Homeopathy in South Asia: Snake Oil or Salve?

How a German semi-scientific approach to curing disease became big business in the subcontinent.

Mehr Singh

January 18, 2023

Homeopathy in South Asia: Snake Oil or Salve?
On 3 April 2018, the London Homeopathic Hospital stopped providing NHS-funded homeopathic remedies for any patients after chiefs said homeopathy was ‘at best, a placebo’. (photo by Barry Lewis/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Pouring a fat cup of black coffee when you can’t sleep. Starving a fever. Guzzling a shot of vodka after a night of far too many. While the “hair of the dog” for most belongs in the camps of frat boy foolishness and herb doctor quackery, for the millions who follow homeopathy, these cures hold power. Over 335 million people globally practice the form of alternative medicine, their first line of defense against many ailments — a salve that science has routinely dismissed as snake oil. 

Homeopathy purports that substances that cause disease in healthy people can cure sick people. German physician Samuel Hahnemann founded the practice in 1796. He created the concept of homeopathic dilution, a process that dilutes the “sickness” substance until it is chemically indistinguishable from the original substance. “Homeo” is Greek for “same” and “allo” means “opposite,” meaning that — unlike conventional science — homeopathy alleges that like cures like.

In India, homeopathy’s largest market, a whopping 100 million people — around 7% of its total population — rely on homeopathic healing as their sole form of medical care. Across the border in Pakistan, home to over 70,000 homeopathic practitioners, many groups believe homeopathy can cure the deadliest of diseases, including cancer. About 69% of Bangladeshis seek homeopathic treatment every year, and the island nation of Sri Lanka, too, boasts a few thousand homeopathic clinics. So how did a German approach to curing diseases with no scientific basis spread across South Asia, which has over a million medical doctors?