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India on a move to reclaim heritage; soft power in use

When modernization came, what the people forgot was that the (tradition) ‘slow and steady wins the race’. But that does not mean all modern aspects are bad, just that sometimes being natural or following your tradition and the traditional methods are the best.

India is planning a medicinal revolution — and it starts with ancient wisdom.

Many believe that the West has plundered the country’s 3,000-year-old tradition of holistic healing to sell expensive aloe vera face creams or $6-a-cup of turmeric-flavored “golden milk.”

Now Narendra Modi, India’s 67-year-old yoga-loving prime minister, wants to reclaim India’s ancient medical traditions- Ayurveda and capitalize on it.

Documented in ancient texts, Ayurveda emphasizes prevention over cure and prescribes healthy living practices and herbal remedies.

International beauty brands borrow from Ayurveda to develop skincare products while trendy coffee shops and juice bars in American cities repackage India’s village remedies into turmeric lattes and ashwagandha smoothies.

 Food bloggers are raving about ghee (clarified butter).

“All over the world, a parallel movement is going on for traditional medicine,” said Vaidya Rajesh Kotecha, secretary of Modi’s recently launched Ministry of AYUSH, an acronym that stands for Ayurveda, yoga, unani, siddha and homeopathy, all traditional medicines. “India should lead. Not just to earn money, but also because it is our responsibility toward the world.”

READ ALSO: PM Modi to inaugurate ‘All India Institute of Ayurveda’

Disputed territory

But Ayurveda’s efficacy is often disputed. Modi’s critics associate the Ayurveda push with his Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalist ideology. Many of Ayurveda’s most prominent supporters have links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu supremacist organization.

To relaunch Brand Ayurveda, India’s government agencies have filed dozens of international patents, started research programmes at top Indian universities and sent experts to develop Ayurveda courses at colleges around the world. Delegates from 25 countries have set up “information cells” to spread awareness about traditional Indian knowledge.

In rural India, an agricultural effort accompanies the Ayurveda push.

Officials are running educational programmes and providing seeds, saplings, and subsidies to farmers to meet the government’s target of increasing the cultivation of medicinal plants threefold, to cover 120,000 hectares of land.

Plants that farmers once considered weeds are being revived to cater to the new demand for their medicinal properties.

Reviving Ayurveda is one of Modi’s flagship policies and part of his rhetoric of restoring India’s past glory to achieve prosperity in the future.

Modi argues that since colonial times, the West has promoted modern medicine and big pharmaceutical companies’ interests over traditional alternatives.

As a result, he says, Indians neglected their heritage while Western companies mined Ayurvedic traditions for miracle cures, filed patents and sold products without crediting India.

“Our grandmothers’ remedies have become the intellectual property rights of other countries,” Modi said, addressing an audience in New Delhi on Ayurveda Day in October last year.

Reclaiming and promoting Ayurveda has practical benefits, too, said Rajiv Vasudevan, a chairman of the Ayurveda core group at the Confederation of Indian Industry. Promoting Indian expertise could bring foreign cash and has “soft-diplomacy” benefits, he said.

“We are a proud nation, we have a rich history, and we have something to share with the world,” he said.

READ ALSO: CBSE to have Ayurveda and Indian Philosophy as subjects

Contentious issues

In January, lawmakers tried to pass a new bill in Parliament that would allow practitioners of Ayurveda, homeopathy and other alternative health-care systems to prescribe modern medicine after completing a three-month course. The plan addressed the chronic shortage of doctors in rural India, lawmakers argued, but the Indian Medical Association held protests to stop the bill.

“Suppose you have a shortage of pilots. Would you allow a rickshaw driver to fly the plane?” said Arun Gupta, president of the Delhi Medical Council and a member of the rival Aam Aadmi Party. The bill is under review.

Critics also argue that some of the “traditional” practices the government is promoting aren’t Indian at all. Unani and homeopathy — both promoted by Modi’s AYUSH ministry — originate in Greece and Germany, respectively, and many countries have competing claims on the discovery of aloe vera’s medicinal properties.

But for others, like Vasudevan, Ayurveda’s resurgence symbolizes India’s rising star. “We’ve had our entire history ignored,” he said. “Ayurveda’s resurgence coincides with the resurgence of Indianness.”

In the desert state of Rajasthan, for instance, where water-guzzling crops often fail in the harsh climate, farmers are planting aloe vera and Indian gooseberries to replace wheat and millet.

“We have to boost Rajasthan’s farmers to survive in this environment. Take the Chinese – every material of theirs is reaching every market,” said Kailash Sharma, medical officer at the state’s AYUSH department, speaking of China’s traditional medicine.


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