In old Indian legends and as recounted and discredited by the Anglo-Indian writer, Rudyard Kipling in the story "Rikki Tikki Tavi," mongooses supposedly eat the Indian snakeroot as a protection from venom before they battle cobras in the jungle. Indians are supposed to have come to know and use the plant as an antidote for snakebites by their observation of the plant being consumed by the mongoose. This belief and the legend are not factual, and mongooses do suffer bites from snakes, however, their thick fur protects them from the fangs of snake while fighting. The fangs of the cobra may not be able to reach the skin of the animal due to the thick fluffed fur and this is the more likely protective device the mongoose employs when dealing with snakes. The ancient Indian system of Ayurvedic medicine, employs the Indian snakeroot herb in the treatment of bites from poisonous reptiles and insects, this plant has been used for thousands of years in the sub-continent. The Indian snakeroot herb finds mention very early in the history of the Indian sub-continent. The first written reference to the powers of the Indian snakeroot herb are seen in the Ayurvedic text called the "Charaka Washita," this collection of ancient herbal wisdom has been transmitted orally since pre-history and was probably written down in textual form around 600 B.C. in India. In those times, the remedy made from the Indian snakeroot was employed as an antidote in treating snakebite, used in dealing with mental illness, and in treating insomnia and related sleep disorders. The use of the herb as an aid to meditation is seen even in the modern era, the spiritual leader of India, Mohandas Gandhi, is said to have chewed on the root of the rauwolfia during meditation. The isolation of the alkaloid, reserpine, in 1952 led to the inclusion of the Indian snakeroot as a medicinal plant in Western medicine. In Western medicine, the term "tranquilizer" began to be associated with the effects of the alkaloid reserpine on the central nervous system in the human body. The alkaloid "reserpine" is considered to be the first modern medication that effectively dealt with hypertension. The main actions of this alkaloid are on the sympathetic nervous system where it reduces vascular resistance and affects the cardiac rhythm. Patients with a history of certain specific mental problems are not given this medication; this is because the use of the medication at times leads to psychotic depression and suicidal tendencies.
The Indian snakeroot herb is indigenous to the Indian sub-continent and populations of this plant can be found in some parts of south-eastern Asia as well. Indian snakeroot is cultivated on a large scale commercial basis in many tropical regions of the world these days.
Starting in the 1930's, extensive research has been conducted on the Indian snakeroot and the various alkaloids found in it -much of this research is to find potential uses for the many chemical compounds found in the Indian snakeroot. The Indian snakeroot appears to be a safe herb despite some concerns about its use in an article published in 1974, in the British medical journal The Lancet. When taken at normal doses, the herb seems to be generally safe and free of side effects.