- Missionaries and Their Medicine: A Christian Modernity for Tribal India
David Hardiman is a distinguished historian of South Asia, bringing to his study of medical missions broad knowledge of the social, religious, and political history of colonial and postcolonial western India. His study of medical missions conducted by the Anglican evangelical Church Missionary Society among the Bhil people of northern Gujarat is based on his own fieldwork as well as extensive research in the manuscript records and publications of the mission, government reports, and oral recollections by Bhil Christians. Studies of imperial medicine have focused on the bureaucracies of the colonial state rather than missionary clinics and hospitals, which in many parts of the world were far more important. Hardiman documents the ways in which missionary medicine was different from government medicine, despite a common commitment to the germ theory of disease, antiseptic surgery, and quinine. Unlike government doctors, though, missionary doctors simultaneously battled a belief in witchcraft and sorcery among Christian and non-Christian Bhils alike, and introduced their own supernatural dimension to medicine by promoting the healing power of prayer. [End Page 879]
Hardiman stresses the inequalities of wealth and status that left multiracial Christian institutions stratified along racial lines, creating little "mini-empires" within a Christian world that was formally opposed to racial distinctions. In chapter after chapter Hardiman tells fascinating tales of encounters between missionaries and Bhils, relationships fraught with misunderstanding because of vast inequalities of power, wealth, and knowledge. He often neglects to give credit to the other side of the story, to the persistent attempts to overcome racial and professional divisions with sympathy, spiritual fellow-feeling, and ongoing (if often contentious) negotiations over good-faith attempts to foster a self-governing Christian church among the Bhils.
Hardiman is at his best when telling these micro-stories of religious and imperial encounter. He is less persuasive when invoking his chosen master narrative of modern history, which, according to him, is a universal path toward modernity. He recognizes that modernity can take both religious and secular forms, but explicitly asserts that in modern history a dialectical relationship between the religious and the secular "has never been, and perhaps never can be, transcended within the framework of modernity as we know it" (p. 6).
As a result, the efforts of missionaries among the Bhils are repeatedly measured against his yardstick of modernity in which an effort to "civilize" people triumphs over an effort to introduce them to a new religion. The dialectic between the secular and the religious in Hardiman's story becomes a unilinear process in which the synthesis is always a secular one. In an otherwise judicious and informative chapter on women working with women, Hardiman concludes with an astonishing argument unrelated to anything preceding it in the chapter. The failed struggle for "sisterhood" on the part of women missionaries is interpreted as a displaced struggle for class and gender status, not in Gujarat, but back home in Great Britain. Having reduced the work of female missionaries in the Bhil mission to a class and gender struggle at home, he loses sight of the dialectic between their civilizing mission and their Christianizing mission in India, and with the conflict between their entirely genuine egalitarian concern for Bhil women and their own elite professional status as trained missionaries.
In his conclusion, Hardiman observes that Anglican missionaries had succeeded in their mission because the Bhil Christian community today is a "civilized" one by their definition. It is certain that missionaries would reject this definition of success, which lies instead in the fact that Bhil Christian community is Christian, whether civilized or not. To understand that story, Hardiman needs to think about a better master narrative, one that allows for a common religious faith that in some circumstances survives the dialectic of the religious and the secular, and even transcends the boundaries of race, nation, and empire. [End Page 880]