A question paper from the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences, Karnataka, is making headlines for all the wrong reasons. The Kayachikitsa paper asked fourth-year undergraduate students of the Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery course to write an essay on ‘Stree as a Vajikarana dravya’ or ‘woman as an aphrodisiac substance’. The university responded by saying that the question paper was set as per the syllabus approved by the Central Council for Indian Medicine, which the institution “has no authority over adding or omitting”.
I must clarify that, as a practitioner of Ayurveda, I do not intend to denigrate ancient texts from which I have learnt a lot. They remain important for their complex and extensive descriptions of the epistemological framework of Ayurveda, alongside their other contributions as medical treatises. But as a qualified specialist, I should mention some uncomfortable truths pertaining to modern interpretations of this discipline.
While much of what is studied in college is essentially related to the medical practice of Ayurveda, the unfortunate truth is that the Karnataka university’s question paper proves, and not for the first time, how misogynistic contents continue to be taught to Ayurveda students. For instance, they learn that women, particularly independent women (svatantra stree), are not to be trusted.
What has transpired within the domain of collegiate Ayurveda, and the construction of its curriculum, that such absurdities have made their way into the education and examination system?
Also read: Ayurveda to Unani—traditional medicine systems can’t run on anecdotal evidence. Need research
Decoding the problem
A major chunk of the collegiate Ayurveda syllabus is derived from three main textual sources—the Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, and Ashtanga Hridaya. The portions of the texts being discussed here, have been retained in the syllabus without any critical interpretation or edition to this day. This is a failure to respond to, or incorporate the vastly nuanced, contemporary dialogue around these issues into the collegiate curriculum.
The reason these texts have acquired centrality in Ayurvedic education has to do with the post-colonial renaissance that Ayurveda underwent in India. However, in the process, Ayurveda ironically came to be defined by many of the same parameters of the Western biomedical system that it had also set out to counter. One of them was biomedicine’s emphasis on codified knowledge, which pushed Ayurveda to centralize, standardise and validate long-standing codified sources of its own.
This effort, alongside others, gained momentum from the 1960s onwards, and eventually came to be regulated nationwide in 1977 by the newly established Central Council of Indian Medicine. In this quest, the first syllabus makers of Ayurveda promoted these key texts. Thereafter, the prominent role that these texts occupied in CCIM mandated syllabi was also perhaps because it would be impossible for anyone to refute their historicity, and also because their perceived origin in a pre-colonial, culturally rich India likely contributed to nationalist fervour. These texts quickly became symbols, as did Ayurveda, of historically and culturally endemic Indian medical knowledge, in contrast to biomedicine, which is both recent and of Western origin.
Also read: Food combining ‘ayurvedic’ taboos are back as fad. It’s ok to mix fruits with vegetables
Internal critique is difficult
Students of Ayurveda are reluctant to question and critique texts that are vital to their identity and legitimacy. Over time, these texts have acquired a certain reverence that frowns upon attempts to question or critique them.
Lack of such critique meant that grounds became fertile for absurdities like the Karnataka question paper fiasco. This has left students and practitioners of Ayurveda in a quandary. On the one hand, they are reluctant to question and critique these texts; on the other, they intensely justify them as these texts represent everything they have learnt.
These justifications are supported by claims that the texts also venerate, even worship, women. But they are evasive at best. Such a response does not address why statements objectifying women are allowed and studied in the first place. The two do not cancel each other out.
Also read: Objection to Ayurveda students doing surgery is a turf war driven by commercial interests
Change is imperative
While everyone has broadly agreed that something needs to fundamentally change, no one is answering exactly what must change. Suggestions to edit out objectionable portions of these texts are met with affront by purists, to whom it amounts to ‘tampering’ with textual purity—but change can seldom be avoided, and is particularly important to reform the Ayurvedic curriculum in India.
Considering the massive impact of vernacular literature on Ayurveda over the past century, diversifying the literature mandated in colleges will divest the Sanskrit manuscripts, at least partly, of the vested essentiality that they currently possess and facilitate easier critical engagement with them. Further, diverse and more contemporaneous literature will provide scholars with a multitude of perspectives on several aspects—including a critical examination of historical and contemporary gender inequality within the traditional science, and what efforts have or can be made to address them.
What will be the policies pertaining to what is taught or allowed into syllabi? Who will take these decisions? How will they be enforced? The ‘big three’ texts are all in Sanskrit, and are all over a thousand years old. Notwithstanding the static nature of Ayurvedic knowledge that this implies, the elitist implications of an exclusive reliance on Sanskrit texts must also be considered in revised syllabi.
It is important that the Ayurveda syllabus further evolves to realistically meet the opportunities and challenges of the emerging world, and takes a hard look at some of its more problematic elements, as thrown up by the recent controversy. It is high time that AYUSH and concerned stakeholders of the Ayurveda fraternity revisited the syllabus, for it is clear that some things urgently need to change.
Pushya A Gautama is a Doctoral Scholar at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. She is a gold medalist in Ayurveda (Dravya Guna) from the RGUHS. She is also involved in clinical trials that study the role of Ayurveda in improving the quality of life of advanced cancer patients. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)