Retaining the Rights to our Ayurvedic Heritage

Dhananjay Mathur

Ayurveda is perhaps Hinduism's greatest gift to the world. The word Ayurveda is derived from two Sanskrit words: ayu which means life, and veda meaning knowledge or learning. The holistic medical philosophy of Ayurveda treats the life force as a combination of not just the body, mind, senses, but also includes the soul. Thus Ayurveda is a transcendental science which treats not just medical ailments of the body but goes far beyond and addresses the mental and spiritual causes behind these ailments as well.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the ancient Hindu tradition of Ayurveda however lies in its usage of natural compounds derived from herbs, earth minerals and organic elements. Even as technology and rapid development are opening new frontiers in Western medicine, practices such as genetic modification, creation of artificial compounds that mimic the body's chemicals and processes, etc. have led to complicated and unpredictable results. Despite these advances Western science has been unable to fully address deadly diseases such as breast cancer, AIDS, leukemia, etc.

Ayurveda originated in Hindu India over 10,000 years ago. The science is an integral part of the Vedic tradition and rooted in verses from both the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda which contain thousands of hymns dealing with anatomy, physiology and the use of herbs to heal the diseases of mind, body and foster longevity. In later times the science was divided into eight specific branches of medicine. These branches included general medicine, surgery, pharmacology, opthamology and dentistry. For centuries interested students from numerous countries such as China, Tibet, Persia and Egypt came to India to learn the wisdom of Ayurveda and carry it to their respective countries.

The three main treatises of Ayurveda which still exist to this day are known as Charak Samhita , Sushrut Samhita and Ashtang Hridya Samhita. It is because of these texts that the knowledge of this ancient Hindu system of medicine has survived till this day.

Today researchers and clinicians the world over are discovering what the Hindus of India have known for ages, that the meticulous science of Ayurveda has solutions that can cure and prevent diseases which Western medical science still cannot even begin to address. About 25 years ago the World Health Organisation laughed at the idea of recognizing Ayurveda as a legitimate medical science of healing. Today the WHO has not only eaten its words by recognizing Ayurveda as a valid method of treatment, but also has begun encouraging its global application.

A few months ago the highest federal health body in the United States, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced plans for research worth $7 million on three widely-used Ayurvedic herbs. The Office of the Dietary Supplements (ODS), along with the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), two components of NIH, also announced plans to establish two more centers for dietary supplement research with an emphasis on botanicals, one each at Purdue University in Indiana and the University of Arizona in Tucson. According to NIH, the University of Arizona (UA) will focus on three botanicals -- ginger, turmeric and boswellia -- "widely used in Ayurvedic medicine" for the treatment of inflammatory diseases. Researchers have proposed to identify the active constituents of these herbs and study their pharmacological activity. This research will lead to clinical studies of arthritis and other chronic inflammatory conditions, including respiratory diseases such as asthma.

The NIH announcement is just the beginning of the process of bringing Ayurveda to the people of America and the world. The natural cures offered by Ayurvedic medicines are not only cheap, they have almost negligible side effects. The marketing of Ayurvedic herbs and supplements would not only benefit the Indian economy greatly, it would also immensely benefit millions of people worldwide who have been failed by the limitations and problems of Western medicine. The renewed interest in Ayurveda has led to some amazing discoveries in recent years. These discoveries demonstrate the incredibly advanced and complex nature of a medical science that has just begun to be taken seriously. Unfortunately the rights to many of these Ayurvedic secrets are being usurped by global researchers who use Ayurvedic texts as sourcebooks for their research, but claim to be the inventors of the cures after their studies accomplish the desired results. In essence this practice has become nothing less than the stealing of India's intellectual property. Product and process patents are being awarded to these false claimants and as a consequence, India is losing the rights to its own traditional knowledge day by day. It is therefore essential that the Indian government puts legal mechanisms in place to preserve the ownership of the processes and cures prescribed in Ayurvedic texts.

In July scientists announced that India's Himalayan Yew is invaluable as a producer of cancer fighting agents. Taxus Baccata, the scientific name of the tree, is also known as Kseh Bloi in the Indian Khasi tribal lingo. This invaluable tree is found in the lower reaches of the Himalayas stretching from Jammu and Kashmir to Meghalaya, including Nepal and Bhutan. The tree cannot survive in isolation but grows in mixed forests with fir, cedar, oak and rhododendron trees. The Himalayan Yew shot to international fame after US-based researchers claimed to have discovered the therapeutic properties of Taxol, one of its extracts. The researchers found that the constituents of Taxol were far more effective in combating breast and ovarian cancer than any other known drug. About 10 kilograms of yew leaves, bark, and needles produce one gram of the drug. Again this research was inspired and aided by references to Ayurvedic literature which talked about the plants curative properties.

The Himalayan Yew's contains lower levels of Taxol than other varieties of Yew but higher levels of Baccatin III and 10-decetyl Baccatin which are also necessary for the creation of cancer fighting compounds. Moreover, this compound may serve as a precursor for the production of other semi-synthetic taxanes like Taxorene, which has a better patient acceptance profile and fewer side effects. The drug Taxol was first extracted in minute quantities from the bark of the Pacific Yew known as Taxus Bravifolia. However, the recent findings have turned the Himalayan Yew into the center of attraction. Taxol can be extracted either from bark or the leaves of the tree. Extracting the drug from leaves, rather than the bark proves less destructive to both the trees and the environment.

Unfortunately a recent report of the North Eastern Council (NEC) states that the Himalayan Yew is being smuggled out of Meghalaya on a massive scale. According to the report, the tree is under "severe exploitation pressure," and if immediate steps are not taken, it can lead to a severe ecological imbalance in the area. It is imperative that India's government take steps to prevent the loss of these native plants in order to preserve our traditional heritage.

In September an Australian company staked claims to have conducted the first scientific study on the curative properties of honey. The company has also officially commenced marketing honey for treating wounds. Developed by the company in association with the Agency for Food and Fibre Sciences and the University of Waikato Honey Research Unit in New Zealand, Medihoney(R) is claimed to be the first topical honey product in the world to achieve therapeutic goods administration (TGA) listing in Australia.

The use of honey as a wound dressing is mentioned several times in Ayurvedic literature. It has been used as a traditional antiseptic therapy for bacterial infections of all types in India. In this case it was the lack of effort on the part of practitioners of modern medicine in India that led to the loss of this tried and tested methodology.

On November 20, an Indo-Japanese team announced that their research studies had established Cinnamomum cassia (common cinnamon) as the most effective among the 69 Indian medicinal plants screened for its effectiveness against HIV-1 and 2, the viruses that cause the deadly AIDS. While C. cassia was the best against HIV-1, the plant Cardiospermum helicacabum has been found to be most effective against HIV-2. This study of Indian plants for their possible use in treating AIDS was carried out jointly by scientists of Annamalai University in Tamil Nadu, Kagoshima University and the Tokyo University School of Medicine in Japan. The scientists derived much of their inspiration from ancient Ayurvedic treatises and the treatments prescribed in them.

According to results published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research, 16 of the 69 Indian plants showed anti-HIV activity in test tube studies and four of them were effective against both strains of HIV. Their selectivity index, a measure of their antiviral activity ranged from1.39 in the root of Glycyrrhiza glabra to 6.3 in the bark of C. cassia. The research provided a rationale for further studies to isolate the active principles and their pharmacological evaluation.

Unfortunately even in cases where Ayurvedic practitioners in India have proven the effectiveness of their ancient tradition, the government has looked the other way and failed to give such breakthroughs official recognition or support. One of the outstanding instances of this type of official neglect is exemplified by the case of Ayurvedic Vaidya Balendu Prakash. Vaidya Balendu Prakash has gained worldwide recognition for his amazing breakthrough cure for Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia (APML).

Balendu inherited the breakthrough formula from his father Vaidya Chandra Prakash, who had discovered the medicine. It takes three years to prepare the medicine, which is a silver compound. The results have been extremely promising, but the biggest hurdle Prakash has had to face is the skepticism about Ayurveda in the very country which gave birth to this science.

The treatment is based on the Rasa-Shastra, which is one of the eight clinical specialties of Ayurveda. Mercury is the main ingredient of this therapy. It also contains substances of plant, animal and mineral origin, which have moderate to severe irritant or toxic qualities in their form. Ayurveda prescribes special methodologies and processes in Rasa to change these into non-toxic and effective. It takes one to three years to prepare one batch of medicine. Prakash wants a complete documentation of Ayurvedic medicine, but the bureaucracy of the Indian government has prevented recognition of this breakthrough.

Balendu has since begun treating different forms of cancer with Ayurvedic medicine. He has founded a research organization in Dehra Dun and called it Vaidya Chandra Prakash Research Foundation (VCPCRF) after his late father. This foundation tries to promote research on metal-based formulations to develop the treatment and control of various forms of cancer and chronic inflammatory and immunological disorders.

After many deliberations, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare sanctioned a project in 1996, titled "Effect of Metal based formulation in the treatment of 30 patients of Acute Promyelocytic Leukaemia (APML)". The aim of the study was to note the therapeutic effect of Ayurvedic approach in the treatment of APML in 90 days. The study has shown promising results - a near 100 per cent success rate in patients who followed a standard protocol. The study is in the final stage. However even when the study was sanctioned Balendu was not given a proper infrastructure for his research.

Despite having been awarded a Padma Shri and being appointed as an honorary physician to the President of India, Prakash is still struggling to get Ayurveda, particularly his brand of cancer cure, the recognition it deserves. He is open to examination of his compounds, evaluation, assessment and standardization. He has also moved for process and product patent for the compound for APML cure.

On December 5, the Indian Government announced that it has initiated an exercise to develop a digital database of traditional knowledge in medicinal plants so as to avoid patenting of products based on such knowledge. This step underlines the need to learn how best to protect indigenous inventions not only in India but also abroad even while making revolutionary changes in Patent Laws. The last few years have demonstrated that there has been a considerable increase in cases of outright bio-piracy where India's Ayurvedic heritage was plundered without rewarding the traditional knowledge holders.

The creation of such a database is no doubt a step in the right direction, but by no means sufficient recognition of the invaluable role of Ayurveda in modern medicine. It is a shame indeed that this advanced scientific methodology has received minimal support and acknowledgment in the land where it was born. It is incumbent upon the Indian government to not just accord Ayurveda its rightful place, but also to create the mechanisms such as educational syllabi, research grants and legal frameworks which will propagate and preserve this invaluable heritage for the sake of humanity.


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