Of ‘cowpathy’ & its miracles

Print edition : September 02, 2016

Workers fill a bottle of Brantone+ cow urine syrup at the factory of Jain's Cow Urine Therapy Health Clinic in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, on June 27. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg

Promotion of cow urine and dung as super drugs is part of the cow politics of the Sangh Parivar. Not only have these claims not been substantiated scientifically, but propaganda based on pseudo science seems to thrive under BJP-led governments.

Extraordinary claims of the medical benefits of the excretions of the “holy cow”—mind you, only the cow, and not any other cattle, including the buffalo—has been part and parcel of the Sangh Parivar’s “cow politics”. During the tenure of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government (1999-2004), one saw not only their active promotion (as was apparent from the questions related to it raised in Parliament by BJP members) but also some laboratories of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) being asked to do research on cow urine’s beneficial effects.

With Murli Manohar Joshi as the Minister in charge of Science and Technology as well as Human Resource Development, it was perhaps easy to identify the Hindutva camp followers in the CSIR system to engage in such questionable research. It was the Joshi-Hari Gautam (former University Grants Commission Chairman) combine that pushed through UGC-approved degree courses in astrology in Indian universities. It was during this period that the CSIR obtained four patents in the United States related to medical uses of cow urine formulations. Interestingly, the CSIR laboratory in question collaborated with Go-Vigyan Anusandhan Kendra (GVAK; Centre for Cow-science Research), a front organisation of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), located in Deolapur near Nagpur, where the RSS is headquartered. With the reported proximity of the then CSIR chief Ramesh A. Mashelkar to the RSS, it was perhaps easy for Joshi to push through his “cow urine” agenda as well.

Now, with the NDA-II in power, we are witnessing a rerun of the claims of the medical benefits of cow urine, or gomutra, and other concoctions derived from cow excreta. They have now even coined a name for it—cowpathy. Exactly a year ago, the Central Council for Research in Ayurvedic Sciences (CCRAS) of the Ministry of AYUSH organised a national seminar on Panchagavya Chikitsa. Panchagavya is the most important of the various medical preparations made from cow’s excretions. As the name implies, Panchagavya is a mixture of five ( pancha) products of the cow ( gavya)—milk, curd, ghee, dung and urine. Besides, there are four more components —jaggery, banana, tender coconut water and water or sugarcane juice, all of them blended in given proportions according to a prescribed procedure. Consumption of Panchagavya and its important ingredient, cow urine, is said to be recommended in ancient Sanskrit medical texts— Charaka Samhita (1st-2nd century), Susruta Samhita (3rd-4th century) and Vagbhata Ashtanga Hridaya (7th century)—from which the Ayurveda system is derived and may historically have been in use before the advent of modern medicine.

As a commentator pertinently observed in a blog: “One need not go far to see the hypocrisy of the ‘cow urine promoters’ than have a look at the ayurveda texts themselves…. All [the] three major ancient texts of ayurveda… mention the therapeutic uses of beef as well, but this fact is nowhere mentioned by the proponents of cow’s urine. Eating beef is a sin and drinking cow’s urine or eating its dung brings health, if these self-styled guardians of ancient Indian tradition are to be believed.”

Besides Panchagavya, other cow urine-based medical preparations include gau-mutra asav (fermented preparation), gau-arka (or distillate) and Ganavati (tablet). Panchagavya seems to be widely promoted by agricultural universities for use as part of organic farming (see, for example, agritech.tnau.ac.in/org_farm/orgfarm_panchakavya.html, of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University). The substances in the blend being organic, it is possible that, used as a manure, this does promote plant growth as is claimed. But, interestingly, it is also claimed to be beneficial as a pesticide for plants when sprayed as a liquid formulation. This latter assertion, however, is not substantiated with any scientific explanation or data and it is not clear where the pesticidal action comes from.

Science Institutions’ pseudo science

According to a 2005 review by Kuldeep Dhama and others of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research’s (ICAR) Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI), Izzatnagar, published in International Journal of Cow Science (published by the Cow Therapy Society, Pantnagar), Panchagavya and its constituents have therapeutic effects on virtually all the common diseases, communicable and non-communicable, including those contracted due to intense solar and nuclear radiation.

One would hardly call this a scientific paper; besides often bad English, it just goes on making one claim after another in its 16 pages of what can only be called rubbish. None of the claims is substantiated with any scientifically validated data. It is no different from the various other irrational claims and beliefs that Hindutva obscurantists tend to propagate. It is interesting to note in passing how the journal’s website describes the publication: “First journal of the world dedicated exclusively to the cow. The journal… covers various aspects of cow, its related scientific facts and technologies originating from cow.” Clearly, the propaganda machine of the “cow scientists” is well organised. The irony is that major scientific public-funded institutions such as the ICAR and the CSIR are party to this irrationality and pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo.

For instance, why should the TNAU (whose business is only agriculture) list on its website the health benefits of Panchagavya? Sample what it says: “One lady with psoriasis all over the body was under allopathic treatment for over one and a half years. She happened to prepare Panchagavya for field use and stir the contents with her forearm. After 15 days, the psoriasis in her forearm got fully cured. Following her own intuition, she smeared Panchagavya all over the body and to everyone’s surprise, the psoriasis disappeared in 21 days.”

It then goes on to recommend a dosage for the Panchagavya medication: “50 ml of filtered Panchagavya mixed with 200 ml of water, tender coconut water or fruit juice and taken orally in empty stomach in the morning. This is for all type of diseases” (emphasis added). In similar vein, the website goes on to list the therapeutic benefits for diseases such as HIV/AIDS, neurological disorders, diabetes mellitus, pulmonary tuberculosis and arthritis.

To a question in Parliament last year, the Minister of AYUSH stated the following: “Out of 7,835 licensed Ayurvedic drug manufacturing units in the country, many Ayurvedic drugs manufacturing companies manufacture medicinal formulations made from Panchagavya or cow’s products. States of Punjab, Kerala, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Haryana have reported to have 229, 200, 5, 3, 3 and 2 pharmaceutical units respectively, which are manufacturing Panchagavya therapy products.”

Miracles of Indian cow’s urine

Among all the cow excretions, urine has been given the most exalted place in cowpathy and it is its presence in Panchagavya that is said to be chiefly responsible for the medical powers that it has. Cow urine is claimed to have such immunomodulatory properties that it enhances both cellular and humoral immune response. It is claimed that it has been proven experimentally that among urines from all types of cows, the urine of the Indian cow is the most effective. This property of immunomodulation is claimed to be unique to the Indian cow and is absent in the urines of cross-bred exotic cows and buffaloes. “The immunomodulatory property of indigenous cow urine is due to the presence of a ‘Rasayan’ [chemical] which has been found absent in urine of other animals on HPLC analysis,” writes Kuldeep Dhama and his colleagues from the IVRI in a review of the anti-cancer activity of cow urine. “[Indian] cow urine singularly has got all such chemical properties, potentialities and constituents that are capable of removing all the ill effects, imbalances in the body,” they add.

In this paper written by Kuldeep Dhama and others, again they say: “A number of ailments could be treated by cow urine therapy. Most of the medicines are made by distilling urine and collecting vapours termed as ‘ark’ (distillate). Improvements have been shown or reported with those suffering from flu, sinus, allergies, colds, ear infection, rheumatoid arthritis, bacterial/viral infections, tuberculosis, chicken pox, hepatitis, leprosy, asthma, gastric ulcer, heart disease, depression, hypertension, fatigue, burns, skin infections, eczema, tetanus, morning sickness, fever, obesity, etc. It is also used as a diuretic, laxative and for treatment of chronic malaria, enteritis, constipation, oedema, baldness, headaches, fever, chemical intoxication, ageing etc. It is proved as a universal curer of blood disorders, leucorrhoea and even leprosy. The urine of the cow cleans the intestines and removes the deposited material. Hence diseases like fever, mouth and skin diseases, menstruation disorders, asthma, giddiness, increase of cough and urinary irregularities in humans are cured by its regular use without any side effects. It is non-toxic in nature. Cow urine can kill the number of drug resistant bacteria and viruses. This therapy has been reported to be beneficial even for dreaded diseases like cancer, AIDS and diabetes.”

“The cow,” claims another paper by researchers of Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology, Bhubaneswar—a government institution—in International Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences (IJPPS), which is published by a private publishing company in Indore, “is a mobile medical dispensary and cow urine is a panacea for all diseases.” It goes on to aver: “The biochemical estimation of cow urine has shown that it contains sodium, nitrogen, sulphur, Vitamin A, B, C, D, E, minerals, manganese, iron, silicon, chlorine, magnesium, citric, succinic, calcium salts, phosphate, lactose, carbolic acid, enzymes, creatinine and hormones. Any deficiency or excess of these substances inside the body causes disorders. Cow urine contains all of these substances with having a balanced proximate composition. Therefore, consumption of cow urine restores the balance of these substances and thus helps in curing from incurable diseases. Experimentally it has been concluded that fractions of cow urine obtained by solvent extraction possess antimicrobial activity due to [the] presence of aforesaid components those are solely responsible for the action. It has again been observed that cow urine enhances the phagocytic activity of macrophages and thus helpful against bacterial infections. It also facilitates the synthesis of interleukin-1 and interleukin-2, augments B and T-lymphocyte blastogenesis, and IgA, IgM and IgG antibody titers.”

What one finds from perusing different referenced papers on the topic of cow therapy is that, often, the same sentences are lifted and repeated across them. So, it becomes difficult to ascertain who and where the original research was done to substantiate these claims. And most of the publications carrying these papers are not peer-reviewed ones, nor do they have any significant impact factor or are included in the International Science Citation Index, or even the Indian Citation Index, and other research paper databases. What makes one doubt all these claims, notwithstanding the scientific jargon included, is that no similar discovery has been reported from elsewhere in any serious and quality journal, and none of these papers in these Indian journals seems to have been cited by other researchers elsewhere either. But, of course, cowpathy advocates have already precluded the possibility by claiming that the Indian cow is unique and different from all imported breeds. Serious Indian researchers, however, do not seem to have bothered to validate these claims, perhaps thinking that it is not worth their while. Indeed, not only cow excreta based products, for most of the Ayurvedic medicines there is no established system in the country to analyse and validate their claimed medical benefits by modern biomedical techniques and procedures.

If cow urine has this great virtue of being beneficial to practically all known ailments, and historically Indians have been consuming this for centuries and large numbers continue to practise cow urine therapy even today, why is the health profile of the country so poor, with one of the highest disease burden indices—both communicable and non-communicable—in the world and with indices comparable only to sub-Saharan Africa for some diseases? Why does the country need large investments in public health? Of course, cowpathy enthusiasts will argue that it is because, with Western medicine with its side effects having been adopted in large scale across the country, people have forgotten about indigenous traditional systems of medicine and it is their endeavour now to bring it back to them.

In the last few years, cow urine-based cosmetic products have also made their appearance in the market: from cleansing agents to shampoos, concoctions for application on the skin, face, and so on, hair treatment and dandruff removers, urine-dung based tooth powders, and so on. Last year, there were reports saying that Maneka Gandhi, the Union Minister of Women and Child Development, had, in a letter to the Council of the Ministers, suggested that government offices should henceforth be asked to use cow-urine based “Gaunyle” instead of the usual phenyle, claiming that the latter was a chemical product that caused harm to the environment. The government-run stores (Kendriya Bhandar) have also begun to stock these, she had said. It is not known, however, if this has become operational.

Golden discovery

More recently, on June 28, a startling claim was made by researchers of the Junagadh Agricultural University (JAU). They had found gold particles in the urine of some cows from the Gir region in Gujarat! According to a report in The Wire (thewire.in), the study ostensibly aimed at determining the metabolites and toxins in the urine but ended up finding 3 to 10 mg of gold per litre of cow urine—a cow can give about 13 to 15 litres of urine a day—and clearly, with a non-cyanide-based gold extraction method in hand, that would unleash a new gold rush! Besides gold, the study also found 5,100 known compounds in the excretion, of which apparently as many as 338 were of medicinal value, and that these matched descriptions in Ayurvedic texts.

Risk of infection

Ultimately, urine and dung are waste products. Fresh urine is not totally sterile, as is widely believed by practitioners and advocates of cow urine therapy. Increasingly, research has indicated that cattle urine, and dung more so, carry significant telltale signatures of the host’s microbiome, the bacterial fauna present in the host system. So, if the cow is infected, or is carrying some germs that may be asymptomatic to cattle but harmful to humans, people consuming cow excreta will run the risk of being infected by these pathogens. Cattle urine and human urine are not very different in composition. Urine is 95 per cent water, about 2.5 per cent urea and the rest comprises minerals, salts, hormones and enzymes. Of course, along with water, urine also contains chemicals which the host body removes from circulation, and consuming it again can cause stress to the kidneys.

Consider the following finding in a 2003 study by scientists of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). It was aimed at assessing the leptospiral carrier state and seroprevalence among the animal population of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The study found an overall seroprevalence rate of 33.11 per cent. The study found that seroprevalence was the highest among cows (40.32 per cent).

More significant in the context of the discussion here is that leptospires were isolated from cow urine samples as well. Leptospirosis is common in India in the post-monsoon period, and cows can easily become carriers and shed the bacteria in urine. The same could be true of other infections during their seasonal outbreaks as well. So, direct ingestion of cow excreta may indeed cause harm.

Much has been made of the patents that have been obtained on cow urine-based formulations or products by various researchers in the media as well as the research papers appearing in non-peer-reviewed journals such as the ones mentioned above. It must be remembered that a patent itself, unless it worked and its claims demonstrated and validated, is by no means a proof of the utilitarian value of the product. A patent only guarantees a set of exclusive rights to prevent others from copying and exploiting the inventive idea that has been patented.

All the patents have been obtained by different laboratories of the CSIR, in association with GVAK of Deolapur, which was basically the source for gomutra. As mentioned earlier, all these patent applications were moved during the previous NDA regime. The first is a U.S. patent for a formulation containing “cow urine distillate” ( gau-arka) and an antibiotic that is claimed to enhance the antimicrobial effect of the antibiotic (filed in 2000 and granted in 2002). The second is claimed for the use of bioactive fraction from cow urine distillate as a bio-enhancer of anti-infective and anti-cancer agents and nutrients (filed in 2002 and granted in 2005). Both of these were patented by the CSIR on behalf of its constituent laboratory, Central Institute for Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (CIMAP), Lucknow. The third is by the Lucknow-based National Botanical Research Institute (NBRI) for the invention of a “Synergistic fermented plant growth promoting bio-control composition” based on a blend of cow urine, neem and garlic, which is claimed to improve soil health, promote plant growth and control plant pathogenic fungi (filed in 2004 and granted in 2007), and the fourth one is by the Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) for “a method for a composition of redistilled cow urine distillate (RCUD) for protecting and/or repairing DNA from oxidative damage” (filed in 2003 and granted in 2010).

Besides the third patent, which is a cow urine plant growth promoter and is quite in the realm of a possible invention, all the other three involve [different “bioactive fractions”] of cow urine distillate ( gau-arka). As mentioned before, these claims have to be validated in animal and clinical trials. The Indian Drugs and Cosmetics Act (1940) excludes clinical trials for traditional medicine such as cow urine as medicine or Panchagavya as medicine if they can be traced to ancient medical texts scheduled in the Act. However, any new formulation (such as distillate plus antibiotic) has to go through the necessary trials before they can be marketed. These trials do not seem to have been completed as yet for a clinical confirmation of the validity of the claims.

In this context, it may be pertinent to quote Anji Reddy (founder of Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories) from his book, An Unfinished Agenda. Apparently, when he met Ramesh Mashelkar, a close friend of his, soon after the patents on the cow urine distillate were announced to the public by Murli Manohar Joshi, Reddy asked him: “Ramesh, it’s all right for your Minister to talk about cow’s urine, but why are you doing that? You know full well that when you distil your urine, my urine or cow’s urine, the distillate is water. What therapeutic value can it have?” Apparently, Mashelkar kept quiet and did not answer. In a different context, however, in an interview to the magazine Manushi, known for its closeness to the BJP, he said that the scientists were doing some very interesting work not just with cow urine but with its distillate and he had been very impressed.

The tragedy of it all is that neither the scientific academies nor other serious-minded researchers of the country have engaged themselves in investigating these claims and validating or invalidating them, which, on the face of it, seem to belong to pseudo science and are patently irrational. It is important to ensure that a rational approach is brought to the centre of academic activity and scientific research and the spread of irrationality and obscurantism, which have evidently increased during the last two years of cow-centric BJP rule, is stemmed for the nation’s good and harmony.

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