Medicine and Martial Arts in South India
by Roman Sieler
This book consititutes one of the first ethnographic studies of siddha medicine in general and of its sub-specialization, varmakkalai, in particular. As such, it provides a much needed counterweight to traditional studies of Indian medicine by using in-depth ethnographic research in addition to textual analysis.
Lethal Spots, Vital Secrets provides an ethnographic study of varmakkalai, or “the art of the vital spots,” a South Indian esoteric tradition that combines medical practice and martial arts. Although siddha medicine is officially part of the Indian Government’s medically pluralistic health-care system, very little of a reliable nature has been written about it.
Drawing on a diverse array of materials, including Tamil manuscripts, interviews with practitioners, and his own personal experience as an apprentice, Sieler traces the practices of varmakkalai both in different religious traditions—such as Yoga and Ayurveda—and within various combat practices. His argument is based on in-depth ethnographic research in the southernmost region of India, where hereditary medico-martial practitioners learn their occupation from relatives or skilled gurus through an esoteric, spiritual education system. Rituals of secrecy and apprenticeship in varmakkalai are among the important focal points of Sieler’s study. Practitioners protect their esoteric knowledge, but they also engage in a kind of “lure and withdrawal”—-a performance of secrecy—-because secrecy functions as what might be called “symbolic capital.” Sieler argues that varmakkalai is, above all, a matter of texts in practice; knowledge transmission between teacher and student conveys tacit, non-verbal knowledge, and constitutes a “moral economy.” It is not merely plain facts that are communicated, but also moral obligations, ethical conduct and tacit, bodily knowledge.
Lethal Spots, Vital Secrets will be of interest to students of religion, medical anthropologists, historians of medicine, indologists, and martial arts and performance studies.
praise for the book:
“[T]his book makes an excellent scholarly contribution that will be valuable to scholars of Indology, South Asian religions, Hinduism, martial arts, traditional medicine, and anthropology.”–Asian Medicine
“This is an outstanding and original study of the intersection of traditional medicine and martial arts in South India. The ethnography is sensitive and insightful, immersing the reader in the daily lives of specialists of bodily training and therapies. Sieler frames this rich local detail in broad discussions of medical anthropology, tradition, secrecy, and martial arts. This is rigorous and cutting-edge scholarship.” –Richard S. Weiss, author of Recipes for Immortality: Medicine, Religion and Community in South India
Roman Sieler, 2015. Lethal Spots, Vital Secrets: Medicine and Martial Arts in South India. New York: Oxford University Press.
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