Monday, 13 June 2016
EXPLORING ADIVASI SENSIBILITY: MEDICINAL PROPERTIES OF PLANTS, CULTIVATION PRACTICES AND ETHNO-BOTANY
Herbal Medicinal Practices in the Present Times:
Viability, Sustainability and Future Development for Health
EXPLORING ADIVASI SENSIBILITY:
MEDICINAL PROPERTIES OF PLANTS,
CULTIVATION PRACTICES AND ETHNO-BOTANY
Savyasaachi worked with forest dwellers - Koitors in Abujhmarh (Chhattisgarh); Kharias in Similipal Biosphere Reserve (Koraput, Orissa); Kutia Khonds (Phulbani, Orissa) from 1982-1993 and learnt from them that the forest is a dwelling - a place of work and home, to which one belongs. This he describes as ‘a passage from being a doctoral student at the Department of Sociology, Delhi University to becoming a student with the forest dwellers’.
In this talk he discusses at least three questions:
· First, what is the significance of the question, how did the Adivasis find out the medicinal properties of plants without the knowledge of modern science and experimentation? A good beginning is to find space and time in the debates on the contemporary Intellectual Property Rights Regime (IPR) for recognizing the process of discovery, which is collective, over several generations and documented differently than the written records of experiments of the modern scientific laboratory.
· Second, how can the enquiry of this question be undertaken? Deeply embedded in our world-view is the sensibility that the forest is not a dwelling. Our imagination freezes when confronted with this question. A very good instance of this ‘frozen imagination’ is the FRA 2006. It has, in fact, undermined the ‘foundational position of the forest’. It is designed for tribals and not for ‘Adivasis’. It is testimony to deforestation of the mind, which has over several years manifested in the loss of forest landscapes, forest biodiversity, and the forest dwellings. In the Adivasi world-view the forest is in the foundational position. This is the basis for Adivasi knowledge of plants and cultivation. All plants are both food and medicine. There is no dichotomy between plants for food and plants for medicine. Further, all plants are living beings and are in a relation to human beings.
Third, can we learn from the Adivasis? How can this learning be made possible? What can be learnt? Ethno-botany has been used to create biodiversity registers. These registers are beneficial for the modern industry (food and pharmaceutical), for tribals and not for the Adivasis. This, in fact, has closed all possibilities of learning from the Adivasis. Ethno-botany privileges modern science over other ways of observing and experimenting. It is important to decommission these and defreeze the imagination.
I have found it very difficult to communicate the ten years of learning that I had living with the forest dwellers. I will not use technical terms that I used to make, i.e., Adivasis, indigenous and tribes. I will discuss these terms by and by, but literally I have lived with the forest dwellers for several years in which a lot of things changed within me. I learnt a new language, which took me at least three to four years. I went there basically to do my doctor’s thesis from Delhi School of Economics in Sociology.
The terms & conditions for doing this doctor’s thesis were very interesting. My mentor, Ashis Nandy and Prof. Uberoi indirectly and directly, told me that there are three things that you need
to do if you want to do a doctor’s thesis with us. In the course of the conversation this is the message that I got – (1) you have to learn a new language, (2) you have to learn the new language without a mediator, without an informant and without a translator, and (3) your thesis is complete when your ideas are mature. In the same way as a papaya or a mango falls down from a tree when it is ripe, similarly your thesis will fall down once your ideas will mature, and it does not really matter how long it takes – 5 years, 10 years, 25 years, we do not know how ideas mature.
So those were the basic three rules that I had to follow in order to do my thesis and I began to search for a place where I could go.
I did not follow conventional methods of anthropology, which is that you do a proper survey of the areas which you want to go to; you collect some data and like you do in war – you then charge and move on to the place you want to go to with some basic information! My course of action and course of movement was basically determined by a very simple question, and the question was – how do we know the finality of development and the world that we live in? Critically we cannot know it because there are arguments for and against it. The only way we could do it is to find out a place where there has been no development, and by that we mean simply there is no electricity, no water, no development programmes, no irrigation, and how was one to find such a place. Common sense told me that such a place would be really a backward place – because that is how these places are classified. A backward place is one where there is none of these. So I started looking for a backward place and somebody, during the course of making conversation, said why don’t you go to Bastar.
So I went to Bastar. In Bastar, the only thing I told the people was that I want to learn a new language and that is why I am here. So everybody directed me to the right man who could teach me the language. By a lot of errors, mistakes and a lot of hard work – I cannot go into the details because it is a very long story; I landed up in a place called Abujhmarh. So somebody said, that is a place where you will find nothing – people still live in loin clothes, abhi patte ke kapde pahan ke ghoomtey hain, bas tumhare liye wahi jagah badiah hai, tum wahin chale jao.
So I made my journey to Abujhmarh and it was not a simple journey, because I could not enter Abujhmarh as it was a protected place. It was not a biosphere reserve, or nature reserve that you have today; it was not a nature sanctuary, none of these. I had to go to the Home Department in Bhopal. Swamiji (J. Swaminathan), who was a great painter at that point of time, had just started to make the Bhopal Bhawan and he blessed me saying that you please go, you have my blessings – he had just visited the outskirts of Abujhmarh. They were wonderful people. I was very encouraged, and I landed up there.
I stayed there for five years, because the rule of my research was that I do not need an interpreter. The politics of an interpreter is very simple and straight. What they will tell me and what they will translate, I have no way to check. They will sift all information, they will translate words wrongly. Therefore, the idea was that to learn a new language, you have to get to the sensibility of the word; you have to understand the phonetics of the word, you have to get the texture of the word in order to know the nuances of what the word actually means, more than the literal translation. I think that was the methodological principle that I followed and I learned the language in about three years, and it took two more years to get into the depth of what this was. My problem was very simple – how do the people who live in the forests think of forests; what is their theory of the forest, and the only way I could do this was to see a deflection of this theory in the practices that they do. I was told to ask them the theory and I thought that was the wrong way of doing it, because in their tradition this mode of knowledge of question & answer is not their mode of acquired knowledge. I think that is a very fundamental difference between our way of acquiring knowledge and their way of acquiring knowledge. How do they do it, we will come to it as we go along.
So I stayed there for five years and I learned the language. I learnt several things in their language. The problem that I faced was to translate my thinking which was now in their language, into first normal Hindi or English, and then into a conceptual language of anthropology, and I have failed miserably to do it. I have written a few articles and what I am going to tell you today is also with great difficulty, because I still do not have the right vocabulary to say what I want to say; but I will try and do my best.
One of the things I tried to do there was to learn about plants. I did not want to learn about plants using modern botany. So I did not want to go and look at the different kinds of leaves there are, the different kinds of flowers there are, whether it is a monocotyledon or a dicotyledon – I just did not want to learn the vocabulary. I wanted to learn the plants in the way they would want to teach me plants, and I did not succeed.
In the course, several things and several questions have come to my mind, some of which I am going share today. I will come to that knowledge subsequently because I think we need to travel a certain amount of intellectual distance in order for me to make sense to you. I need to do a little bit of de-commissioning of some of the thoughts that we have about these people, in order to make you available to some of my ideas. It may be unnecessary to a lot of people, but I think it would be necessary in order to background my information and understanding in some appropriate way.
The first thing I noticed is that knowledge comes to them without physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics, and that was very very fascinating for me. How does your body, how do the people actually acquire this knowledge without the basic sciences? I have tried this question at many forums after I came to Delhi – with many scientists, with conservators of forests, with botanists; and the only answer I got was that it is basically hit and try. My little reading of history, philosophy and practices of science also told me that they also have a little bit of hit and trial – the only thing is that they document the hit and trial in some measurable documented form, which we call ‘probabilities’. They know how to document it and they know how to study it, and therefore they have this power of documenting, in order to say. So I thought that it was not a valid reason to accept that this is basically hit and trial. What they meant was, this is ‘accidently’, and my intention is, no – this is not ‘accidently’. There is a method to it, and that method we have to cull out as academics; there is a method in everything that we do and everybody is not self-conscious of the method which they follow, in directing the knowledge that they have. The whole idea of social sciences actually emerges from the possibility of actually being able to reflect on every day practices in order to derive principles that you use, and give a specialized body of knowledge which we call the ‘scientific’ knowledge.
So, I kept running with that question and then came the Intellectual Property Rights Regime and there is no mention in that regime of the process of discovery; that regime totally neglects, or overlooks, or willfully undermines, the possibility that there is a method to this discovery and that method needs to be hounoured, and that method needs to be put in the Intellectual Property Rights Regime. Why do they not recognize this method - is the question which I will address, but one more point of fact. We need to ask this question for another very important reason. On record, by botanists, is the fact that we only know one-twentieth or one-hundredth of the knowledge of the bio-diversity that exists in fact. The question is, does modern science have the equipment – both intellectual and technological, to actually research the 99% of the knowledge that they do not have; and what guarantee do we really have that they do have the expertise?
I will describe to you very shortly what modern science does and why is it not capable of doing it and why, therefore, it is very important for us to understand, recognize and accept that there is a method in Adivasi ways of looking at the plant world and I think this is a very difficult question because most people will not even want to recognize this as a valid question; because there are a whole lot of pre-suppositions which we have been socialized into, which we are not willing to get rid of. If we do not get rid of those pre-suppositions, it is not possible to even recognize that this is an important question. To accept that this is an important question, means at least three things. Then they did find out (we have to accept that): (1) that there is a method to find out, (2) that method is learnable, and (3) that modern science has not been able to do it. If we accept those questions, we have to accept these three subsequent subsidiary propositions, only then can we actually agree to talk about this.
If somebody tells me (as some people have) that you first prove to me that they have knowledge then we will start to discuss, I do not think that is the way it can go. We have to first accept that there is a body, there is a methodology; once this is acceptable, then we can begin the discussion; otherwise there is no scope of discussion at all.
With that, I come to the point. This is, therefore, an exercise not only to prove that Adivasis have a method, but to also study the method of sciences as well. This is a very important point, because unless we improve the discussion in not generating knowledge as a recording, but as a method – the problem of method, this discussion will not go any further. And when I say it is a problem of method, what I am trying to say is that method is not only concerned in generating knowledge which we can use, method is also concerned with examining itself in terms of its appropriateness and reliability in the task that it designed itself to do. For instance, we need to ask how appropriate are the methods that are available to us in the tasks that we want them to perform. This is a very important discussion in natural sciences, but not in social sciences.
Instrumentation is a very important branch of natural sciences, where they will create a new instrument each time they want to go deeper, and there is a whole lot of proof for it that every time you want to know something deeper, you look at the exposome, look at the huge machine that they have created in order to study particle physics. I think this is not the monopoly of natural sciences. This is a problem of methodology to the extent across all sciences.
My concern here is - what is it in the method that is lacking which prevents us from recognizing that there is a method in the Adivasi behavior of looking at the plant world. I am only talking of the plant world – I am not talking about nuclear physics, I am not talking about cancer, I am not talking about Mars. I am just talking about one limited area of knowledge, i.e., the plant world and the human body. It would be unfair to expect Adivasis to talk about nuclear physics, only then can you recognize that there is a method in what they say. I think that is a very unfair demand, and it does not stand to any kind of knowledge.
Having said that, a few small points about what is the method of the sciences and what is the problem with these methods which cannot lead us to understand or even consider this question, far apart, get into understanding what this knowledge is all about. I have already described to you first the whole politics of creating biosphere reserves or reserves of nature that we have today and then link it to the whole question of ethno-botany, to the whole question of Fifth and Sixth Schedules, to the whole question of Forest Rights Act, 2006; and to PESA 1996. I think this is part of a larger package which says the same methodology and which derives from a particular view of the method given to us by one particular version of what constitutes to be science and reason.
The first thing about biodiversity reserves, or reserves of nature, is that it is a creation of capital for a very very specific reason. The rate or the speed at which industrial production happens is astonishingly fast, because the rate at which technology extracts from nature is commensurate with the rate at which capital needs to reproduce.
Accordingly what happens is, the rate at which nature can re-generate itself is not as fast, so if they continue to extract at that speed, very soon nature will not be able to keep up with that pace. Nature has a different driven model altogether. How to bridge this gap? So what you do is you create biosphere reserves; you create nature reserves, which are called biosphere reserves, wild life sanctuaries, and things like that, where what you do is you encircle, you territorialize natural capital and say this is the preserve and property of the state and what will it be used for – a new science is created in order to get the information that they want about plants, and that science is called ethno-botany. What does ethno-botany do? Ethno-botanists basically go to the indigenous people across the world, go to the Adivasis in India, and collect all the information that they have about plants.
So, typically ethno-botanical experience is that on the one hand you will have local names; on the other hand you will have Latin/national names; and on the third hand you will have a third column which tell you what it is used for; and the fourth column – may be some anthropologists have contributed to that – you will have folklore, mythology and culture indicating where this plant is used.
What do they do with this knowledge? They take this knowledge to their laboratory; they test it out in their laboratory; and what do they do in the laboratory - they extract the active principle, which is a formula. They preserve that principle, try it out on species, find it to be efficacious, and patent it. This is what ethno-botanists do. Ethno-botanists will not ask the question where did you get this knowledge from; how did you generate this knowledge; what are the principles of nature that you observe; what categories do you use; they cannot ask these questions, because in modern science there is no scope for asking these questions. A scientist will not even entertain these questions, because (1) he does not have the conceptual equipment to do it; (2) if he accepts this question, he has to accept that he cannot do it; and that breaks the monopoly of modern science totally. They will never accept these questions. In fact, if you push them too hard, they will say – look, why do want them to remain primitive; why do you want them to remain backward; what is this – you do not want them to grow; you do not want them to benefit from modern society; the benefits of good civilization you are taking and are not giving it to them, and the discussion ends there.
So this is what ethno-botany does. A good variation of ethno-botany, which I think the Government of India has propagated very very strongly, is to build biodiversity reserves. It is of no value to the Adivasis. He only has a book; and what is the book doing – the book is making available all the information that you need to multi-national corporations, who would then know where to go to identify that plant. What does the Adivasi do with that – nothing? He just is very proud. Look now I have a documentation of so many species in my forest. But if you ask this Adivasi, if you ask this tribal, can you now tell me how do you produce it, he cannot. And this is something that I want to discuss now and tell you who these Adivasis are who have this knowledge. A friend journalist (who is sitting here) pointed out to me that there are only Adivasis - who mean tribals, I insisted they are two different sects of people. In English, we translate Adivasis into a tribal, but it is only a translation. If you look at the historical epistemologies of these three words, Adivasis, indigenous and tribals, they are very very different.
So who is an Adivasi and who is a tribal? A little bit on that.
· The Adivasi, to me, is a forest dweller, who lives in the forest, who thinks the forest is his home and his place of work.
· A tribal is someone who has forest dwellers as his ancestors and who has moved out of the forest, and has become part of the mainstream civilization over several hundred years. The Fifth and Sixth Schedules are part of that entire project to make them part of the modern world.
The Fifth and Sixth Schedules have inherited the legacy of its original partially excluded areas which the British made – what were these areas and how did they come into existence? Adivasis, the forest dwellers, were the first to protest against the exploitative forest policies of the British. This is on record! What did the British do? The British argued. The British were enlightened people, so they could not rule brutally; they had to rule with humanity. So they brought all the theories on anthropology that they had learnt from one strain of anthropology. I will not repeat that. There are other strains of anthropology also, which they did not learn from. These strains come from anarchists who had a completely different idea of anthropology than from anthropologists that supported the mainstream and exploitative systems. They said look – they are very innocent people; they are beautiful people; they have a lovely culture; they are wonderful; but they are not ready for modern civilization, and therefore they created these special areas. Politically looked at, this was the first counter-insurgency measure – why – because this was a measure to stop the Adivasis from any further rebellion and protest.
My argument is that the Fifth and Sixth Schedules are counter-insurgency measures – they are not measures for development. The FRA 2006 and the PESA 1996 inherit that legacy and they are equally counter-insurgency measures. They are not measures designed to develop people and there is a very important angle. Anything that is designed as a counter-insurgency measure the first thing it does is, is to make sure that your voices and agency are squashed. Unless then it cannot be a counter-insurgency. This entire tradition is designed to squash initiative and then do what? You first have to accept that you are primitive and then you can become a member of the Fifth and Sixth Schedule.
What does it do? It does the following things:
As you move out of the forest, and as you begin to become a part of the Fifth and Sixth Scheduled regimes, you first lose touch with the forest. That has three consequences:
(1) The language of the workplace, which is the office that you go to, which is English or Hindi that you learn, the computers that you work with – depending on where your position in the employment scale is.
(2) Your language of work is very different from the language of your custom and your culture. And what is the language of your culture and custom? It is folklore, it is dance, it is music, it is mythology, it is rituals. There is no link between the two.
(3) This might also impact the language of your everyday life. Because you are dealing not with the realities of the forest; you are now dealing with the realities of finance, of banking, of ration cards, of police licensing, in order that you may exist.
So these people lose their imagination that comes in the forest, and those who continue to live in the forest - for them all the three languages are embedded in each other. The language of work, the language of home, the language of everyday life are embedded with each other because they are talking of the same set of materials and the same set of ideas in all the three spheres.
What is the difference between these two imaginations? To put it very simply, I think there is a very big change; there is a very big difference in imagination where you are living with living things. So imagine that your house is in the middle of a forest – where there are animals, there are plants; where mud is alive; everything is alive. And you imagine yourself that you are living in a place like this room where everything is non-alive – it is not dead, but it is non-living matter. It makes a substantial difference in the kind of imagination that you have. You are dealing with living things all the time. Your house is built and it dissolves; here your house is built and it does not dissolve.
This is a very important difference which I would like to talk about in order to emphasize that these are two radically different imaginations. When an Adivasi builds his house in the forest, and he abandons the house, the forest reclaims the house; it is quite obvious. When in the city we make a house, it may not be reclaimed by nature. You may have an archaeological monument for the last several hundred years, may be several thousand years. It is a very very substantial difference – why – because here is a society that does not believe in history that is embedded in archaeology. There are no archeological monuments in that society to give them sense of time and space.
How would this society be if all the archaeological monuments were taken away from them? What would happen to our sense of time each day, we will get demolished totally. We will completely be in a spin; we will go completely mad. What is the sense of time in history; what is the sense of the world that comes to a society where there are beginnings but there is no archaeological sense of history. There is no archaeology to determine the sense of time and space. Compared to the society in which archaeology is a very important determinant of how you think of the time and space; this is the imagination which an Adivasi has, but a tribal does not have. I think this is very important.
Are there any Adivasis left in this world today? Where do you go and look for them, and most of us are of the view that there are none. I think there are several of them. There were a few, but I think those few are on the front-tier.
In the sphere of knowledge, the minority is the front-tier. The minority is the one who does the experiment. Everybody does not do the experiment. Knowledge is not produced by mass production of experiments. Knowledge is produced by those two people who dare to think of a new idea, experiment with it and die with it. And Adivasis are on the front-tier.
There is another reason why we need to look at Adivasis on the front-tier. Today, the criterion of a development is not only GDP – it is whether you are in debt, and whether your carbon footprint is zero or not. I think Adivasi society can be looked at as one society where carbon footprint is zero and there is no debt. If we were to use this parameter and re-draw the hierarchy of societies, I would say Adivasis are on top and America is at the bottom, because America has not signed the carbon protocol and it is the most in debt. If you look at the debt clock, it is deep, deep, deep red. Now, does that mean that we become Adivasis? Certainly not, but certainly we can learn from them. What is that you want to learn from them? There is something that I want to share with you now.
We can learn from them that deforestation is not about just the loss of forest cover. Deforestation is a much deeper phenomena. From their point of view, deforestation is the deforestation of the mind – what does that mean? It means that if you look at your mind as the world in which there are many objects of nature - there is a very good painting by a Latin American painter. The painting shows a man and a big circle over his head. In this circle all that he is thinking about has been drawn, everything. All that it contains is consumer goods, nothing else.
Deforestation means that in that world-view you have no place for a tree. The proof of that is in our everyday lives if you were to calculate how much space and how much time you give for trees, it is not even one-tenth of a day; not even one-hundredth; that is the deforestation of the mind. That is what deforestation is, because that deforestation corresponds to the actual destruction of plants in the natural world. We also say that deforestation is another very important point. We are not only concerned with the number of species that have we lost, we are also concerned with the potentiality of earth to have been totally destroyed. In other words, the fertility of the earth has been totally destroyed and in today’s language I would say - that is destruction of potentiality.
This is a very important concept that I want to emphasize. Potentiality is not to be understood as opposed to that which is possible. Potentiality is eternally potential; the moment you actualize it, it ceases to be potential, i.e., actual. This is an idea which is not mine; it is an idea that has been developed by Agamben in his book called Potentialities. It is a very difficult book to read, but the central idea of the book is – potentiality is eternally potential. Now if you destroy this potentiality - that is deforestation.
A friend of mine, who is a Gandhian farmer, who did very well to describe potentiality, somebody asked him what do you want to leave behind in this world – what is your contribution to the next generation? He said I want to leave one inch of topsoil – that is what I want to contribute to the next world; and it is a very difficult task. What all social engineering; what all politics; what all economics you will have to do; what all philosophy you will have to create; to create that one inch of topsoil is, at least to me, a huge task. I think what he is contributing to is potentiality. I think that is the meaning of potentiality that we are looking at.
So, where does that potentiality lie? How would the forest dwellers define potentiality? It comes to us as part of their cultivation practice and I want to say here that shifting cultivation is a wrong way of understanding what the forest dwellers do. That is a colonial way of understanding the practice. And we have continued to destroy that practice by continuing to discuss it under the title of shifting cultivation. Shifting cultivation only talks about the plot in which the crop is being sown. But that is only one-fourth of the story.
Very briefly, the shifting cultivation cycle varies depending on the mode of plots that you have. So you move from Plot 1 to ‘x’ number of plots. Let us say if you have, at the time that I went everybody had 28 plots; so you move from Plot 1 to Plot 28, and while one plot is being cultivated, 28 plots are lying fallow. Actually, the forest is re-generating on these 28 plots. So actually shifting cultivation is wrong; it is the cultivation of a forest - that is what is happening in shifting cultivation. You are actually nurturing a forest because that is a large amount of time that you are creating for forest re-generation. And believe me, not all forests are cut. The forest that is not cut is called the sacred forest and that sacred forest is where Mother Earth lives. Mother Earth is not just a metaphor; it is not just a simple literary way of describing the properties of the world. It stands for a very important principle, and the principle is that it describes to you the other side of labour. If you understand Marx theory of labour, Marx says very clearly that you could only own the products of your labour.
What Adivasis are telling us is, what about the products that are not the product of your labour? You cannot own them, and that is earth – that is nature. How do you relate to that labour which is not your own? That is the crux of this practice. We call it common property resources, but common property resources do not capture the spirit; because common property resources do not talk about potentiality. It is talking about territoriality; it is talking about land ownership; but a different mode of sharing. Here is saying you have no business to even think of ownership of land. What is your job – your job is as care-takers only.
What does a care-taker mean? I will not go into that but I just want to give you the parameters of the imagination that comes to you when you are living with living things. First, your time cycle changes. You are not talking of a yearly cycle that happens in a financial year. You are talking of a 48-year time cycle which is divided into units which are of two lunar cycles; you move from one cultivation plot to another in two lunar cycles – not in one lunar cycle. Imagine your time unit is not one year, which is 365 days – that is very arbitrary. You can always change time to the different measures that you want to. So their time scale is two lunar years and what kind of mindset would have two lunar years as the scale to plan daily activities, is something that we have to imagine. Unless you go there, the only way to do it is to write it.
What else does it do? An average Adivasi keeps in mind at least 10 life-cycles in his head; otherwise he cannot live in a forest. Which root is ready to eat at what time of the year; which tree has fruited last year; which tree is going to fruit next year; how many times can I take harvest from this plant; number of plants that he has to use either through food-gathering or through any other way – each of these time cycles is in his head. And these time cycles vary from annual to generations.
They make their gods from trees, and these gods are never made again unless the wood dies. They have to have the particular tree from which this god is made for god to exist. They have to keep the time cycle of that tree and of this god. This is the other time cycle that they follow. What this time cycle means is, that their span of observation – their unit of observation is more than a generation. Unit of observation is not time clock. I observe a plant only when it is ripe – that is what modern botanists do. They will observe a plant over one generation. The result of that observation is that an Adivasi can identify a plant just from the smell of its smoke – just from the look at a burnt piece of wood – just from the look of a broken twig. Modern botanists just cannot do it. It also needs that the space that they have – the observation is as is to the same scale as the time they are given to observe.
And what happens in that space is something that I will tell you now. There are some interesting stories that you may find fascinating. This is now about medicine. Having said all this as a background, now we can discuss actually what Adivasi medicine is all about.
I will begin by giving a few examples in order to draw your attention to what we are going to engage with.
· On one of my trips with my friends I was carrying an axe and I did not know how to hold it. So I put the axe at the back and sat on it. When I got up, the axe moved round and scooped out about an inch of flesh from my upper thigh and this was mid-monsoon. It became infested with pus formation; I was feeling feverish and could not walk. An old man comes, looks at me, asks me to wait, goes to the adjoining forest, brings a piece of bark, chews it, fixes it on the wound, and in five minutes time I am up and about! My first question is – how did he know this? My first experience of what tribal medicine is.
· The second example: A friend of mine had fever. I, as a modern man, checked his temperature with a thermometer and it was 104o. I said please go to a doctor. It was mid-summer, he goes on to a rock – extremely hot, lies on it. I said, look, you are lying on a hot burning rock. He said no – that is the only way we cure our fever. Two days later, his fever is gone.
· A friend of mine was lying with his foot extremely swollen. He had been running in the forest to chase a bear, and a big piece of bamboo had pierced his foot from the sole and it shot right upto the calf and he just did not know what to do. When I went there, it was so painful, that even when I looked at it he would shriek. With my modern bent of mind, I said look, I will take you to the hospital; otherwise it will become gangrenous and you may have to cut your leg. He said, you go; so I went away. When I saw him two days later, he was walking. I asked him what did you do? He said it took me one day to prepare my mind, and the second day I pushed the bamboo with my thumb so that one tip would come out – it took me the whole day to push the bamboo stick out. He prepared his mind on the first day, and on the next day he pulled the bamboo out – all this he did by himself. The pus came out, he walked to the forest, picked up some herbs, put them on the wound and he was fine.
· Another example – A very senior shaman (medicine man), was bitten by a snake. He was my neighbor. I visited him and he was healing himself. He healed himself of a poisonous snake bite in one month’s time. What was his principle – no water to drink. He took some seeds, rubbed them and applied them on the wound so that the poison could be sucked out. He was in terrible pain. He healed himself of the poisonous snake bite without the help of any doctor.
· I asked someone how do you do all this and it is very difficult to get that knowledge. I was told that they are very very secretive. I found out that it was not secrecy that was their concern; they are really concerned with who is worthy of this knowledge. They do not give this knowledge to any Tom, Dick and Harry because they think that the plants will get angry and they will not have the medicinal properties that they need to have.
· This was my first de-briefing of the fact that what does a living thing actually need. All living things have intelligence – this is the message that I get. It is for us to have the antenna and the tactility of the senses to recognize that intelligence.
· So, he gave me a way in which he would train someone. He is walking and some young boy is walking with him, and he comes home and says did you notice what I did? I said no. Went again, and again, and he simply did not notice. I said what did you do? He took me aside and said - while I was walking, I put my toe on one plant and I wanted him to see what I had done. That man did not notice, and he failed the examination. That is the precision and alertness of observation that is required for you to learn the skills. These are few tests that the shamans perform in order to understand whether you are alert, whether you can absorb, whether you are ready to take the information or not.
· The last example, which I think is the most important example of all, and the conclusion of the example is that Adivasis know the relationship between moonlight and plants. Modern science does not know this. I have tried very hard to find out from scientists what is the relationship between moonlight and plants, but I have got no answer. I have searched journals; and have found no answer papers; the only research paper I found was – somebody said the only way you can study this is to convert the intensity of light into some kind of a figure; reproduce the light of that intensity or wavelength in the laboratory and then see how it behaves. It does not work.
How did I find this out? I asked my friend – you have to tell me – this is not something that I will go without. So very secretively he told me that you have to go to a plant and ask the plant whether it is ready to come for this particular patient. How do you talk to plants? He said it is all to do with moonlight. You cannot talk to plants in sunlight. Why? – it is a long story – but the gist of it is that the plants that you see have an individual and a collective life - this is the theory of a plant, and you need to know when is it that they are in their own active forms - that is their individual life. When they have distanced themselves from the community - not by walking away, but by a certain methodology which is available in nature where all plants are into their own self active principles - into their own being, as it were, and that is the time when you can talk to plants. At that time the plant will talk to you, and you have to go in a certain way, you have to prepare yourself in a certain way so that you are available to the plant; and when you go to the plant, the plant will talk to you. How does the plant talk to you? He said - through my head – how else will it talk to me? So what is it? How does this happen?
So he gave me an example. He said that when you go and settle in a new place, how do you think we do it? We do not know if it is a good place or a bad place - there are many places which have water and all other facilities, but that is not enough. We have to take permission from the space. I said what do you mean. He said, space has intelligence, and we need to know how to read that intelligence - only when the space allows us. What does that space allowing us, mean? All the spirits that are living in that space – the spirits, which we call them spirits – but they are actually called shadows. All the shadows that are living – who are these shadows – these are beings that do not have a bodily existence. So there are beings with bodily existence and a shadow – like us and like his, and there are beings without bodily existence, like shadows and spirits. There are a lot of them in a particular space. You have to ask their permission, and when they give us permission we settle down there. And how do you know they have given permission? We pick up any one element in nature and say you please speak to us through this particular element – it could be a plant, a tree or a stone. How does that happen? The plant speaks to you through your dreams. The plant will appear to you in a dream and will tell you that this is the part that you can take, this is how you will prepare it, and this is how you will use it. That was my second lesson of understanding dreams in a different way from which you have learnt from Frued.
Dreams, according to them, is when the soul - when the jeeva (in their word they use soul) travels when every other sense is asleep. When you are sleeping then the jeeva travels the world, and it brings you images of wherever it travels and whatever it touches. It is this jeeva that comes to you and tells you what to do. A good proof of that is that there are pattadis, singers at marriages, who sing for seven days and seven nights. I met one of them and I wanted to record their epic of origin/original piece, so he called his chelas and they started to sing. At the end of seven days, I asked them how did you learn all this. They said, nobody taught me. I said, then how did it happen? He said one night all of it came into my head, and next morning I was signing. I said, are you sure? He said, we cannot teach this. How is somebody going to teach me songs which are sung all over seven days and seven nights?
That was my third lesson, which is, if I were to convert the narrative as an equivalent to the idea, what they are saying is, ideas have an intelligence of their own. They select the person to whom they would like to go to. You do not think. All that you do in your life is to prepare your body to receive those ideas. If your body is ready, then you get the idea; otherwise if it comes to you, you will not even recognize that the idea is there for you.
The last thing I want to say is, that this is a product of hard labour. To be able to dream like this, to be able to observe like this, to be able to diagnose like this is – it is not a training in a laboratory, which is enclosed. It is very much a product of good, hard labour. And by hard labour I mean you have to carry several pieces of wood every day to your home; you have to bear the pain of using the axe; your hands have to become callused; you have to bleed; unless then you do not get the sensitivity to understand nature differently. Because it is the body which is the observer and the observed. It is the tactility of your skin which will register that observation; it is the clarity of your eyes that will see; so labour transforms the grammar work of your senses. So long as modern science is not free from its alienating labour in the laboratory; so long as science is not able to readily accept that it is hard physical labour that contributes to the national concepts and observations, until then, this knowledge is not going to be accessible to us. And I think this is a crisis. If you do not get this knowledge, then we are deprived of that huge methodology which modern science and modern man cannot research. We do not have the capacity to move into the forest; live with the plants, and discover the properties of the plants. And if we do not do that, our modern medical system is going to be atrociously expensive. We are going to lose sense of who we are and we are going to lose sense of where the healing comes from.
One last story – which is very fascinating. A friend of mine is an ethno-botanist. He told his friend: I am going into the forest and you please follow me. His friend replied to him: You go to the forest, and I will finish my work and come. Six hours later his friend came and this is what he tells him (by pointing to the different locations): You rested there for 5 minutes; you touched a plant here; you waited here for 2 minutes; and you went and peeped into that bush. My friend was completely stunned; how did he read such minute science in the forest to be able to tell him where did he go; what did he do; even to the extent of touching a particular plant; he could even see that this man had stopped there and touched that plant in order to see what that plant was!
That is the nature of engagement - that is the nature of observation that is required! If we surrender ourselves to telescopes and microscopes, we are in a very very difficult situation.
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Transcription done by Daya Lalvani
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