Janaka Perera assesses the health and financial benefits of indigenous treatments

It’s been a while since the WHO recognised the importance of indigenous medicine – generally known in the West as ‘alternative treatment.’ Sri Lanka’s current economic crisis, which is mainly due to a lack of foreign exchange, has negatively impacted both Western and Eastern medical systems in the country – more so the former since it depends almost entirely on imported drugs.

Today, our Eastern medical practice is a mixture of traditional Sri Lankan; Ayurveda and Siddha from India; Unani from Greece, brought by the Arabs; and most importantly, the Deshiya Chikitsa or Hela Vedakama, which is the island’s original native medicine system.

The essence of this Eastern medical tradition is best summed up in the experience of the ancient Indian physician Jīvaka. Although he had almost finished studying medicine,  Jīvaka was expected to complete a final test according to his teacher. He was asked to go into the jungle and bring back any plant that was not used for medicinal preparations.

When he returned after scouring the jungle, Jīvaka told his teacher that there wasn’t even a single plant that wasn’t used for medicinal purposes. His teacher congratulated him and said: “You have nothing more to learn.”

No one knows the value of jungle plants better than the indigenous peoples of countries such as India and Sri Lanka. The island’s ‘first nation’ people are called Veddas and their chieftain regrets that civilisation, which has encroached on their tradi­tional forestlands, has led to the gradual disappearance of valuable plants and herbs with high curative properties used in Hela Vedakama.

In the Western medicinal system, a diagnosis is made only after a disorder manifests. However, both Hela Vedakama and Ayurveda can accurately discover the presence of an illness long before any symptoms manifest.

Hela Vedakama is as old as Sri Lanka’s civilisation. Our native peoples developed it based on a series of prescriptions handed down through the generations over a period of some 3,000 years. A few of our ancient kings were also prominent physicians.

Traditional medicine more or less died out in Sri Lanka with the advent of European colonisation, which popularised prescription drugs and transformed people into a pill popping populace.

Currently, Sri Lanka’s forex crunch has led to difficulties in sourcing some natural ingredients that are necessary for the manufacture of Ayurvedic medicines. Therefore, it has been decided to grow them here as far as possible since skyrocketing prices and shortages of imported medication are bound to make more people turn to indigenous and Ayurvedic treatment rather than the Western drugs on which they had previously depended.

In recent years too, increasing numbers of tourists from the West and elsewhere have been seeking alternative remedies through our traditional medicines to cure their chronic ailments.

The colonial era surgeon Dr. John Attygalle, who qualified in the UK, compiled the Sinhala version of materia medica in 1917. He claims to have administered these decoctions in their proper order and found them to be most effective.

After reading the Charaka Samhita, which is the ancient Indian text on the Ayurvedic medical tradition, American medical practitioner Dr. George Clarke is quoted as saying: “As I go through a part of Charaka, I come to the conclusion that if present-day physicians drop all modern drugs and chemicals from their pharmacopoeia and adopt the methods of Charaka in treating diseases, there will be less work for undertakers and fewer invalids in the world.”

An indigenous medical researcher in Sri Lanka observes the extremely unhealthy eating habits of patients and finds that they don’t eat red rice, jak, manioc, fruits and leaves such as gotukola which are usually grown in rural gardens.

Conversing with Ayurveda and Hela Vedakama physicians, this researcher found that we have included in our modern diet every kind of immunity impairing, chemically produced and processed rubbish that encourages greed and craving!

We desperately need to focus on reviving our traditional or indigenous patterns of consumption wherein there was a thin divide between medicine and food. Addressing a Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka symposium on indigenous medicine, healthcare and wellbeing, Ven. Dr. Omalpe Sobhita Thera observed: “If you do not consider food as medicine in your diet, then one day you will have to consume medicine as food.”

We need to recognise that our indigenous food is replete with almost magical medicinal nutrients that are a luxury for many Western nations. This is a good opportunity for all sectors – ranging from the allopathic medical system to the banking sector to local business entities and to the education system – to unite in genuine consideration for the common Sri Lankan cause of promoting wellbeing and immunity.

The financial wealth, health and self-sufficiency of our nation depend on it.