The Revival of Ayurveda in Modern Times


Through the Eyes of Charles M. Leslie,

Ph.D.   (1924 – 2009)


Written by Ceci Kramer

Alandi Ayurveda Gurukula ~ Boulder, CO

History and Philosophy of Ayurveda

Instructor ~ Dr. Bharat Vaidya, B.A.M.S., M.D.


Dr. Charles Leslie was a highly respected medical anthropologist who spent much of his influential career researching and teaching about the history, current use, and future possibilities of indigenous systems of medicine. During his career he taught anthropology at various prestigious colleges; wrote and edited books, articles and journals; served on various boards and panels for the advancement of cultural medical traditions; and won many awards for excellence and dedication the subfield of anthropology he helped forge.  Dr. Leslie provided the foundation for the advancement of medical anthropological study by inspiring students of the social sciences to investigate and respect traditional cultural medical systems. He should be celebrated for his lifetime of important contributions to the field of medical anthropology, of particular interest to him were the Asian medical traditions, even more specifically, Ayurveda in the Modern Era.  He was one of the first American scholars to explain Ayurveda and look at whether it is effective at promoting longevity and eliminating suffering.

Charles Leslie went to the University of Chicago from baccalaureate all the way through to his doctorate in anthropology.1  His teaching career began soon after college in 1956 when he became Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Pomona College in Clermont California, he remained there until 1966.2  In the same decade he carried out a study on the Zapotec Indians and how they felt about becoming civilized, this resulted in his first book published in 1960.3  While working on this project in the Mexican Indian communities he became interested in cultural medicine. He began to do research in this area and medical anthropology became his passion, he soon became known as a true pioneer in this field and eventually found himself drawn to the Asian medical systems especially Ayurveda.2  He enjoyed comparing different cultural medical systems, looking at how they are behaving as more modern science enters the picture, and where they might be heading as the field of medicine evolves.

He attended the University of London School of Oriental and Asian Studies for his postdoctoral studies and was awarded several fellowships.2 In the summer of 1962 he took a trip to do research gathering information for his post doctoral thesis, his subject would be based on the attempt to revive Ayurveda that went on in India during their struggle for independence from the British. He traveled to India and Ceylon as a Fellow of the International Center for Medical Research and Training, School of Hygiene and Public Health, John Hopkins University, to perform a survey of Ayurvedic and Unani educational and clinical institutions as the first step in developing his thesis. 4  In a conversation with Dr. Bharat Vaidya (August 2011), I learned that on this trip Charles Leslie stayed in Bombay for three days with Dr. Pratapkumar Vaidya, who is Bharat Vaidya’s grandfather, in order to develop a deeper insight into the revival attempt.  Dr. Pratapkumar Vaidya was certainly qualified to contribute his knowledge as he was a highly respected doctor of Ayurveda who came from a long lineage of Ayurvedic doctors. He graduated from and later became part of the faculty at Prabhuram Ayurvedic College, founded by his grandfather Vaidya Prabhuram Jivanram. He also filled various positions at Dr. Popat University of Ayurveda, founded by his father Pranacharya Dr. Popat Prambhuram. In addition, he worked tirelessly on many other boards and committees in support of Ayurveda during the revival attempt; fighting for one India, one curriculum; supporting a united educational system; and the idea of the BAMS degree. In 1935, he spoke out against Mahatma Ghandi’s support of Allopathic medicine by writing a series of articles for the Bombay Sentinnel. Obviously interested in promoting Ayurveda, he was happy to help Charles Leslie. He gave direction to his thesis, and helped write the summary of the lecture about his findings that Dr. Leslie delivered at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. Entitled The Rhetoric of the Ayurvedic Revival in Modern India, it was published in the The Ayurved Jaget, a popular Indian medical newspaper edited by Dr. Pratapkumar Vaidya.  This is the reason Charles Leslie is credited with bringing Ayurveda to the United States as it was the first time an American wrote and spoke about Ayurveda.

The report begins by explaining that Ayurveda is an ancient gift from the gods based on the five elements and their physiological expression in terms of dhatus and doshas. And that the Unani Tibbia medical system, also a humoral tradition but derived from the Arabic translation of ancient Greek medicine, was brought to India by the spread of Islamic Civilization.4  Since that time the two traditions have comingled as a result of practitioners working in the same geographical region. The revival is introduced as an effort to improve the traditional medical system in India by establishing a state controlled and financed system of education and research through expansion and improvement of educational facilities including adopting some modern medical practices.4

Leslie then goes on to describe the history of the revival that had been going on in India both during and after the British Raj. One of the main beliefs championed during the revival was that  foreign invasion had been detrimental to the progression of the cultural medical systems, primarily in terms of the British imposing Allopathy in India during their rule. Some even felt that growth in Ayurveda was at its peak before Unani medicine was ever introduced and that they should go back to pure, or Shuddha Ayurveda using only the classical texts. This didn’t make much sense considering the inspiration behind the revival was a desire for integrating modern science with the current form of Ayurveda/Unani medicine being practiced. There was conflict between their basic belief that in the past, outside forces had a negative impact on Ayurveda; and the idea of integrating modern medical science.4  This disagreement between interested parties did not bode well for the revival attempt.

During the struggle for independence, there was a surge in the movement. India won its independence from the British on August 15, 1947, at that time there were 57 colleges, 51 hospitals and 3898 dispensaries for Ayurvedic and Unani medicine.4 However, the momentum and spirit the revival had in the beginning started to dwindled, and the whole movement slowed. Many started seeing Ayurveda as out dated and less effective than modern medicine, even Ghandi was speaking out in favor of Allopathy. Ayurvedic practitioners and teachers were dressing in more English attire in an attempt to appear more modern and gain respect. And, not everyone involved agreed on the idea of a national system of medicine that was a blend of Ayurveda/Unani and Allopathy. There were still the advocates of Shuddha or pure Ayurveda who felt that Ayurveda was complete as it was described in the classical texts. Another problem arose when Indian medical institutions meant to revive Ayurveda were being abused by less qualified students who were not accepted into modern medical colleges as a way to get a medical license. Upon completion of the program, these students were actually calling themselves Allopathic doctors with no intention to promote Ayurveda what so ever. This problem lead to numerous strikes where students at Ayurvedic colleges demanded more instruction in modern medicine; then better jobs, increased pay , and the same medical rights and privileges as Allopathic doctors after graduating. All of this only served to create confusion and further discredit the institutions that originally aimed to support and expand Indian medicine. As the argument for integration of Ayurveda and modern medicine weakened the Shuddha position gained strength; some colleges and clinics were converted back to purely Ayurvedic institutions. This push pull motion between advocates for pure Ayurveda verses integrating Ayurveda and Allopathy lead to India having 98 Ayurvedic and Unani colleges by the time Dr. Leslie conducted his research in 1962.

The essay leaves us understanding the revival effort faced difficulties such as conflicting interest groups, they could not agree on how to handle modernization and westernization. And, the low social economic status of Ayurvedic colleges, student indiscipline, and the poor job possibilities for graduates given the public opinion of Ayurveda that had developed as the fight for independence progressed. These problems have allowed medical pluralism to flourish leaving the practitioners of traditional cultural medicine to exist in an undefined, semi-professional relationship to Allopathic doctors.6  Dr. Leslie asks questions such as, “Can Ayurvedic theories support the institutional forms of modern medicine? As conceptual systems, can they assimilate the findings and ways of thought of modern research and education?” 4, p2  These are important questions he was asking; not only doing a great service to his chosen field, but to Ayurveda and mankind as a whole by bringing this information forth so that we may continue to ask and attempt to answer these questions today. He exits with the thought that all interested parties want Ayurveda to flourish, even if that means adding some modern thought. And that reviving Ayurveda should be encouraged despite the competing ideas involved; after all, as time moves forward, change is inevitable.

Returning to the life of Charles Leslie, he spent the summer of 1964 working in the civil rights movement in Mississippi showing his sensitive humanistic side with devotion to social justice and pacifism, compassion and generosity. In 1966, he moved on from Pomona College and started teaching at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio, he stayed there one year and then taught at New York University from 1967 to1976, and finally to the University of Delaware from 1976 until he retired in 1991. There he headed the Center for Science and Culture and served as Professor Emeritus. In addition to holding these full professor positions, he was also a visiting professor at the University of Washington, Harvard University, the University of California at Berkley and McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and, he was an adjunct professor at Indiana University. 1

Teaching medical anthropology was one avenue for shining a light on cultural medical traditions; researching, writing, and editing another. Dr. Leslie founded and was General Editor of a series of books between 1971 and 1985 then served on the editorial board for the series until 1995. During his time at this post, 21 volumes of Comparative Studies of Health Systems and Medical Care were published; many of which are now considered classics for students of medical anthropology. The books contained multiple case studies which served as a starting point for further study by raising awareness about this area of scholarship; and, offering encouragement and guidance to young, interested social scientists.3 (p.6)

Also in 1971, the Wenner – Gren Foundation, whose goal it is to support significant and innovative anthropological research, held a symposium on Asian medical systems. The papers presented at this conference were compiled by Dr. Leslie into a book called Asian Medical Systems: A Comparative STUDY.3 (p.1) He was one of the first scholars to compare and contrast the professional, literary, and major medical systems of the East. Published in 1976, the book offers a discriminating look at Unani Tibbia (Mediterranean), Ayurveda (Indian), and Traditional Chinese Medicine including the Japanese and Korean sister systems and compares the styles of thought surrounding production, organization and communication of medical knowledge to their counterparts in Western medicine. It provides a unique opportunity to study the practices that support these ancient ways of thinking and to investigate the historical processes that have held a space for these systems in the world of modern science and technology. 3(p.2)

Dr. Leslie guides the reader through the book with an introduction to each section to explain the content and direction it will take. The book as a whole looks at the social organization of the three great medical traditions. It presents a vision that all medical systems are constantly changing due to political and social factors as well as from the diffusion of knowledge and innovation in technologies.3(p.2)  The first part explains how each of the old world medical systems work, where they came from, how they are evolving. The fist essay was written by a close colleague, called “Practice of Medicine in Ancient and Medieval India” which is an in depth look at the history and philosophy of Ayurveda. The second and third essays talk about ancient Arabic and Chinese traditions. Part two has two essays introducing models of modern world medicine and ways of thinking. The next three essays in part three examine how the different systems adapt and grow, and how effective they are at preserving health. The fourth part looks at how these systems affect each other, and part five addresses the interaction of indigenous and modern medicinal systems. 6(p.xvi)  The sixth part focuses on the topic of medical revivalism that has occurred throughout history, in various countries and has an essay called “The Ambiguities of Medical Revivalism in Modern India”that Dr. Leslie contributed to the book.   Here he revisits the topic of his thesis and delves further into the conflicting ideas surrounding the attempt to revive Ayurveda in India during their struggle for independence. He describes how Ayurveda has changed from pure classical to traditional cultural medicine referring to a blend of Ayurveda and Unani traditions; and through what he calls the “professionalization” of Ayurvedic and Unani medicine as the integration of modern Allopathic concepts and methods became common.6(p.358)  According to Leslie, integration is unstoppable because there is more demand for medical treatment than there are any one type of practitioner whether Allopathic, Ayurvedic, or Unani. He goes on to say that the next step in the professionalization of Ayurveda would be to bring practitioners together in associations to exchange information and gather support.6(p.363)  He also points out that medical systems do not operate independently from one and other; they inevitably pick up ideas from each other in the course of daily practice.6(p.366)  Finally, part seven summarizes the perspectives covered and suggests areas for further study as the intention of the book was to encourage a new field of scholarship called the Comparative Study of Medical Systems.6(p.xvi)

In 1977, Charles participated in another ground breaking conference held in Washington DC and funded jointly by Wenner – Gren and the National Science Foundation. It produced a set of papers dealing with medical pluralism published in a special edition of Social Science and Medicine in 1978 called “Theoretical Foundations for the Comparative Study of Medical Systems”.3(p.3)  This collection of papers looks at how different systems, ancient or modern, interact and evolve; how texts differ from contemporary practice; and how practitioners and patients differ in their interests and views on medicine. A few years later he edited another special edition entitled “Medical Pluralism in World Perspective” which examines Asian medical traditions as part of a global world.3(p.3)  Here he points out that even though it is often assumed medicine is heading towards a standardized worldwide system, this has not yet occurred. Much more common are the pluralistic and complementary systems operating alongside one and other. This issue also notes that patients are most often in favor of combining therapies and trying new things in order to reach optimal health.3(p.4)  Dr. Leslie went on to become the Senior Editor of the Medical Anthropology section of Social Science and Medicine for the next twelve years. This position encouraged him to attend the bi-annual conferences the journal held in Europe allowing him to open international communication between practitioners and scholars; and help students publish articles and establish their careers.3(p.6)

Around the same time, Dr. Charles Leslie collaborated with two others in presenting a proposal for an international meeting on Asian Medicine to the staff at the Australian National University. In Asian Medical Systems, he was writing that the next step in bringing Ayurveda forward in the modern world would be to organize regional meetings of practitioners; here he is doing just that. The proposal went well and in 1979 the first International Conference on Traditional Asian Medicine, or ICTAM I was held in Canberra, Australia. During the last meeting IASTAM was founded, and Dr. Leslie accepted the position of Secretary General.7

The activities and achievements of IASTAM since the first international symposium are many. Since the first conference was so successful, regional chapters were established internationally that in turn hold their own successful conferences. Now there are professional gatherings every three to five years, all over the world fostering unique communications between scholars, scientists, policymakers and practitioners allowing for exploration of a wide range of topics and methodological approaches.7   The organization also published a regular newsletter of which Charles Leslie was editor from 1982-84. Over time it grew into a successful, peer-reviewed journal called Asian Medicine: Tradition and Modernity, a multidisciplinary journal aimed at researchers and practitioners of Asian medicine in Asia as well as in Western countries. It consists mainly of academic essays that explore the historical, philosophical, anthropological, sociological, scientific, and philological dimensions of Asian medicine, with case studies from practitioners based all over the world.6  In addition, there are now prizes in honor of each original founder; on the occasion of the 30th Anniversary of IASTAM in 2009, the Charles Leslie Prize was instituted. It is awarded to the best original, unpublished scholarly essay on Asian medicine. The purpose of the award is to encourage junior scholars to apply methods from anthropology, history, or any other academic discipline to the critical study of Asian medical systems. And a second prize, The Charles Leslie Presentation Prize is awarded for the best paper presented at an ICTAM meeting by a junior scholar of Asian medicine.  These prizes were created to honor the work of Charles Leslie, his dedication to IASTAM and to encourage young scholars in the field that he helped to establish. The objective of the organization remains as it has always been: to promote and encourage the study of traditional Asian medicine, including both the classical systems and local traditions, in all their aspects.7

In 1985 a third conference was organized by Leslie, again in Washington DC sponsored by Wenner – Gren this time with the support of the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institute, called “Permanence and Change in Asian Health Care Traditions”3(p.4)  This lead to him co-editing the  1992 publication of Paths to Asian Medical Knowledge, a successor to Asian Medical Systems: A Comparative Study. It is a second collection of essays that significantly expands on the study of Asian medicine. Each in their own way, the authors ask how patients and practitioners know what they know; what information are they using to prove what, when; who determines what is right and wrong in medicine, what does this mean to patients and doctors; and, what thoughts and ideas are guiding medical practice?3(p.5)  The first section reflects on East Asian traditions and modernization. Section two compares Ayurveda and other south Asian modalities with modern medicine; Dr. Leslie wrote one of the essays for this part called Interpretations of Illness: Syncretism in Modern Ayurveda. Finally, part three discusses Islamic humoral traditions.8  The book offers an exciting range of information and perspectives putting forth new theoretical avenues for research in Dr. Leslie’s beloved field of medical anthropology.

We have seen that during his career he edited several books and wrote over fifty articles and reviews, spanning the years 1952 to 1998.3(p.297)  Many of these writings have become classics in medical anthropology and are used in university level courses.9  In addition to teaching, writing and editing Dr. Leslie served with various organizations promoting awareness of the contributions made by different cultural medical traditions in the modern world. He worked with the World Health Organization as a consultant on traditional medicine. He was also president of several other anthropological associations during his career.2  This impressive life and work history eventually lead to awards in his cherished field. He received the Distinguished Service Award from the American Anthropological Association in 1992.  In 2009 he received the Career Achievement Award from The Society for Medical Anthropology. 2  And last but not least, his former students and colleagues who have credited him with influencing the course of their professional lives, helping to get them published, and providing opportunities for the open exchange of ideas that have shaped the field of medical anthropology; put together a tribute, a book of essays called New Horizons in Medical Anthropology Essays in Honour of Charles Leslie.  It deals with a wide range of subject matter like AIDS, new medical technologies, therapy management and over-population.3(p.i)

Charles Leslie lived his work from college, to teacher, to researcher, to writer, to sharing with us all the remarkable ways that traditional medical systems are still alive and useful in the modern era. He spent his influential career talking about medical systems as open, malleable entities constantly striving to restore health and eliminate pain. An inspiring and unique social scientist whose ethics, ways of practicing, and writings are an essential guide to all future medical anthropologists. He fostered open dialogue between scholars studying Asian medical traditions and anthropologists investigating contemporary medical practices.3  First to talk about the ancient tradition of Ayurveda in America, then for rest of his life he continued to champion the advancement of all systems of medicine.  Dr. Charles Leslie was a great man who welcomed integration and collaboration as the way we will eventually be able to satisfy the world’s ever increasing demand for medical services and alleviate as much suffering in the world as possible. He died August 15, 2009 at the age of 85; and although he will be missed, he will live on forever through his lifetime of service.


  1. Indiana University Website. Available at: Accessed December 2009.
  2. University of Delaware Website. Available at: Accessed January 2010.
  3. Nichter M, Lock M. New Horizons in Medical Anthropology. New York: Routledge; 2002: 297.
  4. Leslie CM. The Rhetoric of the Ayurvedic Revival in Modern India. MAN. May 1963.
  5. Vaidya B. History and Philosophy of Ayurveda Notes. Colorado: Alandi Ayurveda Gurukula; 2009.
  6. Leslie CM, ed. Asian Medical Systems: A Comparative Study. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass; 1998: 321.
  7. The International Association for the Study of Traditional Asian Medicine Website. Available at: Accessed August 2010.
  8. Leslie CM, Young A, eds. Paths to Asain Medical Knowledge: A Comparative Study. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1992:vii.
  9. University of Arizona, Tuscon Website. Available at: Accessed June 2010.