Ashwagandha vs ginseng: Why Modi loves his Ayurveda

Among the various bromides, Narendra Modi doled out to the students of SRCC yesterday, the ayurveda reference was a master pill.

"China exports the most herbal medicine but India despite its history of ayurveda hasn't managed to export as much," Narendra Modi told the audience.

The problem, Modi suggested, was not expertise. We have our Caraka and our Susruta but we just cannot package them properly.


Representational image. AFP

Past glory undone by an inglorious present is Modi's favourite subject and a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. And ayurveda is the perfect poster child to illustrate that storyline. First you can butter up the audience's ego by talking up the wonder that was "India past." Then you can blame an incompetent, out-of-touch, slothful government for the travails of "India present." Look, it's even failed to capitalise on the great heritage of ayurveda. Finally for the coup de grace you can give the youngsters hope for "India future" - if China can do it, why can't we? We just need the government to get out of the way. And better packaging.

They got ginseng. We got Ashwagandha. Bring it on.

This was not the first time Modi brought up ayurveda. Ayurveda actually has been one of Modi's pet examples when he holds forth on building up the brand value of Made in India.

He referred to it while talking to diamond merchants in Surat at the Sparkle 2013 (yes, really) conference earlier this year:

India is the mother of ayurvedic medicines but we are lacking in proper packaging, China had captured world market of traditional medicines and holistic health care and the reason is that they have worked hard on the packaging and comfort segment of their product. We should aggressively work in this direction.

He's actually on quite solid ground with his own track record on ayurveda. Gujarat is keen to develop ayurveda-based medical tourism. Modi's own website quotes Gaurang Joshi, the head of Mission Ayurveda as saying "Gujarat is the first state in India that started Ayurveda University." That school was set up in 1967 and is the first of its kind in the world - devoted exclusively to ayurveda studies and research. Mission Ayurveda will host an Ayurveda Conference in Rajkot in February.

Modi's mother-let-down-by-packaging diagnosis goes down easy with audiences because it suggests that the problem is easily fixable. But as an extensive cover story in Open about ayurveda explains, it's not just about branding.

Both ayurveda and Chinese medicine share the same concepts about addressing internal imbalances. Both focus on the patient rather than the disease. The goal for both is harmony. They come with revered ancient texts - China with the Huangdi Neijing and India with Charak Samhita and Susruta Samhita.

But some of our nationalist pride actually gets in the way of the advance of Ayurveda. As Priyanka Pulla writes in Open which you can read in its entirety here:

One set of scientists argues that a rabid nationalistic fervour for everything Indian has made Ayurvedic practitioners regard the classical texts as the last word, insisting that modern scientific endorsement is not important for them.

They would rather be part of the herbal medicine and supplement market where they don't need to go through the rigours of scientific testing. Who wants to go through Phase 3 trials and 15 years of research when you already have a sizable market?

So ayurveda practitioners can complain that Western science treats them as folklore or big pharma is lurking to steal centuries old secrets. But at the same time few are making a concerted attempt to go for fool-proof extensive placebo-controlled clinical trials that could catapult ayurveda to the next level. Pulla writes there are 523 research papers on the herb Ashwagandha in the online database Pubmed. But the number of Ashwagandha-based drugs that a medical practitioner can prescribe is zero.

China, on the other hand, is busy working with the US Pharacopeial Convention to improve its medicines and make them more acceptable to the American market. They are publishing papers and collaborating with Harvard University to develop a natural extract database. Modernisation of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is a government priority. And the government has made it part of the national healthcare system. About 95% of general hospitals in China have traditional medicine departments according to a 2005 report by Bhushan Patwardhan, Dnyaneshwar Warude and Narendra Bhatt.

In that same report the authors write that in 2004, the value of botanicals related trade in India was US $10 billion with annual export of US $1.1 billion. The corresponding numbers for China were $48 billion and $3.6 billion. They note the rapid increase in the number of licensed Chinese medicine providers in the United States. There is more to come. China has pledged to create several export-oriented TCM giants in the coming years.

Modi is right when he wants to make Made in India a mark of quality. But it's going to need more than packaging. As Ram Vishwakaram, head of the Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine in Jammu tells Open:

"My belief is that the Chinese will discover drugs from Ayurvedic plants before we do. Whatever herbs are available on this side of the Himalayas are also available on the other."

Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 16:43 PM

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