Medicine, Myth, and Mythology

-Dr. Amarnath Trivedi, Wellcome Trust, CMC Vellore

My enthralment with mythology dates back to my childhood. My Grandma used to tell us stories from Ramayana and Mahabharatha. Mythology enriches our knowledge, fascinates our imagination, and blesses us with age-old wisdom as well. Before diving more deeply into mythology, let me remind you about the first organ transplant in history known to us – elephant head to Lord Ganesha by his father Lord Siva!

I once read a story from Mahabharata about a fisherman’s daughter. The story goes like this….. There lived a fisherman who had a beautiful daughter but unfortunately, she smelt of fish. A sage relieved her ailment through his healing powers. I learnt later from Nelson’s textbook of Paediatrics about a condition called trimethylaminuria. An enzyme deficiency accumulates trimethylamine in the body and excreted in urine which makes the person smell like rotten fish. I wondered how our sage in this story knew the condition and its treatment. Maybe it’s just a story or medical cure recorded as a story for positive reinforcement among folks.

Until then, I never looked myths with a medical eye. Then, more such stories began to catch my attention. Here are some-

There is one other story of a King named Bhoja who had a severe headache. His skull was trephined to relieve his headache and remove a malignant portion of his brain! Research says foetus can hear and recognize voice while in the womb. The story of Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna who overheard his parents conversation about Padmavyuha (an ancient war technique) while in his mother’s womb points to the current known research.

Arjuna explaining padmavyuha to Subhadra while she is pregnant with Abhimanyu

Another interesting story is that of Kumbakarna, the younger brother of Ravana, who has been portrayed in Ramayana to have sleep apnea or hypothalamic obesity. Research in endocrinology discusses this issue of hypothalamic obesity and its link to a profound sleeping pattern as observed in the case of Kumbakarna. Even today, we refer to such sleepers as, “you sleep like a Kumbakarna!” The rakshasa (demon) Viraatha, son of Jaya had immunity towards arrows but experienced pain. I understand it as acromegaly with sensory neuropathy! In the battle of Lanka, Lakshmana getting paralysed because of Nagaasthra. It was reported as being self-limiting in Ramayana which correlates with the current understanding of periodic paralysis which requires pharmacological intervention, obviously Sanjeevani herb in this scenario (brought by Hanuman from the Himalayas).

Here comes another story. The story is about King Dasaratha (father of Lord Rama) with probable infertility. In my understand here that King Dasarath had subfertility (male factor) but the treatment with God sent porridge evolved out of Rajasuya Yaga was female-centric and can be considered as the forerunner of ovulation induction.

The epic Mahabharatha describes Gandhari wife of Dhruthrastra after prolonged gestation has given birth to a lump of flesh. As the legend goes the lump was divided into pieces and put into jars. A scientific feat of first in-vitro fertilization was achieved which yielded the mighty Kauravas!

The Mahabharata described a phenomenon called Surrogate Fatherhood which was socially accepted long ago. Queen Satyavati asks her son Vedha Vyasa, to cohabit for siring progeny with her widowed daughter-in-laws Ambika and Ambalika to avoid extinction of her lineage. The epic goes like this, Ambika closes her eye at the sight of Vedha Vyasa and a blinded son Dhruthrastra was born. Ambalika turns pale after seeing Vedha Vyasa and a son with albinism Pandu was born. Ambalika next sends a confident palace maid in her place and a perfectly healthy son Vidhura was born. There is a big debate today in medical circles today on the role of environmental factors on intrauterine development. The above story of Amba and Ambalika is perhaps the first recorded case of maternal programming or epigenetic impact.

I remember a lot of similar stories but the story of the girl with trimethylaminuria always remains my favorite. I thank my grandma for telling me these mythological stories which I can now correlate with the latest medical knowledge. These documented evidences from our good old epics can help understand science and may even help with medical advancements!

Dr. Amarnath Trivedi

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