According to Hindu tradition, Indian cows are not only sacred—they are also the source of a cure-all for everything from schizophrenia and autism to diabetes and cancer.
That elixir is panchagavya, a drink made of cow urine, dung, milk, yogurt, and clarified butter prescribed by practitioners of Ayurveda, or traditional Indian medicine, and spread on fields as well to boost crop yields. Now, India’s science ministry is about to launch a program that aims to “validate” the efficacy of the millennia-old concoction.
The research program has influential backers. “Scientific validation is desirable in all cases,” says M. S. Swaminathan, chairman of the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, India, a nonprofit devoted to sustainable agriculture. “The truth is that panchagavya is very strong and very powerful,” India’s science minister, Harsh Vardhan, told Science. The validation effort, he says, will use modern scientific tools “to show to the world the supremacy of Ayurveda.”
But some prominent researchers decry what they see as an attempt to add a veneer of legitimacy to unscientific claims. “It’s an insult to science,” says Pushpa Mittra Bhargava, a biologist and former director of the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India, who has reviewed the panchagavya literature. In the few papers he has found, he says, the authors “had absolutely no inkling of what scientific research is.”
Others view the panchagavya program as the latest instance of a more insidious trend: an attempt by India’s Hindu nationalist government to enlist the nation’s science to support its worldview. “This kind of pressure—to orient scientific research in directions dictated by politics—is pernicious,” says Suvrat Raju, a physicist at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences in Bengaluru, India. It undermines
scientific institutions and demoralizes sincere researchers, he says. “The result is a chilling effect on non-Hindu scientists,” says Gauhar Raza, former chief scientist with the National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources here.
Vardhan, a surgeon by training, dismisses those concerns. “It’s most foolish to think like that,” he says. “This way of thinking itself shows the unscientific mind.”
The trend, critics say, began in 2014, soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party and its leader, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, came to power. Addressing a group of physicians that fall, Modi pointed to mythology as proof of India’s early scientific prowess. He hailed legends of babies conceived outside the womb centuries ago and declared that the Hindu god Ganesha, who has the head of an elephant and the body of a human, showed the advanced state of plastic surgery in ancient India. “We are a country which had these capabilities,” Modi said. “We need to regain these.” Earlier, Modi had penned a foreword to a textbook describing the Hindu god Rama flying an airplane and the use of stem cell technology in ancient times.
Blasting such “infinite absurdities,” Bhargava in 2015 returned the Padma Bhushan award, one of the highest conferred on civilians, 3 decades after winning it. It was a protest, he says. “When people sitting at the top propagate such irrational ideas, many people start believing them.” Bhargava has supporters. Claims “that our ancestors knew how to fly planes, that all wisdom is in our ancestral knowledge, is all crap,” says Madabusi Santanam Raghunathan, a mathematician at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai.
The government’s embrace of mythology has shifted from talk into action. In late 2015, the science ministry initiated a program called Satyam, short for science of yoga and meditation. Next up is the panchagavya program which will be carried out at the Center for Rural Development and Technology here. The center has lined up 34 research projects, including one that will probe whether the A2 b-casein protein, found in the milk of Indian breeds, confers therapeutic benefits.
Bhargava doubts that the studies will be objective. “There is a presupposition” that panchagavya is effective, he asserts. The program’s backers, he says, “want to put a seal of approval on it to cater to their preconceived notions.” That’s not the case, says Kavya Dashora, a panchagavya program coordinator at the rural development center. “If we find negative results, we will say so,” she says.
Some scholars would prefer to see ancient achievements lauded without trying to enshrine them all as scientific breakthroughs. “Our ancient seers were profound thinkers for their period but they never had the experimental backup that would let them test their ideas objectively,” says Mayank Vahia, an astronomer and science historian at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. “There is much to be proud of in India’s past without manufacturing facts.”
Sanjay Kumar is a science journalist in New Delhi.
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