TRADITIONAL MEDICINE: FACT OR FICTION?
“Medicine considers the human body as to the means by which it is cured and by which it is driven away from health.”
-Abu Ali al-Hussain Ibn Abdallah Ibn Sina (Avicenna): On Medicine (c. 1020)
The human body is a fascinating specimen — at the very core of it is the heart which pumps blood day and night without fail. A pair of lungs which draws in the surrounding air; a fleshy mass to top it all off, which does most of the analytical working for us, ranging from basic counting to assessing the risk involved in sneaking out from your bedroom window. As fascinating as the human body can be, it is also unfortunately prone to fail or develop a glitch in the system, like any machine built to utmost perfection, can.
The need to persevere, to survive, to develop and branch out, brought about the study of healing alternatives and medicinal sciences. The word ‘medicine’ itself is derived from the Latin word for remedy or relating to a physician, medicina. Modern-medicine is not a new concept but goes all the way back to pre-historic times. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were the first doctors; and also the first lab rats, unfortunately. It is through immense trial and error that we have gotten to where we are, with modern-science and the ever-evolving world of drugs.
However, we cannot limit healing to just off-counter drugs, surgical remedies and radiation therapy; there is an entire hidden world out there of medicine which works beyond the realms of what one would refer to as the Western idea of ‘advancement’.
The term for this much lesser-known cousin is ‘traditional medicine’. The World Health Organization defines the term as “the sum total of the knowledge, skills, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.”
Unlike modern sciences, traditional medicine does not require formal education and/or a designated title. It applies a more faith-based, holistic approach towards the human mind and body, and views it as a soul-carrying vessel, instead of a flawed design. Traditional medicine is divided into many different types, based on the region it is practised in; such as:
- Ayurveda: One of the oldest forms of traditional medicine, practised largely in the Indian Subcontinent for more than millennia
- Unani (the Arabic word for Greek, or Ionian medicine): thought to be established based on the teachings of one of the pioneers in the world of medicinal sciences — Hippocrates
- Acupuncture: ancient traditional Chinese medicine that is based around the concept of inserting needles into the skin
- African Medicine: Relies on spiritualism and deep knowledge of indigenous herbs
It is said that the Hindu physician God Dhanvantari received the knowledge of Ayurveda from Brahma (the Creator God in Hindu mythology). The holy book of Vedas covers the science of Ayurveda in great context; ranging from remedies for the abscess to major dietary and respiratory diseases. The treatment usually starts from internal spiritual purification, kind of like therapy; usually then followed by herbal medicine, a set diet and meditation.
Unani, on the other hand, refers to the Grecian method of medical practice established by the famous Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen; and later on, developed by the Arabs in the Abbasid era. The Unani doctrine consists of seven principals; arkan (elements), mizaj (temperature), akhlat (bodily humours), aaza (organs), arwah (vital spirit), quwa (powers) and afaal. It focuses on the mental, spiritual, emotional and physical causes of illness or health; and focuses on the human body as a whole; not just limited to the outer appearance.
On the other end of the spectrum in the Far-East, roughly a thousand years ago the Chinese had started developing a treatment of sorts that involved puncturing the human body at specified locations with a long, thin needle; in order to enable healing and relaxation of the muscles. Although in practice for centuries, most studies have shown acupuncture to be momentarily effective or not at all. Often referred to as one of the branches of pseudoscience, there is a lot of scepticism that revolves around it but devoted followers and practitioners of this method swear by it, time and again.
Perhaps the most interesting and overlooked category of traditional medicine has to be African Medicine. Africa, home to a diverse array of medicinal plants and herbs, is also the birthplace of one of the most mystical forms of medical practices. Combining African spiritualism and deep knowledge of herbal sciences, the plants are often used to treat diseases ranging from wounds and mild epileptic seizures to treating unseen entities such as depression and anxiety. One issue with African medicine is that it is not regulated as often, and often patients end up getting treated by bogus practitioners and/or take medicines which causes them to develop allergies or other adverse reaction.
Regardless of how contemporary science views these practices as outdated, pseudoscience and/or quackery; there is no doubt that there must be some reason why they are still studied and practised in particular parts of the world. It cannot have amassed a huge following for no reason, there are people who swear by it and rightfully so; since modern-day medicinal science still hasn’t developed a cure for cancer, who are we to contest that some witch doctor, tucked away deep in some leafy jungle, may not have developed the cure already? As rational as science can be, sometimes the answers can also lie beyond the field of rationality; as it is with traditional medicine