Ramayana & Biopiracy

As the valiant Lakshmana lay dead on the epic battle field, Hanuman was despatched in search of the miracle herb that would revive the intrepid warrior. Being the son of the Lord of the Air, Hanuman could fly faster than any of his peers (is it s a bird…is it a plane…its Hanuman!!). Having whizzed to the distant mountain, like most colonial bioprospectors plonked down in an alien ecology, he had no way of telling the miracle herb from random weeds. So, doing what any superhero does in a day’s work, he lifted the entire mountain and brought it back to the battlefield. The story has been told and retold a zillion times and even as the audience rejoiced at every telling at the revival of Lakshmana, I wonder how many thought about the humble herb itself. What was it? How did it work?

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One of the earliest accounts of the question being asked comes from Calcutta in the 1890s. The British government had just set up a commission to examine medically active local herbs and some members of the commission heard from their local friends of Hanuman’s herb. It was commonly used by Bengali Kavirajes in their daily practice and its anti-bleeding properties were well-known even to the laity. The commission sourced a large pile of the herb from a local Kaviraj and enthusiastically undertook tests on it. All went well for a couple of years. A consultant botanist who was asked to look into the herb however, identified it as a Brazilian weed accidentally introduced into Bengal by a drunken sailor only a century or so ago!

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The British and the nationalists immediately disavowed the plant. But the logic was specious. Why could the great flying monkey not have flown to Brazil? Why could the Bajrangbali not do the Samba? Despite such questions however, the investigations were stopped.

In the 1930s a bunch of Bengali biochemists, knowing nothing of the earlier investigations, but having heard of the story of Lakshmana took up the investigations once more. This time they proved that the plant did genuinely have anti-bleeding properties and published their findings in top science journals. These properties were not known in Brazil or in the other regions of the world where the plant had been introduced.

So had the Son of the Air really gone to Brazil?

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Ironically, today the search for Hanuman’s herb has started anew. Once again on the presumption that a Brazilian plant cannot be the one. As bioprospectors scour the globe looking for medically active drugs and national governments seek to patent their herbal inheritance, there is a strange alignment of the mythical and the national. We can believe in flying monkeys, but we cannot believe that that monkey could violate national airspace. We believe in local knowledge, but only so long as it can be folded into the linear teleology of national history. Read more about Hanuman’s herb.

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