Social Distancing: an Ancient Hindu Public Health Measure?
By William S. Sax
Following the rapid spread of social distancing to slow the spread of the Corona virus, Hindu nationalists developed the thesis that the rest of the world was merely adopting practices developed thousands of years ago by “Hindu civilization.” For example the Hindu form of greeting by holding the palms together, was at one point advocated by many public health experts, leading Sharma and Varshney (2020). Goel (2020) also argues that the anjali mudra, like the social isolation of mourners in India, is meant to avoid spreading germs, and Jains wear cloth masks in order to avoid infection.
Such scientistic claims are common within Hindu nationalist circles (see Michaels/Wulf 2020). It is claimed for example that ancient Indians mastered space flight, or that ancient Ayurvedic doctors were familiar with blood pressure and its effects thousands of years before the invention of the machine that first enabled its detection. This reflects the idea, common even amongst Professors of Ayurvedic medicine, that medical knowledge was complete at the time of the original revelation, and that new discoveries made in “the West” must, by definition, be of things that were already known to the ancients.
But if this is true, then the good days are truly gone, and ignorance is the order of the day. Witness the cult leader from Gujarat who, before his death from COVID-19 (after which he was praised by no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi) was recorded on camera licking sweets before passing them on to his disciplines, thus raising the possibility that he infected thousands (Bench 2020). The confusion brought about by Hindutva scientism is well-known, and an easy target for ridicule. A more serious problem is the de-politicization of caste discrimination by re-defining it as a rational public health measure. Goel, for example, goes on to explain the exclusion of the lowest castes as follows: The Chandalas (Untouchables) were those who dealt with corpses, dirt, and dead materials such as leather. They were expected to live outside the village, perhaps because it was known that the work they did had the potential to spread disease.
In my view, the most intelligent response to such twaddle comes from anti-caste activists (Anand 2020, Gupta et al 2020, Kesavan 2020, Singh 2020), who make the obvious point that social distancing is based on science and the presumed universality of human bodies, while the “social distancing” associated with caste is explicitly hierarchical, and views low caste persons’ bodies as inherently dirty and polluted. Singh makes the point with particular clarity when he writes that “(s)ocial distancing is a hygienic practice of keeping safe physical distance to avoid transmission of communicable diseases. Untouchability, on the other hand, is a practice of ostracising a minority group and denying them social equality.” He goes on to relate stories of high-caste COVID-19 patients refusing to eat the food in isolation centres because it was prepared by lowcaste cooks, or of a woman who committed suicide after being harassed and tortured in her medical institution on the basis of her caste.
Several activist-authors compare caste itself to a virus: Anand for example writes that the “Brahmins instituted social distancing first, which it seems, led to the (caste) pandemic,” and he quotes Ambedkar, who wrote that “(t)he condition for the sentiment of fraternity lies in sharing in the vital processes of life. It is sharing in the joys and sorrows of birth, death, marriage and food… With a complete refusal to share the joys and sorrows of life how can the sentiment of fraternity take roots?” A system built on social distancing, writes Anand, “cannot value fraternity. It is, instead, based on selfishness, on narrow interests and deeply entrenched ideas of othering.” And not only of the lower castes: Kesavan (2020) illustrates how the pandemic has given rise to new forms of chauvinist rhetoric, in which Muslims are portrayed as the “malevolent vanguard of a new kind of war, a coronajihad.”
This article was originally published in the inaugural issue of CATSarena, the newsletter of the Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies (CATS) at Heidelberg University, which can be found here. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
Anand, Aviral. 2020. Social Distancing and the Pandemic of Caste. The Wire, 24 March 2020.
Bench, Arre. 2020. Blind Faith is the Super-spreader: Did Gujarat Godman, Who Died of Covid-19, Lace Prasad With Saliva (https://www.arre.co.in/coronavirus/priest-gujarat-godman-covid-19-prasad-with-saliva/).
Goel, Alok. 2020. Social Distancing and Public Health in Ancient India. Spiritual Botany, Issue 5.
Gupta, Charu and K. Satyanarayana and S. Shankar. 2020. The History of Caste Has Lessons on the Dangers of Social Distancing. The Wire.
Kesavan, Mukul. 2020. Caste and Contagion. The Telegraph Online, 04 October Michaels, Axel, and Christoph Wulf (eds.). 2020. Science and Scientification in South Asia and Europe. London and New York: Routledge, 2020.
Sharma, Jyoti and Sanjeev Kumar Varshney. 2020. Social distancing and quarantine: Part of traditional practices. Webzine Indus Scrolls, Indian to the core from 23 April, 2020.
Singh, Shambhavi Raj. 2020. #DalitLivesMatter: Why Are Atrocities Against Dalits On The Rise? In Intersectional Feminism – Desi Style! June 11 2020.
William S. (‘ Bo’ ) Sax joined Heidelberg University in 2000 as Professor and Head of the Department of Anthropology at the South Asia Institute. His research focuses on the Ethnography of the Western Himalayas, Medical Anthropology, Mental Health, and Religion and Healing.
Citation: William S. Sax, Social Distancing: an Ancient Hindu Public Health Measure?, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.04.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/26648.