Colombo, April 25 (DailyFT-Harmony Page): The COVID-19 global pandemic is testing the patience of the world on many fronts but it is primarily testing the self-sufficiency of nations pertaining to two vital sectors: the health sector and the agrarian sector. In this lockdown we do not need imported luxuries, but we need our farmers to till the ground to provide us with basic nutrition.
If we look at our history, prior to colonization, our self-sufficiency in the medical and agrarian sectors are notable. Our Kings dedicated much effort towards irrigation and the promotion of farming, as well as skills and training in the sphere of medicine, while the laws of the land were staunch in protecting important medicinal trees such as the Mee tree. However, we have today come far away from what we were as a nation, and to work on reviving to full capacity our indigenous knowledge of the above mentioned areas seems indeed an arduous task. Yet, time and again there are challenges that remind us that revive them we must, and each of us as Sri Lankans can play our part.
Ayurveda is not just about humans. Ayurveda as a science encompasses all of nature, everything which has life; it encompasses plants and animals.
Dedicated to this purpose, the Harmony page is featuring below excerpts of an interview with senior Ayurveda specialist Dr. D. H. Tennakoon, who was the former director of the National Ayurveda Teaching Hospital. Hailing from a family of physicians practicing the traditional ‘Sinhala Wedakama’ (Desheeya Chikitse), Dr. Tennakoon articulates the need for an integrated approach in keeping a country healthy, and primarily preventing illness – where knowledge of the ‘Desheeya Chikitsa’ (Hela Wedakama), Ayurveda, Allopathy (Western medicine), Sidha, Unani and treatments such as acupuncture or acupressure, are put to practical use with awareness about them raised among the public.
Most importantly, in the backdrop of challenging times and fear of new diseases such as the coronavirus, Dr. Tennakoon calls for a new national revival of ancient sciences such as Ayurveda alongside modern science from the Western world. He also calls for the revival of ‘Wruksha Ayurveda’ (Ayurveda treatment for trees/plants when they suffer disease) in a bid to rescue the country from the menace of chemical induced alternatives. The following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: You were the former Director of the Ayurveda Teaching Hospital and you are now writing especially in the Sinhala media to educate the masses on the significance of Ayurveda in these times of the coronavirus. Could you explain to an English readership, some of whom may be skeptical of Ayurvedic practices, if there is a scientific base behind it?
A: Let us first begin with the etymology of the word Ayurveda. Ayur means life and Veda means knowledge or science. So the word Ayurveda can be summed up as the ‘science of life,’ and as such goes beyond the mere curing of an illness. Ayurveda encompasses the physical, psychological and spiritual well-being of an individual and is also linked with our environment and the natural world. The way I see it, if someone asks if Ayurveda is scientific, that itself is a very unscientific question. Here is why I say that. What is science? What do you do in science? You test, you observe and you confirm. Let us look at how this was done in Ayurveda for thousands of years. We have these terms in our traditional medicine: Ahapurudda (knowledge gathered by hearing); Dekapurudda (knowledge gathered by seeing); Kalapurudda (knowledge gathered by doing); and Palapuruddda (knowledge gathered by all of the above which culminate as knowledge based on experience). Prior to modern science, early medical traditions such as Ayurveda and our ‘Hela Wedakama’ that predates Ayurveda, were tested following the above methods in the treating of patients, and has been a time tested science – as found out by western medical practitioners in the 19th century, who conducted research on the impact of Ayurveda and other ancient medicines on diverse range of diseases.
Ayurveda had for hundreds of years heard, seen, treated and perfected through practice the task of curing and preventing illnesses. However one has to be objective. We cannot say with precision that any medical system can comprehensively treat all diseases. For example, in the western medical system there is no cure for dengue just as there is no cure for the coronavirus; in both these cases it is the natural immunity of the patient which has to be strengthened so that the person recovers.
We have to urgently come up with a national plan to gather the people who still have this knowledge, and work out a system on how to revive it.
I should mention here that in Ayurveda we have a Sanskrit term as follows, ‘Vikaranama Kusalo NaHijriyathi Kadachana,’ which can be translated to mean ‘the physician should not be ashamed of not identifying the disease by name’. The reason why this is said is because it was understood then as it is now, that new diseases spring up from time to time. Also, in talking about the science of Ayurveda, I said that it is a science connected with the environment, and we can say that it considers each individual as a mini-universe where there are interpretations likening what occurs within the body to the elements – wind, sun and moon. This is what the ‘Vatha,’ ‘Pitha’ and ‘Kapha’ system of analysis is based on in Ayurveda.
Q: Why do you think that Sri Lanka, which has an ancient medical system – the Sinhala Wedakama used in Sinhala kingdoms and pre dates Ayurveda and India, the land of Ayurveda – has lost its medical independence to a comparatively young medical science in Allopathy/Western medicine?
A: Well, I will not undermine Allopathic medicine, it has its uses. However, I am an Ayurveda doctor and from a family of physicians of indigenous medicine of Sri Lanka. It is primarily our traditional medicine, ‘Hela Wedakam’ – much older than Ayurveda – that kept our ancestors in good health. Our people followed proper nutrition guidelines, as we ate foods that grew on this land and that were unpolluted by chemicals as is done today. However we have a colonial history of our traditional knowledge, belief patterns and culture being destroyed by law, by force and through psychological manipulation by first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British. While herbs such as ‘Kansa’ and ‘Abing’ were outlawed, arrack and cigarettes were introduced. The practicing of traditional medicine was banned, and then when diseases became widespread Western medicine was introduced and its cures hailed. Our traditional education system was replaced by the missionary-run Christian education systems, and this has now become inculcated into our minds where we crave for international schools and Western university degrees. This is how what was ours was crushed. To a large extent it remains crushed because we have not displayed a true respect that could lead to a renaissance of our traditional knowledge.
In our indigenous ways of living, we lived close to nature and our cultivation patterns never abused nature or its diverse creatures.
Q: It is believed by some, that Western medicine during its early stages of development were influenced by ancient medical systems such as Ayurveda. Could you elaborate on this?
A: It is only logical that it is so. Not just ours but other traditional medical systems such as Chinese and Egyptian etc. Many of our ancient artefacts were plundered by the colonisers, including our ancient medical books, and of course the Western world would have benefitted from this knowledge. It is a fact that many 19th century medical researchers were deeply committed to finding out the practicability of the indigenous medical systems of Sri Lanka and India.
Q: Did we not also have veterinary sciences and plant-based sciences webbed into Ayurveda?
A: Yes. As I said before, Ayurveda is not just about humans. Ayurveda as a science encompasses all of nature, everything which has life; it encompasses plants and animals. In our indigenous ways of living, we lived close to nature and our cultivation patterns never abused nature or its diverse creatures. For the wellbeing of plants, to prevent it from disease that will impact our cultivation, we had what was called the ‘Wruksha Ayurveda’ and for the animals we had other forms of Ayurveda – for the cows that gave us milk we had ‘Gava Ayurveda,’ and for the horses and elephants that assisted the King’s armies in battle we had ‘Ashwa Ayurveda’ and ‘Gaja Ayurveda’.
Q: In the teaching of Ayurveda today are these forms of Ayurveda you mentioned, Wruksha, Gava, Ashwa and Gaja, taught?
A: Unfortunately no.
Q: In a backdrop where the use of agro chemicals, pesticides and weedicides have led to many Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), such as kidney disease and cancer, isn’t there an urgent need for knowledge such as Wruksha Ayurveda to be revived?
A: Yes, there is a desperate need for this. We need a staunch government support for such a revival. For the wellbeing of plants, to prevent it from disease that will impact our cultivation, we had what was called the ‘Wruksha Ayurveda’ and for the animals we had other forms of Ayurveda – for the cows that gave us milk we had ‘Gava Ayurveda,’ and for the horses and elephants that assisted the King’s armies in battle we had ‘Ashwa Ayurveda’ and ‘Gaja Ayurveda’.
Q: But hasn’t this knowledge become totally extinct?
A: No, but we have to urgently come up with a national plan to gather the people who still have this knowledge, and work out a system on how to revive it. Sometimes this knowledge can exist in the most remote of places and not always among native doctors or Ayurveda doctors; this knowledge can be with our farmers and others who are connected with farming and indigenous knowledge, who have not been brainwashed by the Western ideology that agro chemicals are needed for an abundant harvest. As a subject by itself, ‘Wruksha Ayurveda’ is a vast area specialisation that we have allowed to die, but even though we may not be able to revive it in full, we will have to earnestly work towards it.
This is a task that we need especially to dedicate to now, when we are in the midst of a deadly pandemic that has made all nations question their self-sufficiency. Our self-sufficiency in agriculture is paramount, and having done so much as a country to prevent deaths from the coronavirus we have to continue to work towards preventing deaths from other diseases caused by the current poisonous production in agriculture.
Having such rich knowledge as part of our heritage, such as ‘Wruksha Ayurveda’ in treating the diseases of the plants, we cannot just languish as a nation. Our ancient kings had specialists to engage in the treatment of plants when they get sick, just like we had treatments for humans. Hence it is not impossible to commit ourselves to reviving this knowledge, at least now.
Q: Where do you see the overall future of Ayurveda as well as Hela Wedakama in the years to come?
A: The future of Ayurveda, as well as our indigenous Sinhalese system of medicine, is based on what importance we give it as a country. The doctors practicing these medicinal systems have to be supported, respected and incorporated into actively solving the health challenges in Sri Lanka. Many sectors must come together to educate Sri Lankans on the philosophy of the indigenous medical systems – primarily for disease prevention through immunity boosting. People should be educated on what they should consume as food, on the importance of having a healthy mind alongside a healthy body, as in traditional medicine we include the mind as well as the body. We believe that a person with a clean mind, who practices the Dhamma and has conquered addiction to overt indulgences including gluttony/taste, minimises the threat of illnesses. For example, he or she would not get addicted to sugary food items that may cause diabetes. Stress is among the main causes of diseases such as cancer. So a person who knows how to practice the spirituality of his religion, who can keep his mind calm/meditate, minimises stress and also disease.
Sometimes this knowledge can exist in the most remote of places and not always among native doctors or Ayurveda doctors.
Q: As a Sri Lankan, do you think that it is important that we keep alive our age old Sinhala wedakama alongside the Indian origin Ayurveda?
A: Yes. These ‘Hela Wedakam’ or ‘Sinhala Beheth’ physicians do get the support of the Ayurveda department. Of course there may be some misunderstandings from time to time, as there appears to be a distance between the two categories of doctors, however we must understand that there is no great variation in some of the practices of Ayurveda and traditional Sinhala medicine. When I held the post of Director of the National Ayurveda Teaching Hospital I supported many ‘Wedamahattayas’ in getting clinical trials done for their medicines. For example there was one ‘Wedamahattaya’ who said he could cure HIV. When the trial was completed, the patients were not fully cured but there were many improvements in their health and I acknowledged that in my official communication.