NOTE: I leave this page as a historical record of what I had planned to include in the dissertation. The final version ended up excluding most discussion of plant antidotes and the place of Gāruḍa Medicine in the modern period.
The final two chapters of my dissertation consider the position of traditional snakebite medicine—which I am calling Gāruḍa Medicine—in the global health context of contemporary South Asia. It is still very much alive, though mainly at the village level. I am looking at the history of the reaction of colonial culture to indigenous medicine in general, and regarding snakebite in particular wherever information is available. I seek to understand this transitionary period of increasing universalization of Western medical knowledge. How did the British regard the medical acumen of their Indian subjects and on what basis? A key secondary source is Arnold’s Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-century India (1993), upon which I model my theoretical approach.
This leads into the contemporary situation where various forces with vested interests battle for the right to determine what is valid medical knowledge. Governments increasingly see themselves as responsible for legislating the choices of their populations. Consider the current situation of “alternative” medicine in Europe. Next month a law goes into effect that will outlaw any product whose efficacy has not been proven by the measures of pharmaceutical science. The problem is that only large corporations can afford to attempt the certification process. Proponents say this law protects people from dangerous and unregulated quack medicine, whereas opponents see it as a power-grab by large pharmaceutical interests and a wholesale eradication of their ancestral wisdom.
What does this EU law have to do with snakebite treatment in South Asia? It is related because it illustrates the growing universality of western medicine and the implications for traditional medical systems that are increasingly being marginalized. Champions of biomedicine probably see this as a natural process of progression from ancient superstition-based medicine to clinically proven medicine. This is partly true, from my perspective, but only partly because other forces are at play. Corporate interests also have a strong influence in political decision making. Even pharmaceutical drugs that have been through the long and complicated process of government approval are regularly recalled after being found unsafe, even deadly in some cases. Snakebite treatment guidelines for India decreed by the World Health Organization have many flaws, misuse statistics, and leave critical questions unanswered. An issue one barely hears about is money. Antivenom treatment tends to be very expensive where it is even available, whereas, in Kerala at least, traditional viṣavaidyas do not charge a fee for treating snakebite. I will go into detail about all of these issues in the final chapter of my dissertation.
The way forward, in my opinion, is not a wholesale disinvestment in traditional medicine, nor abandoning the progress of the scientific method (which I sincerely believe in). We must rather support unbiased scientific investigation into traditional remedies for snakebite, such as the many studies that evaluate certain medicinal plants used for centuries in South Asia. Here is a link to a short bibliography of some scientific studies we already have that show the promise of this line of research.
I offer this page as a window into the types of issues I am concerned with, but it is a work-in-progress. I also hope to do fieldwork in Nepal and India to get the “on the ground” perspective of those involved: traditional medicine practitioners, doctors, patients, and global health policy makers.