Janaka Perera highlights the main strengths of traditional medical systems

Ayurveda is a common term for indigenous medical systems that originated in South Asian countries including Sri Lanka; it is a Sanskrit term that means ‘the science of life.’ Despite profound Indian influence, Sri Lanka also developed its own course with the passage of time with a number of distinctive features that distinguish it from Indian systems.

To this day, indigenous medical practitioners use Saratha Sangrahaya, a medical manuscript authored by Sri Lankan physician King Buddhadasa, who was a surgeon and veterinary science specialist.

The term ‘indigenous medicine’ covers Desheeya Chikitsa (‘hela wedakama’), Siddha medicine (of Indian origin) and Unani – which is of ancient Greek origin and reached Sri Lanka through the Arabs.

Clinical Associate Professor of the Department of General Practice at Monash University Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha refers to Sushruta, who taught surgery in India over 3,000 years ago, when discussing the history of surgery to remove kidney stones and cataracts, perform amputations, treating abdominal conditions and so on.

Wijesinha says many medicines that originated in ancient India can be found in the British Pharmacopoeia.

With the advent of British colonialism however, indigenous and traditional medical systems in Sri Lanka faced a dark era although they have survived many vicissitudes so far. This country ceased to be a colony in 1948 but the minds of many – especially the Westernised middle classes – remained colonised.

This remains so to this day albeit to a lesser degree. They derided most things native and referred to the Ayurvedic physician as ‘ayurvedda’ – which meant someone like a tribal (vedda) witch doctor.

Nevertheless, even at the height of British colonialism, there were Western medical practitioners who took up the cause of indigenous medicine. Among the few was Dr. John Attygalle, who published the Sinhalese Materia Medica in 1917 for the benefit of local practitioners of Western medicine. According to Atygalle, American physician Dr. George Clarke went even further and after studying translations of Charaka Samhita – a Sanskrit text on Ayurveda – reportedly stated: “As I go over each fasciculus, 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 chronic invalids in this world.”

In the post-independence years, among the doctors who recognised the importance of indigenous medicine was the late Dr. R. B. Lenora, who is considered by some to be the father of the Institute of Indigenous Medicine at the University of Colombo.

Yet indigenous medicine continues to face many challenges compared to the Western system, which continues to monopolise this country’s healthcare services. Over three decades ago, it was noted that we lived in an age drugged by capsules, tablets and pills.

Following Sri Lanka gaining independence, it took the country 32 years to establish a ministry of indigenous medicine to revive traditional methods of treatment.

Since the 1990s however, scientists have been discovering what traditional medicine knew all along – viz. the healing properties of the world’s 250,000 known plant species. This was highlighted in the Routes of Wisdom documentary series where Dr. David Bellamy and other leading botanists availed themselves of age-old indigenous knowledge preserved by this country’s village vedaralas.

Among the major difficulties facing traditional medicine today is the protection and preservation of medicinal herbs. Clearing jungles for the purpose of ‘development’ has threatened the survival of many of these plants, which are essential to indigenous medical practitioners.

American physician, author and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School Marcia Angell stresses that in the case of any medicine that is rigorously tested and works, it no longer matters if it was considered an alternative – i.e. traditional or indigenous – at the outset. If it is found to be reasonably safe and effective, the treatment has to be accepted.

The WHO has already recognised the importance of traditional and complementary medicine, and is halfway through the implementation of the WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-2023.

In countries such as India and China, both Eastern and Western medicine systems complement each other. In 1995, Dr. Hemamal Jayawardena of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Kelaniya called for a similar amalgamation of the two systems in Sri Lanka.

Neither indigenous nor allopathic medicine is the super panacea for all ills. A patient may succumb to an illness due to a variety of reasons ranging from wrong diagnosis to negligence and ineffective treatment.

No medical system is perfect. Medicine is not an exact science like physics or chemistry.