Special Issue: Religion, Healing, and Public Health

Personal Histories

An exercise in (re)discovery


What Do You Believe In?
Special, Guest-Edited Issue on Religion, Healing, ad Public Health

"You can't hide from religion in Georgia. If you don't go after it with a positive agenda, it will come after you."
Gary Gunderson, Director, Interfaith Health Program

"To understand our patients fully, we need to understand their beliefs, or we will not be effective as their healers."
Lori Arviso Alvord, Assistant Professor of Surgery and Associate Dean for Student Affairs, Dartmouth Medical School

New Perspectives on Health and Healing
Can Science and Religion Work Together?

An integrated exploration
A three-pronged approach to health, healing, and spirituality

A cross-cultural perspective
P. Venugopala Rao, Associate Professor of Physics

Mrs. Bradley's body
Carla Gober, Registered Nurse and Doctoral Candidate, Graduate Division of Religion

Spirituality and Modern Medicine
Science on a wing and prayer?

Between Patient and Healer
Four anthropological observations

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At first, it made all of us uncomfortable. But it quickly became clear that sitting in front of a small group of colleagues from across the university and reading out loud your own personal history—your own journey and the roles science, medicine, healing, and religion played in it—was an intriguing, moving, enlightening, and often surprising exercise. We had rediscovered something we lost in college or, for many scientists especially, something we had never discovered in the first place—a piece of why we were the way we were and why we studied the things we did. We have done this in a number of faculty seminars in science and religion over the years, and we used the technique in undergraduate courses as well. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been surprised, but as academics, this type of thinking had been trained out of us. The exercise proved the easiest, most revealing, and most effective way to connect people from the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Here, to give you a sense of these statements, P.V. Rao, a physicist, and Carla Gober, a woman of many degrees currently pursuing another in religion, were kind enough to share theirs (meant to be read aloud) from our most recent faculty seminar.—Arri Eisen

A cross-cultural perspective

By P. Venugopala Rao, Associate Professor of Physics

The foundations for my beliefs were laid down long ago in my childhood. I grew up in a large family in rural India. Before I became a teenager, I witnessed several deaths in the family—five of my grandfather’s generation and six infants. They were all treated by doctors who practiced the native ayurvedic (Hindu) tradition as well as by those trained in allopathic (Western) medicine.

My traditional Hindu family embraced the advancing allopathic medicine. In fact, many members of our extended family eventually became allopathic practitioners. My life has included both faith-based treatment as well as science-based medical treatments. The times of healing gave me opportunities to examine my worldviews critically.

When I was four or five years old, I had chicken pox. I still remember sitting on a high-raised seat, while somebody walked around me with a pot of liquor, poured it on the floor in front of me, and swept my body with a small bunch of green leaves. This ritual was to ward off the evil with which I was afflicted. I remember going sometimes to my village priest before sunrise with a bunch of freshly picked grass. He would chant a mantra and wipe my face and neck with that grass—apparently to wipe away the rash on my cheeks and neck.

Later, when I was seriously ill, two of my uncles who are trained in allopathic medicine treated me until I recovered. My grandparents and parents prayed and performed puja (a service offered to God in prayer and ritual) for my well-being all through that time. For almost twenty-seven years I was under the attention of doctors trained in both allopathic and ayurvedic medicine. During this time my concern for my health did not affect my enthusiasm for living fully and with hope and expectations. Then the amazing thing happened: I came to this country. For the next forty years, I had no health complaint except for minor colds and flu. Ten years ago, my doctor declared me diabetic, which only forced me to lead a more disciplined life. A heart attack a couple of years ago really taught me some lessons in leading a good and healthy life.

I grew up with knowledge of and involvement in the religious practices of my Hindu family. I saw my great-grandfather follow a daily spiritual routine and helped him perform pujas and meditations. I watched my grandfather, too, but I noticed he was not as strict as my great-grandfather was, and my father was even less strict. Yet all of them remained devout Hindus. On the other hand, my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and even my mother were more involved in religious rituals. There is a strong family tradition of being religious—performing rituals and pujas and celebrating religious festivals. Each generation adjusted its style to the times in which it lived.

As a physicist I wonder constantly about the nature of the world. The more I know about the structure of the universe, the more surprised I am. The knowledge I accumulate makes me feel good. It is humbling to know that we know little or nothing about 95 percent of the physical universe. I realize that I rely heavily upon what science gave us in my lifetime. But beyond this worldview provided by science, which I believe is incomplete and materialistic, there is the view I have gathered based on my Hindu tradition and philosophy—the knowledge that nourishes the spiritual in my life. I was brought up with the hypothesis that all that exists is in the category of intelligence—Brahman, as Hindu philosophers refer to it. The rest of the universe and I are parts of a cosmic intelligence. My mind and body are part of that unity. I need not be the victim of Descartes’ error—Damasio’s famous argument that “I think, therefore I am” is wrong.

My own reading of the current literature on the connection between emotions, feelings, and health has reinforced my respect for the model my own tradition created for me. This idea has become a powerful source of comfort, especially when I was recovering from that heart attack. My week in the hospital was a period of intense introspection. I recognized that my mind can influence the workings of my body. Instead of wondering what might happen, I trained my mind to focus on what should happen. While I felt comfortable that medical technology and science have advanced sufficiently to take care of my body, the urge to follow and test the path suggested by Hindu models of the universe bolstered my optimism. Hope needs to supplement the scientific, materialistic model; my tradition built that hope into its model.

Which of these models came to my rescue? That question is irrelevant for me now. Maybe both of them contributed to my well-being. Since then, I have begun to think of myself and my place in the world in a more positive and challenging way. Maybe this is what we call healing. Curing requires and must take into account every advance in understanding the body and its functions; science and technology provide us with a very efficient road map to gain that knowledge. Healing, however, requires in addition a worldview that accommodates spirituality and the role of mind. The models of religion have an edge over science in this respect.