayurveda and siddha medicine, specifically, and assess the extent of their presence among communities in southeastern India, such as Auroville and the surrounding areas. I will examine the ways in which this ancient knowledge is being revived and propagated through various local organizations. Since the indigenous plants of India possess many medicinal qualities, basic awareness among the locals of these healing capabilities will reduce unnecessary and often not easily accessible hospital visits. This ancient information will enable families to maintain their health at home as opposed to visiting a hospital.
Introduction to Auroville
I will be looking at the revitalization of local health traditions in the context of its presence in southeast India. As part of this semester stay, I will research, explore and meet others who are studying traditional medicine or practice it. It is important, however, to understand the background of this environment in order to put these findings into perspective.
In southeast India, there is an international community called Auroville with around 2,000 permanent residents and many visitors. Based on a vision of human unity, Auroville attracts people with varying interests from all around the world to explore the community and the surrounding areas such as the town of Pondicherry. In the center of this galaxy shaped community is a huge dome called the Matrimandir that serves as the spiritual center of Auroville. People are attracted to Auroville for different reasons: for some, it is the spirituality and the philosophies of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother; for others, it is the movement towards sustainability and the farms and organizations involved; still others come for leisure purposes, tourism and the ideal location next to the beach. Within these groups, people with diverse backgrounds interact on a regular basis and come in contact with the local villagers. In some cases, Auroville serves as a haven for this local village interaction; organizations like Martuvam and Tamarai provide children from the villages and the city of Pondicherry with a place to interact and play with other children. At any given point in time, there is a wide variety of projects taking place in Auroville and staying in this community facilitates the learning of Indian and other Eastern cultures. There are many controversial issues, such as water usage and future expansion of Auroville, and opinions are divided between those who prioritize spiritual intentions and those who focus more on environmental concerns.
History of Ayurveda and Siddha Medicine and their Current Prevalence
When learning about the current standing of a tradition in modern society, it is important to look at its history. Ayurveda and Siddha Medicine are two forms of traditional medicine that originated in India around 3-5,000 years ago. This ancient knowledge was put into writing by Vedavyasa, an avatar of Vishnu, and has been passed down through the generations. (“History of Ayurveda”)These practices focus on treating patients with herbal preparations, modifying one’s diet, practicing yoga, and the purification of the body. A core concept of traditional medicine is interacting and developing a relationship with healing plants that grow in one’s area. This concept is known as bioregional herbalism as defined by Christopher Hobbs. Although allopathy has replaced these forms of medicine as the dominant method of treatment in many countries, 90% of the people in Ethiopia and 70% of the people in Benin, India, Rwanda, and Tanzania still use traditional medicine to meet their primary healthcare needs according to the World Health Organization (WHO) as opposed to the 42% in the United States. ("World Health Organization 1”) However, in a meeting with a local herb provider I learned that many local villagers are unaware of the practices of traditional medicine and turn to allopathy as a solution. The WHO also says that the advantages of traditional medicine include its widespread accessibility and relative cheapness. In poverty stricken countries, this form of healthcare seems to be the most practical. In the United States however, the sales of pharmaceutical drugs are $160 billion per annum, and Claritin and 2 similar drugs bring in more money than the entire herbal industry. For the country that spends the most money on healthcare, we develop “surprisingly few innovative new drugs.” (Hobbs 134) Reviving the ancient knowledge of traditional medicine around the world can potentially save a lot of money and still provide effective healthcare.
Herbal Medicine in/around Auroville
In Auroville and the surrounding areas, these forms of herbal medicine are used to treat common illnesses, and this basic knowledge continues to be propagated to the surrounding areas. In Auroville itself, there is a health center with a physician available in the mornings and the Quiet Healing Centre is the main alternative health care facility. There are two medicinal forests in Auroville, Pitchandikulam and Martuvam. The older of the two, developed in 1973, is now an area of 50 acres within the green belt of the Auroville International Community. It was a dry eroded plateau among palmyra trees. This area, now known as Pitchandikulam, “has evolved into a self generating forest ecosystem with more than 600 species of plants.” (“Ethno Medical Forest) In 1992, this organization began working with the Foundation for Revitalization of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT) and now offers training and demonstration programs to help reestablish local health traditions. Also within this program, there are outreach programs that work with local villages and healers in order to spread traditional knowledge and educate the local people about alternative healthcare methods to provide them with a substitute for antibiotics.
Another recently formed organization in Auroville, Tamarai, is a program that strives to build relations between Aurovilians and the local villagers. Children come to the center for play groups, study groups and a variety of classes. In conjunction with Pitchandikulam and other Aurovilians, Tamarai is in the process of reviving a medicinal herb garden that was once planted there. As part of my project, I have taught the local children about the uses of these herbs and others that grow locally.
Lack of healthcare in Education and Communities
As of now, there are many areas in which children and communities as a whole lack the knowledge of basic healthcare. If they can be provided with some fundamental principles, the next generation can carry on natural treatments that have been around for centuries. Many villagers buy antibiotics and allopathic treatments for common fevers and colds because they are unaware that these ailments can be treated naturally with the plants in their local areas. (Logonathan, personal interview) According to the Nutrition Foundation of India, “it is important that these communities with high rates of illiteracy (especially female illiteracy), are at least equipped with the basic knowledge about how best to protect their health and avoid disease.” This is the goal of organizations such as Martuvam and organizations around the world, such as the FRLHT. The NFI also mentions that “the importance of health education even in the current context of poverty…should not be underestimated.” Not only are many local people uneducated about easy methods of treatment, the hospitals that they rely on are extremely hard to access. For people who live in rural areas, “medical help is inaccessible and beyond means” and “those who require hospitalization are perennially repaying debts. In fact, rural indebtedness caused by illness is far greater than that caused by crop failure.” (Shaw) It is estimated that 50% of the people in rural areas visit the hospital at least once a week and only about 10% rely solely on herbal medicine. According to Logonathan, 90% of the illnesses that bring these people to the hospitals are treatable at home via common herbal preparations and healing methods. (Logonathan, personal interview)
Process/benefits of Introducing Basic Healthcare into Communities
There are already groups that exist in this area and around the world, as mentioned, that have the purpose of spreading the knowledge of basic herbal medicine. As this knowledge spreads, families will be able to frequent the hospital less often and treat common ailments at home. One proposal for this is “long term programs for the eradication of diseases [that] have to be conceived and implemented throughout the country. Specialist folk practitioners of each area have to be included in order to achieve this program in a more sustainable way” (Muduliar 185). Until the past decade, 13,000 midwives of Tamil Nadu, known as village health nurses, were only trained in allopathy and had no concept of herbal medicine. In the past ten years, the Indian traditional system of medicine has been integrated into the nurses’ education, and now these midwives have a basic idea of how to use 150 plants and know how to make about 50 herbal mixtures. Empowered with this knowledge, these village health nurses will be able to spread these newly revived methods among the local people. They will bring this knowledge into the school system as well as to the women of local communities.
Also in the past decade, primary healthcare methods have started to be introduced into the school system. Supported mainly by non-governmental organizations with some government support, children are able to buy herbs at school for one rupee and use them at home. One example of this is the herb vallarei, used for memory improvement, which has been widely introduced into the school system. As the current generation matures, the implementation and effects of their knowledge will begin to manifest themselves in the communities. Although the healthcare in the school system is still inadequate, it will slowly improve with the continued efforts of organizations and people who are dedicated to reviving traditional medicine. (Logonathan, personal interview)
Basic Herbal Remedies
Fundamental herbal medicine includes plant identification and basic knowledge of their uses. There are many medicinal uses of indigenous plants in the surrounding areas of southeastern India such as the extensive use of the neem tree, which grows plentifully in this area. This form of medicine is ideal for rural areas because of the wide availability of these plants. I went to Tamarai, a village outreach program and taught a group of young children, ages 10-14 about a few simple herbal remedies. I taught them how to identify neem trees and told them that chewing on neem twigs is good for dental hygiene. There was a study conducted by the World Health Organization in 1990 that compared the chewing of twigs to chemical toothpaste. The study showed that chewing the twigs of certain trees was indeed better for dental health than common toothpaste. (Ranade 146) I also showed them a tulasi plant, which was growing in their own backyard, and taught them that 5 or 6 leaves in a cup of tea had anti cold and fever properties. I also showed them the proper amount of ginger to put in tea to treat upset stomachs. Lastly, I mentioned that warm water with honey or lemon juice was effective for common colds. (Ranade #s) One of the older girls seemed to be quite aware of some of these properties and told the others that eating neem leaves was also good for general health. One of the younger girls wanted to keep the poster there for reference, so I left it hanging on the wall for the children to see in the future.
Having a basic understanding of the current status of siddha medicine, and having much more to learn, it is ironic that a medicine with a 4,000 year history now has to prove itself to “modern medicine” which is at the most 500 years old. Efforts are being made around the world to propagate this ancient knowledge, through organizations such as Martuvam, Pitchandikulam, and on a global scale, the Foundation for the Revitalization of Traditional Knowledge. As local people begin to implement this knowledge, the need for expensive allopathic medication and hard to access hospital visits will diminish. Using indigenous plants and trees to cure common ailments will allow families to maintain their health in a more sustainable way. Although the world of medicine is always rapidly changing, the observation of ancient tradition will allow the human race to look back to its roots for answers to the future.
Ausubel, Kenny. Ecological Medicine. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2004.
This text is an anthology that includes many essays on medicine and health. Specifically, these articles focus on nature and its important, but often overlooked, factor in medicine. I read many of these articles, but the article by Christopher Hobbs, entitled “Community Herbalism in Modern Health Care” provided me with insight and information which was relevant to my topic. This book is written for those who are concerned about health and the environment, and gives the reader a perspective on ancient as well as modern medicine, and the integration of the two.
"Community Health/Nutrition Education." Nutrition Foundation of India. 2 Mar 2007
The Nutrition Foundation of India is a non governmental organization whose goal is to better the nutrition status of Indians. This organization “plays a catalytic role of advocacy and education to focus attention on major nutritional problems; provides leads for practical action in overcoming these problems; and combats inadequacies in the implementation of ongoing nutrition programs.”
Ethno Medical Forest. Pitchandikulam. 6 Mar 2007
This site provides an overview of Pitchandikulam, a medicinal forest in Auroville.
It is written for the residents of Auroville and anyone who is interested in their work. The site contains their history and their purpose and gives the reader an idea of the purpose of their creation and their mission. Viewing this site provides the reader with a full picture of this medicinal forest, and the outreach efforts they are involved in and the publications they have released thus far.
"History of Ayurveda." Florida Vedic College. 6 Mar 2007
The Florida Vedic College, established in 1990 in Coral Springs, Florida is and “independent, comprehensive, international College and Vedic Institution of higher education. It is the oldest Vedic College in the USA. It is dedicated to providing high quality educational programs of distinction at times convenient to students, employing innovative delivery systems and courses that are structured to directly apply to the real-life challenges and problems that students encounter. Florida Vedic College combines the cultural intellectual legacies of the past with a pragmatic concern for meeting the challenges of the present and the future.”
Muduliar, Logonathan. Personal interview. 5 March 2007.
Dr. Logonathan is an 11th generation siddha vaidya who specializes in optometry. He was involved in the initial efforts of Pitchandikulam, and now has his own practice at his home in Pondicherry. He sees patients on Sundays and gives around 10 lectures a week at local colleges. Although he practices traditional medicine, and one day hopes to start an herb dispensary, he is open to other practices of medicine and believes that we are evolving towards a united form of healthcare, or global medicine.
Muduliar, Logonathan. Research on Medicinal Plants: Specifically for Eye Disorders. Pondicherry, India: New Binding Works and Printing, July 1999.
This text is the PhD thesis of Dr. Logonathan. In it, he explores the various aspects of using herbal medicine in optometry and for the treatment of various eye diseases. On the front cover are four pictures which record consecutive days of treatment of a stye. As opposed to a surgical procedure, an herb mixture is used to make the disease disappear in just four days. Throughout his thesis, Logonathan tracked various methods of treatment and provides a natural alternative to allopathic medicine.
Ranade, Dr. Subhash. Ayurvedic Treatment of Common Diseases. 1. Delhi: SriSatguru Publications, 1999.
This book is an overview of the use of common herbs and plants for a variety of diseases. It is written for “people who are interested in simple and useful remedies to cure common diseases.” The treatments are based on the observations of the authors and clinical experiences over the years. The preparations described in this book are from ancient Ayurvedic texts. This book provides backgrounds and explanations of these various diseases and simply explains the methodology of treatment.
"Traditional Medicine - Growing Needs and Potential." World Health Organization 2(2002)
The World Health Organization is the United Nations specialized agency for health. Established on April 7, 1948, its objective “as set out in its Constitution, is the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health. Health is defined in WHO's Constitution as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The information and articles published by the WHO are available online for those who are interested in the status of world health and the many subtopics included.
Shaw, Kiran Mazumdar. "Healthcare for a Billion." Times of India 6 March 2007
Times of India is a national newspaper that is available to everyone via the internet. Various authors write articles on different topics, and this article in specific takes a look at the problems posed by the task of providing healthcare to an extremely populated country. It mentions the steps that are being taken by organizations and the government in order to provide sufficient healthcare for the entire country.