It’s winter and a year into a pandemic, and I’m talking from my home in Boston via Skype with a doctor in Secunderabad, India—not for a diagnosis of any one illness, but about the precarious health of both individuals and the world. And more important, how pairing modern medicine and ancient Ayurvedic thought can help both to heal.
Shankar Prasad Adluri is a unique medical practitioner—he’s fully trained in modern medicine and an internist at a major facility, Sunshine Hospital in Secunderabad. But he also has the degrees necessary to practice the ancient art of Ayurvedic medicine in the Indian states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
Thin and spry, Adluri looks younger than his 48 years, with a head of thick salt-and-pepper hair and a ready smile. He always appears in a checked button-down shirt. Over a few Skype conversations, he shared details about his life and his journey to becoming an allopathic doctor who is guided by both modern medicine and the wisdom of the Vedas.
Adluri’s parents were academics, teaching language and political science at government schools, and his brother trained in the United Kingdom to become a cardiac surgeon. His grandfather had been a serious yogi who stayed in a cave for 40 years in search of self-realization. (It’s been said that he only left the cave, which is still a temple to Shiva, to fetch water from a well half a mile away, or to confer with renowned yogis when they passed through the remote village nearby.)
Like many smart, privileged Indians in the late ’80s, Adluri considered only two careers: engineering or medicine. He ultimately followed in his brother’s footsteps. After passing the brutal medical school entrance exam (at the time, only 600 of the state’s 600,000 test-takers earned medical school seats), he was admitted to Gandhi Medical College, one of the top schools in South India. He loved the intellectual challenge of diagnosing patients—it was like a detective novel, he says—but he soon discovered that modern medicine had limitations. For example: If a patient had swelling in his feet, medical practitioners were taught to trace the problem back to the liver, heart, or kidneys. But Adluri wondered: Why did this person fall ill in the first place?
I began to see that I could remain healthy, if I understood the nuances of the sciences of health.
Adluri observed that modern science typically focused on treating pathogens and illness, instead of nurturing the body so that it could have a better chance at healing itself. He knew there were genetic and environmental factors at play in illnesses, but he wanted to learn more about what an individual could do to control for these factors. Were we humans passive victims? Or were there things we could do to enhance our resilience to disease?
One day in 1996, he was studying in a library when he was drawn to a large set of Ayurvedic textbooks. The books, English translations of the ancient verses, had been published in the 1930s, and were sitting on the shelves collecting dust. Poring over the information, Adluri realized that he was finally discovering answers to his questions.
“I began to see that I could remain healthy,” he says, “if I understood the nuances of the sciences of health.”
Adluri resolved to complete his medical training and study Ayurveda at the same time. But finding a teacher for the latter wasn’t easy. His medical school colleagues dismissed the ancient practice and discouraged him from pursuing it. In school, the only thing they were taught about traditional medicines was that they could be toxic, he says. Plus, while the caste system had been outlawed in 1950, those trained in Ayurveda, called vaidyas, tended to pass their knowledge from father to son. (Until recently, female vaidyas were rare.)
After two years of searching, Adluri found a vaidya in his 70s. He knew nothing about modern medicine, but, says Adluri, he was a “meticulous scholar.” Along with the foundational texts, the vaidya taught him Sanskrit so that Adluri could study the texts in their original language.
Ayurveda and Health
Ayurvedic philosophy has roots in the Vedic religion, possibly the world’s oldest religion, and was first written down more than 2,000 years ago. It defines the universe as a single energy system from which all things are created. In the 20th century, quantum physics would confirm these teachings with the elegant formula E = MC2, which essentially says that energy and mass are interchangeable—everything in the universe is made from energy.
Likewise, we can think of each organism, such as the human body, as a unit of interconnected systems that depend on the cosmic principle of intelligence, called agni. In Ayurveda, agni is the intelligence within all living cells, tissues, and systems. It is behind all digestive and metabolic processes in the body. From this foundation, the Ayurvedic texts offer classifications. According to Ayurveda, everything in the universe is made of five elements: air, water, ether, earth, and fire. The result is a vast taxonomic menu available to the practitioner to aid the diagnosis and treatment of patients.
Similar to osteopathic and integrative modern medicine, Ayurveda sees the body and mind as a single, complex, constantly shifting organism that needs vigilance and care to remain in balance. Therefore, mental health plays an enormous role in physical health. Emotional and biological balance is established not only through how and what we choose to eat, but also through how we choose to live.
Meditating, for example, gives us the emotional and intellectual space to mentally digest the happenings of the day. Getting enough quality sleep helps the body properly regulate itself. Eating the right foods at the proper times and with care gives us the mental and physical ability to fully digest the things we put in our body, a process Ayurvedic practitioners refer to as sameekarana, or assimilation—a complete digestion in which the plants and/or animals we eat become a part of us.
Ayurveda sees one’s body type, or dosha, as the starting point to wellness. We often simplify to associate the three doshas, or types of energy, with three elements: vata with air, pitta with fire, and kapha with earth. Vata is about movement; it’s changeable, and it can be very drying. Pitta is similar to combustion; it runs hot but can be dangerous if unbalanced. Kapha is slow-moving, referred to as the place where earth and water meet; think of clay, which binds things together.
In Ayurveda, every emotion has a bioequivalent in the body. Anger, for example, can cause a headache. Fear can cause a sensitivity to sound. The key to wellness is managing excess and scarcity in this dynamic environment so that your agni continues to nourish you. Living well requires constant tending, checking in, and evaluating.
The Struggle to Stay Balanced
The ancient Vedic texts detail thousands of ways a body can fall out of balance, along with the methods by which they can be restored. Generally that involves balancing your diet, lifestyle, and emotions, and adding foods and actions that offset the predilections of your predominant dosha.
“Food is the major source of all biochemistry in the body,” Adluri says. Once we know our dominant dosha, we can begin eating the right foods to balance what our biology craves. (If someone leans vata, for example, heavier, oiler foods are recommended to replace the dryness.)
Adluri prescribes a mix of modern and Ayurvedic approaches to his patients. For digestive issues, for example, he might recommend taking an antacid medication to ease symptoms and neutralize stomach acidity. But he would pair that with practices such as abdominal massage, ingestion of ginger, fennel, or a similar herb or root. He might also suggest altering diet and sleep patterns and meditating for emotional balance—all based uniquely on the patient’s constitution and dosha. When treating COVID-19 patients, Adluri prescribed the antiviral drug Remdesivir alongside Ayurvedic remedies like Sanjivani Vati, Tribhuvan Kirti Ras, and Amritarishta.
Some modern scientists are beginning to acknowledge that this way of thinking has its merits. The World Health Organization initiated its “Traditional Medicine Strategy” in 2002 to recognize complementary medicine as an important and often underestimated part of health care. “Traditional medicine, of proven quality, safety, and efficacy, contributes to the goal of ensuring that all people have access to care,” the 2014-to-2023 report notes.
In Ayurveda, there is no single magical medicine, herb, or decoction because multiple things on this planet offer identical balancing properties. It’s never just about one solution for any particular ailment at a time. The texts advise that we take time to grow, prepare, and digest our foods. When we eat, we need peace to assimilate the meal because becoming one with our food requires tranquility and focus.
When you consider how rushed, stressed, and careless life in the modern world had become before the pandemic, it seems inevitable that we were vulnerable to serious illness in 2020.
Ayurveda Predicted the Pandemic
Like the publications of many scientists and doctors who study global catastrophes and epidemics, Ayurvedic texts also could predict an inevitable pandemic. When COVID-19 arrived in India, Adluri cited a discussion of pandemics in major Ayurvedic texts such as the Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita. The texts said that widespread illness occurs when the planet is out of balance, just as illness comes when a person’s equilibrium is off-kilter. When we pollute the air, earth, and water, the seasons get disrupted. The earth lacks the agni and the control of vayu (the functions of vital life forces) to produce nourishing food. The result: a slow disruption of agni and vata on an enormous scale.
Modern science supports this theory. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, “the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics. Deforestation, which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide. Loss of habitat forces animals to migrate and potentially contact other animals or people and share germs. Large livestock farms can also serve as a source for spillover of infections from animals to people.”
All of this points to an essential truth: The world is out of balance. The planet itself is ill. Ayurveda is not only a system of medicine, Adluri says. It is an aid to seeing the world. Just like our modern predictive models, Ayurvedic texts include dire warnings for modern citizens of the world, if we are willing to listen.
Man should coexist with nature, learn to respect every form of life instead of exploiting it. Every aspect of life is divine.
For example, treating individuals with COVID-19 and getting vaccinated against the virus will help in the short term, but it won’t prevent another pandemic in the future, Adluri warns. For that, the Ayurvedic texts that Adluri cited advise that we must tend to our collective garden, the Earth. We can start by feeding birds and animals, watering plants, and cleaning up debris and adopting sustainable farming practices. After all, food that is not grown with care cannot care for us.
To try to fix the inherent imbalance on a global scale, we need to work toward comprehensive solutions to big problems, such as preserving land and water through better farming practices, reducing consumption, and eliminating plastic from our lives. On an individual scale, Adluri argues, making good choices for the planet—eating food that was grown mindfully, for example—will improve our health as well.
“One of the things I’m concerned about,” he says, closing our Skype discussion from his living room in India, “is that we live in harmony with nature and never try to believe humans should take priority. Man should coexist with nature, learn to respect every form of life instead of exploiting it. Every aspect of life is divine. Treat it with respect.”
RACHEL SLADE is a writer and editor living in Boston. She is the author of bestseller Into the Raging Sea (Ecco, 2018), a New York Times notable book and one of Outside’s best books of the summer.
KAROLINE SCHNOOR is a German illustrator living and working from the English seaside. Her love of screen printing informs her bold and colorful work.