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: