A book on Ayurveda by Saurav Kumar Rai provides good information but biased explanations : The Tribune India

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A book on Ayurveda by Saurav Kumar Rai provides good information but biased explanations

A book on Ayurveda by Saurav Kumar Rai provides good information but biased explanations

Ayurveda, Nation and Society: United Provinces, c 1890–1950 by Saurav Kumar Rai. Orient BlackSwan. Pages 292. Rs 1,400

Book Title: Ayurveda, Nation and Society: United Provinces, c 1890–1950

Author: Saurav Kumar Rai

M Rajivlochan

This costly book unearths a lot of excellent information on the sociology of knowledge associated with Ayurveda in the early 20th century. Then, it annotates the information with disjointed, decontextualised tropes connected with caste, religion and gender even while going into meaningless discussions about what is ‘indigenous’ and what is ‘science’.

I could not but be surprised that the author forgot to update his tropology by adding something on the connection between Ayurveda and transgenders. After all, India is one civilisation where hijras and castrati have held very powerful public positions. Of course, they have been the target of ridicule but then in India, so is everyone else, including gods and goddesses, public figures and one’s enemies. The book also says nothing about humour, laughter and ridicule even though these held an important position in the Ayurveda scheme of things.

Unfamiliarity with anthropological literature about India’s past, an overt commitment to textual theories, and a visible unawareness of modern medical writings ensure that much of the book is written in a supercilious style, especially when it insists on noticing imperialism, nationalism, caste or religious or gender bias in areas where none exists. The author is quite unfair to the practitioners of Ayurveda when he insists on connecting them with all these biases.

A mere assertion of this bias or that may suit one strand of discourse about India, but in a scientific piece of writing, it is not acceptable. Underpinning opinion with evidence is back in fashion. Merely using words and phrases like Foucauldian, epistemology, discursive power, etc, will not do. One can’t make a cavalier use of the word ‘bogus’ with reference to Ayurveda. As Atul Gawande writes about the traditional forms of healing, Ayurveda is only about as bogus — or as scientific — as modern medicine or, we could add, even the subject of history. Calling something bogus places onus on the user of the word to describe why it was bogus and, more importantly, identify analogous non-bogus/anti-bogus things.

To take just one of the many instances in this book, there is an illustration of a man with a tuft of hair, who is identified as a ‘servant’, while another sitting on a chair, with no visible caste marks, is said to be a ‘pandit’. The servant has, the caption says, stirred a glass of milk with his disease-ridden finger. This, along with an insistence on cleanliness or a reference to unhygienic habits, in the author’s view, is supposed to illustrate Brahmanical thinking underpinning discourse on Ayurveda in the early 20th century.

Then there is the matter of being true to detail. For example, the author says that Chamar was an untouchable caste in pre-modern India which traditionally handled dead animals. While this may be a popular belief nowadays, it is wrong in historical detail. There was no such tradition. In colonial times, in western UP, Punjab, Tamizhagam, Maharashtra and Gujarat, most farm workers were from caste groups that broadly fell under the category ‘chrmakar’. Dealing with dead animals, curing their hide, converting it into something useable, each of these tasks was done by other people.

This book has a lot of good information. Use it to improve your knowledge about how society related to Ayurveda in the early 20th century. Just be careful to ignore the explanations that it offers.