Miraculous health and medical itineration among Satnamis and Christians in late colonial Chhattisgarh

Document Type


Publication Date

November 2008

Publication Title

Miracle as Modern Conundrum in South Asian Religious Traditions


Introduction The ever-present entanglement of modernity and tradition was revealed rather plainly to me when, during a period of fieldwork in Raipur, Chhattisgarh (one of India's newest states), I attended a conference on business communication at the invitation of an Indian friend. The conference was sponsored by Rai University and was held in the city's most impressive hotel, which was posh even by Mumbai's standards and paradisiacal by Raipur's. There, surrounded by the signs and symbols of luxury and modernity, two visiting Dartmouth professors presented papers on business communication skills. During the subsequent period of discussion, a rather wealthy, modern-looking Indian inquired of the professors whether their research had found "communication without technology or speech" to have been a useful business tool. After a great deal of garbar (confusion, agitation, bewilderment) it was determined that the questioner was asking the American professors about telepathy. The easy dichotomization of tradition and modernity is undeniably spurious, as is the Whiggish assumption that societies travel on a direct and evolutionary path from the former to the latter. Yet the continued prevalence of such attitudes requires that the careful scholar constantly attempt to undermine them by drawing attention to what the Rudolphs long ago called the "modernity of tradition" (1967, 3-5) and what Saurabh Dube has more recently dubbed the "silent magic of modernities" (1998, vii). The need to highlight the constant entanglement of modernities and traditions is nowhere more necessary than in the study of colonial and evangelical interactions. This chapter investigates one such interaction, and argues that while Satnami and Satnami-Christian Chhattisgarhis who came into contact with Western missionaries between 1868 and 1947 clearly rationalized their medical behavior as a result of the encounter, exchanging, in some ways, the miraculous for the mundane, they did not necessarily reject their traditional understanding of the causes, prevention, and treatment of disease. That is to say, they continued to accept supernatural explanations of etiology and cure. Moreover, this belief was explicitly encouraged by missionaries who—far from being thoroughly modern individuals—sincerely believed that the efficacy of allopathic (or Western) medicine was related to its association with Christianity. If modernity and modern science are typified by a privileging of rationality over religious belief, then it must be argued that in this context Christian missionaries were neither pure agents of modernity nor the purveyors of an adulterated modern form of medicine. Health and healing, for Satnamis, Satnami-Christians, and their evangelical interlocutors, were miraculous—that is, they involved supernatural elements above and beyond the mundane science of observable cause and effect.1 Note: Link is to the catalog entry in WorldCat's catalog. Please see your local librarian for assistance in borrowing this item via interlibrary loan.