History of Ayurveda and the British Medical Act of 1938

History of Ayurveda and Sutras

Instructor:  Dr. Bharat Vaidya

By:  Annalise Ozols


It is commonly thought that the influx of the British into India was the downfall of ayurveda.  Unfortunately, ayurveda was already in disrepair at the time of the British Raj.  In 1750, Britain came to India as a trading partner under the “East India Company” name and quickly took control of India as their colony.  Under this control, the British started injecting European medicine (allopathy) into the Indian culture.  Allopathy didn’t catch on with the Indian population immediately; however with the spread of epidemics in India, the people found allopathy to be more effective in treating diseases like cholera.  Because of this, allopathy started to replace ayurveda as the prevailing medical theory.  Although the British government didn’t forcibly stop its practice or close any of the schools, there was an underlying feeling that ayurveda was becoming obsolete.

In 1835 the British government passed a law basically separating allopathy and ayurveda by not including ayurveda as part of a medical education.  This is thought by some to have been a great mistake.  Regulation of medical practice in India took on new meaning when the Governor of Bombay, Sir George Clarke, called the Bombay Medical Congress in 1909.  For the purpose of education, regulation, mutual instruction and helping to forward the medical profession as a whole, the Congress was an exhibit to the public and gained much attention.  It was also hoped that the Congress would be the means addressing a proper medical registration act, a druggist’s act, and regulations for the qualifications of practitioners.  This was unnecessary as far as India was concerned as ayurveda had largely been a teaching passed on through the generations to a family lineage of vaidyas.  Clarke concluded the meeting with the words “I earnestly trust that the papers read and the interchange of views thus arising will give a fresh impetus to medical progress in India. Germs of thought will surely be evolved, which will blossom into achievement.  Our students may feel inspired to high aims, and will at least realize that their college training is only an introduction to the study of modern medical science. I am hopeful that the vernacular papers, many of which have helped to disseminate facts about the plague serum, will assist us in spreading knowledge of a general character, in which India is sadly deficient.  Lastly, I am sure that this Congress will emphasize the essential solidarity of the noble profession of healing, which knows no distinction of race or color, and unites all true workers as members of one great brotherhood engaged in combating suffering and disease throughout the world.”  (Journal correspondent, 1909)

Unfortunately the promise of the Congress was not necessarily kept.   Although protested by vaidyas and hakims, further steps to differentiate western practitioners from eastern were taken in the form of various laws in Bombay, Bengal and Madras passed between 1912 and 1918 registering only western practitioners.  It was thus illegal for registered allopathic physicians to practice ayurveda or use any indigenous ayurvedic medicines. An example was made of Dr. Popat Prabhuram Vaidya , son of Vaidya Prabhuram Jivanram and Principal of Prabhuram Ayurveda College when he was sued in 1912 for practicing ayurveda  alongside allopathy as a registered allopathic physician. Lawyer Sir Vishwanath Vaidya and Mr .Bhulabhai Desai stood up on behalf of Dr.Popatbhai Prabhuram Vaidya.  Little is documented about the great trial that ensued but although devastating on Dr. Popatbhai finances he was ultimately victorious.  His was the first in a long struggle of vaidyas to preserve the practice of their traditional family lineage of medicine.  Ultimately, it all came to conclusion in 1938 with the passing of the Bombay Practitioner Act which established a separate registration for ayurvedic practitioners.  Finally, the British government recognized Ayurveda as its own medical system.  Still, there were differing reactions amongst ayurvedic practitioners.  It bode well for the practicing ayurvedic practitioners of Bombay as it gave benefits similar to those enjoyed by allopathic physicians.  However, it also created a split between the two ayurvedic courses of study:  Suddha or ‘pure ayurveda’ (guru-sisya parampara/gurukula -students studying the ancient texts with one teacher) versus misra ayurveda (the more western college model).

Nonetheless, regardless of the method of study, the act brought forth much needed recognition for ayurvedic practitioners and the timeless wisdom of the sutras.  Currently, board members of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) meet regularly to determine if and how the practice of ayurveda should be taught standardized and governed here in the United States.  This is a daunting task considering the diversity of the knowledge and the teachers who deliver it.  But, it is common belief that the answers, still today, lie in the texts and it is important to preserve what is some of the oldest written knowledge in existence.  In addition we are seeing new demand for ayurveda as people seek holistic medicine and simpler means for better health.


(n.d.). Retrieved May 2010, from http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://www.cehat.org/publications/pb09a57.html

Journal correspondent. (1909, March 27). India. The British Medical Journal , 810.

Langford, J. (2002). Fluent bodies: Ayurvedic remedies for postcolonial imbalance. Duke University Press.

Vaidya, B. P. (2009). History of Ayurveda and Sutras Class at Alandi Ayurveda Gurukula. Ayurved in British Raj .