Mainstream, VOL LII, No 39,
September 20, 2014
by Shivangi Jaiswal
The decades spanning the early 20th century in India were marked by competing claims on ideas, identities and symbols characterising reformist campaigns of the time. In this context, delivering lectures by the educated elite was one of the means through which claims of nation-making were made. This paper is an attempt towards exploring how a well-known Ayurvedic practitioner, Mahamahopadhyaya Gananath Sen Saraswati, in his lectures, employed a version of Ayurvedic past for a range of ideological mediations. Sen was an Ayurvedic practitioner from Bengal and a member of the All India Ayurvedic Congress founded in 1907. Through the Ayurvedic Congress, as Charles Leslie notes, Ayurvedic practitioners organised themselves as a professional interest group, encouraged the revival of ‘indigenous’ medicines and agitated for state patronage.
Sen delivered his lectures on ‘Hindu medicine’ on February 7, 1916 on the occasion of the foundation ceremony of the Banaras Hindu University. He delivered another lecture on ‘The Scientific Basis of Ayurveda’ in Madras before the South Indian Medical Union on October 30-31, 1923. His address on ‘Glory of Ayurveda’ was delivered at the Government Ayurvedic Convocation in Patna on February 19, 1933.
Some of the key questions this paper attempts to engage with, include: what ideological means did Sen deploy to argue for the relevance of Ayurveda? Were the arguments placed by him in defence of Ayurveda concerned solely with its medical merits? Did the shifting contexts (and hence audiences) mark inconsistencies in Sen’s lectures? What forms of political/ideological anxiety underpinned his lectures?
Contextualising the Lectures
The plague epidemics of 1896 dictated the British Government to employ practitioners of ‘indigenous’ medicines because of the shortage of medical personnel. The intervention of the state and its attempts to regulate health conditions in urban areas, Kavita Sivarama-krishnan suggests, were crucial influences in the professionalisation of the vaid‘s (Ayurvedic doctor’s) practices. The standardi-sation of Western pharmacopoeia from the late 1850s led the Europeans to take a critical view of medical practices of British India. This was so since diversity or non-standardisation in the preparations of medicines was central to the Ayurvedic and Unani medical systems. Conscious of the high costs of importing drugs, the British Government began to encourage the use of local remedies. This led to the production of a standard pharmacopoeia of India in 18682 and the regulation of ‘indigenous’ medical practices by the colonial government.
The 1918-19 reforms of Montague and Chelms-ford created the category of ‘transferred’ and ‘reserved’ subjects and a rapid Indianisation of medical services followed. Increase in patro-nage towards ‘indigenous’ medicines became possible as medical services became a ‘trans-ferred’ subject. The growing demand for Indianisation of the medical services signified two things: first, internalisation of the Western medical system, and second, initiation of a counter-hegemonic process within the system.3 However, the state retained the regulation of the medical standards for fear of introducing ‘indigenous’ systems of medicine into the ‘Western’ medical courses. The intervention of the General Medical Council (GMC) checked the intake of medical students by imposing restric-tions on the standards of medical education in India. Ayurveda underwent a phase of state regulated professionalisation.
Absence of any medical registration Act until 1912 in Bengal and until 1914 in other presidencies, resulted in an increase in the number of ‘quacks’, who had dropped out of medical school before obtaining a qualification. A lot of men were making money from practising ‘Western’ medicine. Medical registration Acts passed between 1912 and 1919 did not give space to Indian systems of medicine. The Acts, by implication, excluded the ‘indigenous’ system from its operation and from the patronage of the state. The colonial state relegated the ‘indigenous’ systems of medicines to an inferior status and considered its practitioners unqualified and unscientific. The policies of the colonial state were thus geared towards the implementation of a practice embodying Western knowledge and delegitimising indigenous knowledge.
By the turn of the 20th century, political conflicts ensued over medical issues. The rising nationalist movement embraced revivalism of Indian sciences.5 The proponents of Ayurveda defended it from the encroachments of biomedicine on many platforms. Jean Langford says: ‘On one platform, they defended it as an embodiment of certain eternal truths. On another, they defended it as a symbol of national identity. On another they defended it as a useful addendum to biomedicine. On yet another they defended it as a solution to the atomistic excesses of modern science.’ In 1921, the governments of Bengal and Madras appointed committees to recommend ways to encourage the revival of what they considered ‘Indian’ medicine. Many nationalist leaders and the Congress party passed resolutions supporting its claims for state recognition. Students in many Ayurvedic colleges participated in the non-cooperation movement led by M.K. Gandhi. The Ayurvedic revival was thus getting linked to nationalist politics.
In 1921, the Madras Government appointed a committee on indigenous systems of medicine which was chaired by Mohammad Usman. The first question which the committee raised in its questionnaire was: ‘Whether the indigenous systems of medicine were scientific or not.’ The Usman committee report was, in effect, a manifesto for modernising the teaching and practice of indigenous medicine with state patronage and recognition. As per its recommendations, the professionalisation of indigenous medicine was to approximate that of ‘modern’ medicine. The government’s object of enquiry was ‘to afford the exponents of Ayurveda and Unani systems an opportunity to state their case fully in writing for scientific criticism and to justify state encouragement of these systems.’ The report showed an aware-ness of tension between practitioners of ‘indigenous’ and ‘Western’ systems of medicine. It also noted that those practitioners, who had mastered both systems of medicine, could reasonably apply ‘scientific criticisms’ called for in the government’s objective. The recommen-dations of the Usman committee report were opposed by both, modern medical practitioners, who condemned them as obsolete science and misguided nationalism, and traditional practitioners, who considered them unorthodox. In 1933, the Indian Medical Councils Act was passed. The Act neither gave space nor recognition to ‘indigenous’ systems of medicine or its practitioners. They were labelled as ‘unscientific’, ‘static’ and marked by antiquity. This aroused disenchantment among the practitioners and advocates of Ayurveda.
Three themes were central to the Ayurvedic revivalist discourse, namely, British Orientalism, the synthesis of medical systems, and institu-tionalisation of Ayurveda. State aid to Ayurveda was a contentious issue that pitted not only the British against Indians but also Indians against Indians. The division among Ayurvedic practitioners could be characterised as one between traditionalists and modernists or between ‘those who thought traditional medicine could be modernised and those who did not’. For the traditionalists, the recognition that the survival of Ayurveda was dependent on adopting some elements from ‘Western’ medicine was also accompanied by the fear that Ayurveda would be swallowed up by ‘Western’ medicine. They advocated a more cautious approach to synthesis and cooperation.
Furthermore, medical registration, during the inter-war period, became an important political issue and a central one for the practitioners of ‘indigenous’ medicines. It was considered by them as the legitimate way to gain recognition and status. For instance, the denial of registration to practitioners of ‘indigenous’ systems of medicine by the Madras Medical Registration Act of 1914 was seen as gross discrimination. However, both groups (those who advocated ‘pure’ Ayurveda and those who favoured ‘integrated’ medical systems) saw themselves as better qualified than the hereditary practitioner, thus privileging institutional training over traditional study under a Guru.‘In fixing their gaze on ancient texts... Ayurvedic revivalists tended to overlook intervening centuries of Ayurvedic practice with all its regional variations, innovations, and fruitful exchanges with Unani and other healing practices... it is very difficult to define “eastern” with any clear geographic point of reference for what might be termed “Western”.’
The three lectures delivered by Sen were against this backdrop of Ayurvedic ‘revivalist’ movement and contestations around it.
Stories from Past and Mediating the Present
Sen used stories about what he considered the distinctive contributions of people from ancient India (he actually referred to them as Aryans) towards ‘scientific’ knowledge of the world. In his lecture at the BHU, he claimed:
When the greater part of the world was submerged in the abyss of ignorance, it is the Indian sages who first understood the necessity of dissection of the human body in the education of Physicians and Surgeons... Hindu medicine still holds its own to no mean extent against all foreign rivals. Instrinsic merit based on solid clinical foundations cannot be denied by thoughtful men to such an exponent of ancient glory, whatever its shortcomings at the present day.
He seems to convey the idea that the importance of Ayurvedic learning lay not merely in its medicinal superiority, but also as a symbol of ‘ancient glory’. In addition, he defended Ayurveda on the ground that the ‘progress’ it had made has not been recorded in history. For him, ‘India’s past glory’ seems to reside in the Vedic age and the birth of Buddha puts an end to that. It was during the Vedic period, extending over hundreds of years, he said, that the Medical Science as well as many other branches of science and literature made ‘great progress and shed their luster on distant climes like Egypt, Greece and Arabia...’.21 He spoke in a similar tone in his lecture in Patna as well. The history of India now taught in our schools, he said, was only the history of India’s decline. The glorious past of India was to be chronicled by future historians.
Furthermore, he was grateful to the Brahmins for preserving the ancient ‘glory’ of India: ‘....a great part of the ancient glory of India still survives—notwithstanding greater crushing influences in the past, in the modest hamlets of the simple pundits...’. The arrival of the British, he argued, stabilised the earlier situation. He said: ‘Let us hope that, as time rolls on, our benign government will come forward with wider sympathies to help the rejuvenation of Ayurveda for the good of humanity.’ His praise for the British Government (in spite of the discrimi-nations faced by Ayurvedic practitioners under the Medical Registrations Acts), on the occasion of the foundation ceremony of the BHU, might have been on account of the fact that Lord Hardinge, the then Governor-General and Viceroy, laid the foundation stone of the University in the presence of an assembly of Governors, Princes and the elite of India. It was the first combined effort made by the highest representatives of the British and rulers of so many states to establish an educational institution which sought to combine the usefulness and efficiency of the modern system of education with the so-called highest spiritual ideals of ancient India. He, in his lectures, consistently attempted to carve out a ‘legitimate’ space for Ayurveda by being grateful to figures of ‘authority’ (Brahmins and the colonial govern-ment) during the period. He narrated the same story in his lectures in Madras and Patna.
He also attempted to ‘define’ Ayurveda in different ways through which what he calls ‘Western’ medical system could authorise it. He foregrounded a north Indian Sanskritic version of Ayurveda as discussed above and, at the same time, restructured its contents in terms of theories of the ‘Western’ medical system. In his lecture at the BHU, he noted: ‘Ayurveda is not only Medicine but Surgery, Midwifery, Opthalmology, Treatment of mental diseases etc.’ He assimilated the grounds on which Ayurveda was confronted with by the ‘Western’ medical system, into the rubric of the former by producing equivalence between them. On the one hand, he valorised the antiquity of Ayurveda and, on the other, looked into it for elements claimed by the ‘Western’ medical system as ‘modern’. For example, in his lecture in Patna, he claimed: ‘History testifies that for thousands of years past Ayurveda was the only systematic healing art not merely of India but of the whole world.’
On the one hand, he was critical of ‘silences’ in history which hides the ‘progress’ that Ayurveda had made in the past (as discussed in the preceding section). On the other hand, he considered history as a testimony for Ayurveda’s contributions. It could be argued that he attempted to make the definition of Ayurveda as inclusive as possible in order to avoid confrontations against it in terms of it being inefficient or merely empirical. However, in his lectures, Ayurveda’s distinctiveness from ‘Western’ medicine is maintained. He consistently based his ‘truth’ claims on the foundation of the authoritative medical texts in Sanskrit, namely, Charaksmahita and Sushrutasamhita, and at the same time, drew upon the discourses of nationalism and ‘scientific rationality’ and theories of Orientalism.
All the three lectures give the impression that certain notions of ‘modern’ science were considered by him as normative in exploring the ‘scientific’ nature of Ayurveda. He attempted to prove Ayurveda as ‘scientific’ by claiming that Ayurveda anticipated future ‘scientific’ developments. He explored in Ayurveda, theories analogous to the ‘Western’ medical system. In his lecture in Madras, he argued:
I do not believe that anatomy and physiology were not known to our ancients. There are plenty of ancient texts to prove their deep knowledge of these subjects... conception of Vayu is not incompatible with any of the teachings of modern physiology.
He elaborated in detail in his lecture the tridosha theory of Ayurveda in terms of ‘modern’ physiology. Thus, he did not attempt to meet the challenges faced by Ayurveda by extracting theories from it to confront the ‘Western’ medical system. Rather, he took up theories with which Ayurveda was confronted with, and claimed analogical characteristics in the latter. He strove to speak about Ayurveda in the language of ‘Western’ science. By saying that the practitioners of the ‘Western’ medical system were not to be held responsible for misunderstanding Ayurveda, he blamed Ayurvedic practitioners for their inability to speak about Ayurveda in the language of ‘modern’ science. He, by speaking in such a language, sought to assert that Ayurveda was a ‘science’ in terms of Western understanding.
What Sen’s account leaves out is critically important. Steven Engler30 writes that claiming Ayurveda as ‘scientific’ implies defining it in terms of materialism, empirical observation, experimentation, falsification of theories, quanti-fication, a developed conception of proofs etc. He intended to defend ‘Hindu civilisation’ in the light of ‘modern’ ‘scientific’ thoughts by claiming that science was a part of the former and Ayurveda was not at odds with ‘modernity.’
‘Indigenous’ Medical Science, a Singular ‘Hindu’ Nation
Sen, in his lectures, attempted to legitimise the claims of a unified, singular ‘Hindu’ nation by using Ayurveda as a metaphor. While talking about the ‘decline’ of Ayurveda, he said in his lecture at the BHU:
After the great invasion of Alexander came the devastating hordes of Scythians and after them the locust armies of the Huns, all of whom continued bloody warfare and pillage for hundred years. History bristles with the accounts of horrors perpetuated by these barbarians. No doubt much of the treasures of Indian literature was lost during these dark ages of pillage and incendiarism... the worst came when since the advent of India’s arch-enemy Mahmud of Ghazni (11 century AD), the upper half of India was overrun and cruelly sacked, times without number by the savage Saracens... with Aurangzeb followed another reign of terror and Hindu-hatred and after him a period of rapine and anarchy which made the cultivation of science practically impossible.
While speaking in terms of “great invasion”, “arch-enemy”, “barbarians”, he assumed the existence of ‘India’ as an already constituted entity in the distant past. ‘India’, however spoken here, is a metonym for ‘Hindu civilisation’, outside which exists ‘barbarians’ and ‘arch-enemies’. In talking about the decline of Ayurveda, he actually valorised ‘Aryans’ and what he called the Vedic age, ‘the Golden Age’ whichdeclined on account of destructions by ‘barbarians’ and ‘enemies’ in the ‘dark ages’. In his lecture in Madras, he claimed:
...you must remember the great misfortunes that befell India. First came the depredations by the Scythians, then by the Hunas and then the civil wars amongst the Hindus and the Buddhists. Then followed the ruthless invasions by MahomedansinNorthern India and by the Portuguese and Dutch in Southern India. They all came and carried things before them by fire and sword. It is a wonder how so much of Indian culture has survived these shocks. While the glory of Egypt, Greece and Rome exists only in their tombs, mummies, pyramids and ruined edifices, theglory of India survives in the valuable literature that has been left to us by our forefathers as a great legacy.
He, by using the terms like ‘glory of India’, ‘Indian culture’, ‘our forefathers’, actually intended to speak about glory of the Aryans, Aryan culture and Aryans as forefathers. By doing this, he foregrounded India as a singular, unified entity inhabited by the Aryans. He targeted whom he calls ‘Mohammedan invaders’ in particular, for destruction of the Ayurvedic literature:
Ayurvedic literature, which grew fast at one time, considering the commentaries and the supplement that were written on each work, gave us a volume of literature that was many times what it is now. You all know how the Mohammedan invaders destroyed them. A Sikh friend, a learned professor, was telling me to-day that the Mahomedan conquerors burnt everything of Sikh literature except two or three works. So they did with Hindu literature. They could not bear the sight of even a good temple. South India has been saved to some extent by her geographical conditions—that is why you have still the possibility of getting back many of the ancient Ayurvedic works from South India. It is however necessary that a great all-India search for ancient Ayurvedic works should be taken up at once.
He attempted to depict ‘Muslims’ as ‘outsiders’ by mentioning them as ‘conquerors’ or ‘invaders’ and thus posited them as the ‘other’ of not only the ‘Hindus’ but also Sikhs. By doing so, he attempted to depict ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ as distinct communities, marked by animosity.
Furthermore, he acknowledged south India in the task of searching for ancient Ayurvedic texts but relegated it into the background in valorising the antiquity of Ayurveda by considering Aryans as central to its medical knowledge. He hardly spoke about Siddha, a Tamil variant of Ayurveda, while delivering his lecture in Madras and rather mentioned it as an offshoot of the latter. He said, ‘... the teaching of this Siddha Sampradaya is so similar to the teaching of the Rasavaidyaschool of Ayurveda that the conclusion that it must be an off-shoot of Ayurveda is inevitable. In addition, he did not consider Unani as an autonomous medical system rather as a system which has Ayurveda as its base.
While talking about the language in which Ayurveda ought to be studied, he valorised Sanskrit. He said:
I ask my Indian friends practising the Western system, —some of whom have devoted a year or two to the study of German or French for the better understanding of medical works in their original why they should not devote a year or two to the study of Sanskrit which is the language of Ayurvedic literature and the language of their forefathers. In my opinion the language is easy to learn because it fits in easily with the genius of Indian scholars. Except in a few languages like Tamil and Canarese, Sanskrit words abound in the majority, of the languages of India, for example in Hindi and Bengali. I must therefore plead for your trying to understand Ayurvedic truths in their original works and not in their translations.
By saying that Sanskrit is the language of Ayurveda, he intended to foreground a homo-genous version of Ayurveda, relegating into background any possibility of practices of the latter in vernaculars. As evident from the above quote, he dismissed the presence of Sanskrit words in Tamil and Canarese. He was critical of translations of any kind, of Ayurvedic texts in Sanskrit. For him, these were ‘original’ works and hence ‘Ayurvedic truths’ could be under-stood only through the medium of Sanskrit.
Aligning Ayurveda with national identity, he attempted to link the latter with ‘Hindu’ identity. And a North Indian version of Ayurveda was claimed by him as the ‘indigenous’ medical science of India. Nationalist projects co-opt medical systems and define them with reference to state and national boundaries. Ayurvedic medicine, Joseph S. Alter notes, is nominally unmarked but the fact that it is so closely associated with Sanskrit literature and a history of practice located in central South Asia, that it is claimed to be of present day India. Historically, he says, it is as closely linked to what is now Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Furthermore, it needs to be underlined that Sen mentioned the medical system of the West as the ‘scientific’ medical system or ‘modern medicine’ without attempting to define it. This discursive fluidity helped him to define Ayurveda as (Sanskritic north) Indian, ancient (belonging to the Vedic period) and modern at once.
In his lecture in Patna, he spoke about the ‘renaissance of Ayurveda’ in which he said:
.....in India, the cradle of the Healing Art, a few offspring of Ayurveda has been growing steadily though slowly and poorly as a neglected child. This poor but ambitious child is Modern Ayurveda as we understand it. She adores her mother but wants to outgrow her. She keeps before her mind’s eye the bright picture of her mother’s past glories. She understands the need for developing her body. Thanks to the all-India efforts of the Indians themselves and to the sympathetic treatment she had at last received from the Governments of at least three provinces of India, she has grown in stature and aspires to be like her mother in her youth.
In these lines spoken by him, the practice of Ayurveda as in the Sanskrit texts is the mother of ‘modern’ Ayurveda which, as he said, aspires to get matured by conforming to the former. He, in producing ‘ancient’ Ayurveda as different from ‘modern’ Ayurveda, attempted, on one hand, to shield the former from the challenges faced by ‘Western’ medical system, and contest the hegemony asserted by the latter by coupling the term Ayurveda with ‘modern’, on the other. His attempts at foregrounding a version of ‘indigenous’ medical science could be thus seen as a quest towards constructing a ‘different modernity’.
The above analysis of Sen’s lectures gives an impression that neither the project of the colonial government nor that of the nationalists could give full shape to its ambitions in the domain of medicine because of certain ‘practical constraints’ they encountered. His lectures for promoting Ayurvedic learning were delivered during the time when state medical intervention and regulation of medical practice had incited ‘indigenous’ practitioners to argue in support of their practice.
One could mark certain predicaments which Sen encountered in delivering his lectures. On account of contradictions and tensions which surrounded Ayurveda (by the mid-19th century to the first three decades of the 20th century), there were ‘inconsistencies’ in his arguments across all the three lectures and even within the lectures. For instance, he was grappled with the means through which what he said, ‘renaissance’ of Ayurveda has to come, namely, through going back to the Sanskrit texts of Ayurveda or through its synthesis with the ‘Western’ medical system or by explaining it in the vocabulary of the latter. Another instance of ‘inconsistency’ in his lectures could be seen while talking about ‘truth’ claims of Ayurvedic texts in Sankrit. In his lectures in Banaras (1916) and Madras (1923), he absolutised the authority of the ‘truth’ claims of the Ayurvedic texts in Sanskrit (namely, Charaksamhita and Sushrutasamhita), whereas he shifted ground when delivering his lecture in Patna (1933). One reason could be that the intensity of the threat Ayurveda and its practitioners faced increased in the 1930s and he had to negotiate this. One may argue that these ‘inconsistencies’ are a product of the anxiety to be national and modern at once under the dominance of colonialism.
Speaking about Ayurveda, Sen actually spoke about a range of things, namely, nation, language, region, caste, religion etc. and at the same time attempted to defend Ayurveda as ‘modern’. Ayurveda had been used by him as a metaphor for speaking about the ‘Hindu’ nation, Sanskrit language, ‘Aryans’ as a ‘civilised’ race, ‘Muslims’ as enemy, Brahmins as what he says, ‘genuine scholars’ etc. In doing so, his version of Ayurveda marginalised certain groups such as ‘popular’ practitioners who had non-Sanskritic ways of practising Ayurveda, vernacular languages by condemning translations of Ayurvedic texts, south India as a region by considering ‘Aryans’ as forefathers of all ‘Indians’ and as central in contributing medical knowledge to the latter and by regarding Siddha as an offshoot of Ayurveda rather than a Tamil variant of the latter.
In a manner of speaking, under conditions of colonialism, ambivalence towards modernity seems natural. Yet ambivalence towards the nation is a difficult choice which very few, such as Rabindranth Tagore and E.V. Ramasamy, courted. They are indeed exceptions. This may be the reason why Sen produced an Indian modern which was ambivalent towards the West and yet imagined an unsullied, exclusionary, Sanskritic, upper caste nation. Ayurveda was about Ayurveda but it was also about imaging a future nation.