- Doctoring Traditions: Ayurveda, Small Technologies, and Braided Sciences by Projit Bihari Mukharji
Historians of British India have predominantly examined the role of the colonial state in the making and deployment of modern medicine. Medicines have featured not just as indispensable tools of colonial governance, but also as products of intercultural colonial encounters. Most of these existing works privilege sources in the European languages, particularly English. Colonized peoples find a place in this literature primarily as either victims or stakeholders in the colonial medical apparatus. These inclusions have enabled a more complete assessment of the workings of the imperial state, apart from also revealing the global roots of Western European and Anglo-American science and medicine. In contrast, new critical studies have begun to examine the specific lifeworlds of colonized people as primary objects of inquiry by focusing on sources in non-European languages. In this book, Projit Bihari Mukharji, one of the most prolific contributors to this genre of scholarship, has written a history of “modern Ayurveda” in colonial Bengal. In the historiography of Ayurveda for this period, it is unique in its focus on Bengal, and in its sustained integration of intellectual history with an analysis of material culture.
Mukharji has pursued the challenge of emphasizing modern Ayurvedic practices in Bengal without romanticizing indigenous cultures. It is, therefore, a significant intervention at a time when Ayurveda is being celebrated as an untainted symbol of pristine Indian tradition and nationhood. Revealingly, a statement attributed to a senior representative of the Union Government of India in 2016 claimed that “doctors prescribing non-Ayurvedic medicines are anti-nationals.”1 This book can be read as a timely scholarly indictment of these widely prevalent ahistorical positions.
Doctoring Traditions argues that “modern Ayurveda” is not a timeless medical genre. Rather, it demonstrates that Bengali writers and practitioners assembled it in the period between 1870 and 1930 from a global repertoire of therapies, ideas, material objects, and expertise. “Modern Ayurveda” acquired deep roots in Bengal through its entanglements with intimate identity politics of neighborhoods, aspirational castes, regional religious cults, and consumption practices of middle classes. Mukharji charts out (especially in the concluding chapter) how the reconstruction of this material-cultural field (modern Ayurveda) was achieved through the marginalization of various practices.
Implicit in this book is a refreshing critique of essentialism. Mukharji keenly traces messy, recalcitrant and heterogeneous pasts that are often concealed by black-boxed historical categories. He shows in each chapter that “modern [End Page 813] Ayurveda” in Bengal conjured up multiple visions of the human body and its vitality. Modern Ayurveda was itself “produced through the braiding” of dissimilar epistemological traditions: “‘West’ and ‘East’” (p. 2) or “Sanskritic and European (accessed mostly through English) sciences” (p. 43). At the same time, he is attentive to the ways in which the “knowledge traditions” implicated in the “braiding” themselves contained “internal differences,” which could be “extremely antagonistic and mutually irreconcilable” (p. 24).
Mukharji’s nuanced interpretation of historical categories is further evident in his sophisticated treatment of technologies. The key chapters of the book are structured around specific technologies: pocket watches, thermometers, microscopes, and organotherapy. Mukharji argues that these “small technologies” were “instigators” (p. 257) that engendered different metaphorical and material conceptions about the human body held by modern Ayurveda. However, this is not a straightforward story of technological determinism. Rather, Mukharji shows that each of these technologies was informed by the cultural history of contemporary Bengal, which occasioned porous boundaries between various ostensibly distinct domains: the scientific and the sacred, the statistical and the indigenous, the scriptural and the mundane. He reveals that these technologies seldom worked effectively on their own, but rather through constant interplay with human bodies, cultural values, and therapeutic practice. Doctoring Traditions opens up for analysis the conceptual question of how “small technologies” ought to be defined. Should they be defined in terms of their size, their everydayness, or their ability to be handled by nonspecialists? Were microscopes or organotherapy “small technologies” in the same sense...