And how the history of Ayurveda intersects with the history of caste

Glass specimen jar of gum ghatti, India, 1830–1930. Credit: Science Museum, London; Image downloaded from Wellcome Collections

In 1991 historian and Sanskritist Kenneth Zysk, currently affiliated with the University of Copenhagen, published a book titled Asceticism and Healing in Ancient India: Medicine in the Buddhist Monastery. This was a ground-breaking book at the time, offering several new, fascinating insights into the history of Ayurveda and the history of medicine in South Asia. (The book is available free to read on Google Books, here.) This essay primarily is based on that book.

But before getting into what Zysk discovered, it might help to understand an important distinction that historians of medicine employ when discussing premodern medical ideas: the…


“Being civilized means making and liking beautiful things”

“Making and liking beautiful things”: 7th-8th c. C.E. Pallava dynasty rock sculptures in Mahabalipuram, India (Photo: Author)

Philosopher Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad’s The Story of Civilization, written in 1931, is one of the best examples of the cliched line that great things come in small packages. All of 94 pages in big font, it packs in some profound philosophy in eloquent, relatable language. I first read it as a child almost 20 years ago when my English teacher lent it to me (he used to say I bought this book only for two rupees from a roadside book vendor). The book and its take on what it means to be “civilized” have stayed with me ever since.


A short introduction to the enduring concept

Credit: National Cancer Institute, USA, via Unsplash

Michel Foucault is well known to researchers and readers in several fields, especially sociology, anthropology, history, and philosophy. Many of his ideas also have to do with another field, modern medicine, though most doctors, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners — at least in my home country, India — have hardly heard about him. To be sure, one can very well understand the theories and practice of medicine without ever reading even the F of Foucault. So he is not a requirement that way. But he is definitely essential if one needs to understand the philosophy of medicine.

Foucault’s most commonly…


“We knew plastic surgery before the time of Christ”

Ruins of the Buddhist place of learning, Nalanda, which flourished in South Asia in the first millennium CE (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

People of most countries have seen and acknowledged the scientific talents and skills of Indian IT (Information Technology) engineers, doctors, as well as social sciences experts. People’s experience with this diasporic Indian community has generally been very positive, and rightly so. At the same time, however, it is important to remember — as we are constantly reminded about other nations and peoples — that neither the Indian diaspora nor India as a country are monolithic.

When it comes to modern science, there are a great many Indians (including those living in North America and Europe and engaged in scientific occupations)…


Historians and geneticists have the same answer

Mohenjo-Daro (Indus Valley) stamp-seal, 2600BC-1900BC. Image courtesy: the British Museum

When British colonial writers and part-historians began to write their versions of Indian history in the 1700s and 1800s, they popularized an idea that became known as the Aryan invasion theory. Basically, when Europeans learned about South Asia’s Sanskrit language and discovered its connection with the classical languages of Europe, they assumed that there had to be, in the distant past, some kind of common “Indo-European” language, hence culture and peoples, which gave rise to later Indians and Europeans. This common culture was labeled “Aryan” culture. …


“A group of Plague staff, Karachi, India [now Pakistan]. Photograph, 1897.” Credit: Wellcome Collection

Over the past two years I fortunately have had the time and resources to read some excellent scholarship on the history of medicine and public health in India. These books and articles have helped me better understand the historical origins and trajectories of the different unique aspects of healthcare in our country.

For example, one of the most common themes in discussions on public health in India is federalism — the fact that much of the decision-making power lies in the hands of state and other local governments and not the Central government. [Federalism is in my opinion is absolutely…


And about dying better

Image by Daan Stevens, courtesy Unsplash

Conversations about end-of-life care have become more mainstream in the past decade. One of the most common entry-points into the topic is the painfully true fact that as a society we focus far more on delaying death than on living a meaningful life till the inevitable end. This is a commonsense point, but something we forget when the time comes for it. Another way to think about end-of-life can be found in one of the many wise lines given to Dumbledore by J.K. …


And how it has played out during Covid-19

“Plague-infected house which has been demolished, Karachi, India (now Pakistan), 1897;” Credit: Wellcome Collections

In August 2020, an Indian court made some observations that certainly will be considered momentous by future historians of medicine and public health. These observations pertain to the discriminatory actions of the Indian state against the Tablighi Jamat, an international community of Islamic missionaries, many members of which caught Covid-19 during a congregation in Delhi in March. The Hindu supremacist state, with the assistance of the government-friendly mainstream media — often ridiculed as “modia”— created a narrative which blamed this event, and by dog-whistle corollary the entire Muslim populace of India, as the main cause of India’s rising Covid-19 cases…


Understanding the rationale for therapeutics in the past

“George Washington at Mount Vernon at the end of his life, 1799,” by Howard Pyle. Accessed through Digital Commonwealth

One of the most important concepts one learns during training as a professional historian is the “Whig interpretation of history,” which refers generally to “oversimplified narratives that achieve drama and apparent moral clarity by interpreting past events in light of [the] present...” Historians call such narratives teleological: that is, narratives that judge the past with reference to values in the present.

Applied to the history of medicine, the Whig interpretation often manifests in the form of narratives where the methods of therapeutics used by humans in the past are dismissively described as “primitive” and “barbaric” procedures which were — and…


What Academic Scholarship Says

Refugee camp in New Delhi for people displaced due to Partition. Photograph by Margaret Bourke-White / LIFE Picture Collection / Getty, Accessed via The NewYorker

Anyone who grows up in India and Pakistan ends up hearing dozens of versions of the 1947 Partition story by the time they reach adulthood. As someone who heard his share of these stories and then went on to study and write history professionally, I can vouch that almost all the versions we heard as kids and teenagers were… well, wrong. The gargantuan accumulation of fake and bad history around this crucial historical event has ensured that it hardly ever gets discussed dispassionately in its right historical context. However hard it is, it still needs to happen. …

Kiran Kumbhar

Physician. PhD student, History of medicine @Harvard. History & culture of India. Public health. Twitter @kikumbhar. Blog: kirankumbhar.com

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