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Religion, vaccines, medical ethics and just distribution – a Hindu perspective

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Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal and an executive member of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha. He writes in his personal capacity.

In Hinduism, life is sacred and there is no prohibition against vaccines. Ayurveda, (‘The Science of Life’), the traditional Hindu system of medicine, can be traced to the religious texts of the ‘Atharva Veda’. One of the earliest references to modern-style vaccination is in the ‘Harivamsa Purana’ and is attributed to Dhanwantari, ‘God of Ayurveda’.

There are many robust debates about the scramble for Covid-19 vaccines, efficacy, narrow nationalism, transparency in terms of experimental procedures and peer review processes, expiry dates (and expressions of gratitude for commercial transactions), priority recipients, and the naysayers.

Some religious groups, cults and cliques are opposed to vaccinations. There are some legitimate concerns about whether the Covid-19 vaccines contained any forbidden animal products.

Historically, there have been tensions between scriptural beliefs and the logic and rationality of science. However, Albert Einstein said “science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind.”

According to Canadian physician, Sir William Osler, widely respected as the father of modern medicine: “Nothing in life is more wonderful than faith — the one great moving force which we can neither weigh in the balance nor test in the crucible… Faith has always been an essential factor in the practice of medicine.”

Celebrated American cosmologist and astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, acknowledged that the Hindu “time-scale for the universe matches the billions of years documented by modern science”.

There is evidence suggesting that the earliest inoculations were in India and China in the 1500s, with some suggestions that this may well be traced to 200 BCE. According to the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, one way the Chinese may have practised inoculation was by scratching matter from a smallpox sore into a healthy person’s arm.

In 1796 English physician, Edward Jenner, “worked on many experiments to develop a vaccination for smallpox, now considered the birth of immunology, vaccine therapy, and preventive health”. In the 1880s French biologist Louis Pasteur developed several vaccines, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In Hinduism life is sacred and there is no prohibition against vaccines. Ayurveda, (“The Science of Life”), the traditional Hindu system of medicine, can be traced to the religious texts of the Atharva Veda. One of the earliest references to modern-style vaccination is in the Harivamsa Purana and is attributed to Dhanwantari, “God of Ayurveda”. In fact, in its 23 October 1869 issue, The Lancet medical journal acknowledged the precise rules for vaccination, which were recorded in an ancient Hindu medical work, the Sakteya Grantham, authored by Dhanwantari:

“Take the fluid of the pock on the udder of a cow, or on the arm between the shoulder and elbow of a human subject, on the point of a lancet, and lance with it the arm between the shoulder and elbow until the blood appears; then, mixing the fluid with the blood, the fever of the smallpox will be produced. The small-pox produced by the fluid from the udder of a cow will be of the same gentle nature as the original disease, not attended by fear, not requiring medicine.”

In 2020, some of the Hindu ethical and moral dilemmas of volunteering in the Moderna phase three clinical trial of mRNA-1273, was aptly summarised by Deepak Sarma, from the Department of Religious Studies and a Professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University: “During this global crisis, offering my body in a clinical trial, I believe, may hasten the development of a potentially life-saving vaccine. And, in the Hindu context, offerings of this sort, whether they are one’s body or one’s wealth, are regarded as daana, charities or donations that are expressions of the virtue of generosity, a benevolent deed for the betterment of others and of society.”

There appeared to be a contradiction between this act of religious altruism and the probability that it will contribute to the profits of a private pharmaceutical company and its shareholders. Professor Sarma resolves his dilemma by referring to Hindu scriptures:

“In Krishna’s soliloquy to Arjuna, documented in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises that it is always preferable to act Nishkamakarma, without desire for the fruits of action… Should I, as a Hindu, as a Hindu bioethicist, and as an altruist, act Nishkamakarma, in spite of the anticipated profits that Moderna will make?… I am also fairly confident that I volunteered Nishkamakarma and am fulfilling my dharma. As much as I dislike contributing to the coffers of the pharmaceutical industry, I dislike even more the suffering of so many people in the world. Hopefully, my daana will have a positive outcome and save lives.”

According to pathologist and bioethicist, Dr Sridevi Seetharam, “society has long respected the medical profession for its commitment to service and the alleviation of suffering. It is apparent that dharma and medical science have a common aim — to make humanity happier by reducing suffering”.

Ayurveda practitioner, Charaka, similarly instructed millennia ago: “Bhuta daya, compassion for suffering humanity, should be the singular motive for medical practice. A physician should ever resist the lures of money.”

According to Dr Seetharam, current bureaucratic procedures and policies have reduced medical ethics “to a mere social etiquette and glibly articulated forms for informed consent. However, morality and ethics are a way of life and not something to be thought of only when providing medical care, running a hospital, making medicines or conducting research. Medical ethics is only one of the many expressions of a moral life. Ethics is also reflected in the way we treat our fellow beings, the choices we make and the aspirations we nurture, in all walks of life and at all times.”

Closer to home, the South African Hindu Maha Sabha (SAHMS) supports any scientifically tested and approved vaccine that will heal the afflicted and save lives. According to the UN, 57 million vaccine doses have been administered largely in North America and Europe, while 130 countries in the developing world have yet to start.

SAHMS also believes that such vaccine must be made available to the poor and disadvantaged in the global South (Africa, South America and Asia). If the vaccine is distributed on a market-driven basis, then only the global North countries will benefit, and some are already selfishly stockpiling. According to the anti-poverty NGO, ONE, the wealthy countries have already purchased one billion doses in excess of what their citizens need.

UN Secretary-General, António Guterres lamented that at “this critical moment, vaccine equity is the biggest moral test before the global community”. Addressing the World Economic Forum, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that the inequity in vaccine distribution will “endanger the recovery of all countries… Ending the pandemic worldwide will require greater collaboration on the roll-out of vaccines, ensuring that no country is left behind in this effort”.

The WHO warned that “Africa is in danger of being left behind in the roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines as countries in other regions strike bilateral deals, thus driving up prices.” All notions of our common humanitarianism and collective sharing and caring have been relegated to sound bites by opportunistic leaders. A just and fair approach would be to initially make the vaccine available to all frontline healthcare workers, globally. Justice and fairness, the clarion call of all religions, must trump profits.

The voices of religious leaders should be more vocal on this issue. If religion cannot contribute to the greater good of humanity, then it ceases to be. DM

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"