Recently, the Science and Technology Ministry called for R&D proposals under the inter-ministerial programme SUTRA-PIC India (Scientific Utilization through Research Augmentation-Prime Products from Indigenous Cows). The programme calls for research proposals under five themes. Opening with the statement, “Indian cows are believed to process unique qualities and characteristics,” the document invites “systematic scientific investigation of uniqueness of pure indigenous Indian cows”.
Are indigenous cows unique?
Evolutionary biology tells us that multiple species can co-evolve and become highly suitable for each other. For instance, some humans are lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerance is a digestive disorder caused by the inability to digest lactose, a primary component of milk and dairy products. Studies have shown that people living in northern and western India are more tolerant to lactose compared to south Indians. As northern and western Indians have lived with cows for hundreds of years, breeding them and feeding on their products, they are able to digest milk better. This reasoning would hold for other domesticated animals too. The co-evolution argument holds good for all breeds of cow and their local human populations across the world.
Can cow urine and panchgavya (cow dung, urine, milk, curd, ghee) help treat cancer and other diseases?
The call invites applications for research on cowpathy — treatment based on products obtained from indigenous cow as used in ayurveda. It lists many illnesses for which it claims that ancient ayurvedic texts suggested pharmacological applications of products from indigenous cows. The listed diseases are those associated with exclusive symptoms such as psoriasis, eczema and diarrhoea as well as those without particular symptoms such as blood pressure (primary hypertension) and asymptomatic diabetes mellitus.
This at the outset strikes a jarring note. For one, many symptoms of high blood pressure such as giddiness may be attributed to other diseases. Hypertension cannot really be measured without a BP apparatus which came into being later. Experts in ayurveda acknowledge this.
“Ayurveda does not have a clear approach for the management of diseases that do not manifest symptoms. While it does deal with eczema or psoriasis, which have symptoms, it does not have a clear protocol for the management of primary hypertension and diabetes when it is asymptomatic,” says G.L. Krishna, a practising ayurvedic doctor from Bengaluru, who is interested in Vedanta and Vedic literature. “Further, cancer is a generic term used to describe a spectrum of diseases that result from abnormal cells that are rapidly proliferating. It is not a single disease. The concept of cell in Vedic times was still nascent. Therefore, it would be wrong to presume that ancient ayurvedic texts could have discussed a generic disease entity that results from abnormal cell proliferation,” he says.
Why is cow urine not exclusive?
Cow urine was used in ayurveda, but so was goat, camel and elephant urine. Ayurveda practioners use beers, wines and meat, even that of cows, for different medical preparations and conditions. ( The Legacy of Vagbhata , M.S. Valiathan). While cow milk was generally preferred over goat’s milk, the latter was used to treat tuberculosis.
Rather than glorify cow excreta and urine, a more scientifically valid enterprise would be to have the Ministry of Ayush undertake a serious review of ayurvedic texts and subject them to a scientific scrutiny. Many concepts may get falsified, but a true science should not be afraid of falsification. And, as Dr. Krishna says, “A strict scientific attitude and a sympathy with traditional systems are both required in approaching our ancient medical classics. An approach bereft of the former leads to pseudoscience masquerading as traditional wisdom while that bereft of the latter leads to a hasty undermining of valuable medical experience.”