• Ajay Macherla

Ayurvedic Medicine Revivalism during the Indian Nationalist Movement


The Indian Nationalist Movement was a key and well-known movement in Indian history. It was the moment that Indian achieved their own unique identity and independence from the British Raj. Evidently, there is extensive literature on the topic. However, little literature is available on the role of Indian nationalism in the revitalization of Ayurveda. Ayurveda is an ancient form of medicine that approaches the field in a unique holistic fashion. Consisting of five primary elements from nature, its principles have set the stage for several well-known ideologies in medicine, such as the Siddha system, Unani, naturopathy, and homeopathy (Jaiswal & Williams, 2017).

As such, the goal of this literature review is to synthesize available research on this topic and contribute to this gap in Indian research. The research question of the paper is as follows: “To what extent did the Indian nationalist movement aid in the Ayurvedic Revivalism Movement in both pre- and post-colonial India?” Ultimately, the research paper found that the Indian Naitonalist Movement played a key and significant role in reviving Ayurveda in Indian culture.

British Violence, Anti-Imperialist Movement, and the Rise of Indian Nationalism

The rise of Indian nationalism against British imperialism was an integral impetus in the movement toward a post-colonial identity. In a cruel and oppressive society that India was living in, where Great Britain introduced religious reforms and economic policies in India to diminish wealth and disturb the common peace, constructing a national identity and unity provided Indian residents a sense of unity and confidence in combating British forces and reclaiming freedom and ownership of their motherland.

During the existence of the East Indian Company, a business apparatus created to participate in the trade of spice, silk, cotton, tea, opium, and slaves to buyers worldwide, Indians were treated “as slave[s]” (Manzurul, 2015). The British Empire gave no opportunity for the people to voice their perspectives on the trade, nor any power to the Indian government to prevent the transactions and institute democracy in the country. Economic policies introduced in India, such as mercantilism in the late 1700s and early 1800s, was one of the first known phases that destroyed the Indian national wealth and sparked colonial exploitation (Bala, 1990; Thakur, 2013). Furthermore, British deindustrialization movements only promoted ruralism in a modern global society and exacerbated India’s financial situation. In the mid-1800s, India became more as an epicenter for British trade, goods, and suppliers. Moreover, despite Indian national movements, Indian capital earned in foreign investment was looted by the British government to pay off national debt, further contributing to Indian poverty in the early and mid-19th century (Economic Policies, n.d.; Bagchi, 1988).

When an anti-imperialist and nationalist movement became apparent to Indian residents can be explained by an amalgamation of economic downturn, poverty, oppression, and suppression of basic human rights. A review published in the African Journal of Political Science and International Relations takes an interesting position on the topic, as it posits that the institution of English as a language (a symptom of the British Raj and imperialism) made it possible for “the Bengalees, Madrasis and the Punjabis to sit at one table and discuss the common problems facing the country” (Manzurul, 2015). Furthermore, the introduction of Western education within British culture into Indian schooling allowed India citizens to build a democratic, diplomatic, and intellectual mindset. Perhaps the British imperialist movement played an integral role in bringing once divided Indian communities together to discuss pressing national problems facing India, as well as promoting Indian unity.

Efforts to combat the British Raj started as early as the mid-1800s. At a high level, the Indian nationalist movement was a combination of organizational and social efforts. Let us consider the most prominent efforts to fight against British imperialism. For instance, founded in 1885 by college graduates, professionals, and English intellectuals, the Indian National Congress was led by Womesh Chunder Bonnerjee as President of the organization. The goal of Congress was to provide a platform in which Indians could voice their opinions on British policies. Reform movements formed by the Congress extended into the 1900s, as congress members, such as Gopal Krishna Gokhale founded the Servants of India Society, a similar organization that advocated for legislative reform against Indian poverty, slums, and those of the lowest Indian castes (Ludden, 2007).

As for social reform efforts, let us consider some examples. For example, Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati, a well-known poet and scholar, played an integral role in women's empowerment and Brahmin widow remarriage. Her insights sparked a sense of passion in Indian citizens, a sense of confidence that they can work together to improve Indian society and combat British rule (Ramabai, 1900). Above all, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, known as the father of modern India, was a renowned social reformer in the late 1700s and early 1800s who founded the Brahmo Sabha. Later evolving into the Brahmo Samaj, the socio-religious movement brought together Indians from diverse backgrounds to comment on pressing issues in health, Hindu religion, politics, economy, and education. Similar to Sarasvati, Ram Mohan Roy helped eliminate sacrificial traditions of widows, also known as sati. His efforts to eliminate child marriage contributed to a more modern India and infused a sense of confidence in Indians to have faith in religion and Indian culture (Mandal & Behera, 2015; Manzurul, 2015).

The nationalist movement reached new heights with the introduction of Mahatma Gandhi, anti-imperial nationalist, political ethicist, and lawyer. In the 1920s, Gandhi took over as leader of the Indian National Congress and began his efforts to free India from British rule. Beyond empowering the rural poor and the untouchables, Gandhi advocated against British land-tax on Indian soil and promoted swaraj. His unique nonviolent beliefs and protests prevented any blood from being shed in granting India independence in 1947. Gandhi would go on to play a vital role in promoting religious pluralism in a partitioned post-colonial India in the mid-1900s (Panda, 2008).

This short section within this article does not do the entire Indian nationalist movement justice. The efforts sparked by Indian activists and reformers were plentiful, and each quiet voice amplified, each small step taken, were equally valuable in the fight for Indian independence against Britain. The goal of this section of the article was to provide brief context on Indian nationalism, in the effort to set the stage to consider how the nationalist movement facilitated Ayurvedic revivalism in post-colonial India.


Ayurvedic Medicine

In this section, let us consider the meaning behind ayurvedic medicine and practice through Indian history. According to the National Ayurvedic Medical Association, ayurveda is believed to be an “eternal science” that was passed from Brahma to ancient Indian mystics through practice of meditation and similar mindfulness (History of Ayurveda, n.d.). The ancient form of medicine has its origins in the 2nd century BC in philosophical teachings in two schools: Vaisheshika (philosophy) and Nyaya (logic) (Jaiswal & Williams, 2017).

There are five primary elements that constitute Ayurveda: Vayu (air), Jala (water), Aakash (space), Prithvi (Earth), and Teja (Fire) (Payyappallimana & Venkatasubramanian, 2016). These elements are also known as Pancha Mahabhoota. Various combinations of these elements produce three types of humors (doshas), or physiological functions of the human body: vata dosha, pitta dosha, and kapha dosha (Jaiswal & Williams, 2017).

  1. Vata Dosha controls cellular transport within the body, such as the exchange of waste products to and from the body and electrolyte balance

  2. Pitta Dosha controls the internal temperature of the human body, helps to coordinate optic nerves, and regulates frequent sensations of hunger and thirst

  3. Kapha Dosha provides lubrication to joints for efficient movement and increases with more sugary and fatty foods

Ayurveda states that the body is composed of seven types of tissues called Sapta Dhatus, which collaborate to ensure efficient performance of the human body. These include the Rakta Dhatu (blood control and circulation), Mamsa Dhatu (muscle control and regulation), Meda Dhatu (fat and adipose tissue), Asthi Dhatu (bone tissue and skeletal support), Majja Dhatu (bone marrow and fluids), and Shukra Dhatu (reproductive organs). Evidently, the dhatus of the Sapta Dhatus have some correlation with biological concepts in the human body, and thus it can be inferred that there is some basis of scientific reasoning in the creation of Ayurveda (Sharma & Chaudhary, 2014).

Using these concepts of Ayurveda, Indian mystics and intellectuals formulated treatment methods to treat various diseases. There have been various systems of medicine identified throughout history. For instance, the Siddha system of medicine was created by a group of Indian intellectuals from Siddha schools, known as Siddhars. The Siddhars proposed two omnipresent entities, Siva and Sakthi, which influence the shaping of matter and energy in the universe. Furthermore, diagnostic criteria is typically composed of eight examinations, known as ashta sthana pareeksha: nadi (pulse), kan (eyes), swara (voice), sparisam (touch), varna (colour), na (tongue), mala (faeces) and neer (urine) (Ravishankar & Shukla, 2008). Moreover, typical medications that are prescribed to patients within the Siddha system of medicine include herbal and mineral treatments for diseases such as diabetic ulcers, eczema, warts, leprosy, and other diseases. The Siddha system also prioritized changes in lifestyle and diet as necessary in the treatment plan (Thas, 2008).

The Unani system of medicine began in Greece, specifically from the great philosopher Hippocrates, in the 460-366 BC period. However, his system of medicine slowly was introduced in India and the Arabs popularized it in treatment. Those who support the Unani system believe the human body as one single entity composed of seven components, known as Umoor-e-Tabiya. Furthermore, there are four primary temperaments: cold, hot, wet, and dry. Within diagnostic criteria, each component and humor is checked and assigned a temperament. Unani physicians typically recommend changes in lifestyle and daily routines in order to improve and maintain health. A review provides an excellent example, explaining that Unani physicians would prescribe a patient with poor oral health to use chewing sticks for brushing his or her after meals (Sudhir, 2014). Plant based medications, such as oils, powders, ointments, and alcohol tinctures, are suggested in the system of medicine.

Finally, a more well-known and universal ally of Ayurvedic concepts is yoga, originating in ancient India. Consisting of various asanas (postures), yoga utilizes meditation, breathing exercises, lifestyle management, and promotion of tranquility in order to offer a more natural method of treating physiological diseases.

Beyond these systems of medicine that have taken concepts from Ayurveda, there are several additional methods that cannot be covered in this article due to a lack of space. These systems include homeopathy and naturopathy (Jaiswal & Williams, 2017).

Above all, the primary takeaway from this brief overview of Ayurveda is that the system of medicine employs a pseudoscience-esque approach to understanding personal health and treating various physiological conditions in a way that is less artificial than traditional systems of medicine that rely on chemical medications to treat diseases (Semwal et al., 2015).

Revival of Ayurveda Through Nationalism

As Indians from diverse backgrounds and religions united into the fight against British imperialism, the ancient form of Ayurvedic medicine was revitalized and prioritized as a manifestation of prized Indian culture. The Ayurveda Revivalism movement achieved national support in the early-1900s, when the All India Ayurvedic Congress was established by a group of indigneous medical practitioners in 1907 (Bala, 1990). Since its inception, the vision of the congress is to advance Ayurvedic science and medicine and globalize the system of medicine within the National System of Medicine (The All India, 2020). Without the Indian nationalist movement, Ayurvedic physicians from across India would not gather together and start to establish the congress in the effort to popularize the system of medicine. Evidently, the nationalist movement was key in setting the stage for national congresses in Ayurveda.

In the 1920s, the Indian National Congress became involved in the Ayurvedic Revivalism movement. The Congress demanded state patronage of the All India Ayurvedic Congress and passed state legislation to popularize Ayurveda in local hospital facilities and teaching of the ancient form of medicine in school curricula (Bala, 1990; Hardiman, 2009). For instance, Shyamadas Vacaspati, a member of the All India Ayurveda Congress and Ayurvedic physician, furthered the revivalist movement by founding a national university called Gaudiya Saravidyayatana as a part of the Non-Cooperation movement (introduced by Gandhi to combat against British Raj and imperialism movements) (Bala, 1990).

Despite the little information on the topic in the current historic literature, the Indian nationalist movement aided in popularizing Ayurveda in schools and national organizations. Without Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation movement and the formation of the Indian National Congress (all fruits of Indian nationalism, which were utilized to combat against the British Raj), Ayurveda would not have an opportunity to be so popularized in the national state.

Ayurveda in Post-Colonial India

With India gaining independence from Great Britain in 1947, Ayurveda continued to expand, popularize, and globalize itself to foreign societies in post-colonial India. Some notable advancements post-revivalist movement was the 1970 Indian Medical Central Council Act, which aimed to empower institutions in India for adequate study and research in ayurvedic science and medicine. This legislation was key in providing the academic and educational resources for the next young generation to engage in this unique science and system of medicine. A year later, the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha medicine, and Homeopathy (AYUSH) to provide more governmental support and supervision over higher educational resources in Ayurveda, and the Central Council of Indian Medicine (CCIM) offered support in this effort (Shrivastava et al., 2015). Soon, the Central Council for Research in Ayurvedic Sciences (CCRAS) was established to provide more support in education and resources in this unique form of medicine. These organizations offered the firepower to advance understanding in the ancient form of science and educate new leaders to pursue careers in the field (CENTRAL COUNCIL, n.d.). In 2014, the Ministry of AYUSH was formed, and even National Ayurveda Day was declared in 2016 on the birth of Dhanvantari to celebrate the creation of the new pseudoscience in Indian culture. Even outside of India, Ayurveda is gaining recognition not only for its medical powers and promise, but also its qualitative elements and philosophies on medical practice. As Ayurveda is unique in that it focuses holistically on medicine, organizations such as WHO are starting to embrace and adopt practices from Ayurveda (Chaudhary & Singh, 2011). Indian physicians and Ayurveda advocates are even travelling to international forums to explain the medical power and promise of this ancient form of medicine. For instance, Dr. Anupama Kizhakkeveettil, a well-known Ayurveda physician, travelled to the World Traditional Medicine Forum to discuss Ayurveda in modern Western medical practice (Deva, 2020).

However, more work can be done to make Ayurveda a more widespread and popular pseudoscience, especially in its birth land of India. For example, training programs and higher education resources could be strengthened in universities. Although these opportunities exist, they are not streamlined and easily accessible to communities in India who are interested in the system of medicine. Furthermore, standardized diagnostic criteria for specific diseases should be implemented in order to gain recognition of Ayurveda as a distinct system of medicine rather than a trivial pseudoscience. Finally, community and foreign outreach is necessary to globalize the system of medicine and get physicians to start thinking critically about utilizing Ayurveda in Western medical practices (Shrivastava et al., 2015).



The research question that was examined was the following: “To what extent did the Indian nationalist movement aid in the Ayurvedic Revivalism Movement in both pre- and post-colonial India?” Based on the current literature on the topic, it can be reasonably concluded that the nationalist movement was integral in providing united sentiments and government organizations to make Ayurvedic medicine widespread. Whether it may be the establishment of the Indian National Congress, or the founding of the Gaudiya Saravidyayatana within Gandhi’s efforts in the Non-Cooperation Movement, the presence of Indian nationalism was necessary in revitalizing Ayurveda.

Despite the conclusions gathered in this manuscript, there is little literature on the relationship between the Indian Nationalism Movement and the Ayurvedic Revivalism Movement. Understanding how Indian nationalism contributed to the globalization of Ayurveda can be useful for global health advocates and historians to learn from the past and get inspired by ideas to further popularize Ayurveda in Western medicine.



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