Ayurveda and the Structuralist Beef

sept 2013

In The Jungle and the Aroma of Meats (1999), French structuralist Francis Zimmerman attempts a discussion of ancient practices and conceptions of health in India, framed on a speculated geographical representation of the concerned populations. He argues that in ancient Hindu medical texts the land and fauna classification was directly related to bodily function, disease classification and therapeutics. The geographical space of ancient India would be divided between two extremes: Anupa, the water regions, and Jangala, the vast dry climates, which span from desert borders to monsoon forests. Zimmerman’s division is superimposed on the contemporary ecological map of India. This is a problematic past-present relationship, since ancient Indian medical theorists probably lacked the ecological knowledge that we have today. The author thus further expands the risk of using the modern ecological framework to ‘straighten out’ the original vagueness of what is eagerly presented as the ancient Hindu ‘spiritual geography.’

This understanding of ancient ecology is based on one fundamental reversal of the common sense: Jangala is the welcoming land, prone to human settlements, while unwanted characters are pushed towards the unhealthy Anupa. Each area provokes particular health disorders, which can be balanced primarily by the consumption of the animal – and secondarily, vegetal – richness of the zone. These fauna and flora are also determined by the respective climates. Zimmerman’s attempt to offer a structuralist description of the Indian Ayurvedic beliefs as per their records represents, therefore, a shift from pharmacy to biogeography. Nonetheless, Ayurveda medicine does not prescribe a reliance on each climate’s opposite to bring the balance back, but on the adoption of a middle position. At this level, Zimmerman’s study reveals a denial of the importance of the intermediate regions, Sadharana, halfway between the Anupa and the Jangala. Here is probably where the assumptions of his approach, strongly included in the French structuralist project, are the most visible: Zimmerman is looking for opposites, for dualities. But the shortcomings concern also other specific features of his approach. For instance, Zimmerman does not enter into empirical accounts of Ayurvedic practice. He is therefore repeating the classical Orientalist assumption according to which the ancient Indians were only following traditions and were just remotely familiar with sophisticated practices. Zimmerman limits his study to exploring how ancient Indian texts presented taxonomies of plants and animals according to their potential therapeutic use for humans. Another important problem to point out is his positing Ayurveda as being directly based on meat, while the majority of sources indicate that Ayurvedic pharmacy was mostly based on plants. The strong AnupaJangala structure defended by Zimmerman cannot account for or welcome the complex play of combinations of medicinal plants and ingredients that characterized Ayurveda. Zimmerman’s study reaches even more contentious edges when he hastily relies upon stereotypical oppositions of the pure/impure, or of the Ayurveda heterodox prescription of meat, to defend his arguments. Fundamentally, if Ayurveda considers that there are 5 bhutas or elements, namely air, fire, water, earth, ether, it is also understood that any food (and any meat) gathers a combination of fire (as bile), water (as phlegm) and air (as wind). These principles go beyond the opposition of meat and plants, and include them equally. Another look must thus be attempted, at the style and form of Zimmerman’s study, and the way his approach reaches contentious realms, with the specific example of his chapter on meat classifications. This will be further echoed by Gananath Obeysekere points of critique in his review of the book.

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The ninth chapter of Zimmerman’s study is perhaps the clearest expression of his larger project: to describe ancient Ayurvedic medicine, or at least their texts, within the frame of 20th century structural anthropology. It is particularly in the tables and graphic representations that he scatters over his theoretical exploration. Table 7, for instance, is the ‘translation’ of the Susrutasutra into a strict set of categories, where each instance of meat is associated with four type of humors (wind, bile, phlegm, bile blood), with a minus or plus sign to indicate whether each humor is calmed or excited by the meat. In other words, Zimmerman attempts to reveal by a contrasted demonstration the underlying, silent and invisible ‘blueprint,’ the structure according to which ancient medicine practitioners organized their pharmaceutical knowledge.

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In “Zoology in Pharmacy” (ibid, 96-124), Francis Zimmerman attempts an exploration in depth of the 6th century bce classification of meat by Susruta. This document contains a long catalog of meats as found in the various areas of Anupa and Jangala. Each zone is covered progressively, with the description of its general features, of the general features of its meats, before entering into a further taxonomy including categories and sub-categories. It reaches a bottom level where each type of meat quality is covered through three to four entries, including a list of the animals concerned, a description of their general pharmaceutical features, of the humors it excites and those it calms, and a mention of the health issue it can be used for. After presenting his own, long translation of the Susrutasutra, Zimmerman discusses various difficulties he encountered during this very initial work of translation. He sums up the complexity of the situation, both for the translator and for the reader, as follows: “This translation is valid only to the extent that the reader accepts a number of conventions which make it possible to reduce the verbal inflation to a logical uniformity” (ibid, 111). In other words, more than its underlying structure – which Zimmerman would soon discuss – it is first the very grammar and syntactic peculiarities of this classification that represents a potential difficulty, for the reader/listener of ancient India, and further even more, for the contemporary, Western-educated scholar. Zimmerman notes, in particular, an unusual and surprising usage of specific prefixes and suffixes. He remarks that the process of ‘calming’ and ‘excitement’ provoked by various meats are mentioned with a variety of affixes, and not just one or a few as in French or English. It is this grammatical structure that serves as a hint for Zimmerman to unveil the overall, deeper structure that this text reveals, for the very understanding of ancient Ayurvedic medicinal texts. The ninth chapter of Zimmerman’s study is thus perhaps the clearest expression of his larger project: to describe ancient Ayurvedic medicine, or at least their texts, within the frame of 20th century structural anthropology. It is particularly in the tables and graphic representations that he scatters over his theoretical exploration. Table 7 (ibid, 114), for instance, is the ‘translation’ of the Susrutasutra into a strict set of categories, where each instance of meat is associated with four type of humors (wind, bile, phlegm, bile blood), and with a minus or plus sign to indicate whether each humor is calmed or excited by the meat. In other words, Zimmerman attempts to reveal by a contrasted demonstration the underlying, silent and invisible ‘blueprint,’ the structure according to which ancient medicine practitioners organized their pharmaceutical knowledge. The pro-structuralist method of Zimmerman is particularly obvious in passages such as the following: “The adjectives describing the meat—“cold” and “unctuous”—clearly have no descriptive value; they should be interpreted as strictly conventional, as indicating in technical language particular pharmaceutical processes and effects. The meaning of a term is determined by its position within an overall system of technical terms” (ibid, 116). In a way, with such a passage, we could argue that structuralism returns to its roots through the deviated route of its application on Ayurveda medicine: Saussure’s differential theory of signs (a sign does not have a meaning by its association with an object but by its non-association with all other objects) has often been traced back to his study of Indian theories of semantics, such as the Buddhist Apohavada.

As Zimmerman continues his structuralist ‘translation’ of the Susrutasutra, he encounters what he describes as “a multifaceted knowledge” (ibid, 116). Zimmerman argues that entries in the Ayurvedic typology of meats were classified following various sorts of order. The first ordering is linear, as in the example of the dhatus or tissues constituting the body (“chyle-blood-flesh-fat-bone-marrow-semen,” ibid), from light to heavy tissues, or in the example of the six categories of meats (“aquatic-marshy-domesticated-carnivorous-whole-hoofed-jangala,” ibid), from heavy to light meats. But there is also another kind of ordering, where features are associated through couples of contraries; Zimmerman calls this the “dichotomous ordering” (ibid, 117). While Zimmerman further describes these second ordering (with the mention, in order, of operators, names and criteria), it progressively appears that both orderings play a convenient role in his study: both are structuralist, because, whether linear or dichotomous, they all represent an opposition of features. The linear ordering displays a progressive opposition of features (of the sort: lightest-lighter-light-heavy-heavier-heaviest) while the dichotomous ordering is a radical opposition of features (of the sort: lightest/heaviest).

But, as Zimmerman insists, beyond the classification, it is the creation of concepts that is to be noted in the case of Ayurvedic science. Zimmerman clearly presents this final objective in the following passage: “The point of interest here, on which the entire weight of our analysis is concentrated, is the articulation between the image of a fluid and the concept of a pathological factor, the point at which, leaving the level of images, the Ayurvedic doctor launches into the construction of a conceptual system” (ibid, 120). It is, in other words, the leap happening between particular and universal, specific and general, or actual instance and potential concept, that is of interest for Zimmerman in his study. How does the organic instantiation become a conceptual principle? His methodological warning reminds of familiar East-West dualities: “The leap that this abstraction involves is different from the kind Westerners, in the Greek and Latin tradition, have tended to make, whereby abstraction means generalization, a reduction of specifications. For the Ayurvedics, in contrast, abstraction means overdetermination, multiplying adjectives, and points of view” (ibid). Later, he attempts an explicit description of this unusual typology by adding:

“… what is involved is not the division of a genus into species (which could be represented by a genealogical tree), or the organization of an overall view by means of inclusion (which might be represented by a trellis design). We are long way away from the Western logical tradition and would do better to think of China. … [But unlike in China] the Sanskrit texts are quite devoid of any means of iconographic expression; all the same, the linear appearance of the writing should not mask the spatial quality of the thought, for each link in the chain of writing implicitly refers to one or another of its facets. The writing is linear, but the thought is combinative” (ibid 121).

The importance of Saussure is particularly visible here: Zimmerman argues that the general, overriding order of knowledge in ancient Ayurvedic medicine is, first and foremost, one determined by the way they wrote medicinal and pharmaceutical texts. It is not only language, but written language in particular, that allowed, and restricted the knowledge of the early forms of Ayurveda medicine. Zimmerman is thus close from speculating a sort of scholarly conspiracy, the power of a few privileged actors, able to cement what were otherwise mere non-reflexive, popular opinions. Quoting a letter from a Muslim medical practitioner of the late 18th century, Zimmerman explains: “a popular belief is justified by appeal to a scholarly notion. Belief: milk and fish produce a harmful mixture that provokes leprosy. Scholarly explanation: the excitation of bile” (ibid, 123). The contrast between European knowledge, presented as more honest in its inquiry and more familiar with trial-and-error experimentations, and Indian knowledge, supposed to be deceivingly organizing, through intentionally sophisticated taxonomies, what are nothing but popular, and at times superstitious views on medicine, is thus the overarching pattern that Zimmerman’s structuralist approach reveals. The last words of his chapter on meat are quite clear: “naturally enough, the Ayurvedics started with empirical lists and experiments, but right from the start they elevated taxonomy to the rank of a supreme art” (ibid, 124).

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The contrast between European knowledge, presented as more honest in its inquiry and more familiar with trial-and-error experimentations, and Indian knowledge, supposed to be deceivingly organizing, through intentionally sophisticated taxonomies, what are nothing but popular, and at times superstitious views on medicine, is thus the overarching pattern that Zimmerman’s structuralist approach reveals.

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In his book review of Zimmerman’s work, Gananath Obeysekere (1991) sheds a light on the restraining character of the author’s approach: “Zimmerman’s strategy of analysis is very clear: the basic binary distinction is the ecological one; others take their bearing from this distinction, such that diseases, therapies, savors, and a variety of other cultural themes are linked in a structural chain (if not a great chain of being)” (ibid, 421). Indeed, more than the structuralist bias, it is an entire heritage of Platonic idealism combined with Christian hierarchy, which Zimmerman forcefully inserts into the Indian realm. But Obeysekere’s contention is more profound: “the larger implication of my criticism is that the comparison with Western science is a red herring. One must assume that knowledge could be generated out of theoretical systems that might on hindsight be false” (ibid, 423). The Sri Lankan scholar further explores one aporia in Zimmerman’s study, already mentioned above: his overvaluing of the role of meats in Ayurveda science: “Why give significance to the ecology-meat chain when Ayurvedic texts, quantitatively speaking, place an overwhelming importance on plants, their therapeutic properties, and the manner in which these properties are combined (samyoga) in medical prescriptions?” (ibid). And later: “The primacy given to jangala and anupa is Zimmerman’s, not that of Ayurveda in its larger sense” (ibid, 424). What Zimmerman reveals, it is the capacity of French structuralism to survive up till the late 1980s, the decade of his The Jungle, while this approach was by then overwhelmed with criticisms by more culturally and historically-conscious forms of scholarship: “It is as if contemporary work on hermeneutics, postmodernism, critical theory; or thinkers like Bakhtin or Wittgenstein or Foucault; or ideas pertaining to a more open view of culture have had no influence on the author’s thinking” (ibid, 424-5). Indeed, it is not only a weak euro-centric bias that Zimmerman assumes, but more that of a now bygone scientific approach. The argument is not that only Indians, or only Ayurveda practitioners can talk of ancient Indian medicine, but that it takes one to operate more than a naïve anthropology aiming only at the construction of sophisticated systems, to understand the medicinal tradition under scrutiny.

References

Image courtesy: Subhash Limaye

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