A popular work on health recently put out in Malayalam by the Kerala State Branch, of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) has the following 'Warning' displayed as a box item:
Is tongue-cleaning necessary?
It is a habit with our people to scrape the tongue along with brushing the teeth daily morning. This habit is mostly restricted to India. Tongue-scraping is done using IRKILI (the thin stem of the Coconut leaf) or specially made plastic or steel scrapers. There is no need for tongue scraping if the mouth is properly washed after every meal. There is a mistaken notion that tongue-scraping is necessary to remove foul smell as well as to enable proper pronouncing of different letters (AKSHARASUDHY).
Tongue-scraping is not only useless but also harmful. We are able to feel taste, heat etc., through some micro-organs that reside on the tongue and the gums. Tongue-scraping damages these micro-organs, and slowly leads to loss of taste-sensation. Damage to taste-buds is also caused by chewing pain.*
No doubt, people in our country are in the habit of cleaning their tongues every morning while brushing their teeth. But they seem .to be doing so-in the belief that the practice is beneficial and essential. The practice appears to be an ancient one in this country.** Even more so it has been recognized as a necessary component of the daily routine (Dina Charya) that is recommended for the purpose of maintaining good health (Swastha Vriti) by all the texts of Indian medical science. For instance, various texts on Ayurveda recommend tongue-scraping (Jihwa Nirlekhana), prescribe the kinds of instruments to be used and describe the benefits of this practice: According to Susruta Samhita (Chikitsa Sthana, Chapter 24): 'The use of a thin, smooth and flexible foil of gold, silver or wood is commended for the purpose of cleaning the tongue by scraping. It gives relief and removes the bad taste, footer, swelling and numbness of the mouth. According to a more recent text, Yogaratnakara, 'The tongue-scraper can be of gold, silver, copper or the tooth-brushing stick torn into a soft half, or even a soft leaf. It should be ten fingers long, soft and smooth.
With it the tongue should be scraped in a soothing manner. By this, the dirt, bad taste and bad odor of the mouth are removed, as also diseases of mouth, tongue and teeth. It generates good taste (Ruci), clarity (Vaisadya) and lightness (laghuta) of the tongue.
On the chewing of pan, let us merely cite the following from Susruta Samhita (Chikitsa Sthana, Chapter 24):
A betel leaf prepared with cloves, camphor, nutmeg, lime, areca Kakkola and Katukahva (Lata-Kasturi) is recommended as it cleanses the mouth, imparts a sweet aroma, produces Kanti and Saushthava, cleanses and strengthens the teeth, the jaws, the tongue, the voice and the sense organs. It checks excessive salivation, soothes the body (Hrdya) and acts as a general safeguard against throat disease. A betel-leaf (prepared as before) proves wholesome after meals, after a bath, after rising from sleep and after vomiting. A person suffering from Rakta Pitta, a Kshata Ksheena and one suffering from thirst or parchedness of the mouth, should refrain from taking betel-leaf, the use of which is equally forbidden in such diseases as anaemia, epilepsy and internal dryness of the organism.
We are now told by the official professional organ of the modern system of health-care that tongue scraping or chewing pan are not only useless, but also , harmful, as they lead to the loss of sense of taste. No doubt this pronouncement is being made with all the noble intentions of taking the benefits of modern science to our people. After all the idea is to rid our people of a harmful habit and, with more publicity given to such pronouncements, this aim might well be achieved; with the result that a practice going on for generations and with the sanction and advice of traditional scientific knowledge may well get dropped and be forgotten. This has happened all too often in the recent past several practices of our people were actively and hostilely discouraged as 'unscientific' or 'backward' or merely pointless, by almost everyone who had some exposure to English education and Westen science. In some cases it may also happen that there is a belated recognition of the worth of these practices. A case in point in that of breast feeding. Bottle-feeding displaced breast-feeding not only among the sophisticated who thought the later inconvenient, but also quite an extent among simple people who were made to believe, that bottle-feeding is better for the child. The current attempt to 'revive' breast-feeding as a superior practice is consequently likely to have a difficult time. In the same way it would now be difficult to convince people of the worth of taking oil-baths or of the importance of dietary restrictions in various ailments. After all these have been thrown overboard as being unscientific. Each of our wide-spread skills, technologies and other scientific practices would indeed be so far long dead before modern science recognizes its worth that whatever can be resurrected of it can only be put in a museum for admiration.
This is not to deny the possibility that the way tongue-cleaning (or pan-chewing) is practiced by people today is not entirely correct. We would like to be charitable enough to grant that the authors of the article in "Your Health" have indeed established this by conducting careful experiments. However, if so, the practice should have been referred back to the authoritative texts or persons which actually recommended it, to check the correctness of the procedure. For example it may be that far too many people use harsh and rough edges for tongue-scraping, in contrast to blunt or soft instruments recommended by Ayurvedic texts. In such a case "Your Health" should be publicizing a better way of tongue-cleaning rather than dismissing it totally.
It is far from our intention here to examine the merits and demerits of tongue-scraping or eating pans or the authenticity of texts. What we only wish to point out is that the pronouncement that tongue-scraping is harmful by-passes the authorities recommending it. It is merely arrogance which prevents it from feeling the need to take into account the weight of tradition, the wisdom of our people and their ancient texts.
This variety of arrogance, this insolence towards the practices of the people and, the denial of even the possibility of truth in ideas other than those derived from Western science, are not only unfair, they could lead to irrevocable harm.
* Translated from the original Malayalam version in 'Your Health' - an official publication of the Kerala State Branch of the Indian Medical Association, Vol 1, NO. 3, November 1983, p. 52.
** Using notes in the records of the Buddhistic religion that, 'Every morning one must chew tooth wood (Danta Kashtha) and clean the teeth and rub off dirt of the tongue (cited in K. M. Chokey, Dentistry in Ancient India, Bombay 1953, p. 34.
* Verse 210 of Yogaratnakara, Printed at Mysore in 1899, Vol. I, p. 49. Similar statements are made in other texts like Charaka Samhita, Ashtanga Sangraha, Gikitsa Tilaka etc.,