Elephantiasis in Vedic times

In order to set the context of the article, a small digression, medical in nature is required. Here it is…

Elephantiasis refers to a parasitic infection that causes extreme swelling in the arms and legs.The disease is caused by the filarial worm, which is transmitted from human to human via the female mosquito when it takes a blood meal. The parasite grows into an adult worm that lives in the lymphatic system of humans.

The adult worms can live from about three to eight years. The adult worms grow to about 1 in (2.5 cm) to 4 in (10 cm) long.

Elephantiasis is one of the world’s most debilitating tropical diseases and affects over 40 million people in India and at least 120 million people globally.

Turns out, it is not just modern day India that has to deal with this problem. Our Vedic ancestors had to deal with this too. And the problem was probably as widespread because the rishis dedicated an entire hymn to various deities praying they not be inflicted with this terrible disease.

Verses from hymn 50 of Mandala VII are re-produced with relevant phrases highlighted.

RV 7.050.01
O MITRA-VARUNA, guard and protect me here: let not that come to me which nests within and swells.
I drive afar the scorpion hateful to the sight: let not the winding worm touch me and wound my foot.

The disease is caused by a winding worm that nests within and causes swelling. This is consistent with what we know now, that the filarial worm nests in the human body, deposited as larvae and then grows into an adult worm causing extreme swelling. The verse refers to “winding worm” as the cause of the disease.

RV 7.050.02
Eruption that appears upon the twofold joints, and that which overspreads the ankles and the knees,
May the refulgent Agni banish far away let not the winding worm touch me and wound my foot.

The second verse tells us that eruption appears at the joint and spreads from the ankles to the knees, again consistent with the swelling that occurs due to elephantiasis.

RV 7.050.04
The steep declivities, the valleys, and the heights, the channels full of water, and the waterless-
May those who swell with water, gracious Goddesses, never afflict us with the Sipada disease, may all the rivers keep us free from Simida.

In verse 4, we even have a name for the disease – the ancients called it “Sipada”.

What remains unresolved here is the mention of scorpion in verse 1; we now know that the disease is transmitted by mosquitoes, so relevance of scorpion is not clear to me. As I read this verse, I expected the symptoms described to be consistent with a scorpion sting, but as I read the entire verse and indeed the hymn, that certainly is not the case. So could this be a case of incorrect translation, could the composer have meant mosquito instead of scorpion? Well, very difficult to prove, however, if we could, then it would have meant that the ancients were aware of the entire lifecycle. But the repeated mention of ” not letting with worm touch and wound my foot”, seems to suggest, they were not aware of the role of the mosquito in the spread of the disease.

This hymn is composed by Rishi Vasistha, the same rishi who has composed the Frog Hymn. Elephantiasis is a disease of the tropics, with one third cases in India alone, followed by Africa. Like the Frog Hymn, this hymn is composed by a seer firmly rooted in India. The spirit and essence of Mandala VII is very much in modern day India. My conviction grows even more.

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One Response to Elephantiasis in Vedic times

  1. SP VERMA says:

    interesting. i’ll comment later, after studying your material. kudos for your deep interest in the subject. have you written about mandala 1 and 10?

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