Medicine in India today
Ivory enema syringe, Sri Lanka, 1751-1781
In modern India the government supports different medical traditions. This is unusual. Individuals may choose from a vast range of practices, treatments and therapies, including biomedicine, Ayurveda, yoga, naturopathy, Unani Tibb, Siddha and homeopathy.
India’s medical past
For over 2000 years most of the Indian population have used Ayurveda as their main type of health care. From the early 11th century, Unani Tibb’s influence spread with the increasing Muslim presence in India. Unani Tibb and Ayurveda have influenced each other since, especially the herbs on which they base their medicines.
In the 1500s the colonial Portuguese in Goa exchanged medical knowledge and methods with local Asian practitioners. In 1563, Garcia d’Orta published volumes about Indian plants and medicine, which spread to Europe. By the early 1600s the Portuguese lost their interest in local knowledge and effectively outlawed Indian practices.
The British arrived in India at the beginning of the 1600s. Missionaries promoted European medical ideas and learned from local practitioners. Shipping medical supplies from Britain was expensive and difficult, so local medical practices continued. Ayurveda was a cheap and practical health-care system for the local population. However, most British officials and physicians thought traditional systems of medicine would die out because Western medicine was superior.
Indian reactions to European medicine
Many Indian practitioners were impressed by European surgery and teaching. They updated their practice by adapting its ‘modern’ methods. Ayurvedic and Unani Tibb practitioners traditionally made up a unique prescription for each patient. They believed standardised preparations in factories modernised their traditions and weeded out practices regarded as quackery. This led to a move away from highly individualised medicine toward mass production.
From the 1830s the British government no longer tolerated Indian medicine. Only those trained in Western medicine could be registered as doctors. However, local traditions continued. They adapted and became more professional to compete with medicine introduced by the British administration.
Many Ayurvedic and Unani Tibb practitioners wanted individual drugs and therapies from traditional Indian systems incorporated into biomedicine. They explored Indian materia medica, looking for ingredients compatible with European pharmacology. However, others argued for separate traditions using a different framework to understand health and disease. For instance, Unani Tibb relies on the theory of the humours, while biomedicine is based on germ theory. Support for Indian traditions became more political in the early 1900s. The revival of local medical traditions was a source of national pride, and Indian independence was linked with reinvigorating Indian traditions and knowledge.
Adopting new traditions - homeopathy in India
Systems of medical knowledge can develop different meanings when they move between places. One European system taken up in India is homeopathy, which spread in India during the 1850s. It was seen as a modern tradition, but was not associated with the British colonial regime because it originated in Germany. Homeopathy was cheap, relatively easy to learn and required no registration. It became popular in the fight against cholera and malaria. These diseases were widespread in the late 1800s, and European medicine seemed ineffective. Cures were sought among other traditions, which also had little impact.
Homeopathy in India was seen as a meeting ground between Western and Eastern traditions. In the 1930s there were attempts to create a medical system incorporating both homeopathic and Ayurvedic ideas. In the 1970s homeopathy was regulated alongside other local medical traditions. While biomedicine is now the most common tradition, the Indian government is also responsible for education, training and research into these other traditions.
Related Themes and Topics
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S Alavi, Islam and Healing: Loss and Recovery of an Indo-Muslim Medical Tradition, 1600-1900 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)
M Bode, Taking traditional knowledge to market: the modern image of the ayurvedic and unani industry 1980 – 2000’, ( Hyderabad: Orient Longman Private Limited, 2008)
J Alter (ed.), Asian medicine and globalization (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005)
G N A Attewell, Refiguring unani tibb: plural healing in late colonial India (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2007)
JLangford, Fluent bodies: Ayurvedic remedies for postcolonial imbalance (North Carolina London: Duke University Press, 2002)
The roots of Āyurveda: selections from Sanskrit medical writings, translated with an introduction and notes by DWujastyk, (London: Penguin Books, 2003)
G Jan Meulenbeld and D Wujastyk (eds.), Studies on Indian medical history (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2001)
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