Recipes for Immortality: Healing, Religion & Community in South India

Author Richard S. Weiss is a Senior Lecturer in South Asian religions at Victoria University (Wellington, New Zealand). In his “Recipes for Immortality,” (Oxford University Press, New york City, 2009) Weiss illuminates the continuing success of traditional healers in the face of Western medicine’s global spread by examining the ways in which practitioners of traditional Siddha medicine in Tamil Nadu enlist the confidence, support and patronage of their patients. This is a book about the interactivity and interdependency of tradition, faith, cultural identity and the sentiments of nationhood. The author presents a fascinating in-depth study of this traditional system of knowledge, which serves the medical needs of millions of Indians.

While biomedicine may (or may not) alleviate a patient's physical discomfort, Siddha physicians offer their charges a great deal beyond simple cure: these include affiliation to a timeless and ethnically pure community, culture and civilization, founded on the conception of a long-lost technologically advanced Tamil utopia, coupled with the notion of racial greatness stolen from a now marginalized people. They along with their ideological fellow-travellers – promoters of Tamil civilization and culture - speak of an antediluvian golden age of Tamil civilization and of traditional medicine, a medicine so sophisticated even in ancient times as to offer its consumers the promise of resistance to all disease and – at least by implication - of immortality.

Weiss utilizes the tools of social analysis to qualify and detail the success of Siddha practitioners, documenting how they have successfully acquired authority and credibility in a context of medical choice while illuminating their lives, training, vocations, and aspirations for the future. Weiss also documents the challenges they face in the context of medical choice afforded by contemporary society, both from a “rational” Western biomedicine that claims universal legitimacy and efficacy, and also from rival traditional medical lineages, including Ayurveda and Unani medicine.

This book is a broad and deep study of Siddha medicine, the least understood of the medical 'systems' of India, written with great craft and clarity about immeasurably ancient traditions competing for social respectability as well as scientific credibility in emergent postmodern India, exploring the tense nexus between secrecy and revelation, magic and rationality, and loss and restoration. While biomedicine might alleviate a patient’s physical distress, siddha physicians provide their patients with much more: affiliation to a timeless and pure Tamil community. While shedding light on lives and vocations of Siddha doctors, the author documents the challenges that they doctors face in the modern world as they are caught between two poles: a biomedical system that claims universal efficacy, and the rival traditional lineages of healing.

Weiss ends the volume with a look at traditional medicine in a larger context, and illustrates the ways that siddha doctors, despite recent trends toward the globalization of Western biomedicine and the emergence of a global medical monoculture, reflect the wider political and religious dimensions of medical discourse in modern society. “Recipes for Immortality” proves that medical authority is based not only on physical effectiveness and the replicability of results, but also on imaginative processes that relate to conceptions of personal and group identity, history, utopian promise and the expectation of healing.

I strongly recommend this work for students, practitioners and teachers of traditional medicine with an interest in the social dimensions of their calling, as well as for those interested in the Tamil culture and society of southernmost India.

Book 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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