At Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia hospital, comatose patients with serious brain injury have undergone a treatment that is not a usual part of hospital regimens—the chanting of an ancient Vedic mantra that is believed to ward off untimely death. This treatment, condoned by the hospital, is part of a study for which the Indian government has sanctioned research funds.
In 2014, Dr Ashok Kumar, then a resident neuropharmacologist at the All India Institute of Medial Sciences, proposed a pilot study on the “role of intercessory prayer in determining the outcome after severe traumatic brain injury.” Intercessory prayers are offered by people on behalf of someone else. The prayer in question is the Mahamrityunjaya chant, a mantra from the Rig Veda, one of the oldest texts of Hinduism. Kumar’s study attempted to determine whether the chanting of this mantra on behalf of patients with severe traumatic brain injury, or STBI, would play a role in improving their health outcomes. STBI is caused by external trauma to the head, such as from a fall, a car crash or an otherwise violent movement of the head.
To carry out this study, Kumar applied to the Indian Council of Medical Research, or ICMR, for a research fellowship. The ICMR is the apex body in India for the formulation and promotion of biomedical research and is overseen by the ministry of health and family welfare. In March 2016, the ICMR approved the fellowship, and sanctioned Rs 28,000 per month for the study. The funds were awarded for one year starting October 2016, and then renewed for the next two years.
Kumar had initially proposed that the project be conducted at AIIMS, where he was then employed. However, Kumar said the ethics committee at AIIMS rejected the project as “unscientific.” He then proposed the project to the Ram Manohar Lohia hospital. The ethics committee at RML sanctioned the project after six rounds of queries about different aspects of the study, which Kumar had to answer. In a written submission to the RML ethics committee, Kumar said that the study aims to “evaluate whether intercessory prayer has any direct or indirect effect on an unconscious STBI patient and reduces the psychological stress and serum cytokines level and improves the patient outcome.” Cytokines are small secreted proteins released by cells that impact the interactions and communications between cells. Traumatic brain injury triggers an immune response which activates a number of cells and cytokines which may contribute to secondary brain damage.
“In the Ramayana, before Lord Rama built the bridge to Lanka, he offered the Mahamrityunjaya mantra,” Kumar, presently a senior research fellow at RML’s neurosurgery department, told me. “In ancient India, when soldiers got injured in war, this mantra was used to revive them. There are lots of studies among Christians that people with breast cancer and cardiovascular disease who go to church have improved outcomes. Hindu civilisation is more ancient than Christianity and the aim of this project is to prove that there is scientific basis to Hindu belief.”