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  • Vernacular Medicine in Colonial India: Family, Market and Homoeopathy by Shinjini Das
  • Douglas E. Haynes
Shinjini Das. Vernacular Medicine in Colonial India: Family, Market and Homoeopathy. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2019. xiv + 292 pp. $112.00 (978-1-108-42062-4).

During the past fifteen years, the history of medicine in South Asia has become a particularly dynamic field of scholarship, moving beyond the study of "Western" and "colonial" medicine to the analyses of "indigenous" medical traditions (such as ayurvedic and unani medicine) and explorations into "subaltern" practices and ideas. In this pioneering book Shinjini Das takes up the examination of homeopathy, a medical system that has been seriously neglected by historians. Homeopathy was based upon the "law of similars," that is, the notion that very small doses of the same substances that could produce a disease in a healthy person could be the cure of the illness. Das shows that while homeopathy originated as a heterodox form of medicine in eighteenth-century Germany, it underwent a process of "vernacularization" in India so that it became one of the most widespread medical systems on the subcontinent by the late nineteenth century.

Das uses an extensive print literature in Bengal as well as material from the archives of the colonial state to draw a rich picture of homeopathy in the late colonial period. The book's major themes are rather ambitiously theorized in the introduction, but it is really the empirical treatment of these themes in the main body of the book that is the study's greatest virtue. Three themes are worth highlighting in this short review. First, Das documents the transformation of homeopathy as a heterodox set of medical practices heavily criticized by colonial doctors to a system embraced by Indian nationalists, and then, after 1920, to one formally endorsed by the state (at least in Bengal). As this development took place, the practice of homeopathy became systematized and regularized; self-taught figures in households and in the mofussil (hinterland) were often excluded from official recognition as legitimate practitioners in favor of those whose practices met "scientific" and "professional" standards. Readers will certainly notice the parallels between developments in homeopathy and those in ayurvedic and unani medicine.

Second, the book brings out the connections between homeopathy and various conceptions of the "family" as they were being constructed in Bengal during the late colonial period. This is true in at least two senses. First, homeopathic texts often saw relations between employers and employees in homeopathic firms in terms of family metaphors and viewed the joint family as the ideal principle of social organization upon which to base this kind of business. Even more interestingly, the publications often depicted homeopathy as making it possible to fulfill Bengali notions of domesticity and conjugality, sometimes against dangers posed to the family, such as venereal disease and excessive engagement in sex. The family in effect became central to the way that homeopathy was understood and imagined in Bengal but homeopathy in turn contributed to the way the family was understood and imagined.

Third, the volume stresses the processes of vernacularization and of "translation," which the author, quoting James Secord, describes as more than just the [End Page 296] "simple transfer of words or texts from one language to another," but also as a "translingual act of transcoding cultural material—a complex act of communication" (p. 25). Homeopathic practitioners claimed that they had rendered a Western medical system into a set of principles well suited to India; they often emphasized concepts in translation that were easily graspable rather than literal equivalents that might be perceived as alien. A reliance on conceptions of family was part of this process. But it also included the evocation of spirituality and principles and metaphors rooted in Hindu religiosity. Urban homeopathic practitioners were involved in "policing" the limits of acceptable translation, sometimes dismissing mofussil versions of homeopathy as illegitimate.

While Das clearly indicates that homeopathy was taken up by figures with very modest backgrounds and even by actors within households, her sources tell us relatively little about the actual practices present at such "grass-roots" levels. The strength of her book is in appreciating how homeopathy's intellectual advocates...


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pp. 296-297
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