Pragya Thakur, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Lok Sabha candidate from Bhopal has said drinking cow urine cured her cancer. The claim has brought the issue of whether medical science in our country will be governed by myths or by evidence-based ideas back to the fore. Subsequently, Dr S.S. Rajput, a surgeon at Ram Manohar Lohia Institute of Medical Sciences, Lucknow, confirmed that he had performed three surgeries on Thakur’s breasts to remove the cancer. His statement has exposed her claim for the fiction that it is.
The Hindutva brigade has been claiming a variety of beneficial effects of consuming cow urine, and redoubled its efforts after the BJP assumed power at the Centre in 2014. However, their loudness hasn’t been complemented by evidence. Any item marked for human consumption must first undergo tests that prove it is both useful and harmless, more so with products labeled medicinal. This hasn’t been the case.
Our body has an elaborate system to make use of whatever is needed and to excrete those materials that are either unnecessary or harmful. It is common knowledge that part of the food that we eat is digested and the rest is excreted through the gastrointestinal tract. Waste products generated during the metabolism of the ‘useful’ food is filtered through the kidneys and passed out as urine. Because most mammals’ guts work this way, the chemical composition of the urine they produce is also essentially the same.
Urine is a liquid produced by the kidneys to remove waste products from the bloodstream. Both cow and human urine are basically made up of water, urea, sodium, chloride, sulphate, phosphate, potassium, creatinine, ammonia, uric acid, etc. In effect, cow urine isn’t much different from human urine, so it is hard to believe drinking one is good for health but drinking the other is disgusting.
In an effort to get some clarity, the author filed an RTI application with the Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries. It replied that information regarding the pros of drinking cow urine “is not maintained by this CPIO of cattle division”. An application with 22 departments of the Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Ludhiana – ranked first among 14 state veterinary universities in the country, according to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in 2016 – elicited a similar reply.
Thus, it appears that the most prominent research institutions concerned with animal biology have no information on the record about the usefulness of cow urine. In fact, and on the other hand, some studies have suggested consuming cow urine can have toxic effects as well as precipitate infections and serious health problems.
Many scientists have already debunked claims, including by Baba Ramdev, that cow urine can ‘cleanse’ a solution of a substance called betadine, a minor disinfectant. Ramdev et al have performed ‘experiments’ whereby betadine is added to a glass of pure water, causing the solution to turn reddish brown. When cow urine is added, the solution returns to its colourless state.
This happens with any urine because sodium thiosulphate in the urine reacts with the tri-iodide ion present in betadine to form sodium iodide, which is a colourless compound.
According to D.N. Jha, a veteran historian, a concoction of organic products derived from the cow – milk, curd, clarified butter, dung and urine – called ‘panchagavya’ assumed a purificatory role in the medieval period. However, several Sanskrit texts delineating the dharma of Hinduism proscribe women from using it, and also claim that if a person of the lower caste drinks cow urine, they will be condemned to hell.
Such customs only deepen the need to be skeptical of the role of cow urine vis-à-vis human health. The ideas backing its use belong to a belief system, not science, and the recent surge in their advertisement is rooted in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Hindutva agenda and its ostentatious intention to push Indian society back to the medieval period.
It is high time the pharmaceuticals and health ministries intervened to squelch this propaganda. It is also for the Election Commission to consider whether spreading such obscurantist and unscientific ideas is sufficient cause to cancel Pragya Thakur’s nomination.
Arun Mitra, MBBS, MS (ENT surgeon), is co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.