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HEALTH-INDIA: Ayurveda Defies Biopiracy, Patenting

Ranjit Devraj

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India, Jul 24 2002 (IPS) - Set amidst verdant, gently undulating hills, 25 km from the capital of southern Kerala state, is the Santhigiri Ashram, a not-for-profit spiritual and health retreat where the idea of patenting herbal medicines is considered laughable.

“How can anybody claim ownership of what essentially are God-given gifts?” queries Swami Jyotirmaya, the large, genial and ochre-clad secretary of the ‘ashram’ (retreat) who worked as a bank official in Malaysia before giving it all up for the path spiritual.

The swami is convinced that attempts by biopirates and transnational corporations (TNCs) to isolate and patent the active principles in herbs described in ‘ayurveda’ (science of life) are bound to fail. This, he says, is because ‘ayurveda’ was perfected through spiritual knowledge and divination rather than the empirical research of modern science.

Such has been the rush to patent ‘ayurvedic’ herbs as ‘prior art’ that the Indian government launched in June a digital library classifying 4,500 herbs and 35,000 rhymed formulae from ‘ayurvedic’ texts describing their use.

Already some 4,000 patents or patent applications with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) are based on medicinal properties of herbs that were well-known and cannot be claimed as intellectual property by anyone except those who lived thousands of years ago.

Like the ‘ayurvedic’ physicians attached to the ‘ashram’, Swami Jyotirmaya argues that the proper use of ‘ayurvedic’ medicines depends not only on the knowledge of herbs but also of the patient and his or her individual characteristics, if cures are to be effective.

But most importantly, he says, ‘ayurveda’ works only by invoking the guidance of a master or guru. The herbal formulations at Santhigiri were created by its founder Karunakara Guru, who “left his body” three years ago but whose presence in spirit guides the healing at the large medical facility within the ‘ashram’.

Santhigiri (which means mount-of-peace) maintains vast acres of herbariums where medicinal species are grown under natural conditions, without pesticides and fertilisers and not under hot-house conditions used by commercial growers.

The herbs are harvested during particular seasons and at astrologically appropriate times before processing that follows formulas and recipes in ancient ‘ayurvedic’ texts or those modified by Karunakara Guru.

The products, which have the benefit of government subsidies, are then sold at cost price to those who have faith in the system.

Followers of Karunakara Guru at Santhigiri hold that several genetic diseases classified as ‘pitru doshas’ (‘pitru’ translates as progenitor and ‘doshas’ as disease in Sanskrit) have their origins in past lives or previous existences of the soul.

They can only be treated by people who have the ability to transcend present existence in time and reach into the past, these followers say.

“Ayurveda cannot be standardised in the same manner as western medicines,” says Dr. Narayanan, a physician at the sprawling 50-bed facility maintained at the ‘ashram’. “All my university degrees count for nothing at the bedside.”

“In fact, ‘ayurveda’ defies commercial standardisation since the characteristics of each herb differ with the seasons, the kind of plants that grow in its vicinity, the time of harvest, and the part of the herb used in the formulations,” says Narayanan.

Physicians at the ashram compare the difference between ‘ayurvedic’ medicine and patented ones, using active principles extracted from the original herbs, as like that between honey and table sugar.

Similarly, each patient and the ailments that he or she suffers from differ greatly. In fact, whether the patient will respond to a particular herb or not would again depend on his astrological status at a given point in his life span.

Finally, for successful treatment in ‘ayurveda’ consideration must also be given to the physician’s astrological status, compatibility with the patient and divine grace. Very often the physician must first heal himself or herself, practitioners say.

“Ayurveda is a package in which the patient, the disease, the medicine and the divine are bound to each other and it is folly to think that any or all of these can be patented as some people are attempting to do nowadays,” says Dr Narayanan.

The idea of intellectual property rights as spelt out by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) holds no terror for Dr Narayanan, who thinks it is absurd to even think of patenting what has less to do with intellect than with divine inspiration.

One common criticism of ‘ayurveda’ is that its sheer elaborateness not only defies patenting but also practical application, especially when it comes to treating poor patients.

“Ayurveda was practiced in ancient times for the benefit of aristocracy and the upper castes and in today’s modern world people need quick diagnosis and quick cures because they may simply be unable to get away for tight work schedules, commitments and careers,” says Dr John Roy a Boston-based cardiologist who also sees patients in his native Kerala.

But ‘ayurvedic’ physicians say this is a canard subscribed to by allopathic doctors who cannot see beyond the “pill-for-every ill” approach pushed by the global pharmaceutical industry, rather than by any philosophy or science that is rooted in real human well-being.

Dr T.K. Bejoy, a master physician who runs his own ‘ayurvedic’ research centre about 45 kms north of here, says a good ‘ayurvedic’ physician draws from divine grace and his own ability to diagnose illnesses without recourse to expensive diagnostic tools. “Either the physician is touched by a spirit or he has the grace of a guru with a highly elevated soul,” he said.

“The trouble is that no pharmaceutical company is willing to put money or resources into divination, which is key to the ayurvedic system of understanding disease, and in any case divine grace is not open to commercial exploitation,” he said.

For those who would dismiss ‘ayurveda’ as ancient mumbo jumbo, its voluminous texts have been the source for hundreds of cures which allopathy has benefited from, starting with rauwolfia serpentina, (Indian snake root) the world’s first real cure for hypertension and still the only one without side-effects.

In the American journal ‘Science’, Dr David Moore of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas reports that the 2,500-year-old traditional Indian medication for lowering cholesterol — derived from the resin of the guggul tree (Commiphora mukul) — really works.

Perhaps the best endorsement for Ayurveda is the fact that in Kerala, the only state in India with a health delivery system comparable to that in developed countries, the system enjoys pride of place. Even allopathic doctors here swear by it, especially where the management of intractable diseases and conditions are concerned.

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