The sensory perceptive capacities of Ayurvedic physicians play a key role in diagnosis. Drawing upon both classical Ayurvedic treatises and field research, this article examines the ways that some contemporary Ayurvedic physicians in Kerala describe their sensory diagnostic abilities in relation to diagnostic techniques of the past and present. These physicians are in a sensory negotiation, first, with diagnostic theory and practice as explained in classical Ayurvedic medical treatises, and second, with contemporary diagnostic technologies that are understood to both extend and attenuate sensory perception. In the course of my historical textual research, I interviewed a number of Ayurvedic physicians who explained their own capacity for sensory perception as limited, in relation to the authoritative teaching of the treatises and the idealized sensory capacities of authoritative individuals (āptas). Their experiences of inhabiting a present, informed by the authority of Ayurveda’s textually codified past, and in an evolving relationship with contemporary diagnostic technologies, instantiate a larger narrative that Ayurvedic medicine is in a state of crisis in India. This relationship to knowledge and the senses entails a sensory negotiation converging on the physician’s body as a site for the making of truth claims, and for the contemporary practice and experience of Ayurvedic medicine.
The Suśrutasaṃhitā, an early first-millennium Ayurvedic treatise with an emphasis on surgery, recommends a procedure for examining a corpse after first submerging it in a river. Prompted by the sensory insights of a contemporary Ayurvedic physician who simulated “hydro-dissection” on a human hand, I offer a sensory reading of representations of surgeons and surgical tactility in early South Asia. This study demonstrates that surgeons are represented in early first-millennium treatises as possessing specialized medical knowledge, performing dangerous procedures, and having greater sensory and bodily intimacy in their engagement with patients than general physicians. First, I compare passages describing physicians’ sensory engagements in diagnostic examination in the Carakasaṃhitā and Suśrutasaṃhitā. Then I examine representations of surgeons and surgical practice in the Carakasaṃhitā, a general medical compendium. Finally, I demonstrate that surgical tactility is represented in the Suśrutasaṃhitā as an interplay of sensory knowledge, technical skill, experience, and judgment, constituting the surgeon’s hand.
This opening piece introduces the eight articles in this special issue of Asian Medicine, all of which emerged out of the daylong Science, Technology, and Medicine in South Asia Symposium: Medicine and Memory, at the 2018 Annual Conference on South Asia in Madison, Wisconsin. These articles are concerned with the ways in which time and healing entangle across regions and healing traditions in South Asia, including Unani, Ayurveda, Naturopathy, and biomedicine. Linking the findings from these articles with recent scholarship, our conversation in the symposium moved beyond the notion of medical pluralisms to a notion of dynamic plurals, through historicizing regional and local diversities in practices and philosophies, often grouped under a single name by communities and practitioners. In an increasingly communalist and politically fractured modern South Asia, we suggest that the discussions in this special issue make a critical contribution to understanding how cultural institutions of knowledge function in society.