The Fluid Body
How does the concept of a fluid body provide us with a template for understanding South Asia's relationship to other ethnographic sites in the Indian Ocean World (IOW) and beyond? Following my own traveling ethnographic research through several IOW sites, this paper suggests that the “fluid body” produces an elemental landscape within contemporaneous worlds that connects sites both within and beyond South Asia. When considering the body initially in terms of yoga metaphysics, the term “fluid” implies a malleability that results from the body's indissoluble link to the elemental world in which it is emplaced and by which it is affected and has the perpetual potential to be transformed. Using the fluid body then as a template permits ethnographically-driven scholars to enter specific contemporaneous worlds of knowledge, power, and praxis where yoga is practiced in order to determine how practitioners' own malleable bodies are induced to enter particular relationships with the elemental world in each field site. Furthermore, identifying the features of yoga practice within these worlds allows us, as Marc Augé suggests, to identify how certain historical and contemporary South Asian values and practices operate, combine, and intersect with those of other worlds (Augé 1999). The identification of such continuities presents the opportunity to connect ethnographic sites from South Asia to other sites in the IOW and beyond, extending the reach of the IOW's boundaries throughout the transnational yoga scene. Throughout this process, the scholar’s s own body travels from site to site enabling an experiential - process that allows the recognition of continuities and discontinuities within and among contemporaneous worlds.
Drawing from several historical works of scholarship as well as my own fieldwork on the Indian Ocean coast, this paper fills out the concept of the fluid body through two case studies. First, we will enter a kalaripayat community in Auroville in Pondicherry. Historically in the kalari, one worked toward unifying the subtle body with the gross body, nature, and the cosmos in order to gain extraordinary martial powers, often in service to a local king. In modern India, as my fieldwork suggests, a similar process ensues though in service to tourism, performance, and the modern state. Thus, we can see how the consideration of a vernacularized yoga metaphysics produces particular fluid bodies both past and present. Leaving the kalari, I will map the five gross element (pañcamahābhūta) temples spread along the Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh coasts across great distances. In yoga metaphysics, the gross elements are the foundation of all that exists, and members of the kalari community in Auroville make an annual pilgrimage to these temples. Mapping them onto the South Indian landscape allows us to envision a cosmic body with which pilgrims seek to unite through what is sometimes arduous and transformative travel. This cosmic body, as we shall see, has also imploded into urban Chennai where several elemental temples have been constructed in both the colonial and post-colonial period in order to obviate long distance pilgrimage at the loss of the austerity that such travel necessarily produces.
The idea of the fluid body, thus, provides a template that we can continue to deploy to make analytical and ethnographic connections within and beyond the IOW. I, therefore, conclude by proposing sites of potential future research that extend the transnational yogic landscape from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and onward to the Atlantic and Pacific.