In the urban city of Hyderabad, in the Southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, there is an event that recurs every year around the time of the monsoon. Believers, religious adherents, entire families old and young, along with curious outsiders, flock to witness, as well as partake in, a magical healing. The healers are members of the Bathini Gouda family, who have passed down a secret medicine said to have originated in an ancestor’s encounter with a Himalayan sage. The ancestor, Veeranna Gouda, was a toddy-tapper from Hyderabad, and he received from the sage a magical formula to cure asthma. The treatment (known as Mrugasira Fish Therapy), consists of ingesting a live fish stuffed with a herbal paste. The fish travels through the ear-nose-throat canals of the asthmatic patient, relieving phlegm, congestion, and eventually curing breathing problems entirely (or so it is said).
As an ethnographically-oriented observer of Indian religious cultures, it is worth noting some of the ways in which discourse around this practice reflects larger questions of religious and cultural authority in contemporary India. It is, for instance, no surprise that the Bathini family choose to label their therapy as “scientific,” and the people they treat as “patients.” Nor is it surprising that they dress in white, with saffron colored one-cloths, covered in devanagiri lettering, clearly affiliating them with traditional Hindu healing practices.
Nor has this practice gone unnoticed by the larger culture. Some organizations, such as the Andhra Pradesh Gouda Sangham (APGS), have supported this therapy, arguing that, “every year the number of patients have only been increasing… [and that this] is proof enough of the fish medicine’s potency.” Others, most notably the Jnana Vignana Vedika (JVV), which represents the interests of allopathic medicine in India, as well as local doctors and specialists, have expressed rather intense skepticism. The JVV, for instance, has criticized the fish therapy as “unscientific,” and has taken the Bathini family to court, alleging that their herbal medicines contained poisonous substances such as mercury and lead. The APGS (which was created for the lower caste tapper community to have greater representation in government and public policy) responded thusly: “We strongly condemn attempts to discredit Bathini family’s fish medicine by rationalist organizations who are in league with the pharmaceutical companies.” Ultimately, this case was dismissed, as the family submitted their medicinal paste for testing and it was found to be harmless.
Because the family does not accept money for the treatment — Veeranna Gouda is said to have been a charitable person who would only offer treatment “free of cost” and, family members have traditionally held, if the treatment is performed in return for money, its potency will diminish — it may be tempting to assume that they engage in this practice in a manner that transcends issues of cultural power and status. On closer examination, however, this seems unlikely. For, Veeranna Gouda was not simply given a secret recipe; he was also “blessed”as a representative for the larger community. Mrugasira Fish Therapy works not because of the Bathini Gouda family but through it, and the family have laid explicit claim to spiritual proprietary rights, suggesting that, if others use the same fish therapy with no knowledge of the true recipe of the paste, its power will be diminished. This is not to suggest insincerity or guile as a motive on the family’s part, but rather that religious sincerity and claims to religious authority tend to be rather intimately inter-related.
Importantly, while interpreting such discourse in terms of power-relations might tell us something about the parties involved and the larger social interests at stake in enacting, approving, or discrediting, a given healing ritual, it does not tell us much about why such rituals are successful or popular. The people who come to witness, or partake of, Mrugasira Fish Therapy come from numerous castes and classes of Indian society, and some travel from several states far away to seek this treatment. For modern Indians, both religious and scientifically-minded, the fact that science has not yet found a cure for asthma opens up the possibility that a non-normative and little-known treatment such as the Mrugasira Fish Therapy could prove more efficacious than an allopathic doctor.