West enlivens Eastern medicine Import: India's upscale young professionals are rediscovering traditional Hindu medicine, in part because it gained renewed cachet in the United States through the writings of Dr. Deepak Chopra and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Sun Journal

December 17, 1998|By Mark Drajem | Mark Drajem,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW DELHI -- When asthmatics or insomniacs, those with clogged arteries or cancer visit the large Apollo Hospital, the treatments are no longer limited to intravenous drips or surgery. The patients might be told to sniff natural oils, meditate or stretch the body like a cobra.

The Body-Mind Institute, backed by self-help author Dr. Deepak Chopra, is bringing traditional Indian medicine into this modern U.S.-style hospital on the outskirts of India's capital city.

Upper-class Indians, it seems, are rediscovering their country's traditional medicine -- everything from herbal medicines to meditation to astrology.

Ayurveda, literally the "science of long life" in Sanskrit, is the umbrella term used to group Indian medicines. A 4,000-year-old health system based on the sacred Hindu Vedas, ayurveda includes meditation, yoga, astrology, diet manipulation and herbal medicines.

Just down the road from Apollo, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the father of transcendental meditation, has opened a packaging plant for standardizing ayurvedic medicines. After his organization bought a Delhi hospital, a ward was replaced by a meditation room.

This return to the roots of traditional medicine is as much U.S. import as native rediscovery, however. Both Deepak Chopra and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi became popular in America before bringing their ideas back home. And part of their success in India comes from that Western stamp of approval, many say.

"These things have gotten popular in the United States and Europe, which has given them some legitimacy to Indians," acknowledges Parveen Chopra (no relation to Deepak), who edits the magazine Life Positive, a guide to "traditional healing."

"The middle class of India is very much following the West's interest in ayurvedic medicine," agrees Anand Srivastava, who runs the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Delhi hospital and its natural-medicine packaging plant.

One outcome of this East-West cross-pollination is the Body-Mind Institute that is to be inaugurated Sunday by Deepak Chopra.

Dr. Kinan Chopra, Deepak's father, taught cardiology in the army before retiring and opening a private practice in New Delhi in 1964. Until the 1980s he knew about the Indian understanding of health, but concentrated on taking blood pressure and watching cholesterol counts.

His son Deepak followed his lead, getting his medical degree at India's premier medical school, and then moving to Boston and a private practice. Only after he was in Boston did Deepak Chopra began meditating. He began what he describes as a "personal journey" and became a hugely successful self-help author. His books emphasize meditation, a balanced lifestyle, healthy foods and physical therapies -- all with a touch of Western-style "personal empowerment" thrown in. He supports his points with references to both ancient Indian texts and modern Harvard studies. His books are wildly popular in India.

In 1995, Deepak Chopra established the Chopra Center for Well Being in La Jolla, Calif. Two of its earliest students were Kinan Chopra's cardiology partners in New Delhi, Dr. K. K. Aggarwal and Dr. H. K. Chopra (no relation).

They took courses on natural healing, personal development and "fresh approaches to modern health." Now the doctors say they are running the new Apollo clinic here based on expanded ideas of health they learned in La Jolla.

"If you asked me 30 years ago if I believed in body-mind connections of disease, I would have said, 'No, I'm a scientist,' " says H. K. Chopra. "Now I say, 'Yes, I'm a scientist.' "

Even Dr. Kinan Chopra has been bitten by his son's bug. The semi-retired cardiologist has just published a book on Indian philosophy, health and aging.

L None of these doctors sees a contradiction in these efforts.

"East and West, not East vs. West," Aggarwal repeats like a mantra. He wears a stethoscope draped around his shoulders and a cell phone on his hip. On his desk is a recent copy of the Cardio Thoracic Journal. He draws an elaborate diagram to explain how the five elements link through the physical and subtle layers of the body to plasma, ego and desire.

Most Indians do not need to rediscover ayurvedic medicine. Three-quarters of the population use such cures now, according to a recent government survey. It is urban professionals, a small but trend-setting minority, who are only now trying ayurveda. "They've tried Western medicine and seen where it doesn't work," Srivastava says. "So now they're finding their own medicine again."

Of course, there are holdouts. Parveen Chopra says his father, now in his '70s, will use only Western medicine. "When he gets sick, he wants a pill." But Parveen Chopra is "100 percent ayurvedic," and in the last two years, his sister weaned her children from antibiotics to ayurvedic cures.

Most Western-style doctors and hospitals are sticking rigorously the disease-and-cure model. Although the government has opened an ayurvedic research center, the state-run medical colleges do not teach ayurveda.

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