Dr. Malavika Binny talks about her love for history and her study on Ayurveda and Transgenders

From Sabarimala to LA, we as people are compelled to question gender roles and divides in our society. How much of the divide is due to lack of awareness, our conditioning or even Science, which is supposed to be neutral and objective? Dr. Malavika Binny, Assistant Professor, Department of History, SRM University AP, Amaravati takes a closer look at the latter with her research ‘From the status of anokha to lesser humans – a study on Ayurveda and transgenders’.

“How notion of genders is connected to what we perceive to be science today?,” is her question, highly pertinent to our times.

Ayurveda – The Medical Science of Medieval Periods

While Ayurveda might have lost some of its sheen in recent times, it is still prevalent in the country. But in the early medieval period between 7th and 12th century, it was THE medical science; a tendency that continued well up to the latter half of the colonial period. It’s this interesting period of civilization that Dr. Binny focuses on through Sanskrit and Manipravalam texts. “There is a lot of sermonizing, prescriptions and proscriptions in these ‘medical’ treatises that had nothing to do with the biological function of the body. There were codes on how men, women and transgenders should live their lives,” she explains. Looking at the societal constructs till date, it’s not difficult to find resonance with her work.

Transgenders – From unique births to being labelled as medical disorders

Dr. Binny talks about texts where girls between ages of 14 and 18 weren’t allowed to leave homes in the second half of the lunar month, days when couples could and could not be together, about menstrual and other discriminatory taboos which greatly diminished the mobility of women. There were days when transgenders were allowed to enter homes and temples. “In fact in the early Ayurvedic texts, transgenders were referred to as ‘anokha’ or unique births. But by the 14th- 15th centuries, they are seen only as a medical disorder, or as napumsak, their identity being ‘reduced to not being a man’. Of course, the affective category here is Man. My study looks at the transition of this category of people from unique births to being derided and absolutely discriminated when we reach 14th / 15th century,” she adds.

Social discriminatory tendencies in Science

Dr. Malavika Binny is last year’s Elamakulam Kunjan Pillai Young Historian Award winner at the Kerala History Congress. Her research interests lie in the construction of gendered bodies and identities in per-modern India with regards to Ayurveda and other indigenous healing techniques. Hence, it’s not surprising that though she says her current work is focused on “a category of people”, she looks at the broader picture too. “Even in those days Science was considered to be neutral and objective, yet there is this creeping in of social discriminatory practices. When gender practices get into science, gender ideologies get reinforced and become social precepts,” she says strongly.

Movement of Ayurveda as a knowledge system

While the movement of people and goods through certain routes as a part of colonialism is well known, not many of us know about the movement of medicine from India to Afghanistan and onward to Russia and later to the Atlantic coast. Dr. Binny sheds light on the movement of knowledge systems in the times of proto-colonialism. “One of the knowledge systems that interacted with others was Ayurveda. You can see it interacting with Yunani medicine, Chinese and Greco-Roman medicine in the 14th century. Interestingly, Ayurveda also accepts knowledge from other medicines into its fold. There are references, which prove that,” she says citing examples.

Her story with History

A decade ago, Dr. Binny won the Neelima Memorial Award for First Rank in BA History and before that the CBSE AISSCE Award for the highest marks in Humanities. She is also the recipient of the Erasmus Mundus Fellowship instituted by the European Union for PhD candidates which enabled her to engage in research at some of the premier universities of the world including the Leiden University, Free University of Berlin and École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in France.  But her association with the subject runs way deep, as growing up she was influenced by the presence of Indian and World history books around the house. She speaks with refreshing candor as she explains her love for the subject. “It was a camping trip in class 8th when I came across tribals in North Kerala. My middle-class bubble burst and I began to wonder if there are social, political, economic factors behind people living a certain way. When I came across discriminatory practices of gender in my life, I got interested in examining how men or women respond to these gendered practices,” she says recounting how her personal journey is interlinked with her interests. That’s also why her study is effortlessly resonant and relevant.

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