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Ayurveda, which, literally translated, means ?knowledge of life,? is India?s traditional healing system. Its practice dates back some 3000 years, and it remains as respected today as it was centuries ago. Ayruveda lays emphasis on the prevention rather than the cure of disease and hinges on nature?s rich botanical heritage--over 2000 plants are used in Indian folk medicine. Although it is frequently referred to by advocates of Western medicine as a form of alternative medicine, Ayurveda is very much a part of mainstream medicine in India.

My acquaintance with Ayurveda wasn?t incidental at all. As a kid, I relied on Ayurvedic medicine to treat all the minor ailments that children go through. The reason? My own father is a practitioner of Ayurvedic medicine. Thus, from the first, I had a greater than average exposure to the many practices of Ayurveda. However, like many other young Indians of my generation, I grew to shun tradition and dreamed of becoming a modern scientist ... dabbling with high-tech gadgets, trying out innovative ideas, and discovering new things.

In fact, that was what exactly I found myself doing after graduating from Panjab University with a bachelor of science degree, when I went into basic scientific research. It was then that I chanced upon a fellow researcher?s project evaluating the therapeutic properties of traditionally used herbs--a topic that got me really fascinated. It suddenly dawned on me that what my father had been doing all those years was as much science as it was art and tradition!

The following year, I made a decision that completely changed my career. Having completed my master?s thesis, I decided not to continue pursuing academic R&D. Instead, I made a turnabout to face the libraries of old sage wisdom--the Ayurveda. I scoured my father?s literary collections and read up all I could about this ancient tradition. I followed him on his job and watched him intently applying time-tested traditional remedies to prevent and alleviate pain and suffering, mostly among the crowded populace of Old Delhi.

Dad became my guru. With his encouragement, I signed up for a 5½-year Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine & Surgery (B.A.M.S.) professional degree course to acquire a formal qualification in the field. The profound wealth of knowledge that had been carried forward over thousands of years never ceased to amaze me. Even now, as I delve deeper into Ayurveda, I find myself always wanting to search for more answers.

I must say that unlike when I first entered the field many years ago, today?s Ayurvedic tertiary institutions offer a much more streamlined and scientific approach to the study of Ayurvedic medicine--one that is better suited to a more scientifically minded generation. There are also a lot more formal advanced training and research opportunities for those interested in taking up a career in this field. In fact, Ayurvedic medicine, which is now structured into 16 branches of postgraduate specialization, offers as many career choices as allopathic medicine.

At present, there are almost 200 recognized Ayurvedic colleges in India offering undergraduate and postgraduate programs in Ayurveda, and about a quarter of these institutions have full facilities for research-based postgraduate education leading to M.D., M.Sc., or Ph.D. degrees in the discipline. Some even have exclusive courses organized for foreigners. Among the top institutes are the National Institute of Ayurveda in Jaipur, Gujarat Ayurved University in Jamnagar, and the Faculty of Ayurveda at Banaras Hindu University. These institutions provide high standards of training and research in all aspects of Ayurveda, with a scientific approach. They offer a variety of graduate and postgraduate courses and provide research facilities for Ph.D. research work in Ayurvedic medicine and allied areas.

There are a number of options if you?re a science graduate or postgraduate interested in moving into the field of Ayurveda. Those already possessing a basic or postgraduate degree in the biological sciences could choose to go directly for an M.Sc. or a Ph.D. program, as appropriate. These are partially or fully research-based programs and take an average of 2 to 5 years to complete. In these programs you could opt to do basic research on Ayurveda or traditional medicinal plants or to perform more applied clinical research in conjunction with a clinical department at an attached hospital. There is also an option to do Ayurvedic pharmacy, especially in colleges with their own pharmacies with or without their own Ayurvedic medicine-manufacturing units. However, if you?re interested in becoming a practitioner, the only option in India is to go through the 5½-year B.A.M.S. course.

Having been in the field for many years now, I find that there are limitless opportunities in Ayurvedic medicine R&D. India is home to more than 40,000 known species of plants, and traditional knowledge of medicinal plants has existed for some 3000 years. The rich biodiversity and the indigenous knowledge of the people are enormous assets for continual research and development in this field. Ayurveda may be an old tradition, but it is evolving with the times and catching up gradually with modern science. Scientific research has helped tremendously in the understanding and modernization of the ancient system. Today?s Ayurvedic medicines are not just crude preparations of plants or mere concoctions made up of roots, stems, and leaves of various herbs. Preparations of Ayurvedic medicine are getting more advanced with more refined methods of preparation--assisted by modern technology.

Regardless of its antiquated reputation, Ayurveda is a highly regarded system of medicine, and careers in Ayurvedic medicine are more than just respectable. Ayurvedic medicine--being more affordable than Western medicine--is a health care system that is within the reach of the average layperson.

I have never regretted giving up my academic dream, because I have found immense satisfaction in my job, providing the masses with very affordable primary health care and helping India preserve and propagate a most valuable heritage--one that is likely to continue serving our people for generations to come.