Health and illness as conceptions arise from socially constructed, internally consistent symbolic representations characteristic of the culture in which they were formulated, whether in the West, the Orient or the Indian subcontinent. Three medical practices will accordingly be identified by how these cultures conceive the human body as a specific construct observed in the taking homeopathic pills in the West, diet from the Ayurvedic medicine of India and the practice of acupuncture from China. As different from each other as they may be, they have in common as theoretical formulation a belief in a life-force whose proper functioning when disrupted causes illness, as these conceptions are filtered through the medium of respective cultures where the healing is taking place.
Homeopathy is a Western system of medicine arising alongside our empirically based and materialistically-oriented medical science. Even the cosmic energy, a “vital force” in Homeopathy is conceived chemically, not spiritually. That force becomes disturbed in ways the medical practitioner elicits by means of an interview of considerable length compared to the immense time pressure exerted on conventional doctors for examination. Still, in both schools of medical practice, the goal is to uncover symptoms which may be cured, or at least alleviated, by the appropriate medication. In Homeopathic practice, the questioning is seemingly oriented to mood concerned with whether there was any strong emotion (anger at a betrayal or grief at a loss) prior to the outbreak of illness. Such actions as breaking cups and kicking the covers off at night may also be clues of the nature of the imbalance. It is thought that such an approach in medical investigation includes the whole person in which the cure is based on scientific “laws”, most especially “the law of similars” according to which “like cures like”, that is, that the very substance that caused the illness will also provide the cure when given to the patient highly diluted in a pill form. There may be other possible formats, but in choosing the pill, however diluted, rather than other possible formats establishes homeopathy as a response to the pill-popping culture of the advertisements on television, the Western culture, to which Homeopathy belongs as an opposing or alternative tendency.
By contrast, the diet recommended in Ayurvedic medicine derives from a strongly held theological or cosmological system of belief rooted in the ancient Vedas according to which the same life-forces which order the universe in diverse patterns (macrocasm) also order the human body (microcosm). The link between the two is the soul as a life-force (purusha-prakriti) which is neither created nor annihilated. Accordingly, the body is perceived as the site in which primal cosmic life forces combine and recombine formulating a balance (health) or imbalance (illness) which is both mental and physical. The processes involve five basic elements Akasa, Vayu, Tejas, Ap and Prithvi (space, air, fire, water, earth) out of which comes three controlling devices or “doshas” which manage the breathing, heartbeat, evacuation of the bowels and activities which maintain our existence in bodily form. It is the aim of the Ayurvedic diet to once again control and direct a life-force (pususha-prakriti) to restore balance to the body which is, like the soul, unique to each individual.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) employs the insertion needles into very specific points in the body corresponding to channels or ”meridians” through which, yet again a life-force called chi or qi circulates. The goal of the stainless, steel needles inserted on or near the troubled area of the body is to restore the flow of vital energy which in turn restores, at least in theory, a necessary and wholesome balance to the body which may be depicted in the yin-yang symbol standing for varied dualities ( male-female, hot-cold). The imbalance is uncovered by observation of the tongue, listening to breathing and, unique to Chinese medicine taking the pulse in the belief that each of the six main organs has its own energy and therefore its own pulse. Evidently, we are in the realm of Taoism which has a place for the supernatural by which the master beams chi or qi on the patient by waving fingers at a distance and employs the dialectic of opposing forces returned to balance as the basis of a cure.
To sum up, the three medical procedures we have been studying have in common a belief in a life force which may be an almost physical entity in Homeopathy in line with the skepticism and materialism which has dominated Western culture since the Enlightenment and the rise of the experimental sciences including medicine. The other two medical practices employ the life –force in a spiritual sense, but formulated differently depending upon the features of the culture’s religious life, whether from the venerable Vedas of India or the Taoism of China. In this way, medicine despite components shared across cultures like the life-force applies this inheritance in unique ways characteristic of the culture in which a particular practice took root.
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