I would like to work with some distinctions, either explicit or implicit, in the discussion of healing at the borderland of medicine and religion.
The first is the distinction between curing and healing. Medicine, at least as it is practiced today, focuses mostly if not solely on curing, while what the patient wants is healing. The problem is that when the two do not go together, the relation between them becomes complex and we get a borderland problem. When curing takes a long time, or the outcome is uncertain, then the need for healing is felt. If the disease was incurable in pre-modern times, it would be handled only through healing. In popular North Indian culture, a distinction is drawn between dawa or medicine and dua or prayer and when a physician finds failure staring him in the face, or when family members find themselves in the same predicament, they often say: “The time for dawa or medicine is over, it is now time for dua or prayer.” There are cures for diseases in life but when the whole of life itself is treated as disease—as afflicted with dis-ease, then one heads not for the hospital but the monastery. The Buddha’s analysis of life has often been presented on a medical model: the symptom is dukkha or suffering, the diagnosis is taṇhā or longing, the prognosis is positive if the right treatment is administered, and the prescription is the Eightfold Path, hence the description of the Buddha as the Great Physician who cures the ill of life itself. At this extreme end of the continuum also, curing and healing coincide just as, as the other end, treatment of a simple illness requires no distinction between healing and curing. It is worth noting however that “curing” and “healing” in that highly advanced sense, when life itself is viewed as deserving of treatment, has a highly sophisticated and organized structure of the Buddhist Order backing it, ensuring both efficacy and safety but essentially independent of state control.
The second distinction I would like to work with is spiritual healing and religious healing. In alluding to the Buddhist Order, I had veered into the realm of religious healing. The Buddhist Order, at the philosophical level, provides healing at its loftiest, but at the pragmatic level it also provides services for allaying the spirits for instance, which might supplement medical attention which takes the form of trying to cure the disease. Note, however, that in such cases also there is once again the Buddhist Order in the background as a regulating force. If we call this religious healing in the ordinary sense, then it is worth noting that, in large parts of the developing world, such services are institutionally anchored, usually in a major religious tradition, so that the problem of “spiritual healing,” as it has evolved in the West, may be a Western development calling for Western answers.
The third and last distinction I would like to take up is between the disease and the patient. Of course, it is the patient who has the disease, but one does not have to be a Cartesian to invoke the distinction between body and mind in this context. An illness may involve the body but it has an effect on the mind, not merely in the sense that physical changes might affect mental states, but in the deeper sense that the person has to mentally grapple with the consequences of the illness. The first time I understood what the word “depression” meant, which until then for me was a bizarre Western locution, was when I broke my knee in a car accident and was unable to regain my uses of it physiotherapeutically. My ailment had been surgically “cured” at the physical level, but at the mental level it was another story. Medicine may often take for granted the fact that the “mind” will take care of itself if the “body” is taken care of. But this may not always be the case, and specially when chronic ailments are involved. Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or CAM therapies for short, may provide a vital foil in such situations along with regular medical treatment. The point to note is that just as the test of the treatment at the physical level is “objective,” the test of the treatment of CAM therapies may be “subjective.” This need not raise the specter of medicine being thrown open to random subjectivity, if it is recognized that the focus is the “mental state” and not the “physical state” of the patient. Nor should the “philosophical” angle be overlooked here. Many patients have been helped in maintaining morale by the simple adage: ‘Who knows? May be “adversity saves us from calamity.”’
Such wholesome wisdom in the past would have, in all probability, been dispensed by a pastor, which creates room for suggesting that a service of this kind, without being confessionally associated with a specific religion, might be called for and the profession which naturally emerges as a likely candidate for this is nursing.