Ancient Wisdom Vs Modern Science

25Mar09

Yeah, a really original topic, I know! So sue me, I have always been fascinated by all that’s old – I am a history buff. But more to the point, I have always believed in the superiority of ancient sciences such as indigenous medicine and yoga to modern Allopathic medicine and aerobics.

Yes, yes I know – Live and let live and don’t knock others beliefs etc, etc. It is not I who am contemptuous of others’ beliefs. The sole reason I am writing this post is because I am irritated with some of these ‘scientific’ know-it-all, skeptical types who always knock down ancient sciences as barbarous and useless. They never keep an open mind, they have already made up their minds it’s useless and so carry out laboratory experiments with the sole objective of proving its useless in mind and then say something like ‘our unbiased, scientific experiments in the laboratory has conclusively proved this is useless’.

The arrogance of some of these so called ‘educated’ people who think they know everything there is to know and that their ancestors were just a bunch of barbarians with nothing noteworthy to teach them, is almost unbelievable.

In addition to taking it upon myself to be the champion of these highly misunderstood folks, I am also a mind reader. What you are thinking right now is ‘What the hell is this rant about?’, right?

OK, I’ll get to the point. A while back, I had to do some research on the prevalence of snake bites in Sri Lanka and the remedies available for it. The only remedy modern science has to offer is something called an antivenin which basically (as per my limited understanding) works like a vaccine. Now all you animal lovers take a great big note of this – I am sure you all know how our highly civilized modern scientists treat our animal brethren anyway but…Ok, so first they have what is called a snake farm. They breed all kinds of poisonous snakes and then milk the poison from them. This is then injected into horses. The natural antibodies the horses then produce to counteract the venom is then sucked out (as in sucking out colossal amounts of their blood) and then with some ‘scientific’ type stuff done on it – ta da – you have got antivenin, the panacea to all snake bites.

Er…No, That’s not quite how it works. If it were really effective, I could understand (not condone but understand) the cruelty to the horses and the snakes, but these bloody things are not even all that effective. In most of the cases I researched, the people who got the antivenin died. There were always ‘scientific’ explanations for this – they had waited too long, they had wasted time by going to the vedamahattaya first, the antivenin did not work because it was made in India and though it was for the same species of snake in Sri Lanka, environmental circumstances had made the snake and thus its venom, evolutionarily different etc, etc.

And in about 60% of these cases (that was the figure they gave, I am inclined to think it was much more), the patient developed a violent allergic reaction to the antivenin which had to be treated (before which they usually died anyway).

But the message I continually got from the experts were, ‘Sri Lankan people still are stupid enough to believe in the vedamahattaya. We need to change their mindsets and make them come rushing to the nearest hospital where we can cure them.’

I had not been fortunate enough to grow up in a village where snakes and vedamahattayas are the norm (though I come from one originally) but nevertheless I had always heard stories of how the village vedamahattaya cured snake bites – usually with the simple means of some ground herbs. So I asked these experts about the success stories of the vedamahattayas. ‘It has never been proved under laboratory testing. They are all a bunch of charlatans.’ Oh Ok, But I personally know of people who have been cured. ‘Oh, That’s because not all bites from a poisonous snake are poisonous. Some are ‘dry bites’ where the snake chooses to withhold its venom.’

Well gee, so much for the science of the ancients, so we’ve all been hoodwinked all these centuries? I was really annoyed with the medical authorities who were all sanguine in the belief that antivenins were the only answer and the vedamahattaya had nothing at all to offer – except wasting the patient’s precious time when he should be at a hospital instead. The consensus was that only all those who went to a indigenous medicine man after a snake bite were ignoramuses and should be properly educated about the ineffectiveness of indigenous medicine and the absolute effectiveness of modern medicine.

Well excuse me? Even after all this research, If I were to be bitten by a poisonous snake (Not that I would know a nonpoisonous one from the other), I would still try to find a vedamahattaya experienced in treating snake bites (yikes, Do we have any of those in Colombo?).

As part of my research, I interviewed a lot of people as to what they would do if they were bitten by a snake and had access to both an experienced vedamahattaya and a modern hospital. I started with my own family.

My father (who was brought up in said village) thought for a while and said he would go to the hospital first and then the vedamahattaya. Why the hospital first? He gave a sheepish grin. Apparently he had given in to the collective thinking of society that modern science was superior to the ancient ones. My sister said, ‘Of course the Hospital’, and my mother said, ‘Of course the Vedamahattaya.’ They were both shocked at each others answers, one was completely certain the vedamahattaya was a barbarian who belonged to the past while the other was equally certain that modern medicine was more trouble than it was worth.

I couldn’t believe my own family could be this divided. I then went further afield to my acquaintances and friends. Almost all who had been brought up in the city were sure the hospital was the only way to go. To my surprise, most who had been brought up in the village said the same thing as well. I am inclined to suspect that they said it only because they did not want to come across as ignorant villagers. Atleast one, a young woman doing her PhD in the highly scientific field of microbiology, admitted to this.

I think its sad that a bunch of know-it-alls in the scientific community should so have brainwashed society into believing that modern science is the only way to go and that only ignoramuses would seek out practitioners of the ancient arts of healing.

So where do you fit into all this? Do you think that indigenous medicine has nothing to offer? If bitten by a snake, where would you go?

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4 Responses to “Ancient Wisdom Vs Modern Science”

  1. i think there are good vedamahaththayas and bad vedamahaththayas as well… some of the most amazing remedies had passed into obscurity because a vedamahaththaya will only teach those techniques to their children, and when those children got jobs and moved to the cities, the vedakama vanishes. Kumarathunge Munidasa describes how his father was a surgical expert vedamahaththaya but how he never took the time to learn his father’s methods himself.

    When I was about 3 I had a bad case of Asthma. The doctors tried to give me a inhaler, but my mom (thank goodness) worried that I wouldn’t be able to get off of that thing and took me to a vedamahaththaya in Pasyala, who gave me some tablets. I have been asthma free for 15 years now!

  2. This isn’t really my field but I feel I have a duty to stick up for the scientific community, so I’ll try and address your concerns…

    You’ve got the right idea with regards to how antivenom is produced – venom is injected into an animal that will generate a suitable immune response in the form of antibodies, which are then extracted and used to treat snake bite victims. As for the cruelty to horses, the alternative would be to generate the antibodies in humans…I don’t know of many humans who would sacrifice themselves like that. And as for our use of animals, millions of insulin-dependent diabetics (and many others) owe their lives to animal-based therapies…I don’t hear any of them complaining.

    To understand why antivenom is not as successful as we’d like it to be, it is necessary to understand how the whole thing works. Snake venom works by reacting with chemicals in the blood – the antivenom stops that reaction. It doesn’t reverse the extent of the reaction. That’s why the patient needs to be treated quickly…to minimise irreversible damage. As you may know, if the temperature (for instance) of a chemical reaction changes, the results will be different. So you can imagine that antivenom made primarily for North Indian use (for example) might not work in Anuradhapura.

    With regards to the ‘vedamahatthaya vs. scientist’ argument…yes you know someone who has been cured by the vedamahatthaya. And I know someone who has been cured with antivenom. Doesn’t prove anything, does it? Apart from the fact that both systems can work, for whatever reason. The reason Western scientists are apprehensive about alternative therapies is because there’s not enough information on how the stuff works. You cannot form healthcare policies based on anecdotal evidence, but you can form them based on extensive recorded research. I have nothing against Ayurvedic medicine. When I have a cold, I reach for the kotthamalli; I bring Lakpeyawa and Pawatta kola paniya whenever I leave SL. But I also have faith in the scientific community, that we are trying our best. There is ongoing research to improve on existing antivenom…the reason you don’t hear about it is the same reason you don’t hear about research on Malaria – they’re “Third World problems” – the pharmaceutical companies don’t see them as profitable, so the research is confined to unversities. Research is expensive and takes time. As you said, alternative medicine is ‘ancient’ – Western science, on the other hand, is relatively young. But we understand it, and that’s why it’s popular.

    You seem to have been unfortunate enough to run into some exceptionally arrogant people (regardless of their profession). We’re not all like that, I promise :-). Maybe us scientists deserve not to be labelled ‘know-it-alls’, the same as the vedamahatthayas deserve not to be labelled as ‘charlatans’? 🙂

    I hope you never need this info, but if you do…I think there are 7 species of venomous snake in Sri Lanka – 2 kraits, 4 vipers and the cobra…all pretty distinguishable from your regular gerandiya :-).

  3. 3 Tulie

    Thanks PseudoRandom,

    Yeah I know that not all of you are like that! 🙂

    And you are right too in my having the misfortune to run into exceptionally arrogant people – in all professions.

    Sigh! My bad karma!

  4. @PR O.o hehe 😉


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