“This is not a University subject, this is a universal subject” – Dr. Vasudevan speaking on Ayurveda

“This is not a University subject, this is a universal subject” – Dr. Vasudevan speaking on Ayurveda

Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space

“This is not a University subject, this is a universal subject” – Dr. Vasudevan speaking on Ayurveda

Western medicine, like the worldview that sustains it, for all its incredible achievements, and there are many, has a profound inbuilt limitation. This is not the limitation of science itself, but of ‘scientism’, as coined by the British scientist Rupert Sheldrake. ‘Scientism’ is the view still held by the scientific establishment, that originates from a seventeenth century notion promoted by the French philosopher and scientist, Rene Descartes, that the natural world and the body, are simply mechanisms. Within this worldview is a large part of the trajectory of modernity itself, and of technology: the idea that science can give us command over the natural world. From this perspective, the treatment of health issues is reduced to ‘symptoms’ that can be ‘fixed’ through modern medicine. Whole systems are reduced to the treatment of specific parts of the body. This idea, within its own parameters, has had extraordinary success. It has saved literally millions of lives. But it has also produced severely negative consequences from debilitating ‘side effects’ to wreaking havoc with our immune systems, as well as creating dangerous super ‘bugs’ that require ever stronger drugs. Replacing the ancient view of the body as alive and organic with inherent healing capacities of its own, with scientific materialist objectification, is not only reductive, but has had, and is continuing to have, critical implications for the way we relate to the entire natural world. The origin of this interview with Dr. Vasudevan began several years ago, when I fractured my shoulder in India as a result of a motorbike accident. I was told by specialists in the west that I needed surgery both for the fracture and the injury to tendons in my arm. I had no idea that Ayurveda could help with fractures. But a chance meeting with Dr. Vasudevan, led to him diagnosing (in a matter of minutes) that I didn’t need surgery, and that the fracture could be treated through Ayurveda. After a stay of three weeks in his clinic, I had completely recovered from the fracture and related symptoms. Ayurveda is system of medicine in India based on Vedic philosophy. At the centre of the grounds of the hospital in Coimbatore where Dr. Vasudevan works, is an active temple devoted to Sree Dhanwanthari, the God of Ayurveda.    

Part One: The Tradition of Ayurveda

3rd Space: How old were you when you met your Ayurvedic Guru, and what impression did he make on you?

Dr. V:  I met him at the age of 17. I was a sportsman and a good football player when I was at school. I always had an interest in building my body and being healthy, and I wanted to take it further and find a person who could guide me. At the time my elder brother was going to see my Guru to learn martial arts. So, my brother told me to come along with him, so we could do it together. That’s how I met my teacher at the age of 17, in order to practice martial arts—the Kerala martial art, which is called Kalarippayattu

Dr. Vasudevan

My Guru liked me very much because I was very flexible and strong at the time. I was good at martial arts too, and in one or two years I won a championship in Kalarippayattu at the University where I was studying. The Kalari practice is only done for six months a year, after the winter it comes to an end. Then we do gymnastics. My Guru put me on the parallel bar, roman rings and weight lifting. All this helped me to be ‘Mr. College’ at the time (both laugh). I had a good physique and became a champion in gymnastics as well. In fact, the same year I got two championships, one in gymnastics and the other in Kalari.

So that was how I met my Guru and practiced with him. I had a real affection for him the moment I met him. I always looked at him like you look at an elephant – enjoying the beauty of the elephant, that gigantic look. I was also very impressed by his behavior, the way he spoke, and his personality. Everything about him was impressive.  So, I always tried to be like him, to imitate him. He was my hero! (laughs).

I practiced like this for a few years. By that time my university education was over. Then I had a small problem in my anus, it was very painful. So, my Guru examined me and told me that I had ‘anal fistula’. He asked me to stop the Kalari practice because it was creating too much friction. After giving me the impression that this problem was not curable with medicine, he prescribed a forty-one day Ayurvedic prescription of internal medicine, as well as a lot of restrictions on diet. I completed the forty-one days after which, I never in my life had this problem again. Simultaneously, he put me on a very severe yoga routine. Every morning he’d be there with me from five o’clock in the morning for one hour, then two hours, then three hours and so on. Finally, my practice was four hours a day with him. So the yoga practice and the medicine helped me a lot, and this disease never came back. Now, I’m sixty plus. 

That incident was a turning point in my life actually. I had never wanted to learn anything in particular. I didn’t know what yoga was. I didn’t know what Ayurveda was, or what Vedanta or Veda or Tarka Shastra (a science of dialectics, logic and reasoning) was. He selected the subjects that I had to learn. It was not my interest at that point, but later I realized that it was my interest.

3rd Space: What strikes me as unusual about your Guru is that he was teaching all three things: Yoga, Martial Arts, and Ayurveda. What is the significance of that? 

Kerala Kalarippayattu

Dr. V:  He knew many other things as well—much more than Yoga, Martial Arts and Ayurveda. I learnt from him the Tarka Shastra, the logic Darshanas, the Upanishads and also the Vedanta, the Bhagavad Gita, and so many other things. It was a custom in ancient Indian society that Brahmins learnt the Vedas, and also the subjects that are related to the Vedas. It was a duty. But only very intelligent people could go into the depth of these subjects. Otherwise people would learn something more basic and superficial. But he was not a person like that. He could treat elephants, he could treat snakebites. He was a great yogi.  He was very good in martial arts, a very good gymnast, and he was a Vedantin. He was like a Sanyasi ( a spiritual renunciate). You could approach him anytime – there was no need to make an appointment, you could just go and visit him. He used to lie down or sit on the floor. He was a very simple person, who at the same time was born into a family like a prince. He had his own elephants. He had his own horses. He had such a big family, that every day seven hundred people were dining in his kitchen. That family was very rich and many families in the village depended on his family. They were landlords at the time. As far as I know, he never took from people; he only gave (in the form of) knowledge or money, or whatever! He never took anything from anybody. Not even for consultations from anyone. And if somebody really wanted to give him something, he asked them to put it in the temple.

3rd Space:  So he was a very rare person.

Dr. V:  He was a stalwart in many fields. After many years I realized his valor and his capacities. That must be the reason I felt very close to him when I first met him. I could not compare it to anyone else. I was with him for twenty-three years of my life. I walked behind him, I sat with him, I learned from him, and I travelled with him. He left his body in 1997, but for me he’s not dead, because his spirit is still working, I can feel that. My Guru is not just the body for me. He is a legendary spirit, in me.

3rdSpace:  I understand. He was such a huge figure in your life.

Dr. V: Yes, he changed my life completely, and he showed me the right path, and what one should fulfil in life.

Dr. Vasudevan’s Guru, Poomully Aaram Thampuran

3rd Space: So what do you see as the relationship between Vedanta and Ayurveda, in other words, the relationship between spirituality, if you like, and health?

Dr. V:  You see these are not different subjects. It’s like you are asking about the branch of a tree, while ignoring the entire tree.  The entire knowledge system in India, which is called the Vedas, is like a big banyan tree. It has many branches, and these different branches are in the forms of the different knowledge systems. But they have the same trunk, so the foundation is the same.  So in your life you have two planes that you have to go through. One is the material plane, and the other is the spiritual plane; because both the material and the spiritual are in you at the same time.

3rd Space:  They work together.

Dr. V:  They are together, inseparable. You are the spirit and the spirit possesses the body, which is material. You are ultimately the soul. A human being is a combination of both material and spiritual:  like the two wings of a bird, otherwise it can’t fly.

3rd Space: So yoga is obviously partly a physical, material practice, but it also is a spiritual practice.

Dr. V:  Everything has got these two different planes—even Ayurveda has these two different planes. Yoga has these two different planes. Vedanta has these two different planes. Any other darshana you take has these two different planes.

3rd Space:  What does darshana mean?

Dr. V: Darshana is the very fundamental part of every science, like Ayurveda. Darshana means perception, the different levels of perception of the truth. 

In the Vedic system there are six darshanas. They are, NyayaVaisheshikaSankhyaYogaMimamsa and Vedanta.  And these six darshanas are the structure or body of Ayurveda.  It was on this basis that the principles of Ayurveda developed. Your Ayurvedic knowledge will depend on the extent of your understanding of the darshanas. These darshanas are the schools of thought in Indian philosophy. This is the very foundation of any kind of knowledge you have. If you want to start learning astrology or architecture or music, you need all of them. It is the same for every kind of knowledge. That’s why I said it’s a big banyan tree, which has a trunk and many branches.

3rdSpace:  So traditionally many yogis or practitioners like your Guru, developed many of these darshanas, or a great many of them together, is that right?  Is that how the tradition works?

Dr. V:  Yes, that’s how the tradition works; it’s not a formal study. It’s not an academic type of education: it’s very informal. If I’m the disciple, its according to my interest, or the subject the Guru is proficient in, and if he finds that I’m fit for learning that particular subject, that’s how it works. But it is not something that you learn from books most of the time. Every day is quite new and innovative. You could learn something every day from my Guru, in each and every situation. Sometimes the discussion would be about football or politics, science or journalism, but he had a different kind of perception of everything, because he had a shastric view. Instead of science the word used in the Vedic system is shastra. So he had that perception in everything. It’s very practical. It directs your life in a good way, in the right direction. This is a value-based education. It doesn’t give you a certificate, but you are a different person once you learn the subject. It’s a kind of enlightenment, a revolution that is happening in you. It can guide you properly, and you will develop a very good discriminative intellect that will give you solutions to situations you are facing in life.

3rd Space:  Right, so it’s completely holistic.

Dr. V: It’s completely holistic.

3rd Space:  Because it’s working on many different aspects.

Dr. V: Yes, it’s working on different aspects of life. It’s like it’s tuning you to the nature. Then you can gain a perfect balance, otherwise you collapse and fall. It benefits you in a way that nobody is aware it has even happened. It just happens. It’s not a subject that you go and learn in a University. This is not a University subject, this is a universal subject. So, you enter into this universal subject and you take whatever you can from it, according to your capacity. There is a lot, you know. You can drink from the ocean but you cannot take all the water from the sea.

3rd Space:  Yes, right, and everybody has their own particular proficiencies.

The Sree Dhanwanthari temple in Coimbatore

Dr. V:  Yes, and their own interests. Nobody insists you have to learn this or that. Whatever you want is offered. And the other thing is that in the traditional system of learning, there is the guru and the disciple. I think I haven’t even learnt ten percent of the subjects that my Guru was proficient in, but still after some time I became a guru also.

3rd Space:  So, how does that work?

Dr. V: That’s the interesting thing. Over generations in which the knowledge has been transmitted and shared, a guru may be great, but he is only able to share half of his knowledge to his disciple. Then, when that disciple when becomes the guru, he is only able to give again half to the next generation. So, after three, four, five, or six generations you would think that the complete knowledge would be exhausted. But it’s not the case. This is because whatever we are learning is also a practice; it is not like intellectual understanding and speculation. Its something you live according to—you become an enlightened person—and then when you share this knowledge with the next generation, you actually deliver much more than what you received.

3rd Space:  I see, so it’s generative.

Dr. V:  It’s generative.

3rd Space:  That’s very interesting. That’s what the tradition is actually…how it continues.

The Temple

Dr. V: This is over centuries, and it still survives, it continues. So, I still do my yoga practice. Every day for the last forty years, I’ve been doing it.  The thing is that if I don’t do it, it’s actually a great offense to my Guru, because he made a lot of effort for me to become a yogi: a lot of his time and energy, everything he had. So, I have to continue with it. This is what I can give back to him. I cannot give him money or anything else. In ancient times in the traditional system, there were actually no fees that you collected from your students. It is a free education.

3rd Space:  Right. So, he gives, and you give back.

The Ayurvedic Hospital grounds in Coimbatore

Dr. V:  Yes. If money comes into it then the whole thing is gone, because that intensity, that power and that sadhana (spiritual practice) – everything – is gone, and you are more into the money aspect. If you have no idea of money in your mind, then you can develop it, then you can be an enlightened person. Then it is in the good work you are doing that rewards come to you. Not in terms of money; it comes in a different way. You receive whatever you’re supposed to receive, that’s all. That’s the law of nature.  It’s a universal phenomenon; so you don’t need to worry about what nature is doing, what God is doing.  You do your duty and the rewards come to you; that is life. That’s why you are here. 

 3rd Space:  That’s very illuminating. What you have spoken about seems like the essence of the whole tradition.  

Part Two: Ayurveda and the Modern World

3rd Space: It seems like India is changing quite rapidly today. What do you see, if any, are the positive changes that are happening as a result of the influence of the West; and what changes are you concerned about, what changes do you feel are problematic? 

Dr. V:  Change in a sense is inevitable, in every society, in every nation. Changes will definitely happen over a period of time. This happened even in the traditions. But it should not be a disastrous situation. The devastation of all kinds of knowledge has happened in India since 1947, not before that. I admire the British rule in that they did not completely destroy the culture and civilization.

3rd Space:  So, what was it that happened in 1947?

Dr. V: Once India got independence, the political hierarchy in this country was very devastating. It destroyed the culture and civilization of this country, which didn’t happen even after many centuries of the British and others having come here.

3rd Space:  So, you’re saying that even when the British were here, the structure of the country remained intact?

Dr. V:  It was not affected very much. It started getting affected after 1947.

3rd Space:  That’s interesting.

Dr. V:  When Indians started ruling India with a western interest, a western methodology and a western style of education, everything changed. They wanted everything to be western, because they were so fascinated by the culture of the west. 

3rd Space: And India became a nation-state.

Dr. V: It politicised everything. You are from a different country, so I can communicate this to you in a good way. But if an Indian were sitting in front of me, he wouldn’t be able to absorb this in the same way. 

3rd Space:  Why would an Indian not be able to absorb it in the same way?

Dr. V: The Indian mind has become politicised. You don’t see through a political lens when you hear what I’m saying, because you’re not an Indian, and you don’t know about Indian politics. You just want to know what Ayurveda is, or what yoga is, what the tradition is, what the Vedas are. So, you don’t have any problem comprehending the idea of it. The person who has got jaundice sees everything as yellow. Indians think that education is western. In that sense they don’t see Vedic education as an education for them. They want scientific evidence for the Vedic culture and whatever the Shastras have to say. Indians have developed a western mindset through a western form of education. So their free mind, their free thinking, is gone. Secondly, everyone is politically involved; so the mind is already pre-set. That blocks them from comprehending what the Vedas are.

3rd Space:  So this is the problem of the influence of western modernity?

Dr. V:  Yes. Take Ayurveda for example. Previously Ayurveda was a traditional system, the custom in the society based on the Vedas. Those who had the knowledge could treat people. You don’t need a certificate for that. If you have the knowledge, then you can do it; otherwise you can’t. If you have the knowledge and you heal people, then people will come to you. Otherwise people won’t come to you. So the people will decide whether you’re good or bad. But now the training for Ayurveda has entered the University. There is a syllabus; there is a structure. But Ayurveda is not just a medicine. It’s a vast knowledge. It explains everything about the different aspects of life and how to live, how to be healthy, how to be mentally healthy, how to develop spiritually; and when you get sick, how you can heal. Also, what things you have to give up in life, how to be happy and why you’re experiencing sorrow. So, this is not simply a medical system, it is much more than that. The point is that this knowledge lies with the individual. This is why the guru is so important. No institution can have that knowledge. It can provide a structure and facilities, but knowledge is a big thing.  It depends on the teacher.

3rd Space:  So, Ayurveda is now being taught in University?

Dr. V:  Yes, and the spiritual parts are little emphasized. It’s treated like any other subject, like engineering or western medicine. So, what happens to Ayurveda then?  It becomes limited by the structure given to it. Yet, everyone is supposed to follow it. Anyone not in the academic mainstream is not considered to have the correct knowledge of Ayurveda. But there is so much to learn in Ayurveda. For example, you cannot expect to learn spiritual wisdom, not in the Indian university or in any other university in the world! These aspects are totally ignored. So what is left are certain medicines, certain drugs and certain herbs, and some preparations and names of diseases.

3rd Space:  I understand. So how do you see the tradition being able to deal with this challenge? 

Dr. V: The problem with the present setup is that the academics, who have gone through mainstream academic education, don’t support traditional Ayurvedic practice. So this should be recognized. One possibility is that those who are academically qualified as doctors need go to the local traditional vaidyar’s (practitioner’s), who have the real knowledge, and learn from them. You see, in each area of the country Ayurveda is different. But now the syllabus has become centralized. As a result, in so many parts of India the knowledge has been lost. The chain of the Parampara, of the tradition, has been lost. Once you have broken the chain, then you cannot deliver it to the next generation. It’s gone forever. So thousands of years of Guru tradition have been lost, in one generation. It’s very sad that this has happened.

3rd Space:  That is, very sad.

Dr. V:  There is another possibility. That is, that someone from the West could start this traditional kind of education and bring it back to India. Then we Indians will accept it. If it was started in the West, then people in India would accept it. That’s our mindset.

3rd Space:  So you think it could be started in the West?

Dr. V: I have gone to Germany and there are some practitioners there of Heilpraktiker. Heilpraktiker is the old traditional medical system in Germany. The man who brought me to Germany showed me many different plants that he had in his kitchen garden behind his house. He asked me what these medicines could be used for. I tasted some of them and looked at their appearance, and I could make out this one was for the stomach, this one for the liver etc.

3rd Space:  That’s amazing.

Dr. V: So there is no reason why you couldn’t develop an Ayurveda in your own country with the available herbs. Some of them, when you taste them on your tongue taste like ginger, so this is good for the stomach. And then these thorny bushes are more of water type, which is good in a couple of other conditions. So with knowledge of Ayurveda, you can recognize and identify these herbs.

3rd Space:  That’s fascinating, because you’re saying that Ayurveda is actually universal.

Dr. V: Yes, it’s universal. So if Indians are not practicing it, and the Government and the Universities are not interested in it, why can’t others start it? 

3rd Space: So then, perhaps the positive side of living in a global world is that it’s possible for Ayurvedic traditions to emerge in other parts of the world. That’s interesting, because there is a growing recognition in the West of the problems of the modern world, and how it is eradicating these ancient knowledge systems.

Dr. V:  Well, there is a positive and negative side to this interaction with the West. Before in the traditional system, India was separate. We had our own culture. In ancient times they were interested in the preservation of the Vedic tradition. Because, if you don’t have the subject alive in you, how can you propagate it? It was a matter of duty, a matter of dharma. It was just a part of your life and your society. It was like taking food everyday, without which you cannot survive. 

Today the lifestyle is very different. It’s a modern lifestyle. If you learn some kind of Vedic knowledge, it doesn’t match with your culture, or your lifestyle. It doesn’t even match with the way you think. So this creates some friction. A scientific mind always wants to prove whether something is true or not—there is no confidence, or belief, to take it on trust, because of modern education. This has happened in India due to the interaction with other cultures. That is the negative part of it. At the same time, we are exchanging with many different cultures in the world, and we are more open. That is the positive side of it. So we should just leave the negative and take the positive, like the swan that removes the water from the milk, and takes only the milk. But we have to be very discriminative in that.

3rd Space:  So then what do you think is going to happen to the tradition?

Dr. V: Well, one thing I can tell you is that this kind of knowledge cannot die. It has existed for so long, for five thousand years, so it cannot die. Somehow it will renew itself and re-emerge. And if its only one person that does that, that’s enough knowledge for another sixty years. In that way it won’t be lost, but it won’t be beneficial for the masses. It has to be brought back either by some individuals, or the community, or some of the religions, or some of the politicians, or the government itself. But it should not be looked at from a particular political or religious angle. Before there was so much multiplicity, in terms of religion, in terms of language, in terms of food—so many things. Variety is the beauty of creation.

3rd Space:  Yes, that’s something that India has understood very deeply, this relationship between unity and diversity.

Dr. V:  It was a very deep understanding, and there was lot of diversity, and in that diversity there was a unity. It was unified and diverse knowledge at the same time. That was the backbone of the society. That’s why it survived.

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Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space

3 Responses

  1. Thanks for this great interview Steve. Very insightful to read an overview of the roots of Ayurveda and also how it’s being treated in India today. What a loss that this centuries old wisdom tradition with knowledge being passed down from practitioner to practitioner isn’t honored in India today. And how fascinating that the Indian adoption of a Western perspective is what’s uprooting their own tradition.
    I’ve heard of amazing results with traditional Ayurveda, as in your experience. And we don’t want to lose that knowledge or dilute it by only making it available in an academic setting. Dr. Vasudevan’s view that the real Ayurvedic tradition can emerge again even in other parts of the world is encouraging. There is more and more and more interest in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine in the US – but I wonder how far it could go not in an academic setting.
    I think there needs to be some consideration about how to bring forward these ancient healing traditions some oversight of safety and effectiveness in academia and medical communities, while allowing for the possibilities of different ways of teaching and disseminating knowledge. In the meantime, I’m glad to know there are practitioners like Dr. Vasudevan carrying the torch.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Kathy. Yes, I agree. The way things are right now, alternative, or what I think should be called ‘traditional’ forms of medicine, when taught academically tend to conform to western pedagogy, which as Dr. Vasudevan points out, doesn’t take account at all of the different civilisational context in which these forms of medicine have developed. Also, in the process Ayurveda easily gets translated into a wellness practice, as has happened with yoga in the west, thanks to capitalism. However, in India, there is beginning to be some real interchange between Allopathic and Ayurvedic practice, with clinical trials taking place now using both, thanks to the work of Sri Krishnakumar in particular, who has received the Padmashri award in India for his work promoting Ayurveda. As a result, Ayurvedic hospitals and clinics, at least in south India, are expanding rapidly. Modi, whatever opinions one might have about his politics, is also a great supporter of Ayurveda, as he is of Yoga, so that is helping also. It’s interesting, when you spend time in India, you realise that most local people outside of the urban areas in particular, naturally trust and turn to ayurveda and homeopathy first, before western medicine.

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