“Illness Is Nothing But Injustice”: The Revolutionary Element in Bengali Folk Healing
Abstract

This article seeks to reflect on how concepts such as “ritual,” “illness,” and “health” are intertwined in the practice of Bengali healers and their customers. By objecting to past and present logics that ascribe to folk healing an innate subalternity because of context (e.g., the village), mode of transmission (e.g., orality), gender and social background of votaries (e.g., low-caste, working-class sectors), my analysis discusses health-seeking rituals as an arena for revolutionary negotiations. This character is determined by the willingness of healers, health-seekers, and other-than-human entities (deities, spirits, demons, ghosts, etc.) to counter relative injustice, negotiate power, and actualize redemption by means of a radical, though often temporary, subversion of or challenge to an established order. This reading, which I derive from Ernesto de Martino’s “progressive folklore,” wishes to contribute to discourses on religious folklore as a way of expressing, and perpetuating acceptable solutions to individual and social imbalance, including the perception of illness as uneven development. Folk healing is one of the liveliest forms of people’s knowledge; the actualization of ancestral needs; and one of the most easily available and culturally understandable form of creativity, reflexivity, and education. While critically addressing the limits of using de Martino’s theories in the frame of post-colonial ethnography, I go back to his definition of culture as the result of the “victorious struggle of health over the pitfalls of disease” ([1958] 2000:25) and discuss illness and its treatment among Bengali healers and their clients as ways to experience what de Martino called the expansion of self-consciousness.


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