Cultural Issues in Bringing Ayurveda to the West


Transplanting Ayurveda to the West raises a number of significant cultural issues. An ancient, indigenous indian art, Ayurveda has evolved within a specific cultural and religious milieu. The cultural context of a country such as the USA is in many ways the polar opposite of this milieu. How can we transplant Ayurveda to this culture without doing violence either to the integrity of the teachings or to the cultural bias of our students and patients? In this paper, rather than attempting to provide answers, we will highlight some of the issues as well as suggesting a conceptual frame within which to understand the ways in which we may choose to make this adaptation.

What Happens When Cultures Meet?

Jesuit missionaries, engaged for the last four hundred years in bringing Catholicism to different lands, have described two different dynamics at play in the meeting of cultures.The first is Inculturation. Here, the transplanted philosophy adopts the dress, customs, language, food and artistic and architectural style of the host culture. Inculturation involves a deep soul-searching on the part of the transplanted philosophy. What is the immutable essence of the teachings? What are the dispensible cultural trappings? During the process of inculturation, core values must be identified, and essence separated from form. This process, by its very nature, brings renewal to the original philosophy, just as a ship is renewed when it is brought out of the water and the barnacles are removed.

The other dynamic is that of Acculturation. In the process of acculturation, there is an adopting of the dress, manners, behaviour and values of the exotic culture or philosophy. To give an example of these two dynamics at play, in Shambhala Buddhism, all prayers are in English, American business attire is worn, and the main celebrations take place on the solstices and equinoxes.Thus is a fine example of an inculturated philosophy. In many other Tibetan Buddhist sanghas, Americans learn to recite prayers in Tibetan, as well as wearing Tibetan religious garb and adopting Tibetan customs, an example of acculturation at work. In the context of Indology a specific kind of acculturation has been described. This is known as Sanskritization. Sanskritization refers not only to the use of the Sanskrit language, or certain vocabulary therefrom, but more specifically connotes a gradual process of refinement , as the dress, diet, and behaviour of Vedic culture are adopted. Inherent to this definition is the belief that Indian culture is in its very essence more refined than the barbarian customs which are being abandoned.

An interesting point to note is the profound difference between Sanskritization and conversion. Conversion requires a change in belief, the adoption of an alien orthodoxy. Sanskritization requires a change in behaviour, the adoption of an orthopraxy. In teaching even the most rudimentary elements of Ayurvedic selfcare,diet etc, we are by definition participating in Sanskritization, as we train Americans to adopt lifestyle habits which, according to our philosophy, are more refined, in that they are less disease-causing and more health-enhancing. Further, orthodoxy is more easily exported than orthopraxy, embedded as the latter is in a specific geographical and ethnic milieu.

Inculturation or Acculturation--the Challenge of Transplanting Ayurveda

As we bring Ayurveda to this culture, each of us is making choices on a daily basis--inculturation or Sanskritization? Do we teach our students and patients to adopt Indian food, or do we create Ayurvedic versions of familiar American foods? If we do not teach our patients, for example, to eat kitchari, are we short-changing them by failing to offer them a tried and time-tested way to eat both healthily and inexpensively? Are we missing an essential piece of the integrity of the teachings unless we utilize the specific foodstuffs and recipes indicated in the classical texts? Can we really claim to be practising classical Ayurveda without being true to its ancient culinary traditions? On the other hand , we might choose to ask--are we alienating our patients by asking them to adopt foreign foods rather than their familiar comfort foods? Is it possible to be both Ayurvedic and a stalwart, unindianized American? Is it truly holistic to do most of our food shopping at an import shop, purchasing goods which cannot even be grown in our own bioregion? The foods described in the classical texts are those which are indigenous to the region. Is the teaching telling us to use those specific foods, or to use the foods which are indigenous our own region? In America these questions become even more complex, as each of us comes ancestrally from yet another region. My Italian soulmate, for example only feels healthy and nourished if he intersperses his regular rice and dal diet with some ancestrally familiar Italian food. A good example of what we are dealing with in terms of the most basic of considerations, food , is seen in the work of Amadea Morningstar. Her Ayurvedic Cookbook is a fine example of gentle Sanskritization, as she introduces mild and easily prepared dals andkitcheris. In Ayurvedic Cooking for Westerners, on the other hand, she takes the inculturation route, presenting wholesome and doshically balanced American recipes.

Herbalism--Sanskritization or Inculturation?

What of our most important healing tools, the herbs and herbal preparations? In American Ayurveda we see the whole range of approaches, both inculturation and Sanskritization. The purpose of this paper is to help us become clear as to which approach we are choosing , and why. At the Sansritization end , we use only those herbs described in the classic texts, preparing the various items of the materia medica exactly as described. The advantage to this approach is that we can be certain that, when we use the word Ayurveda, that is really what we are offering, in the most c lassical sense. We are taking full advantage of the wisdom of the sages, as well as of centuries of experience. The disadvantage is that almost all our healing substances are imported from India, with all the attendant difficulties of ensuring our supply, as well as the very significant issues of dwindling plant populations, presenting us with the possibility that some of our most important herbs, such as kutki, may soon be unavailable--for ever. And, as with foods, our classical approach deprives us of the opportunity to use the indigenous healing plants of our own bioregion.

At the acculturation end of the spectrum, The Yoga of Herbs, by Frawley and Lad, represents an important attempt to bring some of the most popular Western herbs into the Ayurvedic fold , as it were, by framing their properties in Ayurvedic terms. At Alandi School of Ayurveda, students explore some of the herbs of their own bioregion, examining their energetics and actions from an Ayurvedic standpoint. The advantage here is that we are beginning an attempt to indigenize Ayurvedic herbalism. The disadvantage--that whenever we depart from the classic texts, we have to ask the question,''Is ths truly Ayurveda?'' If we make a herbal preparation that happens to contain a herb such as ashwagandha, do we have the right to call it an Ayurvedic preparation? Or must it be both prepared and prescribed as described in the texts to merit this name? If we prepare a churna, prash or lehyam from a combination of both traditional Ayurvedic and Western herbs, departing from classic formulations in favour of our own creativity, is this Ayurvedic? On what authority do we validate the preparation? And what is our understanding of authority and authenticity in Ayurveda, if we depart from the texts?

A fine example of a successful inculturation and indigenization of Ayurvedic herbalism is of course found in Tibetan medicine, where Ayurvedic concepts are applied, with the use of the indigenous herbs of the Tibetan plateau.

When is Ayurveda not Ayurveda?

When a Shirodhara treatment is offered in a spa, is this Ayurveda.? When a product contains certain herbs from the Ayurvedic pharmacopeia, is the product automatically Ayurvedic? For an authentic process of acculturation, we must see an adoption of the integral Ayurveda, rather than a piecemeal grabbing of highly marketable exotica.. We, the Ayurvedic community and NAMA members, are the guardians of the integrity of Ayurveda, as the ancient science meets the challenges of a commerce-driven society. Among ourselves, we must come to agreements regarding the proper and appropriate use of the term "Ayurveda", so that this sacred name of the Science of Life not become a mere exotic tagline, or a label for yet another form of self-indulgence for privileged people.

Treating individuals rather than conditions or symptoms and utilizing the prakruti-vikruti model as the basis for our recommendations, for example, could be regarded as essential preconditions for any treatment or medicament to be regarded as Ayurvedic. Just because a remedy originates in the Ayurvedic pharmacopeia, it is not necessarily Ayurvedic in itself, if used without regard for the prakruti-vikrukri model. It is important to become clear about our core values--such as individualized treatments, emphasis on balance and harmony of the individual in reference to time place, season and dosha, the importance of deep healing rather than symptomatic treatments, and a holistic model that considers body, mind, spirit, social setting and environment.

Accessibility of Ayurvedic care for destitute and low income people, as well as for impoverished spiritual aspirants, is another perennial value clearly indicated in the Sushrut Samhita. "Thou shalt help with thy professional skill and knowledge....the indigent, the honest, the hermits, the helpless...and thou shalt give them medicine without any charge whatever." (Sutrasthanam,chII 5). In our setting, this calls for some ingenuity in devising sliding scale clinics, tithe openings and other well-structured ways to fulfill this injunction. At Alandi School of Ayurveda, for example, we offer sliding scale panchakarma treatments, as well as tithe and sliding-scale options in the Ayurveda clinic.

The categories of persons one is forbidden to treat, enumerated immediately after this, present an unique cultural challenge, as in this country we are not accustomed to deny treatment on moral grounds. I had a personal experience of this dilemma when a chauffered Rolls Royce pulled into my driveway. I learnt that my patient for the day had made his millions opening topless dancer bars! To my great relief, he did not seek another appointment, his distaste for my simple ways being even greater than mine for his mode of livelihood.

Secular Ayurveda?

In coming to the USA, Ayurveda has crossed the proverbial black ocean to the secular city, where space and time are undifferentiated and there is no sacred centre. Is an inculturated, American Ayurveda then a secular Ayurveda? Variously decribed as an upaveda of the Atarva veda and as a fifth Veda in its own right, Ayurveda is and has always been an intrinsic part of sannatan dharma. It cannot be secularized without losing its soul and esence. The task of inculturation is to remove the unnecesary cultural accretions, not to amputate any part of the essence. Does this then tie Ayurveda to a particular religion? As we have already seen, Tibet has made a highly succesful integration of Ayurveda within a Buddhist country. Ayurveda already flourishes within two of the world's major religions.

The teaching of sannatan dharma is, "truth is one, the wise have called That by many names''. As Raghudas Maharaj of Alandi said, "in the railway carriage on the Pune-Bombay Express are Hindus, Moslems, Sikhs, Christians and Jews. Yet they will all get down at Bombay. To the person of spirit, religious differences are irrelevant.'' In offering Ayurveda to the West, there is no need to bring about conversion to either Hinduism or Buddhism. However, we must always walk in the spirit of sannatan dharma, honouring its essential teachings of truth and ahimsa, of reverence for the inwelling mystery within all things animate and inanimate, and of striving for loka sangraha, the welfare of the Whole.

We must also have the courage to offer to our patients and students what J. Krishnamurti has described as, " the greatest of all jewels", the Upanishadic spirit of awareness and self-inquiry. As mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita, great pain is one of the motivating factors that leads one to the Lord.(7, 16). Thus the Ayurvedic practioner has an eminent opportunity to introduce the liberating knowledge to people hungry for anything that will assuage their pain. To do so , we must have so deeply internalized the teachings, such that we can express them to each individual in fresh and relevant terms.


As we examine the models of Sanskritization versus inculturation, we can see that great pitfalls and great opportunities lie before us. The biggest pitfall is schism, the tearing apart of our Ayurvedic community into the Sanskritizers versus the indiginizers. In the process, the Sanskritizers would become more rigid and the Inculturators more superficial. A fine example of this dynamic is seen in the Apples and Honey film The Quarrel. Two long estranged Holocaust survivors meet in a park in Montreal. One is an orthodox rabbi, still wedded to the dress, customs and orthopraxy of pre-holocaust European Jewry. The other is a thoroughly secular, fully inculturated poet. Their heated quarrel can never be resolved because each contains the part the other has rejected. Such quarrels have befallen most if not all transplanted philosophical systems.

The danger of persuing the Acculturation route alone is that Ayurveda will remain always an exotic hothouse plant, unable to naturalize itself in the soil of this land. And the danger inherent in inculturation into this particular culture is a commodification of Ayurveda., as well as the creation of a palatable, user-friendly pseudo-Ayurveda. We have seen both these phenomena emerge already where yoga is concerned. Sanskritization and Inculturation must go hand in hand, as we read both the text of the Ayurvedic classics, our only source of authority and authenticity, and the text of the current life situation. If fame and gain are the motives of our inculturation, we will in the end so distort and prostitute Ayurveda that there will be nothing vibrant or vital left. If fear of change is the motive of our efforts at Sanskritization, we will alienate the public from the great benefits of Ayurveda. Stepping out in the service of Ayurveda and of humanity, our pure motivation will inform our efforts at both Sanskritization and inculturation.

Alakananda Ma M.B., B.S. (Lond.) is an Ayurvedic Doctor (NAMA) and graduate of a top London medical school. She is co-founder of Alandi Ayurveda Clinic and Alandi Ayurveda Gurukula in Boulder Colorado, as well as a spiritual mother, teacher, flower essence maker and storyteller. Alakananda is a well known and highly respected practitioner in the Ayurveda community both nationally and internationally.

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