Shortly after noon on 14 March, in a makeshift tent next to a temple on Delhi’s Mandir Marg, a bizarre religious ritual was underway. A man in Hindu religious garb faced a flex banner that carried the image of a demon with the word “Corona” stamped across its chest, as well as photos, taken from tourism websites, of Chinese people eating bees, an octopus, a frog and a lobster, with speech bubbles saying, “Save us Corona!” As he sprinkled generous quantities of gaumutra—cow urine—on the image of the demon, the man chanted, “Corona shant ho jao, shant ho jao corona”—Calm down, corona. One of the assembled priests started distributing earthen cups of gaumutra as prasad, while another showered gulal mixed with gaumutra as “a blessing from god.”
Two days before, the World Health Organisation had formally declared the outbreak of the coronavirus COVID-19 a pandemic. The WHO provided all countries a four-pronged strategy: preparing health facilities, detecting and treating new cases, reducing transmission of the virus and innovating ways to tackle the pandemic. This “gaumutra party,” organised by a group known as the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha—its members claim that it is a faction of the Hindu Mahasabha of VD Savarkar—was unusual, but not particularly innovative. Over the last few years, gaumutra has been heralded as a panacea for so many diseases that it was inevitable that someone would include COVID-19 in that list.
Gaumutra is advertised as curing cancer and suppressing its symptoms, managing diabetes and insulin resistance, improving liver function, regulating thyroid hormones and iodine levels, flushing out toxins and preventing microbial infections. Several scientific papers attesting to its wonders have been published, though rarely in peer-reviewed journals, and numerous patents have been issued for gaumutra products. Following extensive patronage under the Narendra Modi government—with union ministers acting as cheerleaders for gaumutra and state-run research institutes being mobilised to bestow their claims scientific legitimacy—the gaumutra industry has flourished. In 2017, the CEO of Patanjali Ayurved, Balakrishna, estimated that the company produces five thousand litres of gaumutra every day. It is exported in large quantities and sold over all leading e-commerce platforms.
Several doctors have expressed concern over gaumutra’s growing popularity, arguing not just that it is ineffective, but that it is dangerous. “What waste that our bloodstream cannot take comes out in the form of urine,” Dr Arun Mitra, a co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, told me. “These are waste products. How can a waste product be useful for us?”
Gaumutra and human urine have similar chemical structures, he said, so it is a myth that the former is superior. “How do you ensure that this cow urine is not infected?” he added. “There’s a high chance that the urine itself may be infected. So if you take all the products we have discarded in excess—like urea, creatinine, et cetera—then you are very likely to fall ill. The biggest problem with consuming urine if you are infected virally is that you could once again get infected, adding more complications.” In an interview with Bloomberg, Navneet Dhand, an assistant professor of veterinary biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Sydney, said that cow urine can transmit “leptospirosis, which can cause meningitis and liver failure; arthritis-causing brucellosis; and Q-fever, which can cause pneumonia and chronic inflammation of the heart.”
The media was sceptical. Most scientists have concluded that there is no cure yet for COVID-19, one journalist said. How were they so sure this would work? “Those who don’t believe us can die,” Chakrapani, who had earlier said that cow-dung cakes and agarbattis made of dung would “instantly kill the virus,” responded. “That’s what is happening to everyone abroad, right? How is belief in Western medicine going to save you? Has it saved anyone in China?”
“This is a two-thousand-year-old ritual that I am participating in,” Om Prakash, a bus driver employed by the Delhi Transport Corporation, told me as he sprinkled a few drops of gaumutra on his head. “English medicine will cure one disease and give birth to two more, but me drinking this will never start anything new.” He had not touched Western medicine in 21 years, he said, and had faced no significant health issues. He offered to take off his clothes so that we could see that he had “the body of an 18-year-old.” I politely declined his offer. Another attendee, Kavita Grover, extolled the virtues of the holy cow, which, she said, had made India “one of the greatest civilisations in the world. Its dung protected us from the mightiest of earthquakes because we built our houses from it, and its urine saved us from deadly diseases even in ancient times.”
Many of the attendees told me that their spiritual purity would see them through the pandemic. “See, if you worship the cow and stop eating meat, everything will be fine,” Amarjeet Malhotra, a member of the ABHM, told me—even though Giriraj Singh, the union animal-husbandry minister, had said, on 6 March, that both the WHO and Indian food-safety authorities have found no evidence of the coronavirus being transmitted from animals to humans. “The negative energy of the coronavirus will not affect the people with the strength of the sanatan dharma,” Malhotra said. When I asked him what would happen to Hindus who ate meat, he said, “They are not real Hindus. We should stay away from them.”
Two days later, possibly in reaction to the publicity the gaumutra party had received, Narayan Chatterjee, a Bharatiya Janata Party worker in Kolkata, organised a similar ceremony. A civic volunteer on duty near the gaushala where the ceremony was taking place fell ill after drinking the gaumutra being distributed. He filed a police complaint, and Chatterjee was arrested. I asked Thakur for his reaction to the news. He told me that the volunteer had probably drunk the gaumutra neat. “You have to mix it with water, or it hits you hard,” he said. “When we were serving it at the party, we were just adding one or two drops in a glass of water. They must not have done that in Bengal.”