By Kalinga Seneviratne
Founded by a visionary nationalist Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya in 1916, Benares Hindu University (BHU) has consistently rated among the top 5 in university surveys in India in recent years. They have achieved it with a blend of a modern university, not shunning India’s traditional wisdom.
When asked if a Hindu university is consistent with the image of a modern university as secular, BHU’s Vice-Chancellor and renowned molecular biologist Dr Lalji Singh in an interview with author “ (At) that time ‘Hindu’ name was given to preserve the Hindu culture, because so much western influence came into India with all the universities like Calcutta and Madras set up by The British, that’s why the name was given here” and he added that it did not mean Hindu nationalism , “it is (to denote) Indian tradition and Indian culture, not hindutva”.
Sprawling over 1350 acres of green tree-lined boulevards, faculty buildings reflecting ancient architectural styles, a modern hospital, 100-acre farm, museum, 72 hostels, a shopping centre, petrol pumping station, banks, post offices and a Hindu temple, the walled campus is a city within the ancient city of Varanasi.
One of the hallmarks of the university’s original vision of blending with the modern is found in its medical school that blends India’s traditional medical system of Ayurveda with a modern Institute of Medical Sciences (IMS) that does research, which includes genetics and neurosciences.
The IMS in collaborations with the Ayurveda medical faculty and the 1200 bed Sir Sunderlal Hospital (SSH) is well placed to develop new modern healthcare systems with herbal remedies to address many diseases and conditions prevailing in India and the world. If they succeed here, an emerging India could revolutionalise global healthcare, the same way Yoga has revolutionalised modern lifestyles in tune with the mind and body.
The Ayurveda Faculty has 8 departments that also include Yoga. “Ayurvedic medicine is based on Indian philosophy” explained Prof C.B Jha, Dean of the Faculty of Ayurveda. “which describes the creation of the universe through 5 basic elements ….. we are trying to evaluate the particular elements out of this 5 that are causing imbalances in the body”.
Prof Jha explained that Yoga is an internal part of Ayurvedic medicine. “Yoga is not only exercise, it has 8 folds (that forms the relationship between mind and body) and through Yoga practices particular ailment or disorder (could be treated). We provide (such) teaching and training (to apply Yoga in medical practice)”
Under a World Health Organisation (WHO) project, BHU is developing ‘consumer guidelines for appropriate use of Ayurvedic medicines’, the experts have proposed to use these leaflets to inform the consumers about facts related to the medicine. The leaflet that will be given out with the medicines will allow consumers to know the facts regarding the herbal medicines(like what western pharmaceutical companies do), and it will also counter the illegal trade in Ayurveda medicines in India.
Ayurveda was first offered as a curriculum subject at BHU in 1922 and SSH as a 96-bed hospital was set up in 1924 mainly as an Ayurveda hospital. After the College of Medical Science was established in 1960, both western and Ayurveda wings co-exist at SSH.
In August this year BHU received the first American doctor to study Ayurveda as a Fulbright scholar, when Calcutta-born Bhaswati Bhattacharya, a Harvard Public Health graduate and an Assistant Professor of Family Medicine in U.S.A joined BHU. She will study the concept of Ojas (energy of the body), as a large number of diseases in the US are related to the immunity system.
In an interview with the Press Trust of India (PTI) just prior to her departure to India, the Fulbright scholar who is a practising doctor trained in pharmacology and nerve science said, that complementary medicine from acupuncture to yoga, has been increasing in popularity since last decade and “the masses of the American population need to know more about other medical systems”.
Professor Manoranjan Sahu, who teaches surgery in the Ayurveda Faculty said in an interview with author that there is a misconception that Ayurveda is a preventive medical system and not a curative one. “Modern medicine has borrowed systems and equipment from Indian system of medicine” he argues, “Ayurveda has given a lot of basic surgical concepts, that we teach here”. Among them he says is plastic surgery, reconstructive surgery, removing flabs, healing of fracture, management of wounds, caesarian sections and nose reconstructions. “Those (that are) described in Ayurveda are the same methods that are adopted in modern systems of medicine today”, he added.
Prof Sahu said that during the British times Ayurveda was not encouraged and so was in the early parts of post-independent India. “But now the government has taken the initial steps to encourage it” he noted. “In our institute Ayurvedic surgery is the most prestigious department… not only in Faculty of Ayurveda but in the Institute (as a whole)”. It is also practiced at SSH.
BHU comprises 3 Institutes, 14 Faculties, 140 Departments, 4 Inter Disciplinary Centers, a constituent college for women and 3 constituent schools. One department that perhaps defines the vision of its founder to be an university that promotes the Indian identity is the Department of Pali and Buddhist Studies.
Its head Professor Siddharth Singh agrees and argues that his very department reflects this fact. “India has produced the greatest son in the history of religion and how can we imagine any Indian university having such a vision not having a department of Pali and Buddhist Studies?” he replied, when asked whether there is a contradiction between his department and the university’s name. “Pali was the lingua franca of India at the time Buddha delivered his sermons and it was the language of the common man … you need to learn Pali to understand the social, economic and political issues of ancient India” he added.
Though ranked highly in university surveys in India, BHU has been facing stiff competition to recruit staff to teach here in recent years. In July 2011, the Vice Chancellor acknowledged that while there were 2395 government sanctioned positions available, only 1,547 qualified academic staff were employed.
Dr Lalji says that with hundreds of new universities being established right across India in recent years, “it is not the university that will select but the candidate is going to select the university he would teach.” He argues that the attraction of working at BHU should include the quality of life it offers living within the confines of the campus with the availability of high quality primary and secondary schools for children of staff members – a luxury in today’s India.
“BHU is planning a major expansion with 5 accommodation towers being built (for its staff)” said Dr Lalji, adding that to attract high calibre Indian academicians, “BHU will be offering a very attractive package with on-campus accommodation, medical care and schooling for children”.