Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Biomedicine in Nepal?

While we walked around the grounds of Swyambhu stupa, my back felt tense and achy; I suspect it was caused by the shoulder bag which I insist on schlepping around everywhere we go. We came across a merchant selling a hodgepodge collection of prayer wheels, metal Buddhas and medicine bowls of numerous sizes. He invited us in his shop for a demonstration of the healing powers of these bowls (which appeared rather mundane to me). With my mind on my aches and pains, I decided to volunteer.

I am a Pre-Med student at UAB majoring in molecular biology. I am fascinated by the study of medicine. In other words, I stood by the Medicine-Bowl Man (MBM) and thought: Bowls that can relieve pain? Yeah, right. Everything from my courses of study to my shadowing experience to my undergraduate research position implores me to think in terms of the biomedical model: when the body is "malfunctioning" there is a biological cause. Therefore, there must be a biological solution. Usually this "solution" is a drug. For instance, if the muscles in my back are aching, then I should take ibuprofin. Needless to say, I was skeptical of MBM's methods.

In response to MBM's request, I straightened, put my hands to my side, and cleared my mind. He placed the rim of the bowl close to, but not touching, my forehead. I closed my eyes. With a small wooden mallet, MBM hit the bowl with a loud gong. Vibrations emanated from the bowl and pulsated through me; it felt invigorating and relaxing at the same time. My muscles felt stimulated and, strangely, I felt warm. I wavered, caught off guard by my body's reaction to the vibrations, but then quickly caught myself. MBM moved the bowl down to my chest, stomach, feet, and back again. MBM placed the bowl on the bottom of my chin, and I suddenly felt a surge of energy rocket through me.

I exited MBM's shop with my pain diminished, but not quite relieved. I knew it wouldn't work, a part of me said. But after a few minutes of walking around the stupa, my pain was completely gone. Once I realized this, I instinctively racked my brain, trying to find a biological explanation for this phenomenon. But perhaps there was no biological explanation.

I was then that I truly began to appreciate the powers of traditional medicine. Unlike biomedicine, traditional and folk healing practices usually combine the notions of body and spirit. In Nepal, traditional medicine is intertwined with and based upon the religions which its practictioners follow (mostly Buddhism and Hinduism). To some healers, the practice of medicine is a form of worship.

Western medicine has effectively separated medicine from religion; this is probably a manifestation of the way in which Westerners segment every aspect of their lives. They lead separate lives when in the workplace and in the home. They make use of one drug for their headache, another for their skin, and yet another for their heartburn.

After my experiences as both a volunteer for and a patient of UAB Hospital, I realized that the only times when modern medicine and religion in this institution intersect is (a) when nurses ask a patient what their religious affiliation is when they are admitted to the hospital, and (b) when a patient stumbles across a small, plain chapel which can accommodate any religious identity. A volunteer or an employee of the hospital cannot mention any religious matters until a patient mentions it first. The fact of the matter is, religion is rarely acknowledged in a public hospital, let alone utilized as the foundation of its healing practices.

It is biomedicine's separation of religion and healing that would make most Nepalese unreceptive towards it. An individual cannot walk even a few blocks through Kathmandu without stumbling upon a Hindu shrine, a replica of Swyambhu, or a Buddhist bahal. Religion is intertwined within every aspect of Nepalese life; it permeates the lives of families, is the subject of the merchandise which merchants sell, and influences the practice of traditional medicine. Without religion, the lives of the Nepalese would be drastically altered. Traditional Nepali medicine would have no meaning without the religions which influence it. Perhaps the best illustration of this deep connection between religion and medicine in Nepal is a sign that I saw during our trip today.

Buddha Dental Shop


  1. Given how our most popular Western religions work, I prefer to keep them out of my way... and out of my medicine.

  2. This is an excellent portrayal of the relationship between religion and medicine in Nepal. I agree, that our religious faith on these traditional medicines plays an important role in our daily lives. Very authentic and awesome work.

  3. It brings back to mind the video we saw about the potential spirituality (not necessarily a prescribed religion) has for healing. It also makes me think about the "new" movement toward whole living. Incorporating introspection/reflection/meditation - stopping ourselves amidst the hectic pace of life to disconnect and check our mental states - into our diet and exercise routines can boost our health. Wonderful insights!