Events

Past Event

Projit Mukharji - Historicizing ‘Indian Systems of Knowledge’: Ayurveda, Exotic Foods and Contemporary Anti-Historical Holisms

March 4, 2020
4:00 PM - 6:00 PM
Columbia University, 513 Fayerweather Hall, 1180 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10027
Speaker:

Projit Mukharji
Associate Professor of History and of Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract: Some recent authors have argued that ‘Indian Systems of Knowledge’, such as Ayurvedic medicine, cannot be historicized. They argue that it must be understood as a ‘system’ and with reference to its ‘metaphysical foundations’. Food has often played an important part in these anti-historicist arguments about traditional South Asian medicines. In this article I first describe and historicize these anti-historicisms, by delineating both their colonial origins and their recent nationalist appropriations. I also argue that history of science needs to distinguish between different types of anti-historicisms emerging from different academic and political contexts. I then move onto showing how food history actually can be deployed to subvert these anti-historicist claims. I pursue three inter-related inquiries to support my case. First, I demonstrate that the category of ‘food’ is inappropriate for the textual heritage of Ayurveda and we need to be more sensitive to the specific technical categories, such as anupana, dravya and pathya, within which foodstuff were accommodated. Second, I demonstrate that new foods, especially exotic New World foods, were absorbed into each of the technical categories recognized in Ayurveda. Finally, I show that these new foods did not simply leave the categories themselves untouched. The embodied experiences of the scholar-physician’s palates substantially transformed allegedly disembodied, ahistorical categories they wrote about. I argue then, that far from being an ahistorical fossil as the proponents of anti-historical arguments would have us believe, Ayurvedic medicine was a rich, heterogeneous and historically dynamic tradition, and food history is singularly well-placed to testify to that dynamism.  

Free and open to the public; no RSVP necessary. This event is part of the Histories of Medicine and Health in Global South seminar series, sponsored by the Center for Science and Society at Columbia University.