‘Ayurveda is awesome. It is a brilliant medicine system that originated in this mystical land called India. Unlike western medicine, it doesn’t have any side-effects. It is made only from natural and organic material. It can cure anyone of anything. It can fix every illness known to mankind, even the ones that have stumped western scientists. Ayurveda can cure cancer. With so many obviously good qualities attributed to this wonderful creation of the ancients, it’s surprising to see the rest of the world hasn’t already accepted it as the default medicine system. Why on earth is that?’
Oh! I know why. It’s because it’s all untrue. They’re just statements repeated over and over that has somehow come to be perceived as true. Repeat something enough times and it becomes believable – just as with the pledge or the national anthem. Ayurveda’s entire reputation rests on spoken word, as does India’s greatness on ‘India is great’ proclamations.
In reality, Ayurveda isn’t much of a medicine system (hereafter, ‘medicine’ refers only to the proven medicine system); at best, it’s a collection of home remedies for routine illnesses. So, while it has been known to relieve fever and symptoms of the common cold, don’t go expecting it to hold the key to biological invincibility. It can’t cure most known major ailments and especially not cancer of all things. That’s also precisely why it has no side effects (that you know of); something that doesn’t work better not make you worse. The “natural” and “organic” are just a set of buzzwords used to lure in customers to this ludicrous practice.
Okay, but there has to be some real merit to Ayurveda, doesn’t it? No practice can get popular on rumours alone. Some part of it must be true. A billion people can’t be wrong now, can they?
Actually, they can. The concept of Ayurveda has been known to the world for about two hundred years now, and yet, India is the only place where a course in “Ayurvedic Medicine” will earn you a state certified degree. That is either the most stubborn resistance to real drugs or the ugliest manifestation of Indian patriotism – I’m betting on the latter. See, Indian ancients sucked at a lot of things and that includes diagnosing and curing illnesses. The ones living today have gone scripture hunting in search for a legacy, they could be a part of, and that’s where Ayurveda made a come back. Too bad, there’s nothing of value in there.
The absolute truth as of right now is that Ayurveda is unproven. Its propagation isn’t a result of thorough scientific research. The only reason it is even known at all is because Indians desperately want to believe that their motherland housed ancient geniuses. Ayurveda isn’t science based. It’s pseudoscience.
The creation of theoretical models are essential to discovery. It needn’t describe a procedure or an entity accurately or exhaustively. All it needs is to be properly explained. A theoretical model should be consistent with the theory. Theoretical models basically facilitate communication between engineers and technicians, doctors and chemists, or any similar pair of professionals.For example, the transistor hybrid model (the h-parameter model) massively simplifies the concept of transistors. It is capable of turning complex circuit diagrams into flow diagrams and back, thus making it easier to understand for a lot more people than those qualified. One only need communicate in h-parameters to get their job done.
Ayurveda’s theoretical model
Ayurveda operates on a theoretical model that, at one time, provided a somewhat convincing hypothesis to the existence of illnesses. There weren’t any complaints then as no one could come up with a better explanation.
Ayurveda posits the existence of three body types or दोष (/d̪oʂə/). Those are वात /ʋaːt̪ə/, पित्त /pɪt̪t̪ə/, कफ /kəfə/. They’re formed by combinations of the five universal elements – पृथ्वी /prt̪ʰʋiː/ (earth), तेज /t̪eːd͡ʒə/ (fire), वायु /ʋaːjʊ/ (air), जल /d͡ʒələ/ (water) and आकाश /aːkaːʃə/ (ether). According to modern Ayurvedic practitioners, no one alive today will have a purely singular body type. They’ll instead have a natural combination of the three.They’ve for a long time, translated दोष to mean vital forces, bodily characteristics or one from a whole array of other nonsensical terms. Just like every other pseudoscience, they cannot get themselves to settle on one.
In Ayurveda, an illness is caused by the imbalance of one’s natural state. It’s the job of an Ayurvedic practitioner to bring one back to their natural state. It’s, at the very least, good material to base fiction off of; I know a billion people I could sell it to.
Problems with the model
Knowing about the model should, in itself, be putting off. Still, to aid those who weren’t able to find faults with it, I’ve made a list.
- No backing: Theoretical models have to be backed up by actual theories for it to be considered scientific. In Ayurveda the discussion starts with दोष. There doesn’t exist any literature that would explain the concept or principle on which the model is based.
- Elemental woo: Ayurveda needs one think of living beings as an arrangement of energies. Yes, energy is a real thing but it is also a very specific thing, depending on the field of science. The universal elements they mention in Ayurveda don’t map on to anything scientific. It’s fiction. Besides, medical sciences hardly concern themselves with one’s energy.
- Body types: The model doesn’t explain how one’s natural body type could be made known in sickness, where the body type would obviously deviate from its natural state. It also doesn’t account for any non-problematic changes in body types. Would a change in body type from taking up a lot of harmless physical training sound an alarm to Ayurvedic practitioners? If they do, how do they explain that change? If not, how can they be certain of an ailment?In addition, they’ve also suggested that a certain body combination could be unhealthy for one but healthy for another. So, apparently there are other factors that influence health, but it’s unheard of. I’d love to see a healthy person with rabies, please.
- Too simplistic: The model put forth cannot possibly account for all the diseases known to humankind. The explanations don’t coalesce with the true working of the human anatomy. Ayurveda’s model is in complete disagreement with all that is known and true in biology.
- Obliviousness to a lot of things: There are no equivalent concepts to germ theory in Ayurveda. It does, at times, consider environmental factors for change in body type but is completely oblivious to the existence of bacteria and viruses. There is no concept of evolution in Ayurveda.
A few other issues:
- Anatomy fail: The parts of the human body as described in Ayurveda do not match the present knowledge in anatomy. It was widely believed that one thinks with the heart and not the brain. There are mentions of chakras, which some practitioners say are plexuses, but none of the chakras map on to the real major plexuses in reality.
- Diagnostics fail: The ancients had no idea as to what really caused illness. Their diagnostics aren’t fluid enough to accommodate any more than a few dozens of ailments. Entirely different diseases would, on occasion, get classified as one and the same. Sometimes, a single illness with different symptoms would be treated as different ailments. Getting a second opinion, when it comes to Ayurveda, is quite a nightmare.
- Exorcisms: A lesser known and rather embarrassing fact is that Ayurveda attributes some illnesses to demon possession and some to faulty alignment of the heavenly bodies. The Indian brand of astrology and Ayurveda were deeply integrated. Exorcisms and corrective rituals were as much a part of Ayurveda as is its tenuous grasp of biology.
It is pretty obvious that the ancients were unaware of the complex processes that were constantly at work to keep a human up and functioning. They had no idea of human biology or biochemistry. They relied on intuition and perhaps a meagre amount of observation to arrive at the model. Don’t believe me? Well, I invite you to look for it yourself. They aren’t exactly trying to hide the fact that most of them concluded about Ayurveda from meditation. Ayurveda like every other Hindu scripture is a divine revelation and supposedly didn’t involve the use of human intellect. Personally, I find it hard to trust someone’s hallucinations.
Ayurveda is claimed to be an ancient science. Of course, they conveniently forget to mention that possession is a thing in Ayurveda. They rationalise this by saying that exorcisms were a form of psychiatry. They further explain that they used the concept of possession as a euphemism to mental illness. Seems reasonable, right?
Nope. Because the same people, who make these claims, describe Sanskrit as a perfect language. A language like that should’ve been able to unambiguously describe mental illnesses as they were, no euphemisms necessary. This also begs the question as to why literature in a language, purported to be perfect, cannot be effectively translated. Why is it that Ayurveda claims to cure a disease only after it is discovered by real medicine experts?Coming soon: Debunking tall claims about the Sanskrit language…
Ayurveda thinks of the mind and the body as distinct and disjunct. Shouldn’t an advanced medicine system be aware of the fact that the mind is a facade – a product of the brain? Ayurveda requires a belief in the concept of souls; it’s a heavily metaphysics dependent practise. In fact, Ayurveda involves incantations, prayers and rituals to be done at auspicious times for special “medicines”. I bet you’d run as far away as you can from a doctor if they did that.
Ayurveda isn’t backed by research. All the evidence, that does exist about Ayurveda, suggests that isn’t very effective. The reason why that is, is because Ayurveda’s modus operandi isn’t scientific. Anyone with a basic knowledge of biology would steer clear of it as no part of Ayurveda is reconcilable with modern biology. However, there do exist doctors with medical degrees in real medicine that believe in this crap, so I guess anything is possible. People with common sense will do well to keep away from that bunch.
Ayurveda’s popularity isn’t proof based. It’s tradition based. It sure seems the easiest way to entice a billion people is to point them to a set of books written a few millennia ago. People tend to equate antiquity with infallibility. Seriously, the trust the Indian people have in their ancients is sickening.
It spreads around via anecdotes and testimonies. ‘I used Ayurveda and I’ve been cured.’, ‘Have you even tried it?’, ‘It works wonders. I’ve had no side effects.’, ‘How can you say something is wrong when a billion people use it?’, are things you’ll hear very often. You’ll never see a single bad review for Ayurveda. You’ll never find a PSA enlisting the people on whom the drugs didn’t work. This is just an example of skewed samples – you only know of one side of the story because you’re disproportionately exposed to it.
I’m not suggesting Ayurveda proponents fraudulently inflate their numbers or misrepresent data, even though that’s what always happens. It is plausible that those who are likely to bad mouth Ayurveda are dead for want of real medical intervention.
An Ayurvedic practitioner isn’t big on real diagnosis. They don’t often target the ill. Their most frequent customer is an arguably healthy paranoid person.
Here’s how a session with an Ayurvedic practitioner usually goes:
- They’ll look at your eyes for a minute. Then they’ll hold your head and move it to have a look at your ear canals. They’ll ask you to open your mouth and look for something. They’ll never use tools for any of it. What follows that seems suspiciously similar to frisking.They might take samples of your urine and stool, from time to time, if you’ve taken an Ayurvedic resort holiday package. Don’t try it. For the weight loss package, they stuff you with ghee until your writhe in pain. A lot of Ayurvedic therapies make use of ghee for some reason.
- Once it’s all done, they’ll check your pulse. That part is very important to them. During this time you’ll be allowed to speak about whatever you think ails you.
- They’ll play you in a game of 20 questions. This is the time they would be most attentive. Their questions would be about your history with illnesses but none of them will be a follow-up to the previous one. It’ll all be completely random.
- As soon as something familiar to them comes forth, they’ll hand you a vial of a potion or a container full of pills, paste or powder. This is a mandatory step and will happen every single time. They’ll not let you go empty handed. They’ll ask you more and more questions until they find something to sell you and will not leave you without a sale.
- In rarer cases, when they’ve tried really hard to find something wrong with you and failed, they’ll hand you some Ayurvedic concoction. To really sell it, they’ll check your pulse again and make up some crap about how you’re likely to fall sick with some disease in the near future and your need to start a course of Ayurvedic prophylactics. They will mention that the pulse is a key to picking up on illnesses that haven’t already struck. Those might include asthma, diabetes, impotence, ageing and even cancer.
- Optional step: If you ask for an explanation about your ailment, they’ll offer you one, but it will be devoid of coherence. They’ll use the same mumbo jumbo that Ayurveda is infested with.
- If you’re male, they will sell you Shilajit, no exceptions.
There is such thing as a routine health check-up in Ayurveda. ‘You’re perpetually sick and there is always something wrong with you.’ – that’s practically their creed.
The thing that gets to me is that they prescribe courses of prophylactics to prevent the onset of ailments, they speculate might strike one in the future. It will be a totally false diagnosis, but they basically hit two birds with one stone. The person will never fall sick and faultily attribute that to the Ayurvedic intervention. Secondly, they’ll make money off of their paranoia for years. That’s the most brilliant of schemes, wouldn’t you agree?
If you’re feeling sceptical of their diagnosis, however, you might perhaps visit another one of those quacks. Most often, you’d end up with different diagnoses. That’s not creepy at all, is it?Isn’t it funny that you can thwart an Ayurvedic practitioner by simply visiting another one?
What’s happening then?
Oh! Now’s the fun part. Ayurveda is said to have been written in Sanskrit. This means that no matter how hard you try, the information locked in there has to go through the lens of the many Sanskrit scholars before ending up in the public domain. Hmm, isn’t that going to be a problem? Sanskrit, like every language had to have gone through changes to accommodate the vernacular of subsequent generations. It is unlikely that the Sanskrit written and spoken today is the same as it was then, isn’t it?
Why, yes, it is. Now think a bit harder. What happens when a select few claim to have the key to allegedly useful earth-shattering knowledge? They milk it for every last bit of money they can get, of course. (There’s a holy cow joke in there somewhere.) That is exactly what is happening today.
Ayurveda is a sham, a source of easy money. They prey on the kind of people there will always be an abundance of – the diseased. They take advantage, of their need for a cure and their gullibility, to sell them stuff with no proven efficacy. Over the years, they’ve grown and widened their range of targets. They claim a no side-effects cure to every ailment. They’ve used the “natural” fad to entice the rich.
Why does it seem to work then?
Humans are imperfect creatures – I’m sure your religion has informed you of your worthlessness already, but this is a bit different. Humans are susceptible to a multitude of cognitive biases, logical fallacies and other thought malfunctions that practitioners of pseudoscientific trades take advantage of. The ones with degrees in Ayurveda might genuinely be unaware of their indulgence in deceptiveness.
Cognitive biases are tendencies that, through no one’s fault, might cause one to deviate from rational thinking. There is not much one can do to completely escape it. The effects of cognitive biases can be reduced by acknowledging one’s susceptibility and forcing rational thought in matters they would normally ignore. Here are a few common biases that specifically helped Ayurveda spread like the virus it is.
- Availability cascade, which is simply a fancy name for the ‘repeat it long enough and people will think it’s true’ phenomenon. It’s a commonly observed bias and it is exploited by religions (faith) via prayer, nations (patriotism) via allegiance pledges, cults via creeds (Assassin’s Creed is still awesome though) and quacks through positive testimonials and agressive advertising campaigns.
- Confirmation bias, a tendency to interpret events in a way that would strengthen a previously held belief. When one already believes Ayurveda has a cure to everything, seeing an instance of its supposed working will strengthen that belief rather than inspire enquiry. Similarly, their beliefs about the dangers of the proven medicine system strengthens when they observe singular instances of an ineffective treatment. The absence of any mention of side-effects also works in it’s favour. A person tends to turn away from conventional medicine if the leaflet mentions the side-effects they’ve been facing.
- Expectation bias – a proponent of Ayurveda, despite attempting to keep an open mind would end up disregarding events where Ayurveda didn’t show any promising result before publishing it. This is one of the biases that is eliminated only by double-blind or triple-blind studies; it’s something they avoid as it counters any form of tampering.
- Anchoring, which is a result of disproportionate focus on one attribute that clouds a balanced judgement. A drug could be known to be extremely effective for an overwhelming majority of cases. However, one might disregard all of that in favour of the ‘no side-effects’ claim of Ayurveda and decide to adopt it.
Other than the common cognitive biases, there could be other sources of bias, such as,
- Being unchallenged: Ayurveda as a system of healing has not been challenged as being pseudoscientific. Most don’t bother trying to counter their claims because they perceive it as harmless. It’s not as we’ll see later. Another reason for this could be intimidation – it’s extremely difficult to debunk bullshit that has been established. It takes enormous effort to take a stand.
- Lack of conflicting information: Intelligent, qualified, educated people tend to fall for Ayurveda. The most likely explanation to this is that their knowledge in their respective disciplines never contradict Ayurveda. Ayurveda doesn’t make claims that conflict with what an engineer or an economist know. Yes, it’s baffling to see medical doctors believe in Ayurveda, but there are many physicists who believe in astrology, so anything is possible.
Unlike cognitive biases, logical fallacies can be easily avoided altogether by logical thinking. Unfortunately that requires a certain basic level understanding of logic – something that eludes the majority of the Indian population.
- Post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, thus because of this) is the fallacy one commits when they wrongly conclude that an event that has occurred after another, has occurred because of it. So, if a logically deficient individual consumed a course of Ayurvedic drugs suddenly starts feeling better, they might conclude that they got better because of the drugs. It is reasonable, but that’s not the only explanation. It is possible that they would’ve got better despite the drugs, but most people never give that a second thought.
- Appeal to nature is something you see all the time. Since Ayurveda purely involves exploitation of “natural” herbs, it is somehow considered more impactful than the medicine system that extracts and sells only the target compound. One way or another, everything has come into existence out of nature. The fact that medicine relies more on organic chemistry doesn’t make it less natural. The source for many compounds are, often times, natural herbs. Sophisticated illnesses, however, requires sophisticated research and massive laboratories to arrive at the cure. Simple herb paste ingestion isn’t going to cure one off a virus.
- Appeal to emotion is really a class of fallacies that include use of fear, flattery, pity, ridicule and spite. Ayurvedic proponents are constantly seen ridiculing medicine and inciting fear of their side-effects. They’ll, at times, use flattery (‘You seem too intelligent to believe in [western] medicine.’) and pity those who don’t buy their drugs. They’d also promptly remind one of medicine’s failures by citing their failure rate and exaggerating its impact.
- Appeal to tradition; does it really need explaining? Ayurveda is simply believed to be real because of its antiquity.
- Argumentum ad populum (appeal to popularity) which is what happens when something is believed to be true simply because of the number of people that believe in it. It’s a vicious cycle. Of course, if history has taught us anything, it’s that popular consensus is an impediment to progress.
- No true Scotsman: If any proof of Ayurveda’s ineptitude ever comes forth, it is usually dismissed by saying that they weren’t the true practitioners of Ayurveda (or that they weren’t practitioners of true Ayurveda). True practitioners or not, there doesn’t exist a known wall that separates the two. This is a trick used to absolve one of the sins off the rest of the trade.
What’s the harm?
Oh! Advocatus diaboli, I’m so glad you asked. We’ve, finally, arrived at the unravelling of the no side-effects myth.
- It’s a common practice in Ayurveda to purify and add certain heavy metals in their elemental forms to their herbs in an attempt to treat illness. This process is called rasa shastra which is a nice sounding name for a deadly practice. The heavy metals include mercury, lead and arsenic. Wait, aren’t those dangerous?! Yes, they are. In fact, studies conducted on Ayurvedic drugs showed that they actually contained toxic proportions of those heavy metals. They have the potential to kill even in singular doses. In 2012, the US Centres for Disease Control established a link between Ayurveda and heavy metal poisoning. Unfortunately, Ayurvedic drugs cannot be banned as they’re not required to file for FDA approval in order to sell it. A disclaimer on their website is sufficient to get them off the hook.
- Ayurvedic drug containers don’t generally have labels enlisting the contents of the drug. This is partly done to avoid any attempts at reverse engineering. However, not mentioning the constituents absolves them from complications that might arise later. If someone faces an adverse reaction to a drug, there is no way to trace back to the culprit.
- Ayurveda hasn’t a provision for allergies. This means that if a person is allergic to a certain compound that might be a part of a drug, it could potentially kill them. Ayurvedic drugs don’t just contain the active ingredient. It also contains a lot more unrelated compounds – a whole range of substances that comes with herb mashing. There is no way to isolate an allergen responsible for an adverse reaction in time to save a life.
- Ayurvedic practitioners usually deal with illnesses that would normally cure by itself. By selling medicines for common cold, fever and many childhood ailments, they stand to earn a reputation for curing them when in actuality they wouldn’t have worked either way.
- To further absolve it of responsibility, many practitioners suggest use of real medicine in conjunction with Ayurveda so that they can blame the real medicine when something goes wrong. They also avoid urgent cases as often as they can. They claim Ayurveda is more a way of life and doesn’t deal with emergencies.
- Ayurveda has indirectly contributed to medical negligence. Its proponents have convinced a significant portion of the population that real medicine can be fatal and it would be better if they relied only on Ayurveda. If they’re lucky, they get cured on their own. However, at times, the underlying illness could get worse and the delusional belief in Ayurveda might cause one to continue their course without expert medical intervention. People who have believed in Ayurveda’s miracle cancer cure have succumbed to it by letting it advance to the point of no return.
This is not going to be some bullshit conclusion where I’d suggest that more research needs be done to prove or debunk Ayurveda once and for all. I’m scared for my life here.
This madness has to stop. I don’t want to see the government endorsing institutes to “research” Ayurveda further. In their fit of crazy, I don’t want them to unleash quacks upon us. I don’t want quacks to be on the same popular standing as doctors. I don’t want them to be respected; I want them eliminated. I don’t want a drug to be released without proper drug trials. I don’t want to, now or at any point in the future, be dependent on the wisdom of people who clearly didn’t know shit. I want my medicines prescribed by real doctors – ones that don’t believe in enlightenment from striking a pose listed in the ancient book of useless contortions.
I want us to come to terms with the fact that the rest of the world is better at somethings than us. That’s a cue to work harder and get better. Let’s not cling to comforting delusions.