Cures from east and west - The Mahatma on medicine

Guest article by Ramachandra Guha

I belong to a family of doctors trained in modern or Western medicine. Back in the 1980s, the doctors I was related to, or friends with, were all sceptical of alternative forms of health care. They had no time for homeopathy, ayurveda or acupuncture, no time even for yoga. Over the decades their attitudes have changed. They now see the benefits of herbal treatments, and occasionally of acupuncture too. They are often very enthusiastic about yoga, especially when treating respiratory disorders, mental illnesses, and back injuries. The one form of treatment they remain implacably hostile to is homeopathy.

Interestingly, Mahatma Gandhi's trajectory in this regard was almost exactly the reverse. In his twenties he became attracted to Nature Cure; later, he also learnt some yoga. In his thirties and forties he set almost exclusive store by natural and herbal remedies, applying them to himself, and to his friends and disciples as well.

Gandhi's attitude towards modern medicine grew more positive only when he was approaching the age of fifty. He suffered very badly from piles. Persuaded to try surgery, he placed himself in the hands of a Dr Dalal, who in January 1919 operated upon him in Bombay, so successfully that he never suffered from the ailment again. He now urged friends with any hint of piles to go consult Dr Dalal at once.

In February 1921, Gandhi was asked to open a medical college in Delhi, whose prime mover was the great Unani specialist, Hakim Ajmal Khan. "I would like to pay my humble tribute to the spirit of research that fires the modern scientists," said Gandhi on this occasion, adding: "My quarrel is not against that spirit. My complaint is against the direction that the spirit has taken. It has chiefly concerned itself with the exploration of laws and methods conducing to the merely material advancement of its clientele. But I have nothing but praise for the zeal, industry and sacrifice that have animated the modern scientists in the pursuit after truth."

Gandhi contrasted the spirit of enquiry animating modern medicine with the placid complacency characteristic of those practising indigenous medicine. "I regret to have to record my opinion based on considerable experience," he remarked, "that our hakims and vaids do not exhibit that spirit in any mentionable degree. They follow without question formulas. They carry on little investigation. The condition of indigenous medicine is truly deplorable. Not having kept abreast of modern research, their profession has fallen largely into disrepute."

Gandhi hoped that the college established by Hakim Ajmal Khan in Delhi would "try to remedy this grave defect and restore Ayurvedic and Unani medical science to its pristine glory". He was glad that "this institution has its Western wing. Is it too much to hope that a union of the three systems will result in a harmonious blending and in purging each of its special defects?"

In January 1924, while in Yerwada jail near Poona, Gandhi fell seriously ill. He was rushed to the Military Hospital, where he was operated upon for appendicitis by a British doctor named Maddock. The night before the operation, writhing in agony and pain, Gandhi thought his end was near, going so far as to will his meagre belongings to those around his hospital bed. Then he was successfully operated upon, and his faith in modern medicine was further enhanced.
A year after his near-death experience in Poona's Military Hospital, Gandhi was in Madras. Invited to speak at an ayurvedic pharmacy, he said that "what he noticed at present was that the Ayurvedic physicians were trying to live on the past glories of Ayurveda. The system of diagnosis was still in the primitive state and it could not in any measure be compared with that of the Western system. Whatever might be said of the Western system - he had [in the past] said a great deal on that subject - one thing must be said in its favour, that it had got humility and it had got research; and there were physicians and surgeons who gave their whole time to this work, the world not knowing them. He wished that spirit would fire the Ayurvedic physicians".

This was said in March 1923. The next month, Gandhi wrote to an ayurvedic physician named Talwalkar that "I have faith in the Ayurvedic drugs, but very little in the diagnosis of physicians. I therefore never feel sure about a patient under an Ayurvedic physician if his diagnosis is not checked by a trustworthy practitioner under the Western system".

In March 1925, Gandhi was in Calcutta. Here, in a speech at the city's Ashtanga Ayurveda Vidyalaya, he recalled that at one time he "used to swear by the Ayurvedic medicine and used to commend it to all my friends, who went in for Western medicine, to go to these Ayurvedic physicians". But with experience he found "that our Ayurvedic and Unani physicians lack sanity. They lack the humility. Instead of that I found in them an arrogance that they knew everything, that there was no disease which they could not cure. I found that they believed that the mere feeling of the pulse could enable them to understand whether the patient was suffering from appendicitis or some other disease."

A report of the speech was carried in the newspapers. A correspondent wrote complainingly to Gandhi, saying that while there were many "conscientious votaries" ofayurveda, the Mahatma had only looked at the fringe element which followed questionable practices. Gandhi, in reply, defended and then elaborated on his position. Thus he categorically stated: "I know of not a single discovery or invention of any importance on the part of Ayurvedic physicians as against a brilliant array of discoveries and inventions which Western physicians and surgeons boast."

Gandhi said his remarks were based on a "long course of observation of the practice of Ayurvedic physicians". As he put it: "Let our Kavirajs, Vaidyas and Hakims apply to their calling a scientific spirit that Western physicians show, let them copy the latter's humility, let them reduce themselves to poverty in investigating the indigenous drugs and let them frankly acknowledge and assimilate that part of Western medicine which they do not at present possess."

There were things that the ayurvedic physician could borrow from their Western counterparts, and things they should not. Thus Gandhi continued: "Let them shun the irreligion of the Western scientists, which, in order to heal the body and in the name of science, subjects the lower animal kingdom to the hideous tortures which pass muster under the name of vivisection. Some will retort that there is warrant for vivisection in Ayurveda. If there is, I am sorry. No warrant even in the four Vedas can sanctify sacrilege."
My next Gandhi quote comes from April 1933. He was once more in jail, from where he wrote to a disciple that, through his study of the different systems of medicine, he had been "driven to the conclusion that allopathy, although it has great limitations and much superstition about it, is still the most universal and justifiably the most popular system. Allopathy provides opening medicines, ointments for a variety of boils and eruptions, disinfectants for various situations and includes surgery of a most wonderful type".

Allopathy, continued Gandhi, "is an all-inclusive system. It can well include homeopathy, bio-chemistry and the latest nature-cures. If therefore allopathy rids itself of the worship of mammon, which has overtaken most human activities, and could exclude vivisection and other practices which I call black, and liberally take advantage of the new methods discovered by lay people, it would become all-satisfying and quite inexpensive".

In 1937, Gandhi was asked by a German visitor whether it was true, as some supposed, that he was suspicious of modern medicine. Gandhi answered that he did "not despise all medical treatment. I know we can learn a lot from the West about safe maternity and the care of infants. Our children are born anyhow and most of our women are ignorant of the science of bringing up children. Here we can learn a great deal from the West".

At the same time, Gandhi continued, "the West attaches an exaggerated importance to prolonging man's earthly existence. Until the man's last moment on earth you go on drugging him even by injecting". The odd thing, remarked Gandhi, was that this desperate desire to prolong life was "inconsistent with the recklessness with which they [the West] will shed their lives in war".

Gandhi is among the most quoted of modern men, but too many of those who invoke his words do so out of context. Both critics and admirers have, quoting selectively, portrayed Gandhi as being opposed to modern science and modern medicine. But a careful, chronological, analysis of his views shows a steady maturing over time. Once sceptical of modern medicine, he came to appreciate its uses. Yet he never became an unqualified admirer. He appreciated the spirit of research animating modern medicine, while deploring the craze for money-making so visible in many doctors and hospitals.

Gandhi's views on modern medicine reveal a characteristic openness of mind; a willingness to change his views when the facts changed; to adapt, modify or even overthrow past preconceptions when confronted with new evidence. They also reveal a characteristic pluralism, at once moral and intellectual. Just as Gandhi's India had room for many religions, many languages, it also would encourage a pluralism of medical forms and methods. The finest doctors have only now come to preach the policy he himself advocated as far back as 1921: namely, a continuous interaction of different medical traditions, Western or Eastern, modern or ancient, this resulting "in a harmonious blending and in purging each of its special defects".

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