“Ayurveda invokes and provokes nationalism through a politics of cultural heritage and in terms of both neo-orientalism and fundamentalism’
‘Nature cure’s visceral cosmopolitanism provides a significant and valuable counterpoint to Ayurvedic nationalism and Vedic revivalism’
These claims have been made in a research paper in an academic journal by Joseph Alter who is the professor of medical anthropology at the University of Pittsburg, USA. When Prof Alter presented the paper in a seminar in Canberra, I questioned his claims which he struggled to defend.
Any research is undertaken to answer a research question which is usually situated in a research framework. Once clearly defined, it guides further steps such as data collection, data analysis, and drawing conclusions about the research question at hand. Interestingly, by reading the paper of Prof Alter one gets the feeling that probably the conclusion to be drawn was decided in advance and a story was built around it.
The arguments that were made during the seminar as well as my subsequent thoughts on his paper are enumerated below.
Prof Alter states that the paper is grounded in the philosophical work of Michel Serres (2008). He also cites Latour (2004, 2005), to advance his argument. However, as Latour (1995:1) states in his first conversation with Serres, ‘you map out a path, you go everywhere-the sciences, mythology, literature-but at the same time you often cover up the traces that led you to your results’. The reader may unfortunately come to similar conclusion after reading Prof Alter’s paper.
The motivation for the research is unclear
It is an established practice in any research to spell out the motivation that prompted the researcher to undertake the research. Motivation is the key as it helps situate the paper in an appropriate theoretical framework. It should persuade the reader and provide the rationale for the work being undertaken. Unfortunately, the author doesn’t make that clear and the reader is left in the lurch. Had Prof Alter not made the startling claim in the concluding paragraph that ‘Ayurveda invokes and provokes nationalism’, I may not have read the paper.
Unclear research question
Prof Alter doesn’t tell us upfront the central question being probed.
For example, in the abstract, he writes (and provides also a taste of his convoluted writing) as follows: ‘this article presents [a] an analytical perspective on the embodiment of viscerality [b] to provide a more nuanced understanding of how these experiences blur distinctions of cultural continuity and [c] how an ecology of the body shapes the cultural politics of tradition in India’.
But in the introduction, he states that ‘[d] I take up the question of body in relation to medical practice and nationalism [e] arguing that an affectively visceral relationship between the body and environment can profoundly contradict the supposedly logical relationship among culture, health, and medicine in the imagination of a community and in the political ideology of state nationalism’.
Yet in the conclusion he states that the [f] ‘main point of this article has been to disambiguate the body and the embodied experiences from the politics of nationalism’ and [g] ‘to develop an analytical conceptualization of viscerality so as to better understand the different ways in which the body is implicated in the politics of health and culture’.
As is obvious, (a) and (g) above don’t really match, as the former is about providing an analytical perspective on viscerality embedded in the body while the latter is about developing a conceptualisation of viscerality itself. We can’t provide a perspective on something that is not conceptually well developed, can we? Similarly, in (b) above he refers to cultural continuity but later in (g) mentions just the ‘politics of culture’.
Furthermore, in (c) he refers to how body influences the cultural politics, that is, the directional hypothesis is from body to cultural politics but in (g) he mentions about body getting affected by or implicated into the politics of health and culture so the directional hypotheses here is cultural politics to body.
Again, (a) to (c) don’t refer to ‘nationalism’ at all. While nationalism a political sciences construct can manifest itself in terms of ethnic, cultural, religious etc, ‘state nationalism’, the term he uses, is often construed as a euphemism for ‘fascism’. Is the intention here to somehow link everything Hindu including Ayurveda to fascism and hence draw the conclusion that it promotes fundamentalism? ‘State nationalism’ gets a mention only once at the beginning of the paper but is soon forgotten in the rest of the paper.
Even if Prof Alter is researching multiple research questions in the same paper, there needs to be a coherence between them. One can’t solve all problems in the world in one research paper, can one? The confusion is quite apparent. I am persuaded to believe that the purpose of the paper is not really to enlighten on a topic by posing a researchable question but to keep it aims/objectives/questions vague and then to draw outlandish conclusions such as Ayurveda breeds fundamentalism.
Research constructs not well defined
The author uses a variety of constructs drawn from diverse disciplines such as health practices (nature cure, Ayurveda, viscerality, yoga), sociology/anthropology (culture and cultural practices), political science (nationalism, state nationalism, neo-orientalism, fundamentalism, and globalisation), Hindu philosophy (sankhya, Vedic revivalism). While any research that stands at the intersection of various disciplines is welcome and can potentially bring new knowledge, the last of these constructs – Vedic revivalism- suddenly emerges in the concluding paragraph without any mention thereof earlier in the paper. Interestingly, Prof Alter uses it to claim that Ayurveda invokes and provokes nationalism and Vedic revivalism. There is no well-reasoned argument throughout the paper establishing a link between these two concepts – Ayurveda and Vedic revivalism.
It is well known that Adi Sankara –the proponent of Advaita Vedanta (circa 800AD) is largely accredited with Vedic revivalism and countering of the Buddhist view point. At that point in time, the notion of nationalism was alien to the Indian culture. Hindu revivalism was also spearheaded by social reformers.
Prof Alter explains the term nationalism on p2 of his paper. He then states that the term ‘visceral nationalism’ has been used pejoratively to describe passionate and often violent instinctive responses. One wonders why he didn’t cite the work of Wilk (1993) who used the term ‘visceral’ nearly 20 years prior to Prof Alter’s paper to draw a distinction between the official vs visceral by Wilk (1993). According to Eriksen (1993) Wilk used the term to draw a distinction between political vs personal nationalism or formal vs informal nationalism.
Prof Alter then goes on to state that while ‘nationalism’ per se is an irrational idea, ‘visceral nationalism’ goes beyond it and according to him it is the ‘very antithesis of reason’. Interestingly, he doesn’t provide any historical evidence to support his claim. Is he referring to the ‘visceral nationalism’ of the Nazi Germany to develop this construct? It is important to clarify this since he uses viscerality as the analytical tool in examining Ayurveda. The paper gives the impression, assuming his claim is logical, that visceral nationalism is something that is unique only to India and relevant only in the context of Ayurveda. Interestingly, while labelling nature cure as ‘cosmopolitan’ while Ayurveda as invoking and provoking ‘visceral nationalism’ is he not becoming visceral in his argument to show ‘hegemony/superiority’ of nature cure which he wrongly ascribes to European origin?
The research at hand is situated in the interpretivist tradition making use of grounded theory to develop a framework of visceral nationalism and then use that as an analytical tool to make a claim that Ayurveda is the culprit. But a logical framework of visceral nationalism is not developed in the paper at all. Consequently, its subsequent application to Ayurveda is rather tenuous. The relational statements between the constructs Ayurveda and visceral nationalism are vague and would hardly persuade anyone to believe that there is any interlinkage between the two.
Latour (n.d./86) commented on Michel Serres “it is impossible to distinguish who is providing the explanation; is it the commented text or the commentary”. The reader may have similar feeling when reading Prof Alter’s paper. It is only in the concluding paragraph that we come to know the method used by Prof Alter to gather evidence to answer the research question. He states that ‘based largely on re-reading of textual material, the analysis presented here is nevertheless informed by several decades of ethnographic research on the relationship among the body and various manifestations of power… over several decades of ethnographic research I have encountered numerous wrestlers, yogis, healers, and Gandhian social workers…’. It is obvious that he used convenience sampling and consequently ‘heard’ what he wanted to hear. Would gathering selective evidence to prove one’s point qualify as research? Interestingly, I raised this issue when I attended Prof Alter’s talk in Canberra in May 2016. I asked why he didn’t consult Ayurvedic academics and researchers in India to check whether his claim that Ayurveda ‘invokes and provokes nationalism’ is tenable. There was no response. I also asked whether his paper is refereed by suitable Ayurveda academics and researchers for which again there was no response.
Furthermore, a normal practice in ethnographic research is to present the rich text of responses and these were coded, categorised and what major themes emerge from the data analysis that help in answering the research question posed are clearly indicated. Unfortunately, the paper is devoid of all these normal precautions that a researcher takes leaving the reader wonder how the claims were made and supported. We just have one grand statement from Prof Alter that the paper is based on re-reading of relevant texts and his interactions over 20-year period with a myriad of respondents.
Furthermore, Prof Alter doesn’t provide us details of issues such as what questions were asked to the respondents? How were the respondents chosen? What responses were received? How the validity of the responses was checked?
From the paper it appears that Prof Alter didn’t visit any Ayurveda hospitals/colleges/universities and there are many notable, for example, Tilak Ayurved College and Nanal hospital in Pune, (Urali Kanchan near Pune was one of the areas where Prof Alter conducted research), Podar Medical College in Mumbai or the Gujarat Ayurved University in Jamnagar. Did he interview patients who come from a variety of economic backgrounds and religious ethnicity? How many of those he sought responses from, what were the demographics of the respondents? We believe this group was very vital given the claims he is making. Similarly, what questions did he ask to assess whether ‘nationalism has become visceral’? Were these questions pilot tested?
He does mention about Nisrgopchar in Urali Kanchan and Arogya Mandir in UP – both of which are nature cure centres. How many patients did he interview, we have no clue from the paper, neither we have a clue how many patients in each group (Ayurveda group and nature cure group) he sought responses from.
On the background of the above, it is surprising that he makes a bold claim that he found nature cure to be cosmopolitan and Ayurveda to be soaked in visceral nationalism, neo-orientalism and fundamentalism in one big breath!
Second, he seems to imply that nature cure was unknown to Indians and that only after a book was first compiled thereon in Germany by Just and others and a copy was handed in to Gandhi. After Gandhi advocated it, nature cure became known to Indians. However, many elements of nature cure were already known to ancient Indians. Pancha Karma is an essential routine in Ayurveda and does capture nature cure. Furthermore, fasting (a major element of nature cure) is already imbedded in Indian life style from ancient time. These traditions are passed on from one generation to another for ages. It is possible that the compilation of varied nature cure practices was first attempted in Europe but how does that make it a ‘European’ concept as Prof Alter claims?
Other relevant issues
Besides the above, I noticed a few more issues that are worrisome.
- P5: Prof Alter continue to eulogise nature cure and adds ‘..and it came to define a popular medium through which middle-class men and women in India developed a feeling of deeply embodied attachment to environmental elements, nature and health during the course of the 20th century’. This is really a very strange statement and persuades one to believe that the paper is not a work of serious scholarship. Attachment to ecology is very much ingrained in Hindu culture since ancient time. Nature worship is an ancient Hindu practice. Here are a few examples that readily come to mind. Tree worship by women (on the day of Vata Savitri Poornima), animal worship (especially in rural Maharashtra when the Bull Festival – Pola in Marathi- is celebrated with gaiety, or the Naga Panchami day (snake worship), River worship is done during Kumbha Mela, for example, and Sun worship is incorporated in daily routine through Surya Namaskar or Ardhya (offering to Sun God).
- P6: The spurious reasoning used to establish a connection between Ayurveda and nationalism comes as a further surprise. It is stated that ‘On account of its association with Indic philosophy and classical Sanskrit literature, Ayurveda is closely and intimately linked to the politics of cultural nationalism.’. Interestingly, among others, Prof Alter cites his own prior work in support of this statement. However, if these two criteria are to be used to establish the link, then would Prof Alter, also using the same yardstick classify ‘Kamasutra’ (the ancient work on eroticism/sex) too as associated with nationalism? The work draws, among others, from Tantra Philosophy (Kashmir Saivism) and is also written originally in Sanskrit.
- P6: In the very next statement Prof Alter makes another accusation on Ayurveda. He notes ‘Similarly the practice of Ayurvedic medicine is shaped by the priorities of alternative medicine’s globalisation, such that what is presented as holistic Ayurveda theory which necessarily references Indic tradition and Sanskritic textual authority, actually reflects confusion, misunderstanding and distortion in application and interpretation’. Here he suggests that Ayurveda is influenced by ‘globalisation’. The direction of the effect according to him is assumed to take place one way only. But globalisation entails a two-way street.
- P6: He lays a frontal but surreptitious attack on Ayurveda. He notes ‘The common idea that Ayurveda is all about harmony and balance is a simplistic distillation of ideas that are appealing in the abstract and are couched in terms of classical Hindu philosophy but reflect the invention of a global tradition rooted in Orientalism and the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s as well as the late 20th century health consciousness’. Here Prof Alter is refusing to accept that Ayurveda is in fact about harmony and balance. He conveniently forgets that contrary to modern medicine which targets the disease, Ayurveda targets the ‘whole being’. This is a paradigm shift when compared to modern medicine, yet he considers the approach of Ayurveda to be ‘simplistic’ and then accuses it to be ‘couched in classical Hindu philosophy’ thereby meaning that there is no ‘real connection between Hindu philosophy and Ayurveda. In so doing, however, he contradicts himself since on p 5 he established the connection of Ayurveda and nationalism using precisely the same argument that “On account of its association with Indic philosophy and classical Sanskrit literature, Ayurveda is closely and intimately linked to the politics of cultural nationalism.’. However, here he replaces the word ‘Indic’ with the word ‘Hindu’.
- On the same page, he states ‘Ayurveda has been shaped by colonialism and a range of different nationalist responses to imperial policy and by the cultural hegemony of imperial medicine and science’. The statement is a blatant attempt to ignore the rightful place of Ayurveda but to make it subservient to ‘imperial medicine’ and demonstrates the underlying moorings of the author. One wonders whether the purpose of the paper was somehow to denigrate Ayurveda. Towards that end the author goes on a fishing expedition making unsupported claims, gathering selective evidence and uses convoluted logic throughout the paper.
- Prof Alter probably is perturbed that through AYUSH, the Indian government is establishing ‘a holistic, natural and organic alternative to the modernity of bio-medicine and institutionalised public health’. He assets that it is ‘intended to establish relative equality across the spectrum of alternative systems of medicines…’. It appears that the Modi government according Ayurveda – an ancient health management system – its legitimate place is making Prof Alter uncomfortable. Does it reflect a colonial mindset of Prof Alter himself then?
- Prof Alter mentions about commercial companies like Dabur, Himalayan etc. however, he conveniently ignores a commercial venture set up by an American couple- Aveda. A google search reveals that Aveda Corporation is a company founded by Horst Rechelbacher, now owned by Estée Lauder Companies. Horst, on a trip to India, was introduced to the science of Ayurveda(the Hindu traditional holistic system of medicine and surgery from India), and suddenly his vision for his company was born (Wikipedia). The company states ‘A-Veda means “all-knowledge” in Sanskrit. Its roots are planted in Ayurveda, the ancient healing art of India and other Indigenous wisdoms that take a holistic approach to life and wellness, with a focus on cultivating balance’ To claim how Ayurveda has been commercialised by Hindus, Prof Alter cites Maharishi Ayurveda (p6) founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Has it not been commercialised by Americans as the Aveda example shows?
- Similarly, on p8, he provides a quote from a book by Balkrishna on Ayurveda to support his claim about ‘viscerality’. However, it is not a scholarly book, but a book written by the CEO of a corporate venture Patanjali of Baba Ramdev accordingly marketing overtones could be but natural.
- P10: ‘Beginning in the early 20th century a distinctly European form of reactionary medicine known as nature cure came to play a powerful role in the development of Indian nationalistic ideals even though it was invented in Southern Germany and has historical roots in European intellectual history, moral philosophy and the romantic movement.’. Here, however, Prof Alter doesn’t consider that nature cure is nationalistic in Germany though he notes it was invented in Germany. But was nature cure ‘invented’ in Germany? Practices of nature cure are found in ancient Egypt and India. I did bring to his notice while he was in Canberra that the Pancha Karma practices are inherent to Ayurveda and find a full expression of nature cure which he conceded. Mere compilation of nature cure practices (assuming it was first attempted in Germany) doesn’t make it a ‘German invention’ does it?
- P19: Prof Alter writes ‘Based on reading Just’s Return to Nature (1898) and Kuhne’s monumental book The New Science of Healing (1892) Gandhi advocated the exclusive use of nature cure for all kinds of illness and for the development of ‘bimoral metaphysical fitness’. This sentence he cites from his own earlier work in 2000. However, it is yet again a falsification of truth. Gandhi acknowledged that he read about earth treatment in Just’s book. However, he warns ‘Those who purchase Just’s book on the strength of this chapter should not take everything in it to be gospel truth’ (ibid, p26). On p39 Gandhi writes ‘Nature Cure occupies the place of honour and in it Ramanama is the most important. Consequently, Prof Alter needs to tell us whether Ramanama too was ‘invented’ in Germany as he claims ‘nature cure’ was. ‘Nature Cure consists of two parts. Firstly, to cure diseases by taking the name of God or Ramanama; and secondly, to prevent illness by the inculcation of right and hygienic living’ says Gandhi (p44). On p45 again Gandhi says, ‘The central feature of Nature Cure treatment is Ramanama’. Yet Prof Alter conveniently drops these strong references of Gandhi. This goes on to evidence that the real purpose of Prof Alter’s paper seems to be to appropriate the legacy of nature cure by branding it as German ‘invention’. Though in the foreword to the book on Nature Cure by Gandhi, Desai writes that he was tremendously influenced by Kuhn’ s work, Gandhi clarifies on p12’ Hydrotherapy is a well-known and ancient form of therapy’ but opined that ‘hydrotherapy suggested by Kuhn is simple and effective’. Though hydropathy is integral to nature cure and was well-known for ages, Prof Alter would like us to believe that nature cure in totality was a German invention!
- P16: To advance his claim that Indian’s learnt about nature cure from Germany, Prof Alter provides an amusing evidence. He states that Arogya Mandir and Nisargopchar and the National Institute of Naturopathy have significant number of early German works. But it is clear from Gandhi’s book on nature cure that most of the practices enshrined therein were known and practiced in ancient India. Again, we are back to the argument whether compilation of a book constitutes ‘invention’ as Prof Alter claims. Neither the Arogya Mandir nor the National Institute of Naturopathy make any reference to the German origin of nature cure, which would seem very odd given the claims made by Prof Alter.
- P16 he notes ‘early innovators in India experimented with and adapted the techniques developed by German, American and English naturopaths’ and in turn Europeans leant asana and pranayama from India. Accordingly, nature cure becomes ‘cosmopolitan’ yet since such interaction didn’t take place in Ayurveda makes the latter ‘nationalistic and fundamentalist’ according to Prof Alter. But using the same yardstick all indigenous systems would become nationalistic including ‘nature cure’ assuming it was invented in Germany as Prof Alter claims. What about Chinese medicine/acupressure/acupuncture then?
- P11: Prof Alter’s convoluted writing is apparent throughout the paper; however, it is starkly evidenced by first paragraph on this page where one sentence consists of 10 lines. One wonders whether the purpose of the paper is to illumine the reader or to obscure the content?
Hammersley (1990) provides four-point criteria for reading ethnographic research.
- The consistency of claims compared with empirical data
- The credibility of the account to readers and those studied
- The extent to which findings have relevance to those in similar settings
- The extent to which the influence of the research design and strategy on findings is considered (the reflexivity of the account), and the existence of an audit trail.
Going by the analysis contained in this rebuttal, one can conclude that Prof Alter’s work is seriously flawed, and I wonder what his real motivation was in writing the paper. Incidentally, the very next day that he presented the seminar, he was to address the participants in Christian Yoga class. The entry thereto was restricted so I couldn’t attend it.
Note: The rebuttal was sent to Body & Society editor who advised that the editorial board considered it but decided against publishing. No reasons were assigned.
 Alter, J. (2014). Nature Cure and Ayurveda: Nationalism, Viscerality and Bio-ecology of India, Body & Society, 21 (1): 1-26.
 Serres, M. (2008) The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, trans. M. Sankey and P. Cowley, London: Continnum.
 Lantour, B, (2004) Politics of Nature: How to bring the sciences in to democracy, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.
 Lantour, B. (2005) Reassembling the Social, An Introduction to the Actor-Network Theory, New York: Oxford University Press.
 Serres, M. and B. Lantour (1995) Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, University of Michigan Press, USA. Retrieved:
 Klostermaier, K. (2010) A survey of Hinduism, SUNY Press, Canada.
 Wilk, R. (1993) ‘Beauty and the feast: official and visceral nationalism in Belize’, Ethnos, vol. 58, no. 3-4, pp. 294-316.
 Eriksen, T. (1993) Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives, Pluto, London.
 Ramanama is reciting the name of Lord Rama. It is a typical Hindu practice to invoke the name of God (here Lord Rama) throughout life. This practice is going on for ages.
 Hammersley P. Reading ethnographic research: a critical guide. Harlow: Longman; 1990.
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