Selaginella bryopteris Baker, popularly known as sanjeevani, is a lythophytic plant with medicinal properties. The popular name "Sanjeevani" which translates as "One that infuses life" derives from the medicinal properties. Sanjeevani grows on the hills of tropical areas, particularly the Arawali mountain terrains from east to west in India. In search of the Sanjeevani plant of Ramayana. D. BALASUBRAMANIAN

When Lakshmana fell unconscious, near death, hit by an arrow from Ravana’s son Meghnad, Hanuman approached the Lankan Royal Physician Sushena for advice.

Sushena asked Hanuman to rush to Dronagiri Hills and fetch four plants: Mruthasanjeevani (restorer of life), Vishalyakarani (remover of arrows), Sandhanakarani (restorer of the skin) and Savarnyakarani (restorer of skin colour) (Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, 74th chapter, Yuddakanda, Slokas 29-34).

Hanuman, not able to pick the four from the multitude, brought back the entire hill. And Lakshmana was revived from near death back to life, and to victory.

The important one

Of the 4 plants, Mruthsanjeevani or simply Sanjeevani is the most important since it is believed to bring one from near death back to life. What then is this plant, where does it occur, and does it do what the Ramayana describes?

Though many botanists and Ayurvedic physicians have suggested candidate plants, there has been no systematic approach or unanimity. We now seem to have zoned in on one of two plants, thanks to a focused approach taken by Drs. K. N. Ganeshaiah, R. Vasudeva and R. Uma Shaanker of the University of Agricultural Science, Bangalore and College of Forestry, Sirsi.I strongly recommend the reader to read this scholarly and eminently readable paper in the 25 August 2009 issue of Current Science (downloadable free on the net). What strikes us as we read the paper is the sharp, clinical logic behind the search. First, they say that before we eliminate it to be a purely imaginary plant that Valmiki wrote about with poetic flourish, let us ask what all qualities such a plant should have.

It should refer to a particular plant, extinct or extant, which has this rejuvenating property; or it refers to a group of plants with such potential; alternately it is a metaphoric term for any good medicinal plant. Let us look for any of these three criteria before we dismiss it as an imagination of the storyteller. How do we do that?

All possibilities

Look at all versions of the Ramayana across India and in all tongues and languages. Do all of them refer to a plant with names akin to or close to Sanjeevani?

Do they talk about this plant to occur on hilltops? And does this plant have medicinal, or “resurrection” potential? Ganeshaiah, Vasudeva and Uma Shaanker searched around the Indian Bioresources database library of the common names of most Indian plants, in about 80 languages and dialects.

They searched for the term Sanjeevani or its synonyms and phononyms. Result — they found 17 species, which could be further filtered to 6 plants based on the widespread use of the terms across languages.

Of the six, only 3 of them, namely Cressa cretica, Selaginella bryopteris and Desmotrichum fimbriatum (or Rudanthi, Sanjeevani Bhooti and Jeevaka, respectively) had the closest frequent and consistent reference to the term Sanjeevani or its nearest phononym.

Now we have three to choose from. What about their habitat? Which are from the hills, which Hanuman would have sought?

Not the first one, C. cretica, because it occurs along dry tracks in the Deccan plateau or lowlands. So Sanjeevani could be either S. bryopteris or D. fimbriatum.

Now, the scientist trio used a Sherlock Holmes-type hypothesis. What would have been the criteria that physicians of the Ramayana era used as a medicinal principle?

‘The Doctrine of Signature’, a strong tenet used in ancient Indian traditional medicine posits that a plant with syndromes similar to the affected organ or body can be used to treat the disease.

The plant S. bryopteris is a highly drought-tolerant plant that lies “dead”, dry and inactive for months and at the first rain (or upon hydration) comes “alive”, turning green and flush. If ‘similar cures similar’, was it S. bryopteris that “resurrected” Lakshmana?

Biological experiments

Modern day biological experiments, using current biochemical and cell biology methods, done by Dr. N K Sah (of Gwalior, now at Bhagalpur), in collaboration with Drs. Sharmishta Banerjee and Seyed Hasnain of the University of Hyderabad, show that S. bryopteris contains molecules that protect and help recover rat and insect cells from oxidative and ultraviolet stress, both of which can affect nerve cells.

So, is Selaginella bryopteris the legendary Sanjeevani?

In true scientific spirit, Ganeshaiah and colleagues do not conclude so, but say that the other plant D. fimbriatum too satisfies these criteria and thus has an equal claim to Sanjeevani.

But, as the editors of Current Science comment in their “In this Issue” section of the journal, while Selaginella occurs in the Aravallis of Madhya Pradesh (and may be in Dronagiri in Uttarakhand), Desmotrichum occurs in the Western Ghats. “Coming back to the logistics of Hanuman, it appears, the latter species was more closely available for Hanuman”.

And Dr. D P Sharma, in his book “The Search for Lanka” thinks that the Lanka in Ramayana was not Ceylon but more likely an island in the Godavari River Delta. If so, is D. fimbriatum the real Sanjeevani?

Ganeshaiah, Vasudeva and Uma Shaanker conclude that more work is needed to choose between the two plants. Here then is a research project waiting to be taken up.