By Anthony Cerulli, author of The Practice of Texts: Education and Healing in South India
In the early 2000s, I spent some time in south India learning about the history and contemporary life of Ayurveda, one of India’s classical healing traditions that I wanted to become a central topic of my dissertation. One of my committee members put me in touch with a doctor of Ayurveda in Tamil Nadu, Dr. Mishra, who introduced me to key Indian medical texts, mostly Sanskrit works.
When I met Dr. Mishra, he was running a research institute that was connected to an in-patient Ayurvedic health-care center. The place was a mixture of spa-like accommodations for patients. It was my first experience with what’s sometimes called “Ayurvedic tourism” in India, which is especially popular in the state of Kerala. I spent hours with Dr. Mishra reading the cornerstone of Ayurvedic literature, the Carakasaṃhitā (Caraka’s Collection). He was a magnetic teacher, who knew this massive text as well as I imagined anyone possibly could, including a section he insisted I learn if I wanted to write “properly” about Sanskrit medical literature. We went over this particular section repeatedly, discussing how the text explains it would like to be read. My meetings with Dr. Mishra effectively sent me down a path of discovery of the Carakasaṃhitā and other texts that I wove into my dissertation, which became my first book, Somatic Lessons: Narrating Patienthood and Illness in Indian Medical Literature.
The events that came after meeting Dr. Mishra opened my eyes to another project (post-dissertation) that I would eventually work on for almost two decades: my new book, The Practice of Texts: Education and Healing in South India. After I left Dr. Mishra’s research institute I travelled to Kerala, where I met people from three generations of ayurvedic doctors. They were masters of a Sanskrit medical classic called the Aṣṭāṅgahṛdaya. I quickly learned that the three primary physicians in this extended family were not only authorities of this text, but also gifted teachers who actively used the text to heal sick people. They learned Ayurveda and taught the Aṣṭāṅgahṛdaya outside of the national collegiate system that trains ayurvedic doctors in India today. Every day, as I read the Aṣṭāṅgahṛdaya with these physicians, sat in on their lessons with students in what’s traditionally known as a gurukula (“teacher’s residence”) setting, I also observed (with permission) their patient consultations. I saw that they markedly taught the Aṣṭāṅgahṛdaya as a malleable body of knowledge to be used and when they met with patients, they practiced this textual knowledge by citing it as a matter of course, but also querying it, rethinking it, and adapting it to each new case presented to them.
I was transfixed by the “lives” of the so-called Sanskrit medical classics of Ayurveda in healing work of the physicians I met in Kerala. During numerous fieldwork visits to south India during and after graduate school, The Practice of Texts developed into an interdisciplinary study of the practical and symbolic uses of Sanskrit literature in two primary institutions of ayurvedic education in modern India: the college and the gurukula. The book provides an evocative historical analysis of colonial-era reforms circa 1890–1975 that gave rise to the contemporary ayurvedic college, and this history lays the groundwork for an ethnography of the ayurvedic gurukula in 21st-century south India. Mixing fieldwork and philology, I explain why students elect to study Ayurveda at colleges and/or gurukulas. The book also shows how differently students and practitioners at both institutions understand the efficacy and future of their profession, and argues that they each espouse views that were forged in the educational reform movements of the late-19th and 20th centuries concerning the centrality of Ayurveda’s Sanskrit literary heritage. Broadly speaking, The Practice of Texts describes the impact of colonial-era biomedicine on modern Ayurveda. Its interspersing of ethnographic vignettes, historical data, and presentation of textual knowledge from Sanskrit, Malayalam, and Manipravalam literatures brings nuance to the complicated, often misunderstood, and frequently fraught politics in postcolonial India that accompany the reliance on and promotion of a classical Sanskrit knowledge system in education and professional work.
I owe an enormous debt of thanks to everyone I have written about in the book; to everyone who helped me shape my ideas and narrate events; and to everyone who shared their ideas with me, above all Biju, a great friend and colleague who guided me year after year as I visited his home-clinic and observed him working with patients and students. What’s more, as any author can corroborate, one’s editor is instrumental and inspiring to the production of a book, and so I am also grateful to my editor, Archna Patel, for seeing promise in the work in its early iterations and, alongside several of her colleagues at the University of California Press, for guiding me through its many stages of writing and production.