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Politics of Knowledge in the Debates on Toxicity in Ayurvedic Medicines

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Recent Controversies over Bhasmas

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In the last decade, a controversy has arisen over a specific type of herbo-mineral ayurvedic preparations called bhasmas (Skt. bhasman). The controversy mainly concerned serious complications or even the death of patients after having taken these medicines. Since these medicines were metal-based preparations, and specifically included lead or mercury, their toxicity was interpreted as causing the patients’ suffering. In response to that, in public discourse a plethora of writing on the issue of toxicity in ayurvedic medicines ensued, both accusatory and defensive in tone. This laid out the potential for their condemnation, with serious implications for their credibility, not to speak of their markets. This article attempts to analyse this writing, focusing mainly on the academic publications, from the perspective of the politics of knowledge. It will argue that hierarchies in the epistemologies of medical knowledge systems guide the scientific analysis of these herbo-mineral preparations, some of which contain mercury, illustrating how this happens through publications that are unequivocally critical of bhasmas, those that are defensive of them, and those that indicate a median position. It will also analyse the possible regulatory and manufacturing regimes that can emerge when a certain kind of balanced analysis informs policy-making. Focusing on the modes of translation between epistemologies of different knowledge systems that have characterised the process of making ‘traditional’ knowledge contemporary, it shows how this principally reflects the hierarchy between dominant and marginal knowledge on an everyday basis, affecting most production and marketing decisions, that backfire not only on specific products, but affect an evaluation of the system as a whole.

Affiliations: 1: University of


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