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'This is not ayurveda'

"AYURVEDA Goes Global," blazed the headline in a leading weekly this summer. The cover story waxed eloquent about the West's discovery of this 5,000-year-old Indian discipline, dropping the names of celebrities who have turned to our traditional remedies to cure their post-modern ailments — Naomi Campbell, Demi Moore, Cherie Blair and the ubiquitous Madonna were prominently mentioned. "Ayurveda continues to grow rapidly as one of the most important systems of mind-body medicine, natural healing and traditional medicine," the article quotes a Dr. David Frawley as saying, "as the need for natural therapies, disease prevention and a more spiritual approach to life becomes ever more important in this ecological age." That sounds like an appropriately New Age sentiment, but tellingly, the article calculates the success of this otherworldly science in material terms: Ayurveda, it seems, accounts for $60 billion of a $120 billion "global herbal market".

And therein, if I may coin a phrase, lies the rub. There is no argument about the increasing popularity of Ayurveda: clinics professing to offer ayurvedic treatments are sprouting like herbs in places as far afield as London and the Italian Dolomites, and "ayurvedic tourism" is already a significant money-earner for our national exchequer. Kerala, in particular, has made a fetish out of advertising its ayurvedic spas, and several five-star hotels, which not so long ago would have looked down at anything so desi, have cashed in on the rage. But what exactly is it that they are selling? Tourist brochures show a winsome blonde in a bikini being massaged by a lady in a traditional red-bordered white Kerala sari, with jasmine in her hair and a brass lamp at her side. This is effectively packaged exotica: not Ayurveda as a remedy for disease, but rather as an upmarket beauty treatment — a relaxation cure for the jaded. A 5,000-year-old science has become the diversion of choice of the era of the 15-second soundbite. "Pamper yourself with the wisdom of the ancients," the slogan might as well say.

"This is not Ayurveda," says Dr. Ramkumar, a 33-year-old former Calcuttan who runs the venerable Arya Vaidya Pharmacy in Coimbatore, which offers the more traditional treatments. "This is a travesty of Ayurveda. People are taking what is meant to be a total system of medicine and reducing it to a few superficial treatments. Ayurveda is meant to diagnose and treat the entire person, not one part of his or her body. And the principle behind our treatments is vital. Our massages, for example, are not intended for transient pleasure. In fact massage is the wrong word for them — they are really oil applications. A doctor determines what are the right oils you need, and they are then applied systematically over a period of time. The benefit of the treatment comes from the oil, not from the rubbing. But instead it is the massage that is being promoted rather than the medicinal purpose of the oil." True enough. Professional ayurveds are also critical of the way in which the cosmetics industry has latched onto Ayurveda. The hottest range of beauty products in North America these days — soaps and moisturisers, anti-wrinkle creams and conditioning shampoos — claims to be based on Ayurveda. But it calls itself "Aveda", a more digestible brand-name, in order to appeal to a mainstream clientele. "Aveda," snorts one ayurved dismissively. "That means, against the Veda!"

The Arya Vaidya Pharmacy is doing tremendous work to popularise "real" Ayurveda across the country — both Prime Minister Vajpayee and former President Narayanan are beneficiaries of their treatments — but it is more of a challenge to get the word out around the world. Most countries — not just in the West — do not recognise Ayurveda as a system of medicine, which makes it impossible to export medicines and oils except as "herbal dietary supplements". Ayurvedic practitioners are also not recognised as doctors (though many of them have graduated from a rigorous four-year course taught by the Central College of Ayurveda in India), and as such would not be licensed to treat illnesses. This leaves them little choice but to offer the cosmetic treatments, especially massages, which have less exacting licensing requirements. An ancient science has been reduced to a modern fad.

"You wouldn't go for a bypass and ask the doctor to short-circuit some of the procedures," says Dr. Ramkumar. "Why should you ask an ayurved to do so?" The answer is, of course, that no one has a bypass for pleasure, but some ayurvedic treatments are indeed pleasureable, whether or not they serve a larger medical purpose. One August day, I drove up to the Tamil Nadu hill resort of Kotagiri to spend a blissful 24 hours at the Arya Vaidya Pharmacy's "Ayurprastha" retreat, the former palace of the Travancore Maharajah. I walked in the bracing mountain air, ate organic vegetarian Kerala meals and treated myself to two ayurvedic massages by an expert therapist. I knew perfectly well that 24 hours was not going to redress anything fundamentally wrong with my constitution, but 24 hours was all I had, and even if the effects could not possibly be lasting, I felt reinvigorated for the next few days. Is that such a bad thing for India to offer the rushed visitor? Our ancient traditions evolved in ancient times; if we can adapt them to the present and in the process bring a few of those 60 billion dollars into our country, what's the harm in doing so? We're never going to become a major tourist destination because of our beaches or our shopping malls; no one is going to come to us for our spectacular historic sites because they are so badly maintained and supported so poorly by our infrastructure. The one commodity we have in abundance that the world wants is our ancient wisdom — the spiritual teachings of our sages, including the practice of Ayurveda. The purists like Dr. Ramkumar are right that what is being promoted is really "Ayurveda Lite", but let us not allow the best to become the enemy of the good. No one wants the basic principles of Ayurveda to be compromised. But perhaps by popularising Ayurveda in this way we will generate the resources the ayurveds need to do their serious work better.

Shashi Tharoor, Under Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, U.N., is the author, most recently, of the novel Riot (Viking Penguin). His new book with M.F. Husain, Kerala: God's Own Country, has just been published by Books Today, an imprint of India Today. Visit the author at www.shashitharoor.com

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