India’s additional gift to humanity
Bioprospecting is a “process of discovery and commercialisation of new products based on biological resources, typically in less-developed countries.” It mostly draws on the rich resources of indigenous knowledge about uses and characteristics of plants and animals. In this way, bioprospecting is the search for previously unknown medicines from traditional knowledge.
Today there are moves to form a traditional knowledge database. In response to the concerns of biopiracy raised by research into turmeric, neem and basmati rice, the government of India has been translating and publishing ancient manuscripts containing old remedies in electronic form, and in 2001 the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library was set up as a repository of 1,200 formulations of various systems of Indian medicine. The aim is to protect India’s heritage from being exploited by foreign companies. Hundreds of yoga poses are also kept in the collection. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research is playing a crucial role in preserving this knowledge and passing it on to posperity. India has a very long, safe and continuous history of the usage of many herbal drugs in the officially recognised alternative systems of health, consisting ayurveda, yoga, unani, siddha, homeopathy and naturopathy. These systems have rightfully existed side-by-side with Allopathy or the conventional scientific treatment today. Millions of Indians use herbal drugs regularly, as spices, home-remedies, health foods or even as self-medication.
Prominent Indian scientists like Ashok DB Vaidya and Thomas PA Devasagayam, ICMR Centre for Advanced Research, think that novel compounds or medicines can be discovered from Indian medicinal plants. They hold that observational therapeutics and reverse pharmacology could be used to find new remedies for common diseases. They hope to discover much needed remedies for diabetes and bronchial asthma through further research.
Research scholar Gini George, department of Phytochemistry, Loyola College, Chennai, thinks that “the prospects for bioprospecting is very bright in India.” He further holds that “it is part of the sustainable effort to radically improve the health of Indians both in the cities and in the villages.” It is a noble gesture to preserve the traditional medical knowledge, find new remedies using bioprospecting and help future humanity. Simultaneously, we need to also preserve the traditional spiritual wisdom, that is part of the Indian heritage. India can rightly boast of a viable civilisation for more than 5,000 years. It can also boast of giving birth to four living religions. Being a religiously vibrant country, India can draw hope from its rich spiritual resources and share it with the rest of humanity.
Based on a lived experience, we need to be creative and flexible enough to respond to the spiritual needs of the people. Going back to the “good old days” alone will not suffice. What is needed is a dynamic spiritual vision that will creatively apply the perennial spiritual wisdom of the sages to the new situations of today. Many thinkers still hold that the fundamental crisis of humanity is a spiritual one. All other problems — including hunger, war, violence and exploitation — can be traced to a spiritual crisis.
To address this fundamental crisis, simplistic solutions are not enough. It is here that Indian traditions can offer ingenious and innovative ways responding to this spiritual crisis — both in its individual and collective aspects. That could be a unique Indian contribution to humanity, even more than bioprospecting.
(The writer is a professor of
science and religion)
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