Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

"Illness Is Nothing but Injustice": The Revolutionary Element in Bengali Folk Healing

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

"Illness Is Nothing but Injustice": The Revolutionary Element in Bengali Folk Healing

Article excerpt

Illness and Healing in Bengali Folklore1

AS EARLY AS 1924, BRITISH NEUROLOGIST AND anthropologist William H. R. Rivers identified in his Medicine, Magic and Religion three causes of disease: "(1) human agency, in which it is believed that disease is directly due to action on the part of some human being; (2) the action of some spiritual or supernatural being or, more exactly, the action of some agent who is not human, but is yet more or less definitely personified; and (3) what we ordinarily call natural causes" ([1924] 2001:7). The work of Rivers bears witness to an acute awareness of cultural understandings of disease, and the existence of diversified healing patterns. Rivers anticipated several aspects of postcolonial medical anthropology. In particular, he emphasized the importance of possession (malignant and therapeutic) and ritual healing in societies where the relation between health-seeking techniques and religion did not suffer the impact of empiricism and the de-legitimation of ancestral forms of knowledge.

Health is not a universal concept. There are different degrees of perceiving ones own (and the others) condition. Medicine in India, with its scientific, cultural, and religious pluralism (Nichter and Nichter 2002:206; Sujatha 2007:172-4), offers an interesting perspective on simultaneous yet diversified notions of health.

According to ("Western") biomedicine, which is nowadays dominant in the Subcontinent, health-seekers are "patients" reporting symptoms and showing a series of "abnormalities." Conversely, Indie medical systems-chiefly Ayurveda-have elaborated alternative etiologies.2 Disease (roga, vyädhi) in medical compendia is examined as a situation of imbalance, often resulting from actions in breach of right conduct (sadvrtti) and therefore opposite to the order (dharma) governing both microcosm (body) and macrocosm (universe) (cf. Wujastyk 2QQ3b:394). But the imbalances that threaten every aspect oflife are variously experienced and expressed. While biomedical approaches and indigenous medical traditions are built on the diagnosis and treatment of pathological disorders, one should consider the meaning given to "disorder," and its implications, by those who experience it (Cerulli 2012:13-48). This sends us back to the distinction between disease, "a biomedically measurable lesion or anatomical or physiological irregularity" (Ember and Ember 2004:xxviii) and illness, "the culturally structured, personal experience ofbeing unwell which entails the experience of suffering. 'Illness' can refer to a variety of conditions cross-culturally. In some cultures, it is limited to somatic experiences; in others it includes mental dysfunction; in others it includes suffering due to misfortune, too" (Ember and Ember 2004:xxxiii) (cf. also Hahn 1984:2; Wilce 1997:353; Lock and Nguyen 2010:71-5).

As a comprehensive discourse on Indian or even Bengali folklore in general is simply not possible, I will limit myself to an analysis of material gathered from participant observation in the areas of West Bengal shown in table 1.

In 2004, during a moment of rest from a complex healing session, one of my informants told me: "Illness [rog] is nothing but injustice [abicär]. The greatest injustice of all. Do you understand?" A young man in his early thirties, he was engaged in a ritual vow,3 to free his wife from the personal and social tragedy that is barrenness. Although not particularly "religious,"4 he believed in what he was being told to do, and in what he was doing. At the same time, he expressed his sincere sadness for a condition neither he nor his wife deserved. His words made me reflect on how the concept of injustice is experienced and countered, and how- in contrast with much Marxian critique-ritual and its manipulation can be tools to achieve self-consciousness and emancipation.

Stories of rag or asukh (literally, unhappiness, broadly speaking, any form of sufferance)5 are extremely popular in Bengali myths and folk narratives. …

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