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Atharvan anti-diarrheal remedy with termite soil


Kaushika Sutra 25.6-8 of Atharva Veda rubricates the mantras of shaunaka shAkha “vidmA sharasya…” AVS 1.2 and “ado yad…” AVS 2.3 for remedy against wounds and diarrhea. The interesting mantras are AVS 2.3.3-6, the translation of which is reproduced from mAnasataraMgini:

nIchaiH khananty asurA arusrANam idaM mahat |
tad AsrAvasya bheShajaM tad u rogam anInashat ||
Deep down the Asuras bury this great healer of wounds: that is the drug for diarrhea, which verily destroyed the disease.

upajIkA[1] ud bharanti samudrAd adhi bheShajam |
tad AsrAvasya bheShajaM tad u rogam ashIshamat ||
Termites bring the remedy from the [underground] water body: that is the drug for diarrhea, which verily silenced the disease.

arusrANam idaM mahat pR^ithivyA adhy udbhR^itam |
tad AsrAvasya bheShajaM tad u rogam anInashat || (AV-vulgate 2.3.3-5)
This great healer of wounds has been brought out of the earth: that is the drug for diarrhea, which verily destroyed the disease.

Kaushika says “AkR^itiloShTavalmIkau parilikhya pAyayati| sarpiShA limpati|”. The commentator Darila clarifies that “parilikhanaM” means “chUrNIkaraNam” – to make it into a paste. The translation with the scholiast explanation is “He makes the soil of termite mound into a paste and makes the patient drink it. He anoints the patient with melted butter”. Tradition indicates that the termite mound soil is mixed with the melted butter, made into an ointment and then rubbed on the ‘wound’. Keshavapaddhati adds the specific wound site as ‘apAna’ indicating probably an inflammation due to diarrhea or hemorrhoids in general.

Certain indologists have dismissed the whole medical practices of the atharvan as superstition and only ‘symbolic magic’. For example, a charm with the herb ‘ajashringi” is used not  due to any pharmacological property of the herb but due to its resemblance of “goat’s horn” – aja = goat, shR^inga = horn”. They add, “this is the best the medicine men of primitive Aryan society offered”.

Atharvan lore certainly has its share of strange practices but this instance of anti-diarrheal remedy is not one of them. Geophagy is the practice of eating soil and similar substances like clay and chalk. This practice is found among primates like gorillas, chimpanzees and various species of monkeys as well as humans. Edible clay is sold in various African markets till date. Vermeer et al.[2] analyzed the clay entering the West African market system that comes from the village of Uzalla, Nigeria. They report that the village inhabitants report anti-diarrheal properties to the clay and use it in traditional medicinal preparations to counteract intestinal problems. The clay has higher pH value which acts as antacid. Their mineralogical analyses demonstrate a striking similarity between the Uzalla village clay and the clay in the commercial pharmaceutical KaopectateTM[3], which is used to treat diarrhea and gastro-intestinal upset.

Mahaney et al.[4] analyzed the geochemistry and clay minerology of termite mound soil and its role in the geophagy of chimpanzees in Mahaly mountains, Tanzania. They found that the composition correlated well with the minerology of clay fraction which is high in metahalloysite and smectite. The combination of metahalloysite and smectite produces a substance similar to KaopectateTM. Their field observations of the chimpanzees confirmed that the chimpanzees ingested the termite mound clay when they had severe diarrhea and parasite infection.

Andersen[5] while reporting on the consumption of termite mound clay by Australian aborigines report that the indigenous people have traditionally used termite mound soil for medicinal purposes as a remedy for diarrhea, as nutrition supplement, to prevent bleeding, to stop infection, to ease upset stomach and abdominal pain. The soil may be eaten directly, smoked, made into a slurry and drunk or used as a poultice.

Thus we see that the atharvan practice, far from being superstition rather has a real medical value. That it is found across primates and humans across multiple continents testify to its effectiveness and persistence.



[1] upajIkA – Variant forms upadIka, upajihvika, upadIpika: A form of ant or termite. In the pravargya myth as per shatapatha brAhmaNa (14.1.1), Indra cuts off the head of VishNu with the help of the upadIkA termites. In return they are given a boon of finding water even in desert. Presence of termite mounds has been reported as hydrological indicator in African deserts. Termites need regulated water supply throughout their year to maintain the temperature and humidity of their nest as well as farming their fungi. Mining literature has anecdotal reports of termites digging hundreds of feet down in search of water. It is however likely that they exploit the shallower water reservoir. About two feet below the termite mound, there is the nodular calcite layer which is probably biogenic due to the methane produced by termite guts. These nodules can grow cobblestoned impermeable layer that can trap water. This forms a so-called perched water table that can collect water percolating down during torrential rains. Turner[6] reports, “a Macrotermes colony can act as a “water gatherer”, a physiological system that draws water from a broad expanse of soil centripetally to the colony.

[2] Vermeer, Donald E., and Ray E. Ferrell Jr. 1985. Nigerian Geophagical Clay: A Traditional Antidiarrheal Pharmaceutical. Science 227:634–636.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaopectate

[4] Mahaney, William C., et al. “Geochemistry and clay mineralogy of termite mound soil and the role of geophagy in chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains, Tanzania.” Primates 37.2 (1996): 121-134.

[5] Andersen, Alan Neil, and Peter Jacklyn. Termites of the top end. CSIRO PUBLISHING, 1993.

[6] TURNER, J. Scott. “Termites as mediators of the water economy of arid savanna ecosystems.” Dryland ecohydrology. Springer Netherlands, 2006. 303-313.

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