ICMR funds a project to chant Mahamrityunjaya mantra to aid brain-injury patients

The study was conducted for nearly three years from October 2016 to April 2019 at the RML hospital. RISHI KOCHHAR FOR THE CARAVAN
08 September, 2019

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.”

The hypothesis of Kumar’s study is that “intercessory prayer generates spiritual vibrations, which are believed to be involved in the development of positive faith, and reduce psychological stress, which might be associated with cytokines reduction and a better STBI outcome.” He conducted the study for nearly three years from October 2016 to April 2019 at the RML hospital. It involved 40 patients divided into two groups of twenty. Intercessory prayer was conducted for one group while the other group served as a control group whose treatment continued without any prayers offered on their behalf. The objective was to compare the medical outcomes of both groups. Written permission was taken from the relatives of the patients for whom the prayers were conducted.

The project called for the Mahamrityunjaya chant to be recited 1.25 lakh times over a period of seven days per patient. There were two criteria to select patients—the prayers needed to commence within 24 hours of the injury, and the patient needed a score of between 4 and 8 on the Glasgow scale—in other words, a state of severe coma. The Glasgow scale measures the level of consciousness in a person following traumatic brain injury, from severe, which is 8 or less, to mild, which is between 13 and 15.

Since the doctors at the RML hospital did not know the intricacies of the chant, Kumar roped in teachers from the Lal Bahadur Shastri Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeetha, a university in Delhi that imparts instruction in traditional Sanskrit. The Vidyapeetha is a public institution under the ministry of human resource development.

“Their head of department of medical astrology was very interested and fine-tuned the Mahamrityunjaya chant for our project,” Kumar said, referring to the Vidyapeetha. “The name of the patient, date of birth, place of birth and gotra”—a Hindu system of patrilineal kinship—“were included in the chant.” A professor from the Vidyapeetha came with Ganga jal—water from the Ganga River—to do shuddhi, or purification, for the selected patient, and then offered the prayer on the patient’s behalf at a temple in the Vidyapeetha premesis. Meanwhile, at the RML hospital, Kumar took blood samples before and after the seven-day prayer period.

The final results of the three-year study are being compiled, but Kumar claimed that “patients for whom intercessory prayer was done showed a dramatic improvement in the Glasgow coma scale and the functional independent measure.” The functional independence measure is an indicator of patient disability. However, Dr Ajay Choudhary, the head of the neurology department at the RML hospital and Kumar’s project guide, was more cautious in his comments about the study. “The preliminary results don’t emphatically indicate that intercessory prayer helped, but till the final results are in, it cannot be ruled out,” he said.

Since 2014, under the Bharatiya Janata Party government, India has witnessed a spurt in dubious claims about the scientific achievements of ancient India. Last year, the human resources development ministry decided to introduce a number of astonishing claims in engineering curricula, from the existence of batteries and electricity in the Vedic age to asserting that Indians knew about gravity before Issac Newton. At the 2019 Indian Science Congress, G Nageshwar Rao, the vice chancellor of Andhra University, cited ancient Indian texts as proof that Hindus pioneered stem cell research thousands of years ago. Recently, in April 2019, Pragya Singh Thakur, a BJP member of parliament, claimed that a mixture of cow urine and other cow products cured her breast cancer. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has claimed that genetic science and plastic surgery existed in ancient India.

“When people in positions of power make misleading statements, the average person tends to believe it, because of the trust they have reposed in power, whether that source of power is a political or religious authority,” Apoorvanand, a professor at Delhi University, told me. “The Catholic church denounced Galileo”—an astronomer and physicist—“because his discoveries went against the Church’s dogma. This led to conflict between believers of faith and believers of reason, till the Church acknowledged its error and apologised 500 years later. The invocation of science to validate belief shows the inferiority complex of Hindutva, and the pursuit of this leads to pseudoscience.”

Kumar admitted that the sample size for his study was too small to reach any definite conclusions, but said he would like to do the study again with a larger sample. I emailed questions to Balram Bhargava, the director general of the ICMR, but received no response.

Tushar Dhara is a reporting fellow with The Caravan. He has previously worked with Bloomberg News, Indian Express and Firstpost and as a mazdoor with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan.