> Development > Traditional knowledge  
Indrajit Borah
Date of Publish: 2016-01-26

Gunaram, Dhaniram and An Alternative Future


The customary eating of esho ebidh saak (101 types of herbs) on the day of Goru Bihu portrays long tradition of our herbal culture and rich medicinal value of the food habits of Assam. Once, the herbaceous vegetation in the Bari (garden) of a traditional Assamese home used to have all these 101 varieties. The vast forest coverage of 26,832 sq. km. in Assam, home to around 4000 plant species, is the main source of primary livelihood and also endowing an indigenous medicine culture. The unparalleled biodiversity with 16 agro-climatic zones, India as a whole, has over 45,000 different plant species. Of these, 15,000-20,000 plants have good medicinal values and on records, only 7,000-7,500 plants are used for traditional medicine. The age-old healing practice of traditional medicine is commonly transmitted verbally through a community, family and individuals.

Today, the marginalisation of agrarian sector to mere one fifth of state income reveals the erosion of the subsistence Assamese home and gathering exho ebidh saak in a festive morning has now become a distant dream. Going by the western chronology, booming tertiary sector has been a good indicator for economic growth, but may not necessarily be so for human welfare. The macro-economic disparities due to capital intensity and labour minimisation have given rise to an unsustainable lifestyle and livelihood pattern. The apparent ecological imbalance has severe and life-threatening consequences on human body. Undoubtedly, considerable breakthrough could be achieved in modern medicine as allopathic. And, this conventional practice has been fulfilling the immediate need as “fire-fighting” for material prosperity and labour mechanisation. In this backdrop, both of them, “Charaka of Assam” Gunaram Khanikar and Cardiac Surgeon Dr. Dhaniram Baruah, although different in content but with seemingly similarity in intent, may be especially germane, in pioneering holistic alternatives to conventional healthcare.

The traditional herbal medicine expert “Bheshaj Ratna” Gunaram Khanikar, a student of Botany himself, collected diffused elements of indigenous medicine knowledge in Assam as Bondorobor Gun. Khanikar, demised on 7th January 2016, had further enriched this knowledge with numerous innovations in traditional medicine by his extensive research on various medicinal herbs available in Assam. Under the expertise of “Regional Research & Training Centre on Indian Traditional Treatment (RRTCITT)”, founded by him, several herbs gardens of medicinal plants have been developed. He prescriptions of herbal medicines were on the basis of traditional folk knowledge gathered over 50 years for various deceases like diabetes, cardiac problems, malaria, jaundice, piles, eczema, asthma, bronchitis, ulcers, and oral cancer. Looking at the growing government initiatives in traditional herbal industry, the entrepreneurial focus on the traditional medicinal research, production process and market development is indispensable.

Dr. Dhaniram Baruah has acquired the position as Pantomime Villain in media on the question of illegality of his “Clinical Xenotransplantation” under Transplantation of Human Organs Act, 1994, the legislative technicalities of ethical research and predominantly, due to his vocal insurgency against established medical science. Although, yet to be established within the acceptability norms, can his recent claims be wished away in totality? As a renowned cardiac surgeon, his terming around 7000 bypass surgeries in his entire surgical career as 7000 procedural mistakes is a stunning revelation. Dr. Baruah claims that the present medical science has “no pharmaco-genomic foundation” and he has been carrying out extensive research on Applied Human Genetic Sciences and Engineering and clinical application of it with the extracts from medicinal plants. The “Baruah syndrome”, claimed as recent cardio-vascular discovery by him, begins parallel with the dietary changes of the individual and the dietary changes are the outcome of our unsustainable food habits and livelihood pattern.

However, it is pertinent to mention that any scientific enquiry starts in the form of hypothesis which has to be tested within established scientific methodology. As per reports, he has written to WHO, UNAIDS and National Institute of Health (US), asking them to authenticate his studies after conducting tests. That may be a starting point for further research and evaluation of his claims. Otherwise, Dr. Baruah will have no difference with a traditional healer practising outside proven norms of established medical science. A traditional healer picks up folk knowledge based on prolong use for human health. And, Modern Medical Science is established based on evidence based research methodology. In this connection, it may also be noted that even in case of traditional herbal medicinal practices; there has been upsurge of evidence-based research. While the editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association reject the term alternative medicine as a misnomer, stating that, "there is only scientifically proven, evidence-based medicine supported by solid data or unproven medicine, for which scientific evidence is lacking"; the internalisation process of traditional medicinal practices is imminent.

As per the Archaeological evidence, the use of medicinal plants dates back to the Palaeolithic, approximately 60,000 years ago. As per the written record, the ancient Sumerians, 5,000 years ago, described well-established medicinal uses for plants. During 1st Millennium BC, the ancient Indian herbalists, Charaka and Sushruta described the herbs and minerals used in Ayurveda. Today, there are 4246 registered herbal medicines in India. The pluralistic Indian healthcare system also has two multivolume national pharmacopoeias - Ayurvedic and Unani. The essential drug lists for different traditional medicine systems in India include 315 Ayurvedic, 244 Unani and 98 Siddha herbal medicines. Moreover, by now, the annual turnover of Indian herbal industry has crossed Rs. 80 Billion.

Essentially, herbalism is one of the core disciplines of traditional medicine practice. Herbalists use extracts from different parts of plants, such as the roots or leaves but unlike pharmaceutical medicine, do not isolate particular “phytochemical” which is although more easily quantifiable in terms of dosage. Herbalists often argue that the phytochemicals in herbs are in a “balanced state of interaction to enhance the therapeutic effects and dilute toxicity and a single ingredient may contribute to multiple side-effects”. The long standing uses of herbal medicines in the Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha systems of India demonstrate their safe human use. Moreover, many pharmaceuticals that are currently available have a long history of use as traditional herbal remedies. Worldwide, at least, 7,000 medical compounds in the modern drugs are derived from plants.

Even today, over 50% of the world’s population relies on folk medicine practices as a part of primary health care. Certainly, this compulsive usage is due to the inability of prohibitively expensive pharmaceuticals to break the traditional barrier. However, the rejection of synthetic or biomedical products has become a growing trend in the developed world, which endorsed for a rise in the demand for natural medicines. This reverse trend can be viewed as common awareness of the repercussions of cosmetic growth-centric lifestyle. Now, people seek to buy lotions with Aloe Vera, tea with lemon and even detergents are also being infused with herbal elements. Is not it yet another avatar of consumerism with burgeoning herbal or green tags?

The indigenous medicine, although distinguishable, often co-exists with institutionalized systems like Ayurveda.  Both Homeopathic and Ayurveda schools of medicine have already become an integral part of India’s public health system. National regulation of herbal medicine began in 1940 itself with the publication of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act. The National Medicinal Plants Board was established in 2000. The Department of Indian Systems of Medicine and Homoeopathy created in 1995 has been renamed as Department of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy) in May 2014.

These holistic medicine systems view human decease or disorder as a resultant of disharmony in the mind-body-spirit constitution. It may be debatable whether the relationship between body and mind is metaphysical or anatomical. However, certainly, this kind of system signifies the burden of lifestyle and livelihood on human body and mind. The human body as a biological entity can be diagnosed to a considerable accuracy for any anatomical disharmony. The ingredients of Ayurvedic medicines react to balance Vata, Pitta or Kapha. In homeopathy, the constitutional approach to human body as a whole treats the body not disease. It is argued that the scientific evidence of effectiveness of these holistic medicinal practices cannot be evaluated in a prevailing competitive consumerist lifestyle. Therefore, these prevention oriented healthcare may not be applicable for critical health conditions needing immediate attention, but certainly for shaping a healthy lifestyle.

The ensuing unsustainable lifestyle is due to disparities of consumption patterns and lack of sufficiency imperative. This puts unbearable pressure on natural resources and imposes negative impacts on environment, society, economy and health. A nature and community based lifestyle is always sustainable, healthier and more secure. The concurrent socio-economical imbalance causes under-nutrition due to abject poverty on the one hand and stressful corporate life on the other. The round-the-clock work pattern has definite health hazards. In essence, the disharmony in human anatomy is a miniaturised reproduction of ecological imbalance.

Beyond the obvious consumerist trend, the holistic and preventive medicinal practices are futuristic towards a sustainable livelihood which can enhance healthy work-life balance and promote wellbeing. In this course, the passionate ventures by Gunaram Khanikar and Dr. Dhaniram Baruah will imprint remarkable steps in the humanitarian journey towards an alternative future.

Indrajit Borah

( Indrajit Borah is a freelance writer based in Delhi. He takes special interest in public policy analysis. He can be reached at indrajitborah@yahoo.co.in. )



Reverberations of Badungduppa: Between Identity, Ecology and Theatre
Mr Monkey and Mr Fox
From Bihar to Myanmar
Twisted- 50
Cartoon of the week ( May 4 )
Cartoon of the week ( Sept 2 )