, Volume 15, Issue 1, pp 19-43

The semantics of pain in Indian culture and medicine

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


An interpretive perspective offers a counterpoint to the behavioral orientation in the social scientific literature on pain. The present paper develops a meaning-centered approach which focuses on three interconnected aspects of the experience of suffering: (l) the cultural construction of pain sensation; (2) the semiotics of pain expression; (3) the structure of pain's causes and cures. These connections are explored through a variety of linguistic and semiotic forms, including metaphors, etymologies, gestural codes, taxonomies, and semantic networks. The study of metaphor has special value in revealing the cultural construction of pain, especially its sensory qualities, such as temperature, weight, and movement. The concept of semantic network provides a complementary tool for understanding pain experience; the analysis makes pain sensation the center of the network and argues that multiple meanings attach to this sensory core.

The paper examines these perspectives in the context of North Indian culture and medicine, specifically Unani Tibb, or Greco-Arab medicine. Pursuing questions of the “fit” between everyday belief and traditional medicine, the essay traces continuities in the “language of pain” in North Indian culture, classical Unani Tibb, and contemporary Unani clinical practice.[/ p]

My research on Unani medicine in India was funded by a Senior Fellowship from the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute from January to August 1983. An earlier version of this paper was prepared for the Ninth European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies, Heidelberg University, July 9–12, 1986, for a panel organized by Dr. Beatrix Pfleiderer on “The Cultural Context of Health Care in South Asia.” I am grateful to Dr. Patricia Jeffery of the University of Edinburgh for presenting the paper for me. I would like to thank Mohammed Sultan Yar Khan and his family, Hakim Mohammed Razzack and Hakim Umul Fazl of the Central Council for Research in Unani Medicine, and Hakim Abdul Hameed of the Institute for History of Medicine and Medical Research, for their aid and advice in India. I would also like to acknowledge Arthur Kleinman for his comments on the paper, and Vandana Goswami, Vasavi Gowda, and Khalida Zaki for our discussions about “pain” in South Asia.