Homoeopathic Medicine & Colonialism in Bengal

A review of Homoeopathic Families, Hindu Nation and the Legislating State: Making of a Vernacular Science, Bengal: 1866-1941, by Shinjini Das.

Homoeopathic Families, Hindu Nation and the Legislating State: Making of a Vernacular Science, Bengal: 1866-1941 by Shinjini Das is a fine work on the colonial career of homoeopathic medicine in Bengal. Framed within critical debates on South Asian historiography, this dissertation makes a valuable contribution to history of medicine. Das studies the processes that constituted homoeopathy as a “vernacular science” in British Bengal. In Das’s words, “In mapping homoeopathy’s vernacularisation, this dissertation explores and analyses the disparate ways in which the historical understanding of ‘homoeopathy’ and ‘family’ in late nineteenth- early twentieth century Bengal informed one another” (p. 3). Das situates her dissertation within a two paradoxes that characterized homoeopathy’s trajectory. One was the non-British and European origin of homoeopathy in Bengal. Second was a lack of legislative support on the part of the colonial state to the institutional growth of homoeopathy. Despite the colonial state’s obvious anxieties regarding the mounting popularity of homoeopathy in Bengal (posing a challenge to so called ‘western medicine’) Das argues that nonetheless, colonialism amply contributed to the flourish of homoeopathy in Bengal. Missionaries distributed cheap homoeopathic drugs. Members of “civil and military services” used them, and most importantly English becoming the decisive “linguistic mediation in accessing the various currents of European homoeopathic thoughts for the literate Bengali bhadralok in the nineteenth century” (pp. 10-11). Das also points to the complex and messy nature of the negotiations between the British state and authorities that produced and circulated such knowledge of homoeopathy.

The introductory chapter is a contextualizing overview of the six noteworthy family-business firms that marketed homoeopathic drugs. Mid-nineteenth century marked the emergence of these firms and this chapter delves into the mutually constitutive relationship between the imagination of business firms as joint families and these business firms being projected as models for the efficient management of families.

Chapter 2 is an analysis of how discourses on homoeopathy in British Bengal developed in close conjunction with the writing of biographies of eminent homoeopathy physicians. The author thereby portrays a picture of a medicine that was constituted by professional practices of a group of caring and knowledgeable medical men. This image, according to Das, was crucial to foster an acceptance of homoeopathy as a knowledge that brought “authors, subjects, publishers, and patrons” together.

Homoeopathic medicine as a valid branch of medical knowledge, a profession, and as effective treatment was possible in a huge way because of the translation and popularization of a rich body of homoeopathic medical literature into Bengali. Das’s careful analysis in Chapter 3 points to the institutionalization of homoeopathy as a modern, national-vernacular knowledge that was deeply sensitive to the cultural and social idioms of the land and its practitioners.

Chapter 4 engages with a thick description of Bengali writings, mostly domestic health manuals that made possible the flourishing of homoeopathy as a truly “indigenous” knowledge. This was a medicine that was even more homegrown and domestic than Ayurveda. Das makes a compelling argument here. More than any other narrative she says, developing a discourse of manufactured kinship between the Bengali family and homoeopathy as valid medical knowledge and practice was decisive in making homoeopathy a popular branch of medicine in Bengal.

Chapter 5 explores the “shifting” interactions between “the colonial state, families and firms manufacturing and marketing homoeopathic drugs, and the nationalist government in Bengal to study the entangled discourse through which nationalist and homoeopathy appropriated one another” (p. 36).

Shinjini Das makes a significant contribution to history of medicine in India. In the last six or seven years, regional trajectories of a number of medical traditions in India have received critical scholarly attention. Historians of medicine have carefully sorted through rich archives of medicine to map the stimulating local chronicles of medicine in colonial and postcolonial India. By looking at these regional histories, these scholars have challenged established ideas and concepts that marked earlier works on these topics—for example Ayurveda or Unani Tibb—as “alternative” medical knowledge. These texts have unearthed unusual sets of events and processes through which different traditions of medicine in India came to be labeled as modern and morphed into some their contemporary forms. Kavita Sivaramskrishnan, Old Potions, New Bottles: Recasting Indigenous Medicine in Colonial Punjab 1850-1945 (New Delhi:  Orient Longman, 2006); Madhulika Banerjee, Power, Knowledge, Medicine: Ayurvedic Pharmaceuticals at Home and in the World (New Delhi:  Orient Longman, 2009); Maarten Bode, Taking Traditional Knowledge to the Market: The Modern Image of the Ayurvedic and Unani Industry 1980-2000 (New Delhi:  Orient Longman, 2013); Guy Attewell, Refiguring Unani Tibb: Plural Healing in Late Colonial India (New Delhi:  Orient Longman, 2007); and Projit B. Mukharji, Nationalizing the Body: The Market, Print, and Daktari Medicine (London: Anthem Press, 2011) are some important works in this body of literature.

Shinjini Das’s dissertation is an invaluable addition to this scholarship.  A dissertation grounded in meticulous archival research Das’s work will offer new insights on homoeopathy’s social, economic, political, and cultural track in colonial Bengal.

Srirupa Prasad
Department of Women’s & Gender Studies and Sociology
University of Missouri-Columbia
prasads@missouri.edu

Primary Sources

Majumdar, Jitendranath. Arther Sandhan (Pursuit of Wealth), 3rd Ed., (Calcutta: Sisir Publishing House, 1932).
Mukhopadhyay, Gopal Chandra. Sadhu Batakrishna Pal. Vol. 2 (Calcutta, 1919).
Nandi, Srish Chandra, Monpyathy (Kasimbazar, 1931).
Ray, Dwijendralal. ‘Dedication page’, Trhyasparsha ba Sukhi Paribar (Triangular Impact or the Happy Family) (Calcutta: Surdham, Second edition, 1915).
Pal, Batakrishna. ‘Preface’, in Homoeopathic Mowt E Saral Griha Chikitsha (Simple Domestic Treatment According to Homoeopathy), 7th Ed. (Calcutta: Great Homoeopathic Hall).

Dissertation Information

University College London. 2012. 290 pp. Primary Advisor: Sanjoy Bhattacharya.

Image: Samuel Hahnemann, Founder of Homoeopathy, 1849. Obtained by author with permission from Wellcome Images.

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