How can terms like ‘antiviral’, ‘germ’ and ‘immunity’, which these practitioners involve in their claims, fit into their humoral models of disease?

Baba Ramdev holding Coronil. Courtesy: PTI
Voices Opinion Thursday, May 27, 2021 - 17:09
Written by  SK Arun Murthi

With the rise of the second COVID-19 wave come the peddlers of ayurvedic medicine claiming that their concoctions and remedies are an effective treatment and are immunity boosters. An ayurvedic practitioner in the Krishnapatnam town of Nellore district claims to have formulated a concoction for COVID-19 cure, and a huge crowd had queued up to get this concoction on the morning of May 21. About a month back, a herbal concoction of Baba Ramdev's Patanjali was back with advertising Coronil as a cure for COVID-19 as it ‘produces more antibodies’.  He further claims that by practicing yoga, one can keep the external environment free of germs. Earlier, an ayurvedic practitioner in Bengaluru was promoting certain herbal remedies as possessing some antiviral properties and some others for building immunity (and also here in Kannada news channel).

What is surprising in their claims is the way they appropriate the terms of modern medicine so nonchalantly to align with ayurveda, though this system (ayurveda) of medicine is based on a different model of disease. For example, the practitioner of the Krishnapatnam town claims that his herbal preparation of eye-drops is recommended for people with dropping oxygen levels. In making these claims by involving terms like blood oxygen, antiviral, antibodies, germs and immunity of modern medicine, they are applying these to a completely different system of medicine whose disease model is also at variance with modern medicine. Not only are they misapplying these to a different system but also they attempt, sometimes explicitly and sometimes by implication, to correlate them with Sanskrit words of the ayurvedic text.

The ayurvedic system is based on what is known as the humoral model of disease. The humoral model of disease views health and disease as being a matter of balance or harmony of the different humors or fluids that bodies have. In ayurveda, the three humors are the vata (wind or air), pitta (bile), and kapha (phlegm). In a healthy body, there is supposed to be a perfect balance or harmony of these three humors, and an imbalance or disharmony results in illness. This is known as the tridosha theory that is central to ayurveda.

Even in the West, from the time of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, it is the humoral model of pathology that prevailed. The four humors were: blood, which was hot and moist; phlegm, which was cold and wet; black bile, which was cold and dry; and yellow bile, which was hot and dry. As in other humoral systems, health was seen as a harmony of humors, and ill-health as a state of disharmony.

In the late nineteenth century, there was a break from the idea of whole body disease with the rise of bacteriology. Humoral system, then prevalent in the West, was replaced by the germ theory of disease, which was established on scientific methods. Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, and specifically Robert Koch, were the first proponents of such a scientific theory. It was specifically Koch who was responsible for linking specific bacterium to a specific disease. The idea of there being specific microscopic bacterium, which caused a specific disease, gained scientific credibility. Thus, the idea of pathogens responsible for the spread of diseases was established scientifically.

There was a complete paradigm shift from the humoral system of medicine. This shift in the system of medicine evolved out of a conceptual reorientation. Such a reorientation results in building a conceptual apparatus based on an understanding of the underlying mechanisms at work, and development of precise instrumentation leading to improved experimental methods. For example, Koch worked with the microscopic developers for improving lighting and resolution.

Coming back to ayurveda, no such conceptual apparatus can be traced in the ayurveda, at least, with regard to these terms. The proponents, therefore, need to answer the following questions:

i. How can terms like ‘antiviral’, ‘germ’ and ‘immunity’, which these practitioners involve in their claims, fit into their humoral models of disease? To say that something has antiviral properties is to admit the concept of virus in the framework, a concept that is a product of the germ theory of disease.

ii. Even after the establishment of the germ theory of disease it took some time to work out the details of the mechanism of immunity. What is the mechanism of immunity that they have in ayurveda? All they do is to point out that there is a mention of the word vyadhikshamatva in Charaka Samhita text which is the same as immunity.

It appears that ayurvedic practitioners very conveniently draw a correspondence between these modern medical terms and Sanskrit words found in their texts, the very texts that are based on humoral models. This leads to the question:

iii. Are they justified in drawing such a correspondence between these terms and the Sanskrit words?

Sometimes they justify this correspondence by twisting the words in their text to fit the current terminology of modern medicine. For example, Sushruta Samhita’s Krimi-Roga-Pratishedha  is cited to justify correspondence to microscopic organisms.To counter their point, it is to be noted that Krimi is an insect or a worm, and not something that is equivalent to a pathogen. But they draw this parallel based on a statement that some of the Krimis are visible and some are not. Again, the point to be noted is that the non-visibility mentioned here refers to the minuteness of the worms that can escape one's vision, and not that it is a microbial agent like a pathogen.

What the votaries of ayurveda are trying to do is to align themselves with the concepts of modern medicine. In trying to seek for such an alignment they are seeking for some sort of scientific credibility by terminological misappropriation. In claiming an epistemic superiority with “our Rishis (sages) already knew this…” attitude, their aim is to save their guild interest. Apart from serving the guild interest, the political interest of the majoritarian community in glorifying the past is also served.

Dr SK Arun Murthi is an Assistant Professor (Philosophy) in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Mohali. Views expressed are the author’s own.