In the last eight years, the Narendra Modi-led government has actively patronised ayurveda, which in the popular imagination, has come to denote an ancient Hindu system of medicine.

Since coming to power in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party government has taken a number of steps in this direction. It set up the Ministry of AYUSH – ayurveda, yoga, unani, siddha and homeopathy – in November 2014, founded the All India Institute for Ayurveda on the lines of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, significantly increased public expenditure on the production of standardised ayurvedic medicines and sought to “integrate” ayurveda with modern medicine.

On August 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the 2,600-bed Amrita Hospital in Faridabad. The hospital, owned by Hindu spiritual leader Amritānandamayī Devī, is being touted as India’s largest hospital that aims to provide “holistic” treatment – an amalgamation of modern and traditional medicine.

At the inauguration of the 14-storeyed hospital, Modi emphasised the spiritual links to health. “We have a Veda dedicated to medicines,” he said. “We have named our medical science as ayurveda. We have given the status of rishi and maharishi to the greatest scholars of ayurveda and have expressed our supreme trust in them.”

Modi was echoing the long-held belief among Hindu nationalists that most advances of modern science and medicine were already known in ancient India. The prime minister implied that ayurveda, India’s native system of healthcare, is in fact, as scientific as modern medicine.

This isn’t the first time Modi has made such assertions: in 2014, he claimed that the deity Ganesha got an elephant head through plastic surgery.

Such speeches by Modi, his ministers and party leaders, who push the idea that there is more to ayurveda than “cowpathy” and gau mutra (cow urine) have long rattled the liberal intelligentsia.

Colonial belief in ‘pure’ science

The establishment of the Ministry of AYUSH in 2014, drew strong criticism from scientists and doctors of modern medicine. Ayurveda, they claimed, suffers from an inherent paucity of hard evidence and raises serious safety concerns given the presence in ayurvedic drugs of traces of toxic elements such as lead, mercury and arsenic.

The Indian Medical Association, which calls itself the only voluntary organisation that represents “Doctors of Modern Scientific System of Medicine”, runs concerted campaigns against traditional systems of medicine, equating them with quackery.

The attacks on traditional systems of medicine by liberals and modern doctors led by organisations like the Indian Medical Association were at their peak during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Outrageous claims such as one that vibrations generated by human clapping would reduce the potency of the coronavirus were repeatedly upheld as evidence of the pseudoscientific temper of those who advocate traditional systems of healing.

Apart from caricaturing traditional medicine, such criticism of ayurveda, and the prime minister’s push for it, fails to see the politics that underpins this project – Modi’s decolonial politics and his ability to milk the sense of humiliation felt by Indians as a result of the colonial experience even decades after Independence.

In recent days, Modi has repeatedly spoken of the need to shed the colonial mindset. From changing the name of New Delhi’s Rajpath to Kartavyapath to replacing the Cross of St George on the flag of the Indian Navy with one inspired by the seal of Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji, Modi has taken several symbolic steps to convince Indians that, under him, colonialism will become a thing of the past.

In the realm of health, however, Modi has been using the rhetoric of decolonisation ever since he came to power. In 2016, while inaugurating the Ayurveda Institute, Modi said that India’s rich healthcare wisdoms and systems were obliterated through years of colonial rule and were allowed to perish even after Independence, thereby allowing our grandmothers’ recipes and cures to become the intellectual properties of foreigners.

However, critiques that are preoccupied with proving that ayurveda is unscientific or not adequately scientific fail to see this powerful attempt to decolonise – at least rhetorically – a fundamental sphere of human life, which is healthcare.

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that Modi’s push for ayurveda is, in fact, political and ideological. However, we must also simultaneously acknowledge that modern medicine, introduced by the British colonial rulers, is and has historically been equally political and ideological.

In an essay in Science, Hegemony and Violence, Ashis Nandy says, “The civilising mission of colonialism thrived on the folklore of encounter between western science and savage superstitions.”

Far from being “pure” as its political and industry proponents have had one believe, modern medicine was one of the most forceful imperial tools used by the British. It was deployed not to just administer and control local populations, but also actively delegitimise native wisdoms, thereby breaking down centuries-old systems of native populations controlling their own bodies.

Unlike sections of the liberal intelligentsia, who, like the British, end up delegitimising native systems of healthcare as unscientific and inferior, Modi understands the inherently political and ideological nature of all systems of healthcare and not just ayurveda.

AYUSH or ayurveda?

In completely shutting themselves to traditional forms of medicine, liberals have ceded that space for the right wing to appropriate. While there has been widespread criticism of how Modi has sought to politicise the healthcare system by advocating for ayurveda, there are few who ask how ayurveda has come to represent all of India’s indigenous health practices.

For example, the acronymic name of the Ministry of AYUSH includes unani, a system of healthcare that has inaccurately been associated with Muslims since British rule. In reality, the government’s push for “Ayush” has often only translated into a push for ayurveda – the “Hindu system of medicine”.

When cultural anthropologist Venera Kharikova, who has widely studied the politics of healthcare in India, was doing her fieldwork in Uttarkhand between 2013 and 2016, a hakeem – a practitioner of unani medicine – told her, “What AYUSH is, it is actually ayurveda.”

Drawing an analogy between healthcare and political representation, the hakeem said, “It is like... they say that everything is equal, everybody will be given [support], everybody has rights. But actually…the [Muslim] population of this area, which is 15%-20%, has only 2.5% representation in the government.”

Ramdev addresses a press conference in new Delhi on September 15. Credit: PTI.

It is not just the somewhat known health systems of unani, siddha, which is the indigenous health system of Tamil Nadu, or sowa-rigpa, the indigenous health system of Tibet, that face the risk of erasure at the cost of an increasingly hegemonising ayurveda, but the innumerable subaltern health traditions of India that it eclipses.

For example, the wide use of animal products prescribed in Sanskrit texts, such as the Charaka Samhita, have been erased from the popular Hinduised and globalised version of ayurveda. In New York, where this author resides, most “ayurvedic” cafes and clinics proudly claim to be 100% vegetarian.

In making a connection between colonialism and ayurveda, Modi addresses a decades-long sense of cultural and scientific inferiority injected in Indians by the British. Just as modern medicine and science were not just a new form of healthcare that the British introduced in India, but a symbol of Western superiority over Indians, ayurveda is a symbol of identity assertion for lakhs of – mostly Hindu – Indians today.

By consistently dismissing it as “unscientific”, the liberal intelligentsia risks perpetuating the sense of inferiority that Modi is seeking to replace with majoritarian pride. To challenge the politics of ayurveda, we must begin by correctly understanding it, which is to see the perverse interplay of majoritarianism and decolonisation at work.

Sanya Dhingra is doing a Master’s degree in South Asian Studies at Columbia University in New York.

A signboard at the periphery of the Indian Gate after Rajpath was scraped off, in New Delhi on September 11.