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Neither 24-Karat nor ?pure?

Although the poster girl of the Left, Brinda Karat, and the poster boy of New Age Hinduism, Swami Ramdev, breathed fire at each other the past few weeks, they could have smoked a companionable peace pipe instead.

india Updated: Jan 24, 2006 04:02 IST

Although the poster girl of the Left, Brinda Karat, and the poster boy of New Age Hinduism, Swami Ramdev, breathed fire at each other the past few weeks, they could have smoked a companionable peace pipe instead. For they were closer to each other than they thought. Painfully so.

Into the bubbling stew of allegations about Swami Ramdev’s Divya Yog pharmacy, both sides tossed in the idea of protecting ‘our’ ancient ayurvedic tradition against a global onslaught. Both paths have a common aim and enemy — to aspire to speak for our own Indian/Hindu brand of modernity and to shun the global as represented by MNCs.

No doubt these ideas are worthy. Globalisation is certainly undermining plural or heterogeneous medical approaches in medical knowledge and practices. Indigenous knowledge has long been dismissed internationally within the ‘scientific’ norms determined by the West and its vast medical corporate empires. The only hiccup here is that the assumption of a pure, ancient, uncontaminated stream of medical knowledge in India is merely that: an assumption. Nothing, in fact, confirms it.

Let us take the case of yoga. Historical and anthropological studies have repeatedly demonstrated that yoga, as espoused by the middle-class for lifestyle and fitness today, is far removed from its earliest Upanishadic roots. Yoga as a medical panacea in the urban milieu is now isolated from its mystical and philosophical basis. In Swami Ramdev’s teachings, for example, he effortlessly yokes yoga to weight-loss and management of chronic disease. This transformation has been gradual, of course. It can be traced back to the ideas and writings of somewhat more illustrious teachers than Swami Ramdev or even Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari, such as Swami Kuvalayananda and Swami Vivekananda.

Ayurvedic medicine in India is the natural extension of this medicalisation of yoga. As the West chooses to practise yoga and ayurveda for its mystical benefits and our middle-classes choose yoga and ayurveda for their medical value, the indigenous seems global and the global has surely coloured the indigenous.

Alarmingly for the protagonists of the Ramdev side, although ayurvedic learning is touted as a unified indigenous ‘Hindu’ medical tradition, it has been anything but that. The battle to represent it as ‘pure’ and ‘Hindu’ has been a long one. It was an important part of the campaign of professional bodies such as the Ayurved Mahasammelan in the Thirties-Forties. Hindu vaid leaders thought up innovative strategies to consolidate a Hindu ayurveda: they tried to lay down a Sanskrit-based educational curriculum ignoring the varied range of vernacular textual traditions; they awarded degrees in ayurveda so as to control who was, and was not, an ayurvedic practitioner. They organised ayurvedic sammelans in conjunction with Hindi Sahit Sammelans, all to align the causes of the revival of Hindi, Hindu interests and ayurveda in the north.

Predictably, all did not go as planned. In areas like Delhi and Punjab, both Sikh and Muslim practitioners came to indigenous medicine from a different angle. First, in these areas, ayurveda had had a long-standing exchange with unani medicine and hakimi practice, and organisations like the All India Vaid Unani Tibb Conference led by Hakim Ajmal Khan continued to find great support, particularly in Punjab.

Second, Sikh practitioners found the claims of Hindu ayurveda a threat to their own claims for Sikh reform and distinct political representation.

Additionally, there has been a rich and heterogeneous tradition of sanyasis and religious men -— and not vaids alone — of various ascetic sects such as Jain munis, Sikh sants, etc. practising ayurveda. Sadhus edited medical journals and wrote tracts on medicines earlier in the century. Television sadhus such as Ramdev have simply transited to the electronic medium.

Why did ayurvedic corporate bodies and established ayurvedic leaders, barring a bunch of practitioners in Allahabad, not support Sant Ramdev as a protector and revivalist of indigenous medical knowledge? What accounts for their relative silence? Sanyasis and ayurvedic practitioners have in fact never been easy bedfellows. Sanyasi medicine, which is now the beacon of popularised Hindu ayurveda, frequently questioned the structures and controlling strategies put in place by ‘professional’ ayurvedic practitioners. One of the most colourful tirades in Hindi and Punjabi journals in the Forties was initiated by an erudite Swami, Harisharanand, in his journal, Ayurved Vigyan, against the reigning monarch of all ayurvedic patronage, Pandit Shiv Sharma.

The swami was the founder of one of the first and most profitably run pharmacies in Amritsar, and raged through open letters and court cases against the politics of kinship and patronage. (Pandit Shiv Sharma and his father, a rajvaidya from Patiala, were known as the Motilal and Jawaharlal of ayurveda politics that dominated the agenda of indigenous medical practice and its reform.) However inconvenient to cultural and political agendas, the ayurvedic tradition is a deeply plural, heterogeneous one, anything but 24-karat gold, as both Brinda and the beleaguered swami need to concede. The Left or the foreign hand are not the only ones that have stirred its potions and fashioned its pills. ‘Vive la difference!’

The writer’s book Old Potions, New Bottles: Recasting Indigenous Medicine in Colonial Punjab, is to be published next month