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Journal : Herbal Therapy of Rejang Folk Doctor compare it with Ayurvedic practices

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Final Report on the Project Ayurveda & its Impact on Indian & Southeast Asian Societies

Dr. Rita Chattopadhyay
Professor, Department of Sanskrit,
Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India




For the medical practices of the ‘Rejang’ community who live in the highlands of South-West Sumatra, I have solely depended upon the findings of Prof Mervyn. A. Jaspan who was the Professor of South-East-Asian Sociology and Director of the centre for South-East Asian studies,
at the University of Hull, England. From 1961 to 1963, Prof Jaspan conducted field research among the Rejang community, and for approximately a year of this time he chose to be apprenticed to Man Aher, a man in his seventies who was regarded as the greatest Rejang folk doctor, historian, and ‘bard’.

According to Prof Jaspan “the phenomenon of the versatile doctor who was also an accomplished natural historian or man of letters was common in Europe until the nineteenth century” and interestingly enough, in India also, the noted Ayurvedic practitioners used to be called ‘kaviraja’ which literally mean ‘the king of the poets’ i.e. man of letters.

Now we would like to point out some aspects of the medical practices of the Rejang community and would try to compare it with Ayurvedic practices.

Lebong which is heartland of the Rejang is usually described not in the terms of its area, population or government but in a succinct quatrain of ten Rejang words as follows:
  • Tanea ubeut, - A land of medicine;
  • Tanea guau; - A land of learning;
  • Tanea ubeut kaeun - Of medicine that brings recovery
  • Tanea guau patjo’ - Of learning that brings insight.
Among the Rejang of Sumatra islands and in Southeast Asia in general, traditional theories of pathology relates to four main categories:
  • (a) the action of natural elements, particularly water and wind;
  • (b) deistic or ancestral retribution;
  • (c) sorcery and witchcraft; and
  • (d) poisoning.

These ideas are considered when the folk doctor in Southeast Asia examines a patient and almost always constitute a core part of both the patient’s own account or explanation of his illness and the doctor’s case history, diagnosis, and therapeutic program. In many a cases the Rejang doctor is left with metaphysical interpretations, such as retribution for evil, in the sense of antisocial actions or thoughts, serious breaches of custom, or the neglect of ancestors, kinsmen or living dependents who are in need.

The folk doctor particularly stresses the therapeutic success of medicine in two fields that lie outside surgical technology
  • 1. Metabolic ailments and
  • 2. Mental illness.
With regard to internal medicine, the Rejang doctor seems to have empirically derived the knowledge of the therapeutic properties of forest plants and their prescriptive effect when administered for indigestion, diarrhea, constipation and dialysis.

Now we would like to say a few words regarding the occupational professionalization, medical examination, diagnosis or treatment by a Rejang doctor.

Rejang doctor is, in no case a full-time professional worker who depends for his livelihood on his medical practice. The Rejang don’t have the habit of seeing a doctor at regular intervals for a periodic checkup. A doctor becomes aware of a case when he is summoned by the patient’s kinsmen.[Notice AS states - A doctor, who comes to see the patient even when he is not summoned, is never honored (svayamagatah - AS/I).]

The doctor responds to summons by going to the house of the sick person as soon as possible. On his arrival at the patient’s bed (mat-side) one or more close relatives describe to the doctor how in their view, the patient’s present illness originated and developed; the patient’s relatives sometimes venture their own diagnosis and suggestions for treatment; the Rejang doctor listens to all this with patience and empathy. This absence of professionalization, quite unthinkable in modern society, applies also to other areas of Rejang life. [Again, CS states - A good physician should not offer his services motivated by commercial considerations, he should do so out of his inherent, unadulterated lone for humanity.]

The conspiracy of professionalism, so widespread in modern society, is largely absent in the behavior and ethic of Rejang doctors; Rejang doctor sees body and mind indivisibly linked; Rejang doctor believes that the conscious understanding and efforts of patient, patient’s relatives, and friends are vital factors in a therapeutic process; this process furthermore includes the doctor’s own active and devoted concern for the patient; Jaspan has mentioned how greatly this caring attention on a cancer patient brought about relief or a cure, even without chemotherapeutic or surgical intervention.

Such attention may be compared with the special care given to the fortunate few who are admitted in highly expensive and sophisticated private nursing homes in big cities of India where nursing is more intimate and often more attentive. All this certainly assists treatment and recovery. But in Rajang country, this is the right and privilege of all.

We can’t but cite Caraka, who says-

“A good doctor should be as caring to his patient, as he is to his son.”
(bhisagapyaturan.... etc, - Carakasamhita-VI/1) .

“A doctor should be friendly to all”
(maitri- karunya ... bid I/9).

Also, a good doctor should be kind enough to the diseased, attentive to the curable and also attentive to him who is already cured.

I cannot conclude with certainty whether there was any direct impact of Indian Ayurvedic medicine on Rejang doctor but this much I can say with conviction that all the requisites for a great doctor prescribed by Caraka, as listed below, can be found in the Rejang doctor.
(1) Srute paryavadatatvam... etc. A good doctor should possess sound knowledge, efficiency experience and basic integrity as well.
(2) A physician should not offer his services motivated by commercial considerations, but
should do so out of his inherent, unadulterated love for humanity. (ibid- 6/1)

These are conspicuous in the Rejang doctor, as represented by Man Aher. Hence the saying of Caraka the greatest name in Indian Ayurveda is absolutely true to the medical practices of the Rejang people of Sumatra Island in Southeast Asia.

After arriving the doctor then examines the patient by palpation. When an examination, has been completed the doctor is usually offered sweetened black coffee or tea with a handful of bananas and biscuits.

After leaving the patient, the doctor seeks certain herbs. After coming back to the village in the late afternoon he shreds the roots, leaves, or barks as necessary and boils them. Thereafter he strains the liquid medicine or potion and pours it into a container made of bamboo or glass. The medicine is brought to the home of the patient, and instructions are left about dosage and about when and how often the medicine is to be taken.

To a Rejang doctor the first step in any diagnosis is to determine whether the ailment or disease belongs to the ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ variety. Like Indian Ayurvedic medicine the theory underlying such contradictory classes i.e. ‘hot and cold’ contains both metaphysical and somatic elements. ‘Hot’ illness requires febrifuges such as quinine and cooling drugs whereas ‘cold’ ailments require heat and sedatory treatment.

A further method of categorizing maladies is based on four principal pathogenic sources:
  • (1) wind,
  • (2) spirits
  • (3) poison and
  • (4) worms.
We come directly to the second category. This is an area where the empirical competence of Rejang medicine no longer operates, and the doctor virtually says “I have examined the patient. diagnosed such and such symptoms, and treated him accordingly, but without success. There are probably more powerful influences at work”. From this remark, the patient’s kinsmen conclude that they must now turn to either expelling some harmful spirit or poisonous substance from his body. They perform the ‘rite’ called ‘Kedurai’ wherein the ritual food- offering consists of rice, boiled in saffron, parched rice, coconut oil and a grilled leg or wing of chicken. In some cases the doctor is seen in a role of devil-exorciser.

It is interesting to note that at the end of rituals of Pattini also (to be discussed later on) people, in many parts of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, eat the foods consecrated to the goddess Pattini. The most important of these cooling foods are rice, cooked in milk, turmeric water and water in margosa leaves.

Link with Ayurveda

In this context, I would like to mention the causes of mental illness as they are enumerated by Caraka as Viruddha-dusta etc.(Caraka-samhita/ Cikitsasthana/IX/4). Caraka says the neglect of ancestors, kinsmen, teachers and brahmins are some of the major causes that relate to mental
illness. He also says that ‘curse’ from the ancestors may be one of the causes of ‘Jvararoga’ or fever. He says tasya prakrti (CS/Ci/12).

Now I would like to highlight some aspects of Indian Ayurvedic Medicine. It goes without saying that Ayurveda is more than a system of physical medicine, because its underlying ideas have permeated religion and ritual. An analysis of these meta-medical concepts must begin with the fundamental principles i.e. muladharma of Ayurveda, which include the doctrine of the five bhutas (basic elements of the universe); the tridosa (three humors); and the seven dhatus (physical components of the body).


The five elements are
  • (1) ether
  • (2) wind
  • (3) water
  • (4) earth
  • (5) fire.

The said five elements are constituents of all life, and as such also make up the three humors and the seven physical components of the body.

The pivot, round which Indian medical science revolves, is the conception that the body is preserved and guided by the three vital elements, viz wind (vata), bile (pitta) and mucus (kapha). The body is fit when these are in a harmonic balanced condition. Due to the imbalance of these three humors the body becomes vulnerable to the attack of diseases.

Since these three are also fundamental to body-functioning they are also known as tridhatu or
the basic components of the body. [But this term must not be confused with the more common
use of the word dhatu for the seven components of the body.]

According to the Ayurvedic medicine universal element of ‘wind’ appears in the body as a humor and is also called wind (vayu); fire appears as bile (pitta), and water as phelm (kapha or slesman). As mentioned before illness is said to be due to upsetting of the homeostatic condition of these ‘tridosas’.

The point, which I would like to discuss here, is related with bhutavidya or demonology, a major division of the eight branches of Indian medical literature. Although the Universe consists of five elements (bhutas), from the point of view of rural societies of India and other countries, the most important are fire and water. Increase in fire diminishes the element of water, causing a general depletion of environmental fertility and excessive bile in the human body; this results in heaty infectious diseases e.g. chicken pox, measles, mumps, conjunctivitis, plagues and pestilences. The most notorious heaty disease was small pox - which is totally eliminated today. Thus, the interpretation of these diseases and the mode of cure became strongly associated with religion and ritual — a meta-medical interpretation of illness and its cure. If illness is caused by the anger of one of the humors, the meta-medical view postulates that the anger of a deity causes the increase in heat which stimulates the humor.

However, with regard to mental illness, the Rejang believe that mental health or ill health is a function of an individual’s reciprocal acceptance by kin, neighbors and the village community generally. The Rejang doctor uses his knowledge of herbal drugs for relieving his patients of anxiety states and hypertension.

Source :
  • http://kewalyamyayurveda.com/Images/spices-ayurvedic-01.jpg
  • http://www.ayurveda-berkeley.com/ayurvedic_medicine_what_is_it.htm
  • http://ayurvedicwellness.com/wp-content/photos/ayurveda/main-ayurvedic.jpg
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayurveda
  • www.postf.org/upload/200931714314981_1.pdf

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