Breathing in India, c. 1890

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This essay examines a series of 'Hindustani' meditation manuals from the high colonial period against a sample of etiquette and medicinal works from the same era. In doing so, the essay has two principal aims, one specific to the Indian past and one pertaining to more general historical enquiry. The first aim is to subvert a longstanding trend in the 'history' of religions which has understood meditational practices through a paradigm of the mystical and transcendent. In its place, the essay examines such practices--and in particular their written, and printed, formulation--within the ideological and technological contexts in which they were written. In short, meditation is historicised, and its 'Hindu' and 'Muslim' expressions, compared in the process. The second aim is more ambitious: to test the limits of historical knowledge by asking whether it is possible to recount a history of breathing. In reassembling a political economy of respiration from a range of colonial writings, the essay thus hopes to form a listening device for the intimate rhythms of corporeal history. In doing so, it may suggest ways to recount a connected and necessarily political history of the body, the spirit and the world.

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