A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

On Transcendental Meditation II: Ayurvedic Medicine

The Maharishi likes to have different fingers in different pies. He has tried to develop TM not just into a relaxation technique, but a way of life, with a rival TM version for all of your every-day needs. In this second article of the series, I will be looking at the Movement’s approach to healthcare, the ancient Indian tradition it has adopted known as Ayurveda.

Ayurveda is a form of alternative medicine, with a long and colourful history. It has been lauded by the likes of Deepak Chopra and David Orme Johnson, and to this day it is still so popular in India that, in that country, it is virtually mainstream. However, like all forms of alternative medicine, its results are founded on fallacy. When its methods and remedies have been tested, they have shown to be ineffective, or worse still, harmful. This is one of the most complex and involved topics the series will deal with, and there is a limit to how much detail I can offer within the scope of one blog posting. I will try to give the best overview that I can.

Before I begin, I think it’s important to be clear on the difference between ‘medicine’ and ‘alternative medicine’. This excerpt is taken from Richard Dawkins’ foreword to John Diamond’s posthumously published book Snake Oil, and Other Preoccupations and, I think, explains this crucial distinction as well as anyone could:

…scientific medicine is defined as the set of practices which submit themselves to the ordeal of being tested. Alternative medicine is defined as that set of practices which cannot be tested, refuse to be tested, or consistently fail tests. If a healing technique is demonstrated to have curative properties in properly controlled double-blind trials, it ceases to be alternative. It simply…becomes medicine. Conversely, if a technique devised by the President of the Royal College of Physicians consistently fails in double-blind trials, it will cease to be a part of ‘orthodox’ medicine. Whether it will then become ‘alternative’ will depend upon whether it is adopted by a sufficiently ambitious quack (there are always sufficiently gullible patients).

Naturally, the TM movement, and others, claim to have scientific evidence for the benefits of Ayurvedic Medicine. It is, however, beyond question that both the medical and scientific communities remain overwhelmingly sceptical, and that what research there is claiming to support Ayurveda, has suffered severe criticism from those who have not been able to replicate the results, and have found methodical flaws that indicate incompetence, and even fraud. For every study claiming to boast the validity of Ayurveda, there is at least another showing it to be useless.

The theory of Ayurveda is far too complex to describe in detail, but at its core is a principle known as the Tridosha System, whereby the health of the individual is dependent on the balance and interaction between

three bodily humours or doshas called Vata (the air principle necessary to mobilize the function of the nervous system), Pitta (the fire principle which uses bile to direct digestion and hence metabolism into the venous system) and Kapha (the water principle which relates to mucous, lubrication and the carrier of nutrients into the arterial system).

This system, ‘based in the spiritual knowledge discovered by the Rishis and Munis’ is the backbone of Ayurvedic Medicine, from which all diagnoses and prescriptions are made. Their relation to the ancient elements is an immediate cause for concern, and indicates a practice of sympathetic magic. According to this study, which shows how many ancient traditions of medicine tried to relate their systems to the elements, the fourth element ‘”Earth” was segregated from the four elements of the universe owing to its solid properties’. With everything that science has learned in just the last few hundred years, the idea that in the 21st century people are being treated for medical conditions by a system that was founded by people who thought that earth, water, air and fire were the substances from which all matter was made, should set alarm bells ringing violently.

Of course, the people who are being treated think it works, otherwise they wouldn’t continue to use it. One testimonial on the UK TM Ayurveda website claims

We’ve been using it for twenty years and it’s a safe, natural and reliable way to look after our health. The Daily routines are easy and the whole thing makes a lot of sense.

As with other forms of alternative medicine in the absence of properly attained evidence, the perceived positive results are better explained through logical fallacies and other forms of flawed critical thinking, than through the appeal to mystical elements beyond the limits of science to detect. It is beyond the scope of this article to explain them all, but I suggest the curious reader follows these links to the Skeptic’s Dictionary on Post Hoc Fallacy, Regressive Fallacy, Pragmatic Fallacy, the Placebo Effect, Confirmation Bias, Testimonial Evidence, Ad Hoc Hypothesis, Alternative Medicine and Sympathetic Magic.

Both the theory and practice of Ayurvedic Medicine, the traditional and the modern TM versions are profoundly pseudo-scientific. It is only in the modern environment of science that its advocates have even attempted to make it appear scientific. We only have to have a look at some of the claims and statements made by Ayurveda peddlers to see this. Take for example, these words of wisdom from Deepak Chopra:

If you have happy thoughts, then you make happy molecules. On the other hand, if you have sad thoughts, and angry thoughts, and hostile thoughts, then you make those molecules which may depress the immune system and make you more susceptible to disease.

If nothing else, Chopra shows efficiency – it is almost perversely impressive that he is able to contradict so much science in such a small number of words. If this were true, everything we know about chemistry, neurology and medicine would have to be at least heavily revised, if not discarded all together. The attribution of an emotion like happiness to a molecule is a concept about which I find it difficult to keep a straight face while responding. A molecule is no more capable of ‘feeling’ an ‘emotion’ than a paperclip is (although I would almost not be surprised if Chopra were to say that the paperclip, like the molecule, is now deeply offended by my insensitivity).

Again, in keeping with all forms of alternative medicine, the harm caused is normally limited to conning innocent people of their hard earned money. Sometimes, it goes further than that, and endangers the health or even the life of the individual, either by them forgoing properly tested treatment in favour of quackery, or by ingesting a ‘remedy’ that poisons or damages the body. Ayurvedic Medicine was accused of the latter by this study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which claims that there is a danger of metal poisoning in many Ayurvedic herbal remedies. They concluded

One of 5 Ayurvedic HMPs produced in South Asia and available in Boston South Asian grocery stores contains potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury, and/or arsenic. Users of Ayurvedic medicine may be at risk for heavy metal toxicity, and testing of Ayurvedic HMPs for toxic heavy metals should be mandatory.

Sadly, the Maharishi and the TM Movement are not concerned for people, only for power and profit. Far from accepting the flaws in the medical practices it promotes, and aiding science in the effort to shed humanity of this ignorance, they continue to fund research with millions of dollars of their victims’ hard earned money. This would not be so bad if the work carried out were not so frequently called into question. As long as the TM Movement is thriving, so properly tested medicine will have to waste resources competing with an alternative rival which belongs, like its origins, in ancient history.

Other Articles in this Series:

On Transcendental Meditation I: Nature Support

Links and Further Reading

20 Responses to “On Transcendental Meditation II: Ayurvedic Medicine”

  1. nice to read ur article. i m working on cow urine thts an ancient ayurvedic system. please visit my site http://www.cowurine.com and also u can view our research done on same and interview of paitents being cured by it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMSphoSATUI
    please let me know ur view on same as i m looking forward for marketting our medicines around the world

  2. @ Pooja

    Did you actually read my article?! I am critical, not supportive of alternative medicine.

    The ‘research’ on your website lacks any details or documentation of method, or indication that proper double blind trials were carried out, and the number of patients who were ‘tested’ is alarmingly small. Do you have any research that has been published in a top, peer reviewed medical journal?

    I find the idea that drinking cow’s urine (or any urine, for that matter) has the ability to cure any ailment or act as an ‘elixir’ to be absolutely ludicrous. I will stand by that view until sound evidence to the contrary is presented.

    The testimonial evidence in your Youtube video is all in a language that I don’t understand. Either way, read about testimonial evidence.

  3. Great article.

    Worth remembering that some alternative practices lump in common-sense health tips with the mumbo-jumbo, which might give slight genuine improvements and thus the impression of credibility.

    For example, if they tell you to drink 2 pints of water a day, cut out intoxicants, get more sleep and leap around in a wood making whooping noises for 40 minutes while chanting about a mystical fairy king, that might actually help a lot of conditions. Gout, for example is often relieved by drinking a glass or two of water a day.

    The kinds of people who are attracted to alternative medicine may in some cases be the same kinds of people might not realise or have the will power to try the common sense things first.

  4. Well, thanks for an interesting article about a topic I was previously completely unaware of. It caused alarm bells to start ringing in my immediate surroundings. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, they were cow bells. Perhaps the cow next door was taking a leak?

    Having tried TM, the relaxation part of it anyway, I never knew about the medical side. I was aware that the Maharishi was money hungry. He apparently pissed off John Lennon back in the 60’s. Ever listen to Sexy Sadie? It’s about the Maharishi.


  5. @ James

    Worth remembering that some alternative practices lump in common-sense health tips with the mumbo-jumbo, which might give slight genuine improvements and thus the impression of credibility.

    A good point, one I neglected to mention. Just because ancient approached to healthcare weren’t tested, wouldn’t mean they couldn’t stumble upon some geniune treatments, which would later stand up to proper testing. What annoys me is when a herbal remedy is found to have genuine curing power. passes tests and then the alternative therapists from whom it originated say “well, we knew it worked all along, we’ve been using it all the time”. Yeah, along with all the other ones that don’t pass proper medical trials, forgive me if I don’t applaud.

    @ Spanish Inquisitor

    In fact, if I’m not mistaken, they were cow bells. Perhaps the cow next door was taking a leak?

    Lol. How prophetic my metaphor turned out to be! 😉

  6. Just a repost for readers who missed your first article:

    Many critics consider Transcendental Meditation a cult led by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. For an alternative view of the TM Movement, readers may be interested in checking out TM-Free Blog, Trancenet.net, or my counseling web site, KnappFamilyCounseling.com, where those recovering from TM and similar groups will find information.

    John M. Knapp, LMSW

  7. Appreciate Richard Dawkin’s quoted foreword about medicine. However, it is a summation of a philosophy which in actual medical practice cannot be strictly followed. To make life clearer for doctors, a Physician called Cochrane developed a program for systematic review of medical literature, to cast out that which is without evidence, to drive the progress of that practice with the best evidence, and to highlight the gray areas where evidence is ‘light on’. The program rates degrees of validity, the repeated double blind being the most rigorous.

  8. I’ve taken the time to read some of Deepak Chopra’s work, put it down and couldn’t force myself to pick it up again. The alternative medicine of India and its proponents are no more enlightened than any Western quackery.

    I also agree that most alternative medicinal preparations pose a risk because they are not regulated and an even further risk if combined with conventional medicine because of unknown interactions.

    I enjoyed reading your post.

  9. I’ve seen the term “Ayurvedic” in some yoga or meditation brochure and did not think much of it. The Ayurvedic medical part of it I read now umm… Bell Ringing… yep it does ring a bell.

    Well if they are using poison substance, then make sure the substance kills whatever the practitioner intent to kill (germs, virus, bacterial etc..) nothing more, nothing less… don’t end up killing the patient.

    wish they knew about visualization methods during then.. or maybe they do.

  10. why is the western science so insecure??
    you guys have given us global warming, arms race and “incurable” diseases! don’t you think it’s time to back down and let the holistic, ancient divine wisdom help heal Gaya and the human race for the coming generations?

  11. @ Meto

    why is the western science so insecure??

    It’s not. Insecure is when you won’t submit your work to be tested, and just want people to believe it anyway.

    you guys have given us global warming, arms race and “incurable” diseases!

    What guys?! Who are you talking to here? If these wild allegations are aimed at science, then you’re way off the mark. Science is a voyage of discovery that provides mankind with knowlege – how we use that knowledge is a responsibility that we all must share. Take 9/11: Do you blame religious faith, or science for allowing us to have skyscrapers and planes?

    don’t you think it’s time to back down and let the holistic, ancient divine wisdom help heal Gaya and the human race for the coming generations?

    Tempting, but no. At least not until some credible evidence is presented.

  12. The originator of the Gaia hypothesis (James Lovelock) is a “Western Scientist”. It is “Western Science” that detected global warming and its causes and it is “Western Scientists” who are raising the alarm bells.

    The TM goofs are now claiming credit for reducing oil prices by meditating in unison – Hello! Low prices increase consumption which increase CO2 which increases global warming – this is not a good thing.

    If we leaev it up to ancient wisdomd, we will sit on our asses meditating instead of taking steps to reduce CO2 emissions.

  13. very sensible post. i am from india. everyday i see around me perfectly normal sane people falling into the trap of altie medicine such as ayurveda, homeopathy sidha etc., all my efforts to highlight that they have no scientific evidence / plausibility is met with a condescending look saying ‘i know u are an atheist and so skeptic of everything’. oh when will we ever learn.

  14. @ Geetha,

    Thank you for your comment. It is good to know that people like your good self are fighting in the corner of reason and science 🙂

  15. […] tobe38 : On Transcendental Meditation II: Ayurvedic Medicine […]

  16. Response to John M. Knapp comment:

    Many critics consider John M. Knapp to be a self-promoting spammer who has nothing worthwhile to offer, but tries to make money by creating fear about useful programs like TM. A previous post of his indicated that he is a disgruntled former TM’er. With any organization that has attracted millions of participants, it is inevitable that a few people will become detractors. While I am impressed that John M. Knapp has shown the resourcefulness to transform his disgruntlement into a career, I do object to him labelling TM as a cult and spamming every article about TM on the Web. Although it is perhaps more worthy of sympathy to see an individual allowing his personal or professional life to revolve around some lingering bitterness, in the interests of fairness I feel I must counter the comments he is leaving.

    The Transcendental Meditation technique has helped millions of people and will continue to do so. Its benefits have been validated by hundreds of scientific studies over the past 35 years, many of which were published in peer-reviewed journals. Its efficacy has been recognized by the National Institutes of Health, the premier body overseeing medical research in the US. And it has been introduced into school programs in the US, Canada, Peru, India, South Africa, the UK, and other countries. In the US, TM is taught by a federally-recognized nonprofit organization.

    For more information, just Google ‘transcendental meditation’ and you’ll find plenty of good sources.

  17. i agree that logic and science require proof. but the fact is it requires lot of funding. most funding takes place, only if you can commercially exploit it. the result is that the science has no time for research on areas, where there is no possibility of money. IF PROPER FUNDING CAN BE MADE, AYURVEDA AND COW MEDICINE CAN BE DEFINITELY PROVED.

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  19. Well as a mom whose child suffered with Chronic Lyme disease and an other child with Crhon’s disease, all the regular doctors that gave them traditional medication did not help at all. A good Ayurvedic treatment mixed with mom’s good common sense (meaning not going too far) did help my children feel much much better, the treatment was not intrusive, because I made sure of that, but it did help make my child with Lyme so much better. She had felt miserable for 7 years, and finally she was not experiencing as much pain. The Ayurvedic treatments and foods are okay if done in small dosage (1 week to 3 weeks a year) with a few days here and there the following years. YOu might think it is not proven, but the only proof I can give is that my children felt better. The pains were gone. Proven or not, I was happy with the results.

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