Book Review: Doctoring Traditions: Ayurveda, Small Technologies & Braided Sciences

Doctoring Traditions: Ayurveda, Small Technologies & Braided Sciences
by Projit Bihari Mukharji
University of Chicago Press, Chicago (2016)

Like many of the traditional medicines of South Asia, Ayurvedic practice transformed dramatically in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With Doctoring Tradition, Projit Bihari Mukharji offers a close look at that recasting, upending the widely held yet little-examined belief that it was the result of the introduction of Western anatomical knowledge and cadaveric dissection.

Rather, Mukharji reveals, what instigated those changes were a number of small technologies that were introduced in the period by Ayurvedic physicians, men who were simultaneously Victorian gentlemen and members of a particular Bengali caste. The introduction of these devices, including thermometers, watches, and microscopes, Mukharji shows, ultimately led to a dramatic reimagining of the body. By the 1930s, there emerged a new Ayurvedic body that was marked as distinct from a biomedical body. Despite the protestations of difference, this new Ayurvedic body was largely compatible with it. The more irreconcilable elements of the old Ayurvedic body were then rendered therapeutically indefensible and impossible to imagine in practice. The new Ayurvedic medicine was the product not of an embrace of Western approaches, but of a creative attempt to develop a viable alternative to the Western tradition by braiding together elements drawn from internally diverse traditions of the West and the East.

This book is about therapeutic change in Ayurvedic medicine between the years 1870 and 1930 in British-occupied Bengal, the cornerstone of British power in South Asia which was deeply touched by British and European influences, Bengal’s (and India’s then) capital of Calcutta was the home to the very first Western medical college in South Asia, factors which combined to cast Bengal in a position to take the lead in modernizing Ayurveda in the late nineteenth century. The period after 1870 was even more productive as it witnessed an immense increase in the printing of written material on Ayurveda.

In delineating the change wrought over those six decades, the author posits two area of confusion that often cloud obscure an understanding of Ayurvedic medicine and the tension that existed (and continues to exist) between tradition and the modernization (or perhaps more correctly, hybridization).

Firstly, the lack of a terminological distinction between modern and traditional Ayurvedic medicine, a task made more difficult by the plurality of forms that the term “modern” adopts (in stark contrast to Chinese medicine, where most scholarly works today distinguish between the unreformed, plural medicine of the past and the increasingly codified, standardized, and modernized version, by referring to them respectively as “Chinese medicine” and “TCM”, or “Traditional Chinese Medicine”.

Secondly, the confusion is amplified in that when referring to precolonial “Ayurveda”, the overwhelming tendency is to reduce the entirety of Ayurvedic practice to the normative practices of the authoritative Sanskrit texts (the Charaka and Susrutha Samhitas and the Ashtanga Hridaya, inter alia) notwithstanding the fact that there was much in the corpus of practice that was neither Sanskritic nor even textually-sourced, even amongst the most erudite and classically-versed practitioners (generally referred to in Bengal as “Kobiraji medicine”, with its practitioners known as Kobirajes.

Indeed, it was among the most illustrious of these that impelled the movement for modernization forward: Ayurvedic modernization was fundamentally dependent upon the individual choices made by individual practitioners. In a presidential address delivered at the first annual meeting of the All India Ayurvedic Physician’s Conference in 1916, Jaminibhushan Ray, founder of one of the earliest Ayurvedic hospitals in Calcutta and one of that city’s leading Ayurvedic physicians, asserted that it was the duty of every individual practitioner to look favorably upon certain key modern technologies. Among these, he included the stethoscope, microscope, injections, X-Ray machines, Oxygen Inhalers, alongside certain decidedly “allopathic” specific medicines—Emitin and Diptheria Antitoxin as well as the Colli Vaccine. Thus were the gates, once cracked opened to “innovation”, thrown wide.

Like many of the traditional medicines of South Asia, the practice of Ayurveda has changed profoundly in the decades since the end of the nineteenth century. In Doctoring Traditions: Ayurveda, Small Technologies and Braided Sciences, Professor Mukharji takes a close-up look at that change, upending the commonly held but unsubstantiated wisdom that those changes came about largely, or even exclusively, as a result of exposure to Western anatomical knowledge and cadaveric dissection. By focusing on the everyday material culture of medicine and its most commonplace practices as a lens through which to view the process by which disparate lines of knowledge are braided together, he takes us deep into the fabric of what forms the contemporary practice of Ayurveda.

Professor Mukharji uncovers the way in which the introduction into Ayurveda of small objects that have transformed its bodily understanding and therapeutic practice, convincingly illustrating how anatomical understanding and therapeutic practice.

The core of the book are its five case studies four of which describe the incorporation of a specific small technologies – from pocket watches and thermometers to microscopes – that had impacted on Ayurvedic practice and describes how the embrace of these small technologies resulted in the weaving of particular strands of “Western” and “Indic” sciences. The fifth case study centers on the body of the physician itself as a form of technology and charts how this body-as-technology changed in the course of the modernization.

The author has created an utterly absorbing sociohistorical map of the scholars, practitioners, and others who participated in this process of change.

Review provided by William Courson, BVSA, D. Ayur., an Ayurvedic Practitioner, faculty member and the College Dean of Institutional Development at Sai Ayurvedic College & Ayurvedic Wellness Center.

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