An article in Frontline, India's national magazine, argues that the efficacy and safety of Ayurvedic drugs, and especially those claiming to provide miraculous cures, need to be subjected to scientific scrutiny.
In "Ayurveda under the scanner" (4/17/06), Meera Nanda, a Templeton Foundation Fellow, writes that weeding out the honest healers from the charlatans has a historical tradition:
"Charaka, the legendary healer and complier of Charaka Samhita, the ancient textbook of Ayurveda, does not mince words when it comes to the subject of quacks. He calls them 'imposters who wear the garb of physicians... [who] walk the earth like messengers of death.' These fake doctors are 'unlearned in scriptures, experience and knowledge of curative operations, but like to boast of their skills before the uneducated....
"These words, written more than 2,000 years ago, bring to mind those who like to play doctor on Indian television these days. The most famous of all, Swami Ramdev, doles out medical advice to millions of Indians who tune into his show, attend his yoga camps and buy his Ayurvedic drugs. He offers "complete cure", "in weeks, if not in days", of "diseases from A to Z", from "common cold to cancers", including cholera, diabetes, glaucoma, heart disease, kidney disease, leprosy, liver disease... . so on and so forth. There is practically nothing that his method of Divya Yoga, alone, or in combination with his Ayurvedic formulations, cannot cure. And his "miraculous" cures are not merely "confirmed by science", but are, indeed, "science in its purest form". (All quotations are from Swami Ramdev's own web site, www.swamiramdev.info) . The swami is not alone in making such fantastic claims. Yoga and Ayurveda are being mass-marketed to India's growing middle classes like never before. Putting on a "show of learning" by 'wearing the garb' of healers and scientists seems to be good for the guru business."
According to the article Ayurvedic tradition allows use of animal parts for medicines.
Better labeling would help, but "proper labelling should be the beginning, not the end, of a serious investigation of the medical claims that are routinely made for Ayurvedic remedies." Labeling alone, the author argues, would not guarantee safety and efficacy.
Current research is inadequate, and an ongoing "anxiety to affirm our ancient traditions has led to a deep and widespread confirmation bias in research on traditional sciences."
The article notes that a 2004 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) found significant levels of toxic heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and arsenic in 20 per cent of Ayurvedic preparations that were made in India and went for sale in America. The situation "is far worse in India where 64 per cent of sample collected were found to contain significant amounts of mercury, arsenic and cadmium."