Female alchemy (nüdan 女丹) is a Daoist practice concerned with the self-cultivation of women, and involves meditation, breathing and massage exercises, with the ultimate goal of transcending this world and becoming immortal. It emerged in China at the end of the seventeenth century, modelled on earlier Daoist non-gendered self-cultivation practices (neidan 內丹 – inner alchemy). Even though inner alchemy’s process involves and describes physical transformation, female alchemy texts devote more attention to, and are more specific about, the female body and its transformations. Also, the question of health and illness in reference to the female body becomes central: illnesses relating to the gestational body are often mentioned, even though illness in general is not a recurrent theme of neidan texts; self-cultivation for women can only start from a position of health, and women’s health is a particular challenge. This impression is corroborated by descriptions of the female body as deficient, cold, and polluted. As women’s health is often tied to reproductive health and especially the normal flow of blood, and as pregnancy and blood flow are also at the centre of the process of female alchemy, investigating their connections will be at the basis of this paper. The interpenetration of health and religious goals for women will be addressed too. Self-cultivation, gender, illness and health and their interrelatedness will be central concepts of this investigation.
The secularisation of medicine in portrayals of health care in India
This chapter explores shifts in official and scholarly designations of ‘medicine’ as a category in modern India. Its aim is to track the reconfiguration of what observers categorise as ‘medicine’ and identify shifts in the content of this category from the mid-nineteenth century to the present in relation to governance and health system arrangements. Sources include accounts by British medical officers and administrators, archival records from Indian and British collections, contemporary policy documents and primary ethnographic data from research in late twentieth and early twenty-first century Rajasthan. Literature from anthropology and social history is reviewed to examine how these academic disciplines have represented ‘medicine’ in India. I seek to demonstrate that what is currently seen as ‘medicine’ is not self-evident but is constructed through a combination of official authorisation, scholarly representation and enacted practice, and that an interface between ‘medicine’ and ‘religion’ can exist only where these have already been constituted as discrete domains. Defining what constitutes the ‘medical’ domain has always been a problem for the comparative study of both medicine and religion, since temporally (through most of human history) and spatially (across the global population), ‘medicine’ has not existed as a separate institution fully distinct from ‘religion’. The chapter seeks to identify shifts in what is officially designated as ‘medicine’ in India since the imperial period and to show how it has come to refer solely to certain putatively discrete, secular knowledge systems, while excluding other kinds of therapeutic intervention.
Encounters of religion and complementary medical traditions in a modern Asian multi- ethnic society
The present study traces concepts and experiences regarding the integration of different medical models, in particular complementary medical traditions, in a national public health system in the case of a multi-ethnic country, Malaysia. A major aspect is the religious framing of such integration processes. Malay medical cultures – including long-standing traditions, as well as those developed over several centuries under the influence of popular and scriptural Islam – coexist with traditional Chinese medicine and Indian (e.g. Ayurveda) practice. The focus of the present study is on the encounter of a particular alternative medical system, homeopathy, with Malaysian Islam in a crucial historical period: the end of the colonial era in South East Asia in the aftermath of WWII, the de-colonisation processes and the formation of the independent state, the Federation of Malaya (1957), and the subsequent Federation of Malaysia (1963). One of the prominent actors in these political developments, Dr. Burhanuddin Al-Helmy (1911–1969), combined leadership in the political Islamic movement and the inaugural initiative of establishing homeopathy practices in Singapore and Malaysia. In the further course of development of political Islam in Malaysia several of his disciples in homeopathy practice claimed an intrinsic affinity of homeopathy with the principles of Islam as a religion. The present study analyses this issue on the basis of textual and ethno-medical sources taking into account the specific historical frame. The encounter of homeopathy and Islam in the Malaysian context can be portrayed as an example of appropriation of an alternative medical concept of European provenance and Indian mediation through local discourses. The specific focus lies on showing how these discourses were developed while negotiating medical practice and political balances on an opportune basis of religious claims.
The last twenty years have seen a renewed interest in Asian therapeutic practices, as scholars, states and practitioners have approached them in divers ways, from the global wellness market to national bureaus of traditional medicine to neurological studies. These new forms of circulation signal more broadly a reorientation to South and East Asia as they rise in geopolitical and economic power. This introduction summarises how scholarly approaches reflect these changes, and describes major research in the history and anthropology of medicine and religion in East and South Asia and the Himalayas. Reflecting on their different historiographies, it notes how different periods of Western encounter in these regions have led to different styles of categorising Asian knowledge. Theoretical frameworks of three recent studies—as well as major research communities, institutions and grant projects—are situated within a larger common ‘conversation’ about Asian knowledge practices. When Europe is removed as an authoritative point of comparison for Asian knowledge practices, what terms of comparison come to the fore? This sets up the volume’s chapters as an intervention into this conversation, made through a common argument structure shared across the chapters. Each interrogates how medicine and religion are framed a) in legacy scholarship and a) in the various sources, genres and time periods under study. Presenting c) useful methodologies for their own area, the chapters together assemble a scholarly ‘toolkit’ for future study of the question. New points of focus naturally come to the fore, highlighting ‘means and methods’ which bring religion and medicine into focus: state institutions, charismatic figures, local changes in terminology, patient narratives and non-elite sources, and the construction of gender.
This chapter unpacks the way Buddhist populations in contemporary Rakhine deal with health and illness using a plurality of conceptions and practices. Previous scholarly works have failed to understand this ‘therapeutic field’, the main reason being that health-related conceptions and practices have always been studied separately as considered to belong to different fields, religion or medicine. If, in this sense, etic categories are blinding, as they prevent a comprehensive approach, I claim that emic categories and notably the ones of Buddhism and medicine that appear in people’s narratives have an ethnographic and analytic value. They reveal the cultural, social and political forces that have contributed to the position that different notions and practices occupy in the therapeutic field, as well as the relations of hierarchy and complementarity that have emerged between them. I show that the position attributed to different notions and practices is very much related to the way the state regulated this therapeutic plurality. In particular, the formalisation and regulation of Buddhism and medicine came to attribute to these traditions a privileged position at the same time as it led to a redefinition of the contents of these categories, thus limiting their therapeutic action and shifting their relationship with other components of the field. I argue that the coexistence of these categories with the persistent hybridity of health-related notions and practices blurring these categories, contributes to shape therapeutic efficacy in ways which reproduce political interests and power.
This essay seeks to overcome several longstanding confusions about Chinese health care: that its main component was medicine as practised by physicians, that religious therapy was largely superstitious and therefore ineffective, and that curers who were neither Buddhist nor Daoist priests were ‘shamans’ or ‘wizards’ who did more harm than good. By using an anthropological understanding of efficacy not limited to the narrow viewpoint of biomedicine, it provides an impartial analysis of the spectrum of therapy between roughly the years 600 and 1400 CE. In particular, it demonstrates the importance of popular priests (fashi 法師), and emphasises the need to study their methods of curing.
Religion and medicine have long been connected in Japan. The chapter introduces textual and visual sources from eighth- to seventeenth-century Japan that allow an overview of the complex relationship between religion and medicine in premodern Japan. Buddhism was incorporated into Japanese culture in the sixth and following centuries CE. In the late nineteenth century, Buddhist and medical practice were officially separated during a phase of profound social and political change. As Buddhist monastic doctors were the dominant force behind the circulation of medical knowledge and practice in medieval Japan, the chapter focuses on contextualising the sources within the Buddhist institutional framework. While the paradigm of esoteric Buddhism was a principal cultural force during this period, ‘secular’ forms of medical practice existed alongside Buddhistic medicine in official court circles. Monastics and court physicians both used Chinese-style therapies such as acupuncture and moxibustion, as well as Indian medical procedures including eye surgery. The chapter advocates avoiding the pitfalls of rationalist and traditionalist approaches by exploring material sources and re-reading textual sources. It also advocates employing basic philological methods, combined with a comprehensive approach to sources that seem not to fall exclusively into the categories of ‘religion’ or ‘medicine’.
In Vālmīki’s Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇa, in an episode I am calling ‘Hanumān’s medicine journey’, we learn about a resuscitative plant that grows in the Himalayas called saṃjīvanī. Although the plant has a somewhat unclear place in the materia medica of India’s classical ‘life science’ (āyurveda), in recent decades politicians in north India have attempted to connect the plant to modern Ayurveda (medicine), thereby demonstrating the epic’s scientificity, in order to fund saṃjīvanī re-discovery projects. A close look at Hanumān’s medicine journey and some of its retellings reveals the knotty and sometimes confusing relationship between medicine and religion in premodern Sanskrit literature, as well as the uses of that literature today. In this chapter, I probe the association between Ayurveda and South Asian religions, especially Hindu dharma and bhakti, in Vālmīki’s tale about the healing power of plants, and I reflect on the contemporary politics of Hanumān’s medicine journey vis-à-vis contemporary pharmacognostic research on saṃjīvanī.
Although Asian practices for health, healing and spiritual cultivation have survived today, they circulate in new forms, whether within a burgeoning global marketplace, in the imaginaries of national health bureaus, as the focus of major scholarly grant initiatives, or as subjects of neurological study. These modern understandings are contoured by the European history of science and do not represent how they were mobilised in their originary times and places.. Categories like ‘alternative’, ‘complementary’, and ‘wellness’¬ privilege medical authority and a distance from religion writ large, implying a distance between ‘medicine’ and ‘religion’ not reflected in the originary contexts of these practices. Situating Medicine and Religion in Asia makes critical interventions in the scholarship on East, South and Southeast Asia and the Himalayas. Case studies show how practices from divination and demonography, to anatomy, massage, plant medicine and homeopathy were situated within the contours of medicine and religion of their time, in contrast to modern formations of ‘medicine’ and' ‘religion’. The chapters follow a common structure that allows for easy comparison across a broad geographic, temporal and conceptual range, presenting a set of methodological tools for the study of medicine and religion. Taken together, they assemble empirical data about the construction of medicine and religion as social categories of practice, from which more general claims can be made. The volume thus makes a critical intervention in the histories of medicine, religion and science in the region, while providing readers with a set of methodological approaches for future study.
Towards a nomadology of medical mantras in seventeenth to twentieth-century Bengal
Projit Bihari Mukharji
Mantras have long been used as therapeutic instruments in South Asia. Yet, the scholarship about them has been extremely limited. Until recently, the extant scholarship was divided between classicists, who worked with ancient classical texts, and ethnographers, who documented very localised, contemporary practices. Within this split scholarship mantras that are not in Sanskrit are perhaps the most neglected, since the classicists seem entirely disinterested in them and ethnographers only speak of them in very narrowly delimited contexts. In this article, I will show that not only have mantric therapies been long popular in Bengal, but that the advent of colonial modernity gave them new resources. I will further argue that the nomadic tendencies of mantra therapeutics renders a strictly historicist approach inadequate to the task of recovering its past and what we need instead is a nomadology.