Fluent Bodies - Ayurvedic Remedies for Postcolonial Imbalance by Jean M. Langford
Jean Langford, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, takes her readers on a fascinating journey into contemporary India, where ayurvedic medical practice has been shaped and re-invented by the forces of colonial and postcolonial processes of the rationalization and organization of medical knowledge. Her studies focus on how ayurvedic physicians working and teaching today take part in a wide-ranging discourse with biomedical science, national identity and what has come to be known as the Hindu Cultural Renaissance.
This is an important book. Professor Langford thoughtfully provides an insightful and in-depth description of how ayurvedic tradition developed over the course of millennia and has managed to coexist with opposing forces in both colonial times and in independent India. This is significant because far so many historians - particularly those involved in the detailed analyses of ayurvedic texts - tend simplistically to present specific Sanskrit tomes as the products of an all-encompassing, unchanging, and water-tight "system." What is generally ignored, as a result, is the very complex nature of ayurvedic practice, which has been influenced by a host of political, social, religious and economic actors –something that becomes apparent when one researches vernacular texts and conducts interviews with the wide range of practitioners working in the diverse communities that live together in the subcontinent.
Langford's work shows why it is critical to understanding to study different working traditions, especially in an increasingly globalized world, wherein various "internationalized" forms of ayurveda are now on offer, generally in response to certain forms of demand emanating from the developed world. Contemporary ayurveda is characterized by the inclusion of foreign bodies' who seek ayurvedic treatment (often in Indian holiday resorts). The author illustrates how `new-age' ayurvedic terminology, that would neither be applied to nor understood by Indian patients, has been created by Indian practitioners to treat Westerners and satisfy their cultural, and very often spiritual, voids.
Embedded in the historical background of colonialism, Langford reveals how Ayurvedic imitations of European medicine mingled with Indian `spiritual culture'. Langford demonstrates how ayurveda came to be associated with a Hindu national-cultural essence that needed to be restored to purge the malefic residues of colonialist British and Mogul rule. After independence, the government of India adopted the traditional systems of Indian medicine, including ayurveda, Islamic Unani medicine, yoga, and the South Indian Siddha medical tradition and provided a state-sponsored structure of education and practice on the model of Western medicine. To these indigenous traditions were also added homeopathy and naturopathy, both adopted and tightly integrated as part of "Indian" health care and administered by the same department within the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
This study gains from the author's penetrating and self-critical re-assessments, detailing in detail how her initial assumptions - that medical phenomena such as local medical knowledge can be isolated and defined, and that illness is a private (as opposed to a familial, communal and social matter) - are undermined by her dialogues with the ayurvedic physicians and patients she interviews. It becomes apparent in her writing that there is no one facile way to understand the relationship between ayurveda's institutional form and content and the behavior of its practitioners, students, teachers and patients.
As an ayurvedic practitioner and teacher educated outside of India, this reviewer has long been interested in ayurveda's present state in the land of its birth and development. "Fluent Bodies" offers a much needed counterbalance to popular books on ayurveda published in the West for Westerners that largely romanticize its history and practice. Langford reveals the underpinning realities. A nuanced understanding of contemporary situations includes institutional corruption, the buying of ayurvedic degree certificates, socioeconomic pressures that push ayurvedic doctors into prescribing antibiotics and practicing a hybrid form of `cosmopolitan' medicine, and educational conflicts that have largely contributed to the making of modern, institutionalized ayurveda.
Langford pulls her reader into a new understanding of the nuanced relationships between history, nation, modernity, clinical debate, and the practices of ayurveda.
Langford argues that ayurveda evolved from an eclectic set of healing practices into a sign of Indian national culture. It was reimagined as a healing force not simply for bodily disorders but for the colonial and postcolonial ills bred over three and one-half centuries of alien occupation. Interweaving theory with narrative, Langford explores the strategies of contemporary practitioners who reconfigure ayurvedic knowledge through novelties such as research institutes, professional organizations, hospitals, anatomy laboratories, and clinical drug trials. She shows how practitioners appropriate, transform, or circumvent the practices impelled by these institutions, destabilizing such categories as medicine, culture, science, symptom, and self, even as they deploy them in clinical practice. Ultimately, this study points to the future of ayurveda in a transnational era as a remedy not only for the wounds of colonialism but also for an imagined cultural emptiness at the heart of global modernity.
At the start dawn the third millennium, a process of globalization - similar to that which took place decades earlier with yoga - has begun to occur also with ayurveda. In diaspora, ayurveda is changing and adapting, as it moves from its traditional role in premodern India to a new position as one part of a portfolio of alternative and complementary therapies offered alongside modern biomedicine.
I would hope that each and every Western practitioner, teacher and student of ayurveda would read Professor Langford's "Fluent Bodies" as it imparts little-known though highly important information critical to ayurveda's future both inside and outside of India.
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Review provided by William Courson, an Ayurvedic Practitioner, faculty member and the College Dean of Institutional Development at Sai Ayurvedic College & Ayurvedic Wellness Center.