Dharma and Ayurveda- Soft Power of Asia to Heal the World.

Manish Uprety F.R.A.S. and Jainendra Karn


(New Delhi, India) Two prominent things which connect India, Sri Lanka and Nepal are Dharma and Ayurveda. Both aim at eliminating suffering. The term in Pali which the Buddha used to convey the concept of suffering is Dukkha. The Buddha said that his main concern was the problem of human suffering and how it could be eliminated. His whole effort was directed towards finding a way out of Dukkha. Similarly in Ayurveda seven Dukkha are described by the great Ayurveda Acharya Vagbhata which cover all types of diseases including physical, mental, psychological and environmental and Papkarmaja.


Ayurveda essentially means “science of life,” and its goal is to cure the peoples who are suffering from physical or mental diseases. In the Buddhist literature, the Buddha is referred both as a physician and surgeon. Anything foreign to the human body is taken out by surgical procedures mentioned in the Sushruta Samhita, and grief was considered as something foreign. The Buddha could remove sorrow and thus he was a surgeon, while he could also remove and lessen the suffering hence he was a physician.


Jīvaka who trained at Taxila was an expert in surgical techniques and was the personal physician of the Buddha and Emperor Bimbisāra, and is sometimes described as the “Medicine King.” He figures prominently in legendary accounts in Asia as a model healer, and is honoured as such by the traditional healers in several countries like China, Vietnam and Japan.


It can be posited that Ayurveda greatly influenced all the ancient medical systems of the world. Dharma and Ayurveda travelled eastward and westward through the universities at Nalanda and Taxila respectively. Later on Emperor Ashoka who had embraced Buddhism promoted the Ayurvedic system throughout the Mauryan Empire and its neighbouring countries in third century B.C.  Buddhist monks took Ayurveda to all the countries where Buddhism spread and it reached central Asia, Tibet, China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Sumatra and many other countries.


Famous Buddhist monk Nagarjuna was also a great physician of Ayurveda. He made several researches in the field such as the introduction of mineral-based medicine which are still followed in the contemporary medical world. He was also a great philosopher and psychologist who played significant role in the development and enrichment of Ayurveda.


Over the centuries, Islamic invasions and concomitant destruction followed by European colonization affected Dharma and Ayurveda drastically. And with the advent of Western medicine in the nineteenth century, it started playing a prominent role to address the issues of illness and disease across the world which continues even today. However in the recent past, the phenomenal rise of the alternative medicine industry responds to some of the major shortcomings in what modern Western medicine has to offer in terms of costs, efficacy, availability, affordability and side effects. These shortcomings have created a situation where traditional medicine meets a perceived need. In several North American and European countries, the production and sale of herbal medicines, dietary supplements, and other so-called “natural” products have become a huge and profitable industry, amounting to $32 billion a year in the USA alone.


In the recent past attempts were made by various countries to revive their traditional medicinal systems to address the contemporary challenges to deliver health and wellness, and to reform their health systems with the aim of reaching universal health coverage, which is a key target under the Sustainable Development Goal for health. In other words, countries are seeking to expand coverage with essential services at a time when consumer expectations for care are rising, costs are soaring, and most budgets are either stagnant or reduced.


A significant increase in the costs of treating lifestyle-related chronic diseases has necessitated a paradigm shift towards a more holistic approach from the model for health service delivery away from a strictly biomedical model. This is an approach that stresses on prevention as well as cure and offers integrated services that address the multiple determinants of health.


China is the only country in the world where Western medicine and traditional medicine are practiced alongside each other at every level of the healthcare system. Traditional treatments include herbal remedies, acupuncture, acupressure and massage, and moxibustion which have evolved over thousands of years and presently account for over 40% of all health care delivered in China. Recently Singapore has also pioneered some good policies that aim to promote traditional medicine. For example, patients are referred for traditional treatments, like acupuncture, by doctors trained in the Western medicine. Countries like Singapore which aim to integrate the best from traditional and modern medicine would do well to look not only at the many differences between traditional and modern medicine. Instead, they should look at those areas where both converge to help tackle the unique health challenges of the contemporary times.


It is also to be noted that traditional medicine systems also provide a cost-effective and non-invasive alternative. For example, Marma which is part of Ayurveda shows immediate relief in the cases of Frozen Shoulder, Brachial Plexus injury, Cerebral Palsy, Post Paresis cases, Osteoarthritis Induced Disability etc. A country like India has 8 lacs ( 800,000) knee replacement surgeries every year, and each one costs over INR 5 lacs ( 500,000). One can imagine how much money can be saved and wellness provided to patients who suffer because of knee problems without spending a single penny through Marma.


India, Sri Lanka and Nepal have to develop a synergy in order to revive their core competencies in Ayurveda in order to harness opportunities in the healthcare industry which is one of the largest and fast growing industries in the world. The global healthcare market is expected to grow to USD 11801 billion in 2021.


These core competencies reflect the fundamental knowledge and technical skills in the field of Ayurveda which make the local offerings in Ayurveda and its products “special,” especially at a time when the present global herbal product’s market is witnessing an annual growth rate of 7%, and shall reach USD 6 Trillion by 2050.


As holders of the traditional knowledge of Ayurveda, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal can play the role of an organized player of value-added exports and innovative products as Ayurveda is assuming an important role in the field of CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) across the globe. It necessitates a diligent approach to harness the opportunities in the market were India’s share is less than 2% and China’s less than 5%. Over 90% of international herbal medicine market is dominated by Japan and South Korea because they have the infrastructure and wherewithal to process herbal materials with well developed technologies.


CII-McKinsey did a report on the medical tourism industry based on Ayurveda in the Indian state of Kerala which was expected to be worth $4 billion by 2017. This sector brought in as much as $2 billion by 2012 as compared to an estimated $333 million in 2006-07. While medical tourists from Germany, France, Switzerland and the US prefer Ayurveda treatment, it is also becoming very popular in West Asia and the UK. The unique offerings of India, Sri Lanka and Nepal in the medical tourism sector based on Ayurveda will enhance their core competencies and seize a competitive advantage in the global marketplace.


In February 2009, the United Nations Economic and Social Council President Ms. Sylvie Lucas while launching the 54-member body’s first panel discussion in connection with the 2009 Annual Ministerial Review theme said- “We cannot ignore the potential of traditional medicine in the race to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and renew primary health care for those who lacked access to it.”


Ayurveda offers enormous opportunities to India, Sri Lanka and Nepal to provide primary healthcare to their peoples, secure local healthcare market by developing local products and to serve others by providing quality health and wellness offerings through medical tourism opportunities.


There is an urgent need to develop core competencies in Ayurveda and to develop best practices and standards, along with expertise in its field of business, and the uniqueness of the products in the eyes of its customers. Incorporation of Ayurveda in policy initiatives devised by the authorities would help it become a leading player in the healthcare sector. A proper strategy and its careful implementation shall provide local and affordable health solutions in the country while helping establish leading and trustworthy international pharmaceutical brands that are based on the traditions of Ayurveda.


*** Manish Uprety F.R.A.S. is an ex-diplomat and co-founder of Ayush Darpan Foundation Trust; Jainendra Karn is the founder-chairman of Jambudweep Sanatan Network

** The article is a reprint of the one published in the investment magazine OSL, Sri Lanka in April 2019

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