Last week an Indian government agency announced it will host a voluntary nationwide online exam on “cow science” on February 25. The multiple-choice exam is free and anyone can take part. According to the agency’s website, “the successful and meritorious will be given cash prize / certificate in a ceremony.”

On the day of the announcement, the agency responsible for the exam, the Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog (RKA), published a study guide on its website. The document was later taken offline but can still be viewed here. The 54-page text includes such diverse bovine trivia as how cow slaughter causes earthquakes and why milk from Indian cattle contains “traces of gold” and is more nutritious than that of the “exotic” Jersey cow.

To find out more, I called Amitabh Bhatnagar, who led the team which authored the study materials. Bhatnagar is the author of a book called “Cow: Our Ultimate Savior,” which he described as “the world’s first book in English which is printed on paper made from cow dung.” He runs a company that sells cow-based products and gives lectures at Indian colleges on the health benefits and religious importance of “Gau Mata” or Mother Cow.

Bhatnagar described a few of these benefits. He claimed cows can enhance a person’s aura. “It increases aura of a person up to nearly 25 meters, that experiment also has been done. Usually, the aura of a person ends after one and a half meters or two meters.” He added that experiments have shown that one’s aura can be increased by circling around an “Indian native cow” in a Hindu ceremony known as Parikrama.

Bhatnagar also cited the claim by an Indian member of parliament, Oscar Fernandes, who said that he was cured of cancer last year by drinking gaumutra, or cow urine. But Bhatnagar conceded the science behind Fernandes’ claim was lacking, and called for more research to be done on the subject. “We only know that when gaumutra is taken, a person will be hale and hearty,” he said. “But what chemical makes hale and hearty? Let scientists find it out.”

The promotion of cows and the healing properties of their excreta has formed a central plank of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s effort to back alternative and traditional medicine. Cows, held sacred by many Hindus, have also emerged as a political flashpoint in the imposition of the ruling party’s Hindu nationalist ideological agenda over Muslims and other minority groups. Recent years have seen bans on cattle slaughter in many states, as well as mob lynchings of Muslims accused of selling beef products.

The RKA was set up in 2019 to promote the study and protection of cows. In his remarks announcing next month’s exam, the agency’s head, member of parliament Vallabhbhai Kathiria, claimed that Panchgavya, a mixture of cow dung, cow urine, milk, yogurt, and ghee, had been used with 96% efficacy to treat Covid-19 in a yet-unpublished clinical trial on 800 patients.

Bhatnagar said the exam is the brainchild of Kathiria, who “had a vision that he wanted to see every household in India talking about cow and its benefits while they are in their home, having dinner or having tea.”

He explained that the study guide was removed from the RKA website on the day of its release because it hadn’t been properly vetted. A new version which will be uploaded in the coming days will not feature some of the document’s more surprising claims, such as the causal link between cow slaughter and earthquakes — but Bhatnagar nevertheless defends this claim, citing an unproven theory of “Einsteinian Pain Waves” generated by dying animals.

Scientists say the RKA has often been in the headlines for the wrong reasons. “A few months back, the chairman of the agency claimed that they have invented a cow-dung cake which can work as an anti-radiation chip in your mobile,” said Aniket Sule, a researcher at the Homi Bhabha Center for Science Education in Mumbai. 

Sumaiya Shaikh, science editor at the fact-checking website AltNews, said the announcement of the cow science exam is another step in “a very gradual psychological exercise to give legitimacy to the nonexisting science around these cows.”

Shaikh added that this kind of state-backed pseudoscience can have dangerous consequences in the real world. She cited the example of a village clinic in Haryana state which nearly blinded a 24-year-old man by administering eye drops made from sedimented cow urine as a treatment for refractive error. Such eye drops are widely available online.

Sule said the real targets of next month’s exam are rural, economically vulnerable people. “This announcement is not targeting university-going people. It is targeting low-income and low-education groups. So there is always a danger that they will believe in this propaganda and they will start acting on it,” he said.