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Researchers Possibly Identify Mythical Herb with Power to Restore Life

A group of researchers from the School of Ecology and Conservation at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore, India, have possibly identified the medicinal herb often referred to in Indian mythology as having the ability to resurrect life.1 The researchers cannot be completely certain of the accuracy of their conclusion, since the herb has been mentioned primarily in Indian folklore—and such stories are not necessarily based on actual events. However, assuming that the herb does exist, they believe that they now have a pretty good idea of its identity.

The Ramayana is an ancient epic poem held in high regard in Indian culture. It tells the story of King Rama and the rescue of his kidnapped wife Sita.2 The Ramayana is believed to have been passed down through oral tradition since around the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, according to Robert Goldman, PhD, co-author of a multivolume translation of Ramayana (e-mail, November 6, 2009); however, Valmiki, a seer poet who was the first to write the poem down in script around the 11th century CE,2 is typically credited as the poem’s author, much as the Greek poet Homer is credited with the Odyssey.

“The Valmiki Ramayana was the first version ever written in script, almost several centuries after its construction, because for such a long period there was no script available to write and the epic was being passed on by oral tradition from generation,” said KN Ganeshaiah, PhD, co-author of the recent study identifying the mythical herb of Ramayana (e-mail, November 10, 2009). “This means during these centuries of oral traditions, there could have been a lot of distortion/alteration introduced into the story, and perhaps only Valmiki would know what he constructed.”

The Ramayana epic mentions an herb named sanjeevani, which means “that which gives life” in Sanskrit and supposedly possessed the ability to resurrect the dead. There are many translations of the original Sanskrit version, which tends to confuse the details of the exact passage on sanjeevani, but there is a certain amount of consensus for this short part of the tale: Rama’s brother Lakshmana is wounded and becomes unconscious or otherwise enters a state of death.1 Hanuman, the king of the monkeys, is asked to go to an Indian mountain range (though there is not a consensus on which one) to gather 4 medicinal herbs to heal him: sanjeevani (one that resurrects the dead), sandhanakarani (restorer of skin), savarnyakarani (restorer of skin color), and vishalyakarani (remover of arrows).3 Hanuman brings the whole mountain top to the battlefield to assure that he will have the correct herbs.2,3 It is after Lakshmana breathes an aromatherapeutic formulation of the gathered herbs that he is roused from his dead state. Since sanjeevani is said to resurrect the dead, that herb is regarded as having done the majority of the healing.1 Sanjeevani has been mentioned in passing within other Indian folklore, as well.

There has been a lack of agreement among experts about where this herb can be found. In all versions of the story, the herb is found in a mountain range, and the authors of the latest study suggest that it could grow in any Indian range from the Himalayas to the Sahyadri (the western Ghats) in southern India.1 Dr. Goldman does not agree: “There is no question that the Himalayas are meant, as they are discussed in detail,” said Goldman, referring to the passage in various translations where the mountains are described. “There is no reference to the Sahyadri range. This is the best known and most iconic reference to Hanuman and his fetching of the entire mountain (since the herbs, not fancying being plucked, make themselves invisible). As he approaches with the mountain, the fragrant scent of the herbs restores all the wounded and fallen to life and health.”

To narrow down a list of herbs in all of India using a few comprehensive Indian plant databases, the researchers applied the following criteria: (1) the plant must have been referred to in different languages of India as sanjeevani at some point; (2) the plant must occur at high altitudes as all versions of the story involve finding the herb in an Indian mountain range; (3) it should be a highly effective medicinal plant; and (4) it should have the ability to resurrect life or, as the researchers interpret the meaning, the ability to rouse someone from a near-death state, such as a coma.1 The researchers had 3 finalists in their search that matched most of the criteria and only one that met all of the criteria (although they admit that the last criterion is an area that requires more study):

Cressa cretica (Convolvulaceae) has several common names in Sanskrit, including sanjivani.1 It has been traditionally used in the treatment of leprosy, asthma, biliousness, urinary discharge, external inflammation, and pains, according to the Jeeva Sampada database cited in the paper.1,4 It therefore easily fits criteria 1 and 3. However, the habitat of this plant is along lakes, shores, dry plains, and forests, so it is not found in a mountain range. Due to the plant’s inability to meet the geographical criterion, the fact that there is no evidence of its treating a near-death state is moot.

Desmotrichum fimbriatum (Orchidaceae) is commonly found in forested hills, and it is traditionally used to treat heat shock, painful urination, menstrual irregularities, and jaundice, according to the Jeeva Sampada database.1,4 So it easily fits criteria 2 and 3. However, the closest name to sanjeevani that it has been referred to in Sanskrit is jeevavani. Since it meets 2 criteria strongly, the researchers still consider it a candidate, but they believe that the lack of the exact common name sanjeevani makes it unlikely.

Selaginella bryopteris (Selaginellaceae) has the Sanskrit common names of both sanjeevani and sanjeevani bhoothi. (Bhoothi means a “special herb” in Sanskrit.) It grows in mountain ranges (including the Himalayas) and is traditionally used to treat asthma, bronchitis, fever, burning sensations, biliousness, and diseases of the blood.5 Furthermore, an aqueous extract of this herb has been shown to possibly recover mouse and insect cells subjected to UV radiation and oxidative stress.5 Recovering from oxidative stress prevents neurodegeneration, which can arguably help improve disorders related to the nervous system such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and stroke, etc.5 However, the study concludes that further research is required to see if the possibly mythical herb can recover patients from near-death states such as unconsciousness or comas.

Dr. Ganeshaiah states that he and his research group plan to work further on this topic, although they must first raise more funds. He added that there has been a great deal of inquiry from those interested in collaborating with them on this study.

—Kelly E. Lindner
  1. Ganeshaiah KN, Vasudeva R, Uma Shaanker R. In search of Sanjeevani. Current Science. 2009;97(4):484–489.

  2. Goldman R, Pollock S. The Ramayana of Valmiki: An Epic of Ancient India, Volume VI: Yuddhakanda. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 2009.

  3. CN Srinivasa Aiyangar (ed). Kannada Valmiki Ramayana. Krishnamurthipuram, Mysore, India: D.V.K. Murthy; 1985.

  4. KN Ganeshaiah et al. Jeeva Sampada: A digital Catalogue of Indian Bioresources. New Delhi, India: Indian Bioresources Information Network Group’s Department of Biology. Government of India; 2006.

  5. Sah NK, Singh SN, Sahdev S, et al. Indian herb ‘Sanjeevani’ (Selaginella bryopteris) can promote growth and protect against heat shock and apoptotic activities of ultra violet and oxidative stress. J Biosc. 2005;30:499–505.