A Story of Medicine in India & Traditional Knowledge Digital Library

A Short History of Medicine

2000 B.C. – “Here, eat this root.”

1000 B.C. – “That root is heathen, say this prayer.”

1850 A.D. – “That prayer is superstition, drink this potion.”

1940 A.D. – “That potion is snake oil, swallow this pill”

1985 A.D. – “That pill is ineffective, take this antibiotic.”

2000 A.D. – “That antibiotic is artificial. Here, eat this root.”

Author Unknown

The human civilization has completed a full circle – from root to root. We are perhaps living in the most exciting times where old is gold, and a bitter root is better than the sugar-laced pill.

Today, after being subjected to a battery of diagnostic tests, invasive procedures, and powerful drugs, the modern man has been reduced to a medical specimen, where the focus is on treating the disease alone. Our obsession with micro management of healthcare condition has resulted in unprecedented damage to a person’s wellness and psyche. While one condition gets treated, five more appear as side effects.

Somewhere down the line, the true definition of health has been lost.

Therefore, there is renewed interest in holistic healthcare where one attempts to look at a person from physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual angle. The value of pulse diagnosis, the effect of herbs, the magic of sunlight, the fullness of breath, is coming back into the regular healthcare methods. Concepts such as wellness, holistic healthcare, Yoga, fresh air, sunlight, herbs, vegetarianism, fasting, etc., are back with a bang

The History of India’s Traditional Healthcare Systems

Before the advent of modern medicine, man had always turned to nature for answers. In times of ill health, discomfort and disease, man looked up to the elements – air, water, soil, fire, metals, plants & trees, animals, and more. He watched, experimented and learnt to make use of the bounties of nature; its curative and healing properties to heal himself. Centuries of observation, learning and sharing of knowledge gave rise to various systems of healing that we now call as ancient or traditional healthcare systems or therapies.

Any culture that roots back to age-old centuries has a wealth of wisdom, which is its real treasure. Curative, healing and preventive healthcare systems and remedial measures were integral part of family and community life, ingrained in almost all households. And that same culture never believed in holding back their knowledge, as traditions were deep rooted into the spiritual quest of man.

New discoveries were made, pharmacopeia, methods, knowledge grew and was freely shared. Because there was free reign for exchange and sharing of knowledge, unique systems such as Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani flourished in India.

India’s indigenous healthcare systems took a backseat under the British Rule where missionary hospitals and healthcare institutions were established. Traditional systems of medicine were considered unsafe, unreliable and unholy (as medicine was deep seated in culture).

In the absence of government support, funds, or R&D, India’s traditional systems could not progress, develop or enhance its traditional and holistic medical systems, or bring it to the level and status it deserved.

Even the common man took to modern medicine, which indeed gave instant results, and had better social approval. Alternative medicine was/ is still considered to be second-tier option, only after one has exhausted the allopathic course. It is in moments of despair and helplessness that an average Indian looks up to nature healing.

Sanskrit, Arabic, Urdu, Dhakni, Tamil, Telugu, are some of the common languages in which the manuscripts have recorded a wealth of information. This knowledge has generally been passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, and most of it has been described in ancient classical and other literature, often inaccessible to the common man and even when accessible, rarely understood. Therefore, traditional natural healing therapies got relegated to priests, hakims, grandmothers, and local alternative medicine practitioners. Most of the valuable data, books, manuals, manuscripts, have been lost, damaged or inaccessible to most.

The West Patents East – What went wrong?

Given the state of India’s traditional healthcare, inaccessibility issues, etc., there was no authority or ownership of these knowledge systems. The western world, by virtue of its quest for curative fixes- preventive medicinal concoctions-elixir of youth springs, assumed an authoritative position and tried to fill in this gap.

Yoga scored over Aerobics, Ayurveda appealed to the soul, and Siddha was slow but sure. The beauty of these remedies reminded man to slow down, to think, to look upto nature, to introspect, to moderate, and to correct.  As the west benefitted from most of the ancient remedies and principles, their interest to go deeper into the subject was natural.

It is true that because of the west, there has been a renewed interest in India’s ancient healthcare systems. In our quest to ape the west, we re-learn about Yoga, Ayurveda, and vegetables, thereby allowing the western world to assume precedence in these affairs. Whilst India or any traditional system would approve of its widespread use and its benefits to mankind, but patenting and calling it their invention was taking the matter too far. The age-old remedies, plants, herbs, minerals, formulae, concoctions, etc., existed since time immemorial and are not western inventions.

About 2,000 wrong patents concerning Indian systems of medicine were being granted every year at the international level, mainly due to the fact that India’s traditional medicine knowledge existed in manuscripts in local and ancient languages, which are neither accessible nor understood by the patent examiners at the international patent offices.

India has lost over 15,000 patents of medicinal plants to the West. A study conducted in 2000, US PTO granted 4,896 patents on medicinal plants, 80% on which were on plants of Indian origin. The officials have discovered around 5,000 patents issued at a cost of at least $150million for “medical plants and traditional systems”, at the global trademark offices. It is also estimated that there are about 1200 patents waiting… to patent what has been there since hundreds of years, in our ancient texts.

The legal battle for revoking patent for turmeric took 2 years. Neem took more than 10 years at the cost of $5 million, followed by battles for yogasanas, basmati rice, aloe vera, mustard, musk melon, aswagandha, bhang and more. The list is endless.

We now live in an era wherein we have to fight for what is right fully ours.

India’s stand on ancient healthcare information India believes in sharing knowledge and has never attempted to withhold what is everyone’s right – the right to good health. The country never felt the need to patent or protect its information and knowledge. But in response to the winds of change that have brought in a culture of deceit, illegal infringement, blatant lies, unethical practices, growing intellectual rights, copyright issues, and the plethora of legal jargon, it had no choice but to wake up and protect what is rightfully Indian.

It has now become imperative to safeguard the sovereignty of this traditional knowledge and to protect it from being misappropriated in the form of patents on non-original innovations, and which has been a matter of national concern.

In the attempt to safeguard the traditional remedies, to protect these from illegal copyrights, etc, India has embarked on the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL). The project TKDL involves documentation of the traditional knowledge available in public domain in the form of existing literature related to Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and Yoga, in digitized format in five international languages that are English, German, French, Japanese and Spanish.

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