Unskeptical: Indian Scientists’ Opinions of Ayurvedic Medicine

Barry A. Kosmin

Pseudoscience operates in particular social and political environments. The dominant political ideology in India today is Hindutva (“Hindu-ness”), which is associated with the conservative and nationalist governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The political aspect of this ideology seeks to define Indian culture in terms of Hindu values, and it is highly critical of the socialist and multicultural policies and practices of the former dominant Indian National Congress Party and its Western-educated elite. The principal cultural feature of Hindutva is the valorizing of ancient Hindu civilization and traditions, including its early scientific ideas. A key characteristic of this science was and is its integrative quality and its appeal to intuition as opposed to the brash rationalism of modern western science.

The Hindutva ideology involves chauvinistic claims about ancient Indian achievements, and this has led to disputes among scientists, particularly at the annual meetings of the Indian Science Congress. The 2019 Congress featured Andhra University Vice Chancellor G. Nageswara Rao, a professor of inorganic chemistry, who claimed that the Kauravas of Mahabharata, the Indian mythological epic, were born out of stem cell research and the test tube fertilization process.

In response, the skeptical All India People’s Science Network complained about the spread of politically motivated pseudoscience and irrationality.

The assertions made at the Indian Science Congress by the Prime Minister in 2014 (Ganesha as symbol of plastic surgery), the Minister of Science and Technology Dr. Harsh Vardhan in 2018 (quoting Stephen Hawking as saying mass energy equivalence is from Vedas), and other invited speakers (2015- Anand Bodas: aviation in ancient India; 2016- Pandey: Siva as environmentalist, Sharma: conch-blowing health benefits) are against the spirit of the directive principles of the constitution regarding the need to inculcate scientific temper. Moreover, the stated vision of the Indian Science Congress is “To inculcate scientific temper among the common people.” (Talukdar 2019) 

In 2006, the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore, issued “A Decadal Vison Document,” Towards Ayurvedic Biology (Valiathan 2006). The goal of its author was to investigate Ayurveda’s potential as a storehouse of new drugs and chemical formulations as well as herbal medicines. A series of such official initiatives and subsequent controversies led to the decision in 2007 by our team from the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College, Connecticut, and from the Center for Inquiry India to undertake the first large-scale survey of the Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists in India (Keysar and Kosmin 2008). The participants in the online survey included 1,100 PhD scientists at 130 institutions. One of the key questions posed related to views about Indian government support for Ayurvedic medical schools at many colleges and at two universities since the 1970s: “Do you approve or disapprove of university degree courses in Ayurvedic medicine?” (see Table 1).

Ayurvedic medicine has been practiced for three thousand years and is seeing a global resurgence. It is a large industry today in India and is becoming popular as “alternative medicine” around the world including recognition by the World Health Organization. Ayurveda (as an amalgam of mind-body interaction, alternative medicine, and philosophies and sciences of healing) is a major component of tourism and lends its name to a variety of consumer products, including health foods, tonics, and cosmetics. Ayurveda has an aura of protoscience and a rough empiricism. It envisages a balance between body, mind, spirit, and social well-being. It resembles the ancient Greek idea of balancing humors with some added alchemy and noble elements such as mercury, lead, and arsenic.

The responses to the survey reflected the uniqueness of Indian society, illustrated in the composition of the sample: 83 percent male and 68 percent Hindu. Thus 43 percent were currently vegetarians, 38 percent believed that “God performs miracles,” and 24 percent believed “holy people perform miracles.” In India, secularism means tolerance for various religions and philosophies, so 75 percent self-identified as secular or somewhat secular. This attitude tends to privilege religion, for only 44 percent thought that “scientific organizations should confront religious practices if they contradict accepted scientific theories.”

Regarding scientific views, most of the scientists endorsed the theory of evolution (88 percent “definitely” or “probably”), though Hinduism does not deny evolution. Tolerance and open mindedness are a feature of Indian culture, so 50 percent of the scientists regarded homeopathy as efficacious and 49 percent thought the same about prayer. Ayurvedic degree courses had strong approval rates: 58 percent approved strongly, 32 percent approved somewhat, 3 percent were “unsure,” 5 percent disapproved somewhat, and only 3 percent voiced “strong disapproval.” This consensus went far beyond the Hindu adherents to include members of the minority religions (10 percent) and nonbelievers. This suggests that Ayurveda is regarded as a national or civilizational practice rather than merely a Hindu religious one.

Views about Ayurvedic medical degrees have to be put in the comparative context of opinions on degree courses in Vedic astrology, which are more controversial. Vedic astrology has received more criticism from Indian scientists than Ayurveda, including failed court cases. Our sample divided almost in half with 44 percent approving and 44 percent disapproving. Nevertheless, Vedic astrology is pervasive in Hindu culture in the organization of the calendar and holidays and in making major decisions, such as those about marriage, opening a new business, or moving into a new home. Many Hindus believe that heavenly bodies, including the planets, have an influence throughout the life of a human being and these planetary influences are the “fruit of karma.”

An obvious question that arises is whether disciplinary training across the STEM fields affect attitudes toward Ayurvedic medical degree courses. We might expect scientists from the medical and health sciences to have more skeptical views than, say, engineers. Table 1 provides the approval and disapproval responses by discipline. This shows that the endorsement of Ayurveda does vary somewhat by discipline, but it is a matter largely of the degree of intensity of support. Strong approval is the majority norm across all the STEM disciplines except for medical and health professionals. But even in this group, there is 82 percent overall approval in contrast to only 16 percent disapproval. Strong disapproval is negligible across all the disciplines, and only one in eight of those in medicine and health care strongly oppose it even though it is a rival system. 

Table 1
Do you approve or disapprove of university degree courses in Ayurvedic medicine?

Discipline

N

Approve Strongly

Approve Somewhat

Unsure

Disapprove Somewhat

Disapprove Strongly

Life sciences

133

69%

21%

4%

1%

5%

Engineering

369

65%

26%

3%

2%

4%

Behavioral science

121

60%

30%

1%

6%

4%

Chemistry/Earth science

134

54%

36%

2%

6%

2%

Physics/Mathematics

219

47%

41%

5%

3%

4%

Medical/Health science

88

40%

42%

2%

3%

13%

 

The findings from our research suggest that the cultural heritage of India, which valorizes religion and tradition, raises the status of Ayurveda and seems to overwhelm critical thinking and scientific skepticism. There seems also a societal reluctance to show disapproval; instead, the tendency is to favor conformity. A few quotations from the scientists’ comments in response to the survey questions may help explain the thinking behind the consensual results presented here.

  • “Ayurveda is empirical and not mysticism, hence I have been cured many a time by such medicine in the past.”
  • “Homeopathy and Ayurveda medicinal methods are scientific ones and these cannot and should not be equated with Numerology or Palmistry.”
  • “There is nothing wrong in allowing research in modern science (likewise those in astrology, palmistry, homeopathy, ayurveda etc).  Rather than wasting time over arguments, courses in all areas should be encouraged. Loss of old practices is equivalent to loss of old species about which ecologists worry.”
  • “Human beings belong to a different kingdom than mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms.”
  • “Being in a scientific profession does not per se mean one has to believe only in the epistemological nature of things. One may believe in a certain ontology beyond the epistemic gathering of knowledge.”

The wider significance of these results for the skeptic movement globally is worth considering, particularly because today India is a major educator and exporter of STEM professionals. The country is also a nuclear power with a successful space program. This suggests a degree of compartmentalization and dualism among its scientific community.

 


References

  • Keysar, Ariela, and Barry A. Kosmin. 2008. Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists: India 2007–2008. Hartford, Connecticut: ISSSC, Trinity College.
  • Talukdar, Sandipan. 2019. Indian Science Congress: A mockery of science! NewsClick (January 7). Available online at https://www.newsclick.in/indian-science-congress-mockery-science.
  • Valiathan, M.S. 2006. Towards Ayurvedic Biology. Bangalore: Indian Academy of Sciences.

Pseudoscience operates in particular social and political environments. The dominant political ideology in India today is Hindutva (“Hindu-ness”), which is associated with the conservative and nationalist governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The political aspect of this ideology seeks to define Indian culture in terms of Hindu values, and it …

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