Francis Zimmermann's 1982 work, La jungle et le fumet des viandes. Un thème écologique dans la médecine hindoue [The Jungle and the Aroma of Meats: An Ecological Theme in Hindu Medicine] is a remarkable thing. Ostensibly, it is a study of Ayurvedic medicine by a student of the great ethnographer Louis Dumont, but it would be more correct to describe it as a contribution towards the anthropology of natural science, and in this respect to be an important precursor to works such as Scott Atran's Cognitive Foundations of Natural History of 1991.
While Atran focuses on an explicit comparison between folk-taxonomical systems, on the one hand, and on the other the Linnaean system at the foundation of scientific taxonomy, Zimmermann instead seeks to explain why there is nothing like zoological taxonomy in the Indian tradition. His answer is that zoology is effectively edged out by pharmacy, but that pharmacy, in turn, needs to be understood as implying both a cosmology and an epistemology based on 'qualities' (guṇa) and 'savors' (rasa). Understood this broadly, it is not surprising to find 'meats' among the things listed in the Indian pharmacopoeia, nor to find that it the 'cataloguing of meats' comes to play the role in the Indian tradition that the classification of animals would play for Aristotle.
There is, Zimmermann writes, an "exclusion of even the possibility of a botanical or zoological classification: the beings themselves are no longer of any interest, only their dietetic and therapeutic qualities" (130-31). This divergence is surprising, given the tremendous overlap between other aspects of Greek and Indian life science: "From a comparative point of view, in the domain of physiology the theory of vital breaths and the theory of the humors constitute remarkable points of convergence between Indian medicine and Grek medicine; nevertheless, a deep divergence separates the two when it comes to methods of classification. On the one hand, in the Greek tradition, natural history; on the other hand, in the Ayurvedic tradition, the inclusion of taxonomy in pharmacy and the subordination of pharmacy to a complex interplay of savors and curative properties, which envelops the inventory of the flora and fauna in a welter of synonyms, redundancies, enumerations, division, and cross-references" (132-33).
The richest catalog of meats given in the Sanskrit corpus is found in the Suśrutasamhitā, or Suśruta's corpus, which dates most likely from the 12th century of the present era. This text, Zimmermann writes, "represents a corpus of knowledge about... fauna, knowledge not set out as such bult slipped into the mold of discourse intended for the use of medical practitioners" (98). One particularly vivid passage of the corpus illustrates how, from an initial distinction that appears taxonomical in an Aristotelian sense (as between plants and animals), we are quickly diverted into a potentially infinite branching of sensible qualities (and insensible too, since in the Ayurvedic tradition a 'savor' need not be detected in order to exist; it is something closer to an 'essence' actually inhering in the world):
Food is seen as a single category from the point of view of its object, the category of what can be eaten; byt from the point of view of its sources, it is double since it is composed of both immobile and mobile beings; it is also double from the point of view of its action, if one makes a distinction between beneficent and harmful effects. It is quadruple with regard to its mode of employment since it can be drunk, chewed, crunched or sucked; sextuple with regard to its savors, since there are six savors; vigesimal with regard to the qualities which are, successively, heavy/light, cold/hot, unctuous/dry, sluggish/lively, solid/liquid, tender/hard, dessicant/lubrifying, smooth/rough, subtle/crude, viscous fluid. They are innumerable in respect of its varieties because there exist a multitude of possible combinations and preparations for all these substances.
While Zimmermann describes the catalog of meats as "a mixture of wordy empiricism and phantasmagoria" (7), sometimes it seems that the same complaint could be leveled against Zimmermann. Yet in regard to the Sanskrit texts it is plain that he does not mean this entirely as a complaint. The claim that the meats of dry lands are astringent and those of wet lands provoke fluxes may well "strike us as pure verbiage" (8), but for an anthropologist of his stripe it is precisely the logic behind this verbiage that is of interest, and certainly not the specific content of the claims about the qualities of particular meats.
Zimmermann believes, for reasons I haven't quite understood, that "we are constantly obliged to read 'animals' where the texts say 'meats'" (100). I would put it slightly differently, and say that one of the ways of carving up the world (a revealing expression) is, to speak with Quine, in terms of rabbits; but another way is in terms of detached, and cooked, rabbit parts. Both of these ways can give rise to their own taxonomies, but animals and meats are, in terms of their placement in a taxonomy, quite different things. Of course, and I take it this is Zimmermann's more important point, what is significant about the Ayurvedic classification is that it places animals and humans in a single ecology, and carves out animal kinds on the basis not only of a given species' ecological habitus, but also of the role of that species in human culture. And why not? Evolutionay lineages are one way of classifying (which place mice and bats close together), ecology another (which places bats next to birds); Ayurveda goes a step further in placing different species together not just in view of their shared habitat, but also in view of the qualities and savors with which the habitat imbues them.
To some extent, Ayurveda brings up an interpretive challenge that is also faced, I think, by students of the history of the life sciences in the West. With the tremendous exception of Aristotle's handful of straightforwardly taxonomical endeavors, for several centuries (until the 16th of the present era, to be precise) the great majority of writing on animals is found in fables, bestiaries, and cookbooks. There is no reason in principle why a scholar should not seek zoological insight in these texts, whether in Greek, Latin, or the vulgate, just as Zimmermann has gone looking for it in Sanskrit. Moreover, it is plain that classification, not only in Aristotle but even in Linnaeus and after (as Staffan Müller-Wille has begun to show in the case of the Swedish naturalist), is almost unavoidably anchored to local human interests, including interests in medicinal and perhaps even culinary properties.
Zimmermann cites Gaston Bachelard, who in turn cites a 1669 report to the Académie Française which concludes that "the strong and unpleasant smell of the castoreum came 'from the cold wetness of the beaver, which is half fish'; the fluid secreted by the civet cat, in contrast, was sweet-smelling because the animals 'is of a hot and dry temperament, drinks little and usually lives in the sands of Africa'" (8). Bachelard maintains somewhat cryptically that "[t]he association between the nature of an animal and the natural quality is so direct that, under the cover of idiosyncrasy, it is possible to justify the most grotesque affirmations" (8), to which Zimmermann adds, in the case of the Hindu texts he is studying:
Even if the prejudices or psychological considerations surrounding the appearance of such grotesque thoughts may be universal, what is at stake is, in contrast, quite particular and diverse. While the antithesis drawn between the beaver and the civet cat may have been of little importance in the Europe of 1669, is that same antithesis purely and simply comparable in ancient India? The gazelle is light, the buffalo indigestible: Is this just the same kind of idle talk?
No, and in fact "[a] whole world looms up in the background: the jungle and the anthropological structures of space and, even more important, deeply embedded in the soil, the complex interplay of the rasa" (8). But in the context of a distinctly Indian epistemology, the approach to taxonomy through sensual qualities such as taste may be more than just a reflection of folk or prescientific concerns, but indeed a natural consequence of a thoroughgoing sense-data empiricism.
What the Rishis, the seers of Vedic times, quite literally saw was that the universe is a kitchen, a kind of chemistry of rasa, diluted or sublimated to feed now one, now another, of nature's kingdoms: the stars, the waters, the earth, the plants, the fauna... In translating this Ayurvedic doctrine of the six rasa, 'savors' is the word commonly used, but this conventional translation is inadequate and misleading. In our language, savors are qualities perceptible through the senses, whereas here it is not at all a matter of 'sensible' qualities but rather of essences that circulate in the depths of the landscape and are diffused through the chain of being, individually taking the forms of a multitude of saps, juices or broths, remedies or poisons (8-9).
What would natural science look like if it set out from the sensible qualities of things, rather than from a presumption that its principle task is to get behind these qualities at the forces causing them? For one thing, zoology would be a branch of dietetics. That this is so overtly what is going on in the catalogs of meats indeed makes Sanskrit zoology look prescientific in the extreme. But again, it would be hasty to conclude that true scientific research programs develop independently of the sort of concerns that evidently govern a body of knowledge such as dietetics.
At late as 1671, G. W. Leibniz complains that the only branch of veterinary medicine that has seen any progress is the treatment of horses, and this, obviously, because they were of such central importance to human social and economic well-being. We only care about horses because of what they can do for us, and not 'in themselves' (whatever that might be). And it's very hard, for that matter, to think about beavers and civets without thinking about their habitats, about the way their habitats serve to forge their respective qualities, which in turn come across as pleasing or displeasing to us. Zimmermann thinks that this folk-zoological tendency is less pronounced in the West than in India, but it seems more reasonable to maintain that it is equally strong, even if, in Aristotle and then again beginning in the 16th century, there is a pronounced urge to overcome it.