What caste is Joshi

Health in India - healing with amulet and antibiotic

Traditional and modern healing methods exist in parallel in India. Both approaches should complement each other in a meaningful way

Gabriele Alex and Vibha Joshi Parkin actually belong to different departments at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen for research into multi-religious and multi-ethnic societies. But the two scientists deal with the diverse healing methods and traditions in Indian society. From different perspectives, they show that supposed opposites are not so incompatible in practice.

Text: Birgit Fenzel

In the event of agony, a sick person in India has the choice between Western-style biomedicine and a range of local healing methods. He can cure his ailment with Ayurvedic oils, nasal showers or enemas, try his luck with globules from classic homeopathy or herbal ointments from naturopathy. Perhaps he would also like to use a therapy determined by a Siddha doctor to rebalance the unbalanced energies of his body by vomiting, purging or warm compresses.

The patient can also visit a specialist for Unani, who, based on the Greek theory of the juices, restores the unbalanced balance between blood, mucus, black and yellow bile. For particularly bad cases, specialists offer their services that tend to reach into the metaphysical.

According to the observation of ethnologist Gabriele Alex, whether the surgeon is consulted in the event of a broken leg or the spell of a spiritual healer is in demand depends heavily on what cause of the disease is assumed, how far the respective health offers are from the place of residence, and above all on socio-economic status. "Basically it is no different from us, where you try to cure certain ailments with home remedies and only go to the doctor for more serious illnesses."

The anthropologist Vibha Joshi Parkin has observed with the Angami in north-east India how freely many Indians combine elements from different religions with modern and traditional medicine in the treatment of diseases, who use Christian, animistic or other religious elements in the treatment of diseases, depending on their use Mix. Unlike Gabriele Alex, who as a member of Steven Vertovec's group mainly deals with issues of socio-cultural diversity, Joshi Parkin belongs to Peter van de Veer's department, who is interested in aspects of religious plurality.

Research into causes in dreams and trance

In her recently completed book Christianity and healing: the Angami Naga of northeast India, Parkin describes the relationship between Christian faith and healing among the Angami Naga in Nagaland, more than 85 percent of whom have converted to Baptists, Catholics, or other Christian denominations. “And some of this was three generations ago,” says the Max Planck researcher.

Although it has established itself as a religion in this region and has long been established, Christianity has not completely replaced the original spiritual world of the Angami. Even today there are media and shamans among them who are said to be able to come into contact with the original animistic guardian spirits. Some predict the future, others experience the causes of illnesses or how to cure them in dreams or trance.

In her study, Joshi Parkin uses a case study to describe how naturally people mix the various healing offers from organic or folk medicine as well as Christianity and the traditional spiritual world. It is the case history of a young woman from a Baptist family whose suffering priests explained by obsession. After a febrile illness and the first asthma attacks, the patient suddenly had aggressive behavior changes that were directed against everything and everyone.

During a visit, the researcher learned about the diverse efforts to find the right diagnosis and therapy. Initially, the family turned to local healers, and at the same time called in the head of a nearby prayer center, who also practiced as a folk medicine. It was from him that the diagnosis came that an evil spirit was behind the failure symptoms. In addition, the family sought biomedical advice and took the girl to the local hospital for blood tests. But the doctors there found no explanation for the patient's condition. At least a doctor from Assam was able to treat the young woman's asthma.

After that, the family sought Christian help and found a pastor who tried to drive out the evil spirit with prayers. Since the tantrums persisted, other priests consulted concluded that it must be a particularly large evil spirit that had been entrenched for so long that the separation was extremely difficult. The family heard a second diagnosis from another preacher: he attributed the girl's tantrums to the fact that the patient's great-grandfather had committed a sin.

Finally, a third theory explained the condition with the fact that the girl refused to accept a divine gift in childhood. According to the Angami, shamans and spiritual healers are called through dreams and visions to put their powers in the service of people. Refusal to answer this call threatens harm to body and soul.

Quotes from the Bible are intended to help with treatment

When the researcher visited, the girl was still not cured, despite all therapy efforts. But the anthropologist was not interested in the success or failure of various treatment methods. Rather, she sees in this medical history a pattern for the undogmatic flexibility with which the Angami orient themselves in a diverse range of medicine and treatment traditions of a secular and spiritual nature. So it is no exception that priests are also consulted about health problems. Joshi Parkin sees this close connection between the Christian faith and healing in the context of the story of the mission in Nagaland.

The first Christian missionaries who came to the region at the end of the 19th century tried to get their message across to Angami society through education and medical assistance. Back then it was customary to combine treatment with quotes from the Bible in order to bring people closer to the caring side of Christian God, ”says Joshi Parkin. And this is still present, as she found in her field research in Nagaland: "I have seen Bible verses hanging over the entrance or in the treatment rooms in some primary health clinics."

In addition, the Christian churches in the region still cultivate the culture of prayer and healing, whereby the belief in miraculous healing is widespread. As an example of those Christian institutions that walk in the footsteps of the Lord in their treatment methodology, she mentions the Revival Church of Nagaland, whose specialties include healing by the laying on of hands and which runs entire healing camps for this purpose.

The healing offerings of the other churches concentrate more on the power of prayer. "Essentially, these are groups of women and particularly qualified people who say special prayers for the sick," explains Parkin. According to her observations, the link between Christianity and medicine also continues. "Now it is the role of the church to reconcile the various conflicting parties of the Naga nationalists and thus to heal the Naga community."

Joshi Parkin's colleague, the ethnologist Gabriele Alex, also came across images with Christian motifs during her research in the folk medicine-oriented healer shops of the Vagri in Tamil Nadu. The Vagri belong to the three population groups that Alex had chosen as an example for her study of the healing systems and healing traditions in Tamil Nadu. “I was particularly interested in how castes with a low social status perceive the medical services and which methods they use to treat diseases,” explains the researcher.

In fact, the residents of the southernmost Indian state have a choice between various health systems. On the one hand there is traditional folk medicine - with an extremely diverse and differentiated arsenal of remedies and recipes against diseases of all kinds. "It includes grandmother's home remedies with healing herbal teas, spice mixtures or soups as well as professional healers, their own practices or even clinics and treat broken bones, animal bites or skin diseases, ”says Gabriele Alex, listing some of the specialties from the nattu maruntu tradition.

What all these methods have in common is that they relate to a knowledge of medicinal formulas and medicinal plants that have been passed down from generation to generation within the family that come from the surrounding nature. The tradition also has an ideological character: "This type of medicine is strongly associated with a romantic past in India and an image of nature and naturalness that is opposed to modernity," says Alex. On the other hand, a basic biomedical offering is now also available to the population in rural regions. As everywhere in India, the range of public health facilities in Tamil Nadu has visibly improved, above all due to the widespread introduction of basic health facilities.

Health is linked to progress

"In addition, the Indian government has also integrated traditional medical traditions and knowledge systems into state health policy," says the ethnologist. Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha, homeopathy and naturopathy were standardized and incorporated into state education, research and health care. Gabriele Alex: “There are also more private doctors than there were 20 years ago. When I started my first research in Madukottai in 1998, there was only one doctor resident there - and he was not a real doctor, but a so-called quack doctor who had worked for a biomedical doctor for many years as an assistant and then after a few years started his own business. "