“Hindoo” Bodies: American Representations of Indian Medicine, Health, and Disease

Phrenologists believed they could understand the “Hindoo” by measuring his head.  A woman writing health pamphlets in Chicago labeled her form of marital sexual practices “yoga,” while the authorities labeled them “obscenities.”  Cholera broke out in Great Britain, threatened urban cities in America, and allegedly originated in ritual bathing along the Ganges in India.  A group of doctors in New York met to discuss the history of their vocation, tracing its origins back to the Greeks and the ancient Brahmans.  These examples point to the ways nineteenth-century American ideas about sex, bodies, health, disease, and medicine connected to the history and culture of India in a variety of ways. This paper argues that Americans deployed representations of Indian bodies and discourses of Indian health and disease in their own conflicts over American identity, American health, and American religion.

Michael J. Altman is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Affiliated Faculty in Asian Studies at the University of Alabama. His research focuses on the construction of the category “religion” in American history, especially through the history of Asian religions in America. He recently published his first book, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893 (Oxford, 2017), an analysis of how Americans used representations of India in conflicts over American identity and religion during the nineteenth century. He is in the early stages of a new research project on the cultural history of Mohandas Gandhi in America. Dr. Altman is interested in the multiple ways Americans represented Gandhi to serve their own interests in the twentieth century.