Ideologies and Practices of “Well-being”: Body, Locality and Community
Coordinators: Caterina Guenzi, Laurent Pordié and Raphaël Voix
In different contexts, people have different ideas about what is “good”—for the body, for the family, for the society—and how to achieve this good. Since XIXth century, several religious movements originating in South Asia refer to learned traditions such as yoga, astrology, āyurveda, vāstuśāstra in order to elaborate discourses about the meaning of well-being and practices aiming at realizing it. This research group will focus on the vernacular notions and local practices in use—both in the past and the present—in order to regulate and control values and resources such as health, material prosperity, fortune, purity, happiness, longevity or harmony. By gathering together specialists from a variety of fields—anthropologists, historians, Sanskrit scholars, sociologists, geographers, architects, economists and political scientists—the group will both endeavor to examine how different conceptions of “well-being” have been formulated and used in specific regional and historical contexts and raise questions about the evolution and limits of the notion of “well-being” as a concept used by different social-sciences fields.
Questioning the concept of “well-being”
One of the tasks of this research program will be to question the anthropological pertinence of the notion of “well-being” in South Asia. What will be at stake is to determine whether “well-being” can be used as an operative concept to elucidate a wide variety of social phenomena that may belong to several different fields of knowledge. Despite its limits, the notion seems heuristically productive to us because it makes it possible to overcome the generally established separation between the mental/bodily (well-being as “health”), the religious (well-being as “harmony,” correspondence between microcosm and macrocosm, auspiciousness) and the material and economic (well-being as “prosperity,” comfort). It therefore allows us to bring under scrutiny the divisions too-often established in the social sciences between the medical, the religious and the economic.
The research conducted as part of this program will be as much on the representations as the practical applications of the notion of “well-being.” On the one hand, the aim will be to take a look at “ideologies of well-being.” The analysis of the vernacular terminology as it is used in texts—philosophical, religious, medical or legal treatises—or in ethnographic accounts should allow us to reach a more precise understanding of the semantic variations surrounding similar or adjacent notions. For instance, what are the ideas of “well-being of the universe” (lokasaṃgraha), “well-being of society” (samājakalyāṇa), or “well-being of people” (janakalyāṇa)—all found in Hindu Scriptures—about? How are these terms used and to what do they refer to today? How do vernacular terms such as śakti, praṇa, doṣa circulate, get appropriated/transformed/hijacked in the global arena? We also wish to devote attention to “representations of well-being” as they appear in the media (film, advertising, internet) and in literature (theater, novels, poetry).
On the other hand, we will be interested in the practices and techniques that are called upon to achieve a state of well-being. Our analytical perspective will most particularly aim to highlight the gaps that occur between the established norm, the “ideal” of well-being, and the constraints imposed by its material and social realization. Our work with therefore pay especially careful attention to adaptation and adjustment processes; although these processes have on occasion been mentioned in the literature, they can also be observed through historical and ethnographic study.
This investigation of ideologies and practices of well-being will be structured around three main lines of inquiry:
1) The body and self-perfection
Harmony between microcosm and macrocosm, between physiological processes and the outside environment, is at the heart of a whole range of learned traditions in South Asia. Among these are not only humoral-type medical doctrines (āyurveda, yūnānī, siddha), but also other disciplines such as yoga, astrology or alchemy. On the one hand, our research will focus on the way in which the idea of well-being is articulated in the texts of these various doctrines, and, on the other, and from a historical and sociological perspective, on the transformations this idea is constantly undergoing in its different contexts, either with regard to practices or representations. In contemporary society, these forms of knowledge end up existing alongside biomedicine, but they are impacted by a new imaginary proper to the globalized urban context, and in which the contaminated and suffering body must be “purified” from external aggressive influences, such as work-related stress and ambient pollution. This research group will therefore wish to examine the institutions (spas, wellness centers, gyms) and the practitioners (doctors, masseurs, coaches) who specialize in the production of these new forms of “well-being” that combine forms of knowledge based on medicine, cosmetics and physical performance from a variety of backgrounds.
2) Habitat and organization of space
This branch of the research program will inquire into the way in which habitat and the organization of space are thought and regulated with the aim of contributing to the well-being of human and non-human inhabitants (divinities, animals, etc.). A certain number of textual and ethnographic studies in the South Asian region have indeed revealed that health and prosperity, as well as the success of activities undertaken, are often considered to be closely linked to the characteristics of the sites and buildings in which one lives. A section of Sanskrit literature, the vāstuśāstra, or science of sites and buildings, is devoted specifically to the identification of locations that are propitious for the building of temples and homes, as well as to the construction techniques that guarantee harmony between the residents and the earthly and celestial environment.
The activities of group members will focus not only on the ideas elaborated in the textual sources, but also on how these ideas are used in contemporary society. At stake will be the examination of the processes of transformation and adaptation that make it possible to apply ancient doctrines to new contexts, such as apartments, offices, factories and businesses. We will also be interested in the relationships and hybridization phenomena between so-called “traditional” forms of knowledge and forms of knowledge produced by architects, engineers, and interior designers who practice their professions today.
3) Community and collective projects
The third line of inquiry will have to do with the ideologies and practices of well-being that are shared by groups, be they groups constituted by birth (castes, communities of belonging) or groups formed voluntarily (sects, activist groups, NGOs, etc.). The case of so-called “sectarian” communities should be particularly interesting for us. Indeed, many Hindu sects provide direction not only on how individuals should seek salvation, but also on social life as a whole by proposing communitarian living spaces that impose a certain form of governance over bodies, places of learning, work cooperatives, a network of matrimonial alliances, etc. The quest of self-transformation that underlies any kind of commitment to these communities is therefore connected to an aspiration to transform society. Our aim is thus to take a look at the collective ideals promoted by these groups. What visions of well-being do they impart? What vernacular resources do they make use of? What part do these resources play in the implementation of communitarian projects? Alongside historiographical work on the Hindu strain of utopianism—with the analysis of well-studied notions such as the “realm of Rāma” (rāmrājya), the “master’s family” (gurukula) or the “hermitage” (āśrama)—our aim will be to provide an account of how these ideals are put in practice collectively, through ethnographic study of contemporary alternative-community experiments.
Concretely speaking, this research group will conduct work through year-long seminars, combined with short conferences on particular aspects of the targeted problematic. From 2012 to 2014 a seminar on “Ideals of Living in Hinduism: Body, Locality and Community” was held at the EHESS. In 2015-2016, a regular seminar will be devoted to the topic of “Science, Spirituality and Esotericism: Anthropological Approaches from India and Beyond.”
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