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 :: January/February 2003 Volume 2/Number 1

Sitting Down With Dr. Robert E. Svoboda

Dr. Robert E. Svoboda, B.A.M.S., is the first Westerner to have completed a full education in an Indian Ayurvedic medical college. His love of travel and the exotic first took him to India, away from a planned future of becoming a Western physician, where he then lived for more than a decade. Dr. Svoboda has also mastered the esoteric and complicated elements of astrology (Jyotish), as have many Ayurvedic physicians, and he is conversant in Hindi, Gujarati, Maranthi and Sanskrit. Author of 11 books on Ayurveda, he is also known in India as one of the world's foremost experts in Ayurveda. Julie Deife spoke with him this fall in Palm Springs, CA, at the Southwest Yoga Conference.

By Julie Deife



Julie: Where did you begin this journey?
Dr. Svoboda:

I was often sick as a child. I'm sure part of it had to do with having been born in what they called at that time, an oil camp. Let's just say I've been around hydrocarbons for a long time. And so I had various physical challenges when I was younger.

Julie: You became interested in medicine because of not being well as a child?
Dr. Svoboda: Yes, finding out in what ways I was not well and how might I get better and just the whole question of the nature of wellness and ill health.

Julie: Was a doctor someone who you thought had control over your health condition?
Dr. Svoboda:
I'm not sure that I ever projected onto a physician an aura of some sort. It was more the attitude of being able to on the one hand evaluate a situation, come to a quick and hopefully efficient conclusion about a diagnosis and a treatment plan and then put it into effect that interested me.

Julie: Are you still the only Westerner ever to have graduated from an Ayurvedic College in India?
Dr. Svoboda: No, there are two or three others, there's, I think, a Spanish guy. There was a Japanese women, who I grant you was not a Westerner but still an alien. And then there is Kristofer Edlund from Sweden, who has just graduated from a college in Varanasi.

Julie: But it's still that unusual, even though this was twenty years ago?

Dr. Svoboda: Yes, it's still unusual, but it's not so difficult anymore. Before, there was no provision for having foreigners around. Who knew what they might do, or would they study properly, or would they all go berserk at an inopportune moment and then create some problem for the institution.

Julie: Who do you consider your teachers to be?
Dr. Svoboda:
Dr. Lad was a convenient person for them to shove me off onto because he spoke English and he had recently been made the residential medical officer at the hospital. So they introduced him to me in early February of 1974. But Dr. Lad and I both regard Vaidya Nanal as our teacher. Vaidya Nanal was the son of the doctor who had established this particular college in the first place, and for many years Vaidya Nanal was the most eminent Ayurvedic doctor in Pune.

Julie: Can you talk a little about studying Ayurveda in India at that time?
Dr. Svoboda:
The mode of teaching was shifting from focusing on a more strictly guru/student disciple relationship to one that was more focused on, at least externally, replicating a British style of education. Therefore they had the college, the various classes and teachers teaching those classes according to what the syllabus said they should teach. There was another group in the college who focused on the more traditional approach and there was a general sort of sense of struggle between the two. What it boiled down to was whether Ayurveda should be preserved as a system of medicine, or new knowledge and techniques from allopathy, homeopathy, etc. imported into it. Or whether in fact ideas and techniques and substances from Ayurveda should be exported into other medical systems and everything sort of integrated into one system.

Julie: Isn't that the same debate today? What do you think?
Dr. Svoboda:
That is very much the same sort of debate today. You see, if there were something for
Ayurveda to integrate into, if modern medicine was actually a system, instead of simply a group of therapies, then that would potentially, at least, offer the possibility of some sort of debate. But as far as I can see, there is no system of modern Western medicine. There is no clear idea of what causes health. There is no overall theory of how humans fit into the environment in which they live and as there is in Ayurveda or Chinese medicine. Ayurveda and Chinese medicine are so much more than the sum of just their therapeutic parts.

Julie: Would Western medicine be more appropriately, embraced by Ayurveda?
Dr. Svoboda:
Why not? It's not like Ayurveda has not done that in the past. After all, surgery has been a part of Ayurveda from the beginning. It's a well-known fact, even among plastic surgeons, that plastic surgery was invented in India. The first plastic surgical application still appears in surgery textbooks.

Julie: Does Western reductionist thinking hamper the ability of Westerners to understand Ayurveda?
Dr. Svoboda:
While reductionist thinking may have been pioneered and perfected in the West, it's certainly not anymore, if it ever was, limited to the West. Wherever people think in a reductionist manner, they will have the same sorts of problems of understanding the whole of a science like Ayurveda or yoga or whatever because they are not provided the context that is essential for encouraging all those parts to come together into one organic whole. So certainly reductionist thinking is something that is perhaps more widely practiced here and perhaps it is practiced more homogeneously here because you will not always have people and a culture as complex and detailed as India. You have people thinking in many different modes there, sometimes at the same time. Whereas over here, people try to simplify so that their thoughts are very linear. That makes it difficult to connect the various pieces of Ayurveda together for people who are studying it in a way that is not consistent with its traditional mode of being portrayed.

Julie: As Ayurveda is fairly new to Westerners seeking treatment, do Ayurvedic doctors here feel compelled to discuss the system of Ayurveda with their patients?
Dr. Svoboda:
I don't know. I think what is important is that the patient should get well. And I think that it is undeniably true that some patients do better with lots of information and some patients do better with none. So it's quite possible that even though the tradition in India suggests that the doctor doesn't really communicate a lot to the patient, there will certainly be conditions where it would be better if the doctor was communicating more with the patient. I think what the most important thing is - and this applies to Ayurveda, Chinese medicine, any kind of medical system - is that the physician should be trained, first of all, that there is a difference between disease and illness. Disease is what the physician sees objectively. Illness is what the patient sees and experiences subjectively. So a good doctor will always want to compare the disease with the illness. Find out where the disease/illness has come from. Find out what is a reasonable expectation of where the person might be able to go, whether there is a radical cure possible, is it only possible to manage or is it time for the person to consider exiting or whatever.

Julie: How would you suggest communicating this to the patient?
Dr. Svoboda:
A doctor can create a narrative, something that's also very important in astrology or any other kind of profession in which you are giving someone advice. The narrative explains to the person where they are today; how they got to where they are; where they are headed; whether headed is a good direction or not; what can be done about where they've headed to change the direction and the momentum so that where they've headed at least be in a good direction; and the expectation that they might have of in proceeding in that good direction and to what end. And when you add all these things together, then coming out with a plan that the patient can follow. The hope is to actualize the potential that is present, that hopefully the physician has portrayed.

Julie: What would you recommend to those just starting to learn about Ayurveda and are told that Ayurveda says you can eat meat?
Dr. Svoboda:
Personally I'm a vegetarian, but I do eat dairy and eggs occasionally and I've been a vegetarian for not quite 30 years. It has been okay for me. And I believe that there are many things to be said for vegetarianism. I believe that when it is possible for a person to be a vegetarian it is better for the body of the individual, it is better for the earth as a whole and it is certainly better for all of the animals that don't need to be slaughtered. That being said, at least from what I've seen in my personal perspective, there are some people who do not do well on a diet of plants only, or plants and minerals only. I think that there probably are a certain substantial percentage of people who do better with some form of animal protein. Animal protein is also dairy and eggs.

Julie: How can those of us who choose to be vegetarian be assured that what we're doing is good for our bodies?
Dr. Svoboda:
The average person is quite unaware of whether the food they are eating is digesting well or not. And if not, in what ways is it not digesting well and how can they change that. And in fact, what kind of food does the body really want? So I think even before you start asking yourself a question of should I be vegetarian or should I not be vegetarian, I think that you need to be asking yourself the question of what is it that will nourish my body most efficiently. Ayurveda is very interested in longevity, and modern science has conclusively proved, that if you take the minimum amount of food, not insufficient to what you require, but the minimum amount of food that you require, you will definitely live longer. So I think people should be first asking themselves what is the minimum amount of food that I require. What should my baseline be for that amount of food? Once you have that quantity down, what is the minimum quality of the food that I require. How much fat do I actually need, how much protein do I actually need? Of that protein, what form is that protein going to be delivered to me most efficiently? And then, how can I combine the various different portions of my diet together and deliver it to myself and how frequently during the day, at what time, in what way so it can provide me what I require.

Julie: Do you have a professional or life plan now?
Dr. Svoboda:
Yes, as a matter of fact, I have a definite plan. Five years from now I have every intention to be retired.
Instead of traveling as much as I do now, I will go to one place and I will sit quietly and write and study. I have many things that I still want to study, the I Ching, (and) I want to learn more about homeopathy and Chinese medicine.

Julie: What closing thoughts would you like to share?
Dr. Svoboda:
I believe that people in this country need to go out and see more of the world, because people over here know almost nothing about what's going on in the rest of the world. They need to see how other people live, hear what other people think. It is too easy for us over here to believe the image of the world that the media feeds us, an image that too frequently does not have much to do with reality. And even before people go abroad, let them spend some time in solitude, preferably out in nature, the better to remember how to see and hear for yourself.

Dr. Svoboda can be reached through www.drsvoboda.com.
Two of his recent books are Ayurveda for Women (David
and Charles, Newton Abbott) and Greatness of Saturn
(Sadhana Publications).
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