Holy cow! India gets taste for urine
India's Hindu nationalists have, in the past, suggested that cow dung be used in nuclear bunkers to keep out radiation, claimed that cow urine could cure cancer - as well as many other diseases - and marketed cow urine-based skincare products. Now they have come up with a soft drink made of, yes, cow urine.
Last month, the research and development section of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) began promoting its Gau Jal ('cow water' in Sanskrit) project, announcing that it was all set to launch the 'health drink' before year's end.
RSS aims to establish Hindu supremacy in India and is known for its opposition to 'corrupting' western food imports. It runs many Goratna (cow product) shops across the country, selling soap, shampoo, toothpaste, skincare creams and aftershave lotions - all made from cow urine and dung - with supposedly medicinal qualities.
Gau Jal project experts in the northern city of Kanpur said the soft drink - currently undergoing laboratory tests - would contain small traces of urine, which would be mixed with aloe vera and gooseberry, among other ingredients. They claimed the drink could help fight diabetes, cancer and delay the ageing process.
'We have also added many other useful herbs. This soft drink not only has cooling properties, but also cures various other diseases,' said Ramanuj Mishra, the officer in charge of the project's Kanpur office. 'Unlike other soft drinks, it will have some medicinal properties, and many will call it a health drink, in fact. We may change its name before its commercial release.'
The head of RSS' Gau Seva Sangh (GSS), or Cow Protection Organisation, Om Prakash, will manage the main production plant in the Hindu holy city of Hardwar. He said the drink would be very cheap because of an abundance of cow urine. 'It will not smell like urine and will be tasty,' Mr Prakash said. 'It won't be like carbonated drinks and will be devoid of any toxins ... Cow urine offers a cure for around 70 to 80 incurable diseases like diabetes. All are curable by cow urine,' he claimed.
One expert at the Kanpur office said: 'This soft drink is beneficial for everybody. The [multinationals] that are selling various soft drinks caution customers about various ingredients which are not good for your health. But our soft drink has only benefits to offer and we are sure people will buy it ... people in other countries may like it for its medicinal properties and so we are even thinking to export the drink.'
Only urine from Indian breeds of cows will be used for the drink, and the urine will be supplied from some of the country's 1,000 or so GSS-run shelters for rescued cows.
In 2001, after RSS and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party began promoting cow urine as a cure for many human ailments, a 'multi-utility pill' - a cow urine-based drug that it was claimed could cure anything from diabetes and piles to 'ladies' diseases' - became popular among many Hindus.
However, in 2002, when GSS launched a range of cow urine-based cosmetics, some top Bollywood actresses refused to endorse the products.
Former Miss World Aishwarya Rai said at the time: 'It's true that the cow is sacred to Hindus, but that doesn't alter the fact that urine is a dirty excretion. The very thought of having to apply cow urine on my face or [swallowing] a urine-based medicine ... gives me the shivers. It is certainly not my idea of beauty and health care.'
However, the cosmetics are still sold at Hindu religious and political gatherings, RSS-run shops, and even in some big shopping malls across the country.
Because of the holy status of cows among Hindus, in Hindu-majority India, many believe that cow urine and dung have divine or medicinal properties. Food and drink at Hindu festivals are sometimes laced with the urine, and dung is used in other rituals.
The sacred cow has a special role in Hindu mythology. Some trace cow worship back to the Hindu god Krishna, who is said to have first appeared as a cowherd. Several other gods also lived for a time as cows, which remain a powerful symbol of the Hindu religion.
The five key cow products - butter, milk, curd, urine and dung - are collectively known as panchgavya and have been an important part of Hindu ayurvedic medicine for centuries.
Some radical Hindus drink cow urine on an empty stomach, believing it will make them immune from many diseases. In Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh states, Hindu groups run special centres where cow urine is collected by volunteers and then served free every morning.
Radical Hindus believe cow urine also has the power to purify a person's spiritual side. In Orissa, during the anti-Christian riots last year, about 1,000 Christians were forced to drink cow urine during ceremonies as activists allegedly forced them to convert to Hinduism.
In Calcutta, when police arrested RSS activists some years ago for selling bottles of cow urine mixed with dung as a cure for 'everything under the sun', one activist proclaimed that he drank cow urine every morning and was therefore 'unusually healthy' and looked 'younger than his age'.
'With its horns, the Indian cow absorbs the sun's rays to produce special chemical compounds inside its body. And, through urine and dung, these 'cure-all' compounds are excreted for human benefit,' the activist claimed in his recorded statement to police.
RSS and its offshoots, including GSS, have long been demanding that the cow be officially nominated as India's national animal. A campaign by the Hindu groups has succeeded in getting the slaughter of the animals banned in many states.
There are plans to launch a campaign to mobilise the Hindu population to demand a nationwide ban on cow slaughter. The rathyatra, or chariot campaign, is set to start in September and will carry senior Hindu leaders in a 108-day convoy of cars travelling 20,000km through all of India's Hindu-majority states.
New Delhi professor D.N. Jha's book Holy Cow - Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions, which detailed Hindus' beef-eating habits in the Vedic period, was banned after its release in 2002 but was reprinted by a foreign publisher under the title Myth of the Holy Cow.
For his 'offence' of writing that Hindus ate beef, the Hindu historian was attacked by activists and had to have police protection for months.