Interpreting the Image of the Human Body in Premodern India


The journal article penned by Dominik Wujastyk was published in 2009 in the International Journal of Hindu Studies. The author begins structuring his analysis by introducing postmodernism as a metaphor to speak of “discourses, textualities, inscriptions, readings, and deciphering” (189). His point is to lay the groundwork as an analytic tool in discussion of the current schism between Ayurvedic and modern medicine. Furthermore he uses postmodernism to draw contrast to a commonality across ancient Indian philosophy regarding the sames revulsion between the disconnect between body and mind or “breaking link” with the “identification with embodiment” (abhiniveśa)(189). In fact, much Indian philosophy is geared toward dispelling the disconnect. What follows is a discourse to mark the boundaries in pre-modern Indian literature regarding different bodies. To note that a “meditating yogin (cakra) would talk in a completely different way about his body than a surgeon” (205).

            Wujastyk notes beginning in India’s earliest period that the body is a vehicle of exterior consciousness leading into the subtle interior body. In fact, Sanskrit embodies many terms denoting this interior exterior relationship. He states the Sanskrit term deha and its grammatical root could be conveyed as the “body as an external coating or covering” (190).  Furthering his analysis, Wujastyk discusses the Taittirīya Upaniṣads which posits the five bodies or “ātmans” which we know as the manomaya kosha model. This model posits the self as the locus whereas in the later Tantric traditions the anatomical “map” changed. This anatomy “mapped the body as the locus of spiritual energies and points of graduated spiritual awakening” (190).

            The author moves the discussion by surveying the various intellectual disciplines and religious conceptions of the “different imagined bodies” in premodern India noting the richness of both the visual representation and the depth of the Sanskrit language to draw out subtleties. In the second part of his piece Wujastyk accounts for the “encounter between Āyurvedic anatomy and early colonial European anatomy” in which “radically different body conceptualizations are simultaneously held in unacknowledged cognitive dissonance” (191).

            The author survey’s nine separate concepts of body types within the premodern Indian corpus. I will list them respectively: The Body of Sacrifice, Body as World, The Upaniṣadic Body, The Jain Body, The Buddhist Body, The Tantric Body, The Yogic Body, The Wrestler’s Body and The Medical Body.

            Beginning with The Body of Sacrifice the author states that concepts of anatomical body actually come quite late in Indian philosophy. First notions of the body come in the form of texts, specifically the Ṛg Veda as a Hymn. “Hymn to Man presents man as the original sacrificial being whose body is divided as a primal creative act” (192). Scholarship is divided on whether actual sacrificial killing indeed took place. Any sacrificial killing was of a ritualistic nature and not to scientifically dissect a body. The Vedic point of view is a sacrifice is a vehicle to heaven, the rub is the person who want admittance to heaven performs the sacrifice.

Body as World narrative can be seen in the Caraka Samhita which asserts whatever is found in the world can also be found in the body. This texted is quite detailed in explaining the elements of water, fire, air and ether as bodily moisture, bodily warmth, breath and ether in cavities respectively. The author gives a short explanation of The Upaniṣadic Body. The early Upaniṣads begin to develop ideas on bodily functions and their nature. Reflections concerning breath and breathing are drilled into by categorizing five types of breath based on location and function. Later Upaniṣads develop ideas of physical states that accompany meditation exercises, along with hierarchies of sleep and walking.  

The Jain Body is noteworthy for the complexity with the imagery of a giant man. The vertical axis of the giant man “corresponds to various levels of divine, human, and hellish habitation” (196). The Jain tradition asserts “karma is a semi-material substance” that clings to the soul and carries actual weight. The author writes about the most striking premodern imagery is the apophatic body of the Jain saint who has cast off all corrupting karma becoming a pure being. In The Buddhist Body conception history shows Prince Siddhattha Gotama’s life was upended when he encountered four bodies. The bodies of the dead, poor, old and sick. The author also details a contrast with the Jain saint in that these two traditions view the body as irrelevant.

The Tantric Body rooted in early tantric texts becomes more prominent during the first millennium CE with depictions of the tantric view that “the body as the locus” housing six wheels of energy arranged vertically along the central axis of the spine called cakras.  This model of the body was build upon in numerous yogic texted and is an example of a non-anatomical formulation of the body that views the body as a vehicle to move mystical energies to become awakened.

            The Yogic Body shares a likeness to the tantra conception of the body but is based upon Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras which is largely a “psychological and spiritual text” (200). Details on āsana are non existent in the sutras with the main features germane to quieting the mind to achieve higher states of consciousness. However in 1903, Haṃsasvarūpa Mahārāja takes a stab at a literal interpretation of Yogic and Tantric physiology via text and illustration demonstrating the physical reality of the cakras and energy channels. He labors to marry the western anatomical model and the Yogic body as understood centuries before. Wujastyk notes the “serious attempt at an integrative approach to understanding the world” (203) that Mahārāja attempted.

            Moving onto The Wrestlers Body the author states the tradition of gymnastics and exercise training are very old in the Indian corpus and can be related to yoga, martial arts and asceticism. The author speaks to the body of the “martial arts gymnast” as understood in a concept called marmans. A medical text in 600 CE relates that marmans are a “point that pulsates irregularly and which hurts when pressed” (204). Marmans are considered a type of pressure point but if wounded would lead to death. Wujastyk then debunks the notion that marmans can be traced to Ayurvedic texts which he says now “has been conclusively quashed” (204).

            The narrative begins to accelerate where the body images begin to merge with the medical bodies. Ayurveda is the chief discourse regarding the emergence of anatomical renderings, although this is provocative in that Francis Zimmerman sees nothing “real” in Ayurvedic anatomy. Wujastyk states that the “Buddhist interpretation of the body, in which process is privileged over substance” can account for Zimmerman opinion. We also see a historical shift where ideas from Persian anatomy emerge in India in the early eighteenth century.

            A major advancement springs up in 1898 when Muralidhara Sharma, a royal physician produces an addition of the Śusruta Saṃhitā that included an unprecedented number of medical images. Some of these same images are used in Ayurvedic literature to the present day. Sharma’s analysis is there is no divide between Ayurvedic and the English anatomy. Another leap forward takes place in 1913 when Gananath Sen publishes “The Body Revealed.” The use of Sanskrit was a “deliberate act aimed at reaching as wide of a medical audience as he could” (214). Sen was a nationalist and used this medical platform in an attempt to recapture some of India’s past glory.

            At this point in our Tour-de-Force of body image history, a divergence begins to appear. The attempted marriage of Ayurveda and western anatomy begins to run afoul. Quoting Wujastyk, “a deeply flawed epistemological situation in which two quite different and essentially incompatible anatomical models of the body are held in mind at once, in acquiescence to schismatic worldview” (217).  This is evidenced by imagery that shows Ayurvedic skeletons with no narrative surrounding the image, or worse Sanskrit labels are cut out and pasted to the skeletal sketches which have no contextual meaning whatsoever. There was a loss of interest in comparing or contrasting these two models of medicine at this point. This duality is a function of the difficulty in meshing these two systems in one overarching way to analyze the human structure.

            This push and pull, east and west vacillation seems to be a historical trend. In the early 20th century efforts were made to provide fresh material, both visual and descriptive narratives of anatomy that took into account both Ayurveda and western medicine. This integration was a major push at unification which is active to this day. However in the inter-years Ayurveda again was pushed to the sidelines in lieu of western methods. To sum up where we are today, please listen to the follow quote:

From one perspective, the inner state of Ayurveda (today) is a picture of struggle to establish epistemological identity and retain integrity. From another, it is a picture of unhappy compromise with modern medicine seeking justification in terms of modern medical theory and its parameters, and trying unsuccessfully to prove itself to be scientific (221)


Works Cited

Wujasyk, Dominik. “Interpreting the Image of the Human Body in Premodern India” International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol 13, Number 2. 2009, pp 189-228.