Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Question of Rationality : The Scientific and Lokavidya Perspectives

Asoke Chattopadhyay

Professor of Chemistry,

Kalyani University (West Bengal)

My post is partly a reaction to Prof. Sayeed's post, and I shall keep referring to the one following it (viz. Dr. Ritu Priya's). How health and medicines are treated in the two systems ("modern" vis a vis "lokvidya") is quite instructive.

Modern medical system is based on a physico(-chemico)-biological paradigm which relies heavily on the "scientific" discoveries of the last 200-250 years: mainly arising from dissection of human and animal bodies, understanding various systems (circulatory, nervous etc.), tissues and how they function, leading to smaller and smaller units to cells, chromosomes and the nucleic acids. Near about this stage (about 100 years ago), "drug development" meant "making" (i.e. synthesizing/extracting) some compound and just introducing it in the market. That is how many analgesics and other drugs came to be known to us. No one knew of "side effects" or "after effects", and bothered about them. I am not talking of "underdeveloped" countries. I am talking of Great Britain and the USA.

Once antibiotics became known, a lot of lives could be saved. Experiments were still conducted – on prisoners in the USA or in Nazi Germany, on aliens and on poor people of Africa or Asia, usually without their knowledge or consent. That is certainly an advancement of human knowledge base and ultimately for a more dignified life! But limitations of this knowledge base becomes known when we see that the first "designed" analgesic (refecoxib / celecoxib), which led to its discoverer Philip Needleman becoming Senior Vice President of Monsanto (1989), developing unwanted side effects on heart patients – leading to banning of the drug (2004).

The same story pertains to neurological research. A lot of experiments are done with today PET (positron emission tomography) or fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which are supposed to tell us which areas of our brain become active during certain activities e.g. when we are speaking English / Chinese, when we are singing, even for thinking of specific images. This is expected to lead to "controlling computers by thought" or maybe to "identify what a person is thinking of" (and nabbing him as a would-be terrorist?).

Much of the data is of the form of correlations. Just because a North American male may have particular thoughts when seeing a particular picture for example does not mean that every human being on the earth would also have the same emotion. Also, just because deep brain stimulation may generate "out of body" feelings in some people may not mean that all such feelings must be generated by the same means. They can also be generated by meditation, or by some drugs (under controlled conditions, of course). Therefore what causes such feelings? Any comments?

I shall come to the point: today's medical science is dependent on a dissective analytical protocol, and is heavily supported by the blind acceptance of some hypothetical physico-chemical mechanism going on at cellular (or sub-cellular) level. The lokvidya way is totally opposite to this. Examples ---

We take tulsi (and basaka) leaves when we have cough and cold, often mixed with honey, ginger etc. If these fail, we take homeopathic or biochemic medicines. In extremely rare cases do we resort to anti-histaminics or antibiotics. Indigenous people in different regions rely on various things like this. For example, people in the upper / middle Himalayas have access to aconite and other herbs.

Even today, there are chiropractors and such people in rural areas who can set bones and fix broken limbs. Many of us have experienced this ourselves. These are documented, and even in the West there are such people who have a career as chiropractors.

If these people are able to cure a single disease without having to study Gray's Anatomy or Guyton's Mecical Physiology, then there must be some truth in their knowledge base. That is what is called lokvidya in our parlance. It is for others to find the "truth" and "logic" in their knowledge.

What happens when modernity "discovers" such wonderful new entities? They immediately dispossess the original owners of such knowledge and start marketing the products under new brands. Hence Ayush and Aloe Vera lotions etc. Unfortunately, the potential buyers of Ayush products know better and make (or get) the stuff themselves, without bothering to pay up market prices.

Those of us who have had University education (or IIT or whatever) think that modern science came out of the West from Copernicus, Galileo, Newton etc. etc. and the European powers "liberated" or "enlightened" poor people of the (erstwhile) third world countries by giving educating them in these thoughts (and certainly with western democracy). We neglect the necromancy of Newton or the astrology of Copernicus because we "believe" that part is extraneous to these personalities. Thus modernity and modern science is culture independent, ideal i.e. of "absolute value". Prof Sayeed's arguments smack of such a viewpoint. Once you accept these ideas in toto, you will talk of rationality of indigenous thoughts, or of logical fallacies in such thoughts. You forget that logic as we know today is a very specific entity whose necessity at a particular time in history was to explain (or justify) the Newtonian-Maxwellian world view (of modern science), and relate the entire mathematical (or at least arithmetic) apparatus with it. Maybe there was a need to justify the then societal structure in terms of "modern" science as well.

There is a growing body of evidence telling us that the people of India actually became poorer and educationally backward during the British Rule. These are new results and may seem startling to people holding the view stated above (that we were the "white man's burden"). But these facts correlate nicely with some older findings at least e.g. of R. C. Dutta regarding transfer of resources from India to England.

What really needs to be done is, as has been stated by others before me, to find links between lokvidyas of various peoples, their current status, their history, their struggles, everything we can know about them. Then we can look for similarities and attempt to forge stronger ties with these peoples. I deliberately use the plural to ensure the stress on plurality, because indigenous peoples in various parts of the world are poorer because of their isolation, and hence suffer from discrimination or tyranny, whether in the capitalist USA or Australia, or in socialist Venezuela or Brazil (or even in China). But facts and documents are what are needed the most right now.

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