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Holy men in India, including Mahatma Gandhi, have reportedly chewed the root of R. serpentina to help achieve a state of philosophic detachment while meditating. In addition, the plant-called chandrika (literally "moonshine plant") in Sanskrit-has long been valued in India as a sedative and hypnotic in the treatment of insanity, or "moon disease." Rauwolfia also enjoys a traditional reputation as a fever-reducing agent and as an emmenagogue (an agent that brings on menstruation), and folk healers have also employed it as an antidote for the bites of poisonous snakes. The powdered root was used to treat diarrhea and dysentery, and an extract of the root was prescribed to calm irritable babies.
Although the plant's time-honored uses are well documented, the medicinal substances that accounted for them were isolated and defined by a team of Western doctors only in 1952. The alkaloid reserpine, one of 50 isolated from the root, was to revolutionize the treatment of mental illness and high blood pressure. The researchers found that reserpine, world-famous today as "the original tranquilizer ," has powerful depressant and sedative properties, and for a time it was the only such drug used in calming seriously disturbed patients. Today other tranquilizers have taken over its role in mental health therapy, but reserpine is still commonly prescribed to relieve hypertension, or high blood pressure. With all its benefits, however, reserpine has some undesirable side effects, among which are edema, nightmares, and despondency that can lead to suicidal yearnings.
According to legend, mentioned and discredited by Rudyard Kipling in his story "Rikki Tikki Tavi," mongooses eat Indian snakeroot before engaging in battle with cobras. It is said that natives learned to use the plant as an antidote for snakebites by observing the mongoose. In reality, mongooses can be bitten, but because they fluff out their fur while fighting, a cobras fangs may not penetrate the skin and, thus, may not harm them.