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Doctoring Traditions

Ayurveda, Small Technologies, and Braided Sciences

Like many of the traditional medicines of South Asia, Ayurvedic practice transformed dramatically in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With Doctoring Tradition, Projit Bihari Mukharji offers a close look at that recasting, upending the widely held yet little-examined belief that it was the result of the introduction of Western anatomical knowledge and cadaveric dissection.
Rather, Mukharji reveals, what instigated those changes were a number of small technologies that were introduced in the period by Ayurvedic physicians, men who were simultaneously Victorian gentlemen and members of a particular Bengali caste. The introduction of these devices, including thermometers, watches, and microscopes, Mukharji shows, ultimately led to a dramatic reimagining of the body. By the 1930s, there emerged a new Ayurvedic body that was marked as distinct from a biomedical body. Despite the protestations of difference, this new Ayurvedic body was largely compatible with it. The more irreconcilable elements of the old Ayurvedic body were then rendered therapeutically indefensible and impossible to imagine in practice. The new Ayurvedic medicine was the product not of an embrace of Western approaches, but of a creative attempt to develop a viable alternative to the Western tradition by braiding together elements drawn from internally diverse traditions of the West and the East.

376 pages | 7 halftones, 9 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Asian Studies: South Asia

History: Asian History, History of Technology

History of Science



"Based on rich archival work and frequently drawing on the richness of Bengali-language literature but centering material culture, Mukharji’s book is likely to appeal to an exceptionally wide audience: from historians of medicine, material culture, and technology to STS scholars."

Technology and Culture

"Projit Mukharji's brilliant new take on the history of Ayurveda starts with a direct question: what is modern about modern Ayurveda? Starting from this point, he goes on to define the parameters around a study that vigorously aims at (and achieves) a reading of the interior mechanisms of Ayurveda, thought through in light of the changing political frameworks at work in the history of science and medicine in modernity. . . .  Mukharji . . . revamps the field as a whole by charting a new way to talk about the cast-aside figures as a central part of the historical moment."

Asian Medicine

"Doctoring Traditions is a remarkably original contribution to the scholarly literature on Ayurveda....Mukharji’s book breaks new ground in examining the historical emergence of Ayurveda’s technomodernity, and the ideational content, material technologies and body-images that took shape at its beginnings."

South Asian History and Culture

“In a work of singular insight and originality, Mukharji uncovers the complex braiding of Western medical science and the Indian Ayurvedic tradition in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Bengal, and reflects on the way in which small objects—from watches and thermometers to microscopes and medicine bottles—transformed bodily understanding and therapeutic practice. Doctoring Traditions is a seminal account of what doctors do as well as what they imagine, and in its assiduous research, bold methodology, and wide intellectual engagement it will resonate with studies of science, medicine, and technology well beyond the confines of colonial Bengal.”

David Arnold, University of Warwick

Doctoring Traditions is an excellent addition to a growing body of literature that critically problematizes the cultural history of medicine and science in modern India. Mukharji’s incisive, perceptive, and thoughtful analysis examines the way in which we think about modern Ayurveda. By focusing on the quotidian material culture of medicine as a medium through which to understand how disparate streams of knowledge about health are braided together, he takes us deep into the fabric of embodied reasoning in the context of colonialism’s modernity. A beautifully crafted book, Doctoring Traditions is flawless in its consistency, logical integrity, and wonderfully structured, coherent arguments.”

Joseph Alter, University of Pittsburgh

"Synthesizing Chinese as well as European and South Asian medical history, Mukharji persuasively demonstrates how bodily understanding and therapeutic practice dramatically transformed between 1870 and 1930 in Bengal through five cases studies of specific technologies: the pocket watch, organotherapy, the thermometer, the microscope, and the body-as-technology of the physicians themselves. Even simple medicine bottles play a significant role in this eloquent narrative on how Ayurveda became modern.”

Marta Hanson, Johns Hopkins University

"This is a dazzling book. Mukharji’s unusual route in following mundane objects along their fascinating paths through the networks of identity, knowledge and resilient adaptation has yielded him marvellous results. He tells a big story through the subtales of small objects, and does so as a consummate raconteur, making this book—his second—a true pleasure to read."

Social History of Medicine

Table of Contents

Prefatory Notes

Introduction: Braiding Knowledge: Refiguring Ayurveda
Chapter One: A Baidya-Bourgeois World: The Sociology of Braided Sciences
Chapter Two: The Clockwork Body: The Pocket Watch and Machinic Physiospiritualism
Chapter Three: The Snayubik Man: Reticulate Physiospiritualism and the Thermometer
Chapter Four: The Chiaroscuric Man: Visionaries, Demonic Germs, and the Microscope
Chapter Five: Endocrino-Chakric Machine: Hormonized Humors and Organotherapy
Chapter Six: Baidya-as-Technology: From Diagnosis to Pharmacy in a Bottle
Conclusion: The Pataphysics of Cosmo-Therapeutics: A Requiem


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