Matthew Wolfgram

Encompassing the Biomedical Body: Translation, Temporality, and the Universalization of the Plural Bodies of Ayurveda


This paper draws on ethnographic and historical evidence to account from the transformation of the theory of the body in the Ayurveda system of medicine from a complex of porous, dynamic, contingent, and multiplex bodies to a unified and universal body that encompasses the anatomical and physiological knowledge of Cosmopolitan medicine. Ayurveda apologists have at various points in late colonial and postcolonial India used translation as a means of encompassing this body and of projecting it back upon Indian history. Such encompassments make it seem as if Ayurveda has already anticipated or conceived and lost that which it is incorporating, an effect which apologists ideologize as a sign of the superior scientific parsimony and completeness of their system. I call this particular ideology of translation “salvage translation,” which I argue was used to organize the Ayurvedic conception of time and history around projects to “modernize” the science. I will demonstrate this cultural-linguistic and historical process as it occurred in the context of the modernization of medical education at the Trivandrum Ayurveda College.


Matthew Wolfgram is a linguistic and medical anthropologist from the University of Michigan who is completing his dissertation titled “Translating into Modernity: Between the Languages of Ayurveda.” He currently lectures in the UW-Madison Department of Anthropology and conducts research on classroom discourse at the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research.