FWD 2 HerbalEgram

HerbalEGram: Volume 6, Number 12, December 2009

Researchers Identify Mythical Herb
Said to Have Power to Restore Life

A group of researchers from the School of Ecology and Conservation at the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore, India, have possibly found the mythical medicinal herb often referred to in Indian mythology as possessing the ability to resurrect life.1 The researchers cannot be completely certain since the herb has been mentioned mostly in Indian folklore which has not been proven to be based on actual events, but if the herb does exist, they have a pretty good idea of which one it is.

The Ramayana is an ancient epic poem held in high regard in Indian culture. It tells the story of King Rama and the rescue of his kidnapped wife Sita.2 The Ramayana is believed to have been passed down in an oral tradition since around the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, according to Robert Goldman, PhD, co-author of a multivolume translation of Ramayana (e-mail, November 6, 2009); however, it is generally accepted that Valmiki, a seer poet who was the first to write it down in script around the 11th century CE,2 is credited as the poem’s author, much like the relation of the Greek epic poet Homer to the Odyssey.

“The Valmiki Ramayana was the first version ever written in script, almost several centuries after its construction because for such a long period there was no script available to write and the epic was being passed on by oral tradition from generation,” said KN Ganeshaiah, PhD, co-author of the study (e-mail, November 10, 2009). “This means during these centuries of oral traditions there could have been a lot of distortion/alteration introduced into the story and perhaps only Valmiki would know what he constructed.”

The Ramayana epic gives short mentions of an herb named sanjeevani, which means “that which gives life” in Sanskrit and is supposed to resurrect the dead. There are many translations of the original Sanskrit version which tends to confuse the details of the exact passage on sanjeevani, but there is a certain amount of consensus for this short part of the tale: Rama’s brother Lakshmana is wounded and becomes unconscious or otherwise in a state of death.1 Hanuman, the king of the monkeys, is asked to go to an Indian mountain range (though there is not a consensus about which one) to gather 4 medicinal herbs to heal him: sanjeevani (one that resurrects the dead), sandhanakarani (restorer of skin), savarnyakarani (restorer of skin color), and vishalyakarani (remover of arrows).3 Hanuman brings the whole mountain top to the battlefield to assure that he brings the correct herbs.2,3 It is after Lakshmama breathes an aromatherapeutic formulation of the gathered herbs that he is roused from his dead state. Since sanjeevani is said to resurrect the dead, it is the herb believed to have done the majority of the healing.1 The researchers also point out that the other herbs listed in the formulation are not often mentioned in various forms of Indian folklore and sanjeevani has been mentioned in passing other places.

However, there is lack of agreement among experts about where this herb can be found. In all versions of the story the herb is found in a mountain range, and the authors of the study suggest that it could be held in any Indian range from the Himalayas to the Sahyadri (the western Ghats) in southern India.1 Dr. Goldman does not agree: “There is no question that the Himalayas are meant as they are discussed in detail,” said Goldman, referring to the passage in various translations where the mountains are described. “There is no reference to the Sahyadri range. This is the best known and most iconic reference to Hanuman and his fetching of the entire mountain (since the herbs, not fancying being plucked, make themselves invisible). As he approaches with the mountain, the fragrant scent of the herbs restores all the wounded and fallen to life and health.”

To narrow down a list of herbs in all of India using a few comprehensive Indian plant databases, the researchers applied the following criteria: (1) the plant must have been referred to in different languages of India as sanjeevani at some point; (2) the plant must occur at high altitudes as all versions of the story involve finding the herb in an Indian mountain range; (3) it should be a highly effective medicinal plant; and (4) it should have the ability to resurrect life, or as the researchers interpret the meaning, the ability to rouse someone from a near-death state, such as a coma.1 The researchers had 3 finalists in their search that matched most of the criteria and only one that met all the criteria, though they admit that the last criterion is an area that requires more study:

Cressa cretica has several common names in Sanskrit including sanjivani.1 It has been traditionally used in the treatment of leprosy, asthma, biliousness, urinary discharge, external inflammation, and pains, according to the Jeeva Sampada database which is cited in the paper,1,4 so it easily fits criteria 1 and 3. However, the habitat of this plant is along lakes, shores, dry plains, and forests so it is not found in a mountain range. Therefore, due to the geographical criterion, the fact that there is no evidence of its treating a near-death state is moot.

Desmotrichum fimbriatum is commonly found in forested hills and it is traditionally used to treat heat shock, painful urination, menstrual irregularities, and jaundice according to the Jeeva Sampada database.1,4 So it easily fits criteria 2 and 3. However, the closest name to sanjeevani that it has been referred to in Sanskrit is jeevavani. Since it meets 2 criteria strongly, the researchers still consider it a candidate but believe that the lack of the exact common name sanjeevani makes it unlikely.

Selaginella bryopteris has the Sanskrit common names of both sanjeevani and sanjeevani bhoothi. (Bhoothi means a “special herb” in Sanskrit.) It grows in mountain ranges (including the Himalayas) and is traditionally used to treat asthma, bronchitis, fever, burning sensations, biliousness, and diseases of the blood.5 Furthermore, an aqueous extract of this herb has been shown to possibly recover mouse and insect cells subjected to UV radiation and oxidative stress.5 Recovering from oxidative stress prevents neurodegeneration which has been argued can help improve disorders related to the nervous system such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and stroke, etc.5 However, the study concludes that further studies are required to see if the possibly mythical herb can recover patients from near-death states such as unconsciousness or comas.

Dr. Ganeshaiah states that he and his research group plan to work further on this study but must first raise more funds. However, he reports that there has been a great deal of inquiry from those interested in collaborating with them on this study.

—Kelly E. Lindner


1. Ganeshaiah KN, Vasudeva R, Uma Shaanker R. In search of Sanjeevani. Current Science 2009;97(4):484–489.

2. Goldman R, Pollock S. The Ramayana of Valmiki: An Epic of Ancient India, 6 volumes. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press; 1990–2009.

3. C N Srinivasa Aiyangar (ed). Kannada Valmiki Ramayana. Krishnamurthipuram, Mysore, India: D.V.K. Murthy; 1985.

4. KN Ganeshaiah et al. Jeeva Sampada: A digital Catalogue of Indian Bioresources. New Delhi, India: Indian Bioresources Information Network Group’s Department of Biology. Government of India; 2006.

5. Sah NK, Singh S N, Sahdev S, et al. Indian herb ‘Sanjeevani’ (Selaginella bryopteris) can promote growth and protect against heat shock and apoptotic activities of ultra violet and oxidative stress. J Biosc.,2005;30: 499–505.