There are three kinds of liquids that are part of conversations as antidotes to the coronavirus pandemic. Hand sanitisers, vodka, and gaumutra. But gaumutra or cow urine is the cheapest to get hold of, no matter how scientific, because of all the cows India has managed to save since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over in 2014.
Cow urine is a great political leveller. Unlike the hand sanitiser and vodka, cow urine has a unique political history. From hyper-secular Congress leader Digvijaya Singh to the ministers in Modi’s cabinet, cow urine has won many fans. It finds its way into even Congress election manifestos.
So, no wonder that at a time when all medical resources need to be focussed on battling the novel coronavirus or COVID-19, there is a small group of pseudo-science and WhatsApp enthusiasts advocating the virtues of gaumutra, as a disinfectant and preventive measure, if not cure. Among these are the head of a Hindu organisation, a Union minister of state, and a BJP MLA from Assam.
Cow urine was one of India’s most coveted exports once — it was the source of the bright colour ‘Indian yellow’ and came from cows fed only on mango leaves. Now, it’s turning science and politics in India on its head.
Swami Chakrapani, president of the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha, organised a ‘gaumutra party’ in which people lined up to drink cow urine in kulhads. Suman Haripriya, a BJP MLA in Assam endorsed the drink, saying it has been used to fight cancer as well. NCP MP Vandana Chavan raised the issue of cow urine being tom-tommed as a cure for coronavirus and Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu told her not to create controversies on such a “sensitive issue” in Parliament. A religious organisation allegedly used distilled cow urine as a sanitiser to fight coronavirus. Ashwini Choubey, minister of state for health, justified cow urine on the grounds that even former PM Morarji Desai used to drink gaumutra (as also his own urine). And Bhopal BJP MP Sadhvi Pragya said drinking cow urine cured her breast cancer.
IIT Delhi got 50 proposals in 2017 to study the benefits of cow urine. In the age of ancient wisdom being passed off as prescient science, cow urine is the new fashionable liquid in town.
Is gaumutra helping science?
Some scientists are, understandably, bristling with anger. Five hundred of them wrote a letter to the Modi government asking it to withdraw a government call “for research proposals on the ‘uniqueness‘ of indigenous cows and the curative properties of cow urine, dung, and milk, including potential cancer treatments”.
But gaumutra may be aiding science in India too, inadvertently.
Arnab Bhattacharya, TIFR Public Outreach, department of condensed matter physics and materials science, underlines this when he says there is a recent trend of scientists trying to attach the cow urine tag to otherwise mundane research subjects just because they know that this government will probably grant the funding request if they tie up their proposal to cow urine in some way.
“So many legitimate researchers are going for this low-hanging fruit just to keep their labs running. Most of these are studies on nanoparticles,” he says, pointing to the paper, ‘Structural and magnetic properties of CuFe2O4 ferrite nanoparticles synthesized by cow urine assisted combustion method’ in the Journal of Magnetism and Magnetic Materials, 2019. It has a bunch of authors from different universities, including one from Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.
So, how did we get to this point, of moving one step from thinking of the cow as sacred to believing its by-products have medicinal properties?
Morarji Desai to ‘established’ wonders
There was a time when Desai’s experiments with his own urine were the subject of global ridicule. His dedication to speaking about it on a visit to the US in 1978 on Dan Rather’s CBS show 60 Minutes unleashed a network war, forcing ABC to air footage of Desai holding forth on the “water of life” to Barbara Walters. Mark Tully loves to tell the story of interviewing Desai for BBC Radio and asking him about urine therapy. Desai asked him to compare who looked better, he at 80 or Tully at half his age. “I looked at him and said, ‘I think you look rather better than I do.’ He was over 80 and had beautiful translucent skin. He was immaculately dressed in crisp khadi, sitting bolt upright. I was not that well dressed, was slouched and 40 years younger than him,” Tully recalls.
Cow urine has been used in the West in the past. Some scientists believe cow urine has been a victim of gaslighting. They refer to the use of camel urine in Islam and of horse urine in modern medicine in the oestrogen replacement drug Premarin (and in many others). They also point to the gruesome history of Europeans eating human corpses for medicinal purposes.
When it comes to cow urine, they point to scientific reviews that chronicle its many uses in various drugs. The paper, by Gurpreet Kaur Randhawa and Rajiv Sharma, of Government Medical College, Amritsar, says cow urine can be used alone or as an adjunctive to prevent the development of resistance and enhance the effect of standard antibiotics.
Arnab Bhattacharya notes, though, that a quick check will show that most papers are in either low key or outright predatory journals that will publish anything without checks, such as ‘Cow urine prominence to humanity’ by K. Sharma, S. Kaur, N. Kumar in Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry, 2020, and ‘Hydrothermal assisted biological synthesis of silver nanoparticles by using honey and gau mutra (cow urine)’ in Eurasian Journal of Biosciences, 2019.
“I haven’t seen any paper in any reputed journal, apart from studies that just show its effect as fertiliser, or show that it can contain pathogens,” he notes. After the outbreak of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalitis), there was a study in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, for example, which showed that prions were found in cattle urine. There are also studies on poisoning due to cow urine in Nigeria.
The Kamdhenu age
Does cow urine have a place in Ayurveda? Ayurvedic practitioner Mahesh Sharma, who is based in Hyderabad, cautions ThePrint that though cow urine does figure in Panchagavya, an Ayurvedic medicine, it is only one of the five components—cow milk, clarified butter from cow milk, cow urine, curd from cow milk, and cow dung. In Ayurveda’s foundational text, Charak Samhita, Panchagavya has been recommended for treatment of epilepsy (Apasmara), fever and jaundice. Use of cow urine, he goes on to say, has been mentioned in Ayurveda for purification and detoxification of herbs. Cow urine is also used in some important formulations like Panchagavya ghrita, Ashwinikumar ras, Arsha kuthar rasa, Sanjivani Vati, Mandurvatak, Punarnava mandur, Panchamrutloha mandur, Agnimukh mandur, and Kasisadi taila.
But can drinking it fight disease? Sharma says well-planned experimental studies on animals and humans are required to assess its anti-cancerous, antimicrobial properties. The Indian cow breed ‘Kamdhenu’ is supposed to be a unique and distinct species. Three basic books of Ayurveda (Charak, Sushrut and Vangbhat Samhita) describe eight types of animal urine that can be used in medicine. As described in Ayurveda, Kamdhenu is a distinct species of cow, but we don’t know its equivalent in modern cattle. Drinking of urine of any type of cow is not described or prescribed by Ayurveda, he adds. An RTI to the Department of Animal Husbandry and the top veterinary university got no information on the usefulness of cow urine.
Modi government’s ancient connection
There is also little to suggest that it can cure diabetes, as Union minister Nitin Gadkari had claimed in 2018. Or indeed anything else. But leading lights of the Modi government and the party that runs it have always upheld practices from the past as so-called examples of our all-knowing ancients, whether it is Prime Minister Modi endorsing Ganesh as perhaps the earliest example of plastic surgery or Tripura chief minister Biplab Deb calling the updates of the battle between Pandavas and Kauravas of Mahabharata the first example of Internet in the world.
Added to this is the tendency of scientists to jump on the bandwagon of “proving science behind ancient traditions”, points out Bhattacharya, which is aided by the wording of the call for proposals from funding agencies. For example, the recent Department of Science and Technology (DST)-Scientific Utilisation through Research Augmentation (SUTRA)-Prime Products from Indigenous Cows (PIC) — one of the research programmes into indigenous cattle announced during the 2019-20 Union Budget, aiming to develop products as well as improve the genetic quality of indigenous cattle breeds, starts off by saying, “Indian cows are believed to possess certain unique qualities and characteristics”.
This cow-craze, Bhattacharya adds, can only be called udder nonsense.
The troubled political and cultural history of cow urine is somewhat different from that of beef.
Cow slaughter is banned across states, and is also considered a sin in Hinduism — even though scholar D.N. Jha had clearly demonstrated (in Myth of the Holy Cow) that ancient Vedic Indians did sacrifice the cows in rituals. But it is still culturally respectable to talk about saving the cow. But cow urine doesn’t have the same respectability that even talking of cow dung as disinfectant does culturally. It is still taboo to admit to its consumption.
And in the 1990s, the Vishva Hindu Parishad, in its corner office in Delhi’s R.K Puram, displayed products that come from the cow along with tiny booklets about their medicinal qualities. But it is now part of mainstream political lexicon. Popular culture may also follow. Just give it some time.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.
This article has been updated to fix an error about Morarji Desai.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.