Alchemy: Indian Alchemy

views updated


In South Asia, alchemy is inseparable from its religious contexts. Apart from Islamic alchemy, largely imported from Persia, nearly all of the documented alchemical traditions of the Indian subcontinent have been Hindu. The sole extant indigenous non-Hindu works containing significant alchemical data are the Buddhist Kālacakra Tantra with its eleventh-century ce Vimalaprabhā commentary, and an eleventh- or twelfth-century ce Jain text, the Rasaratnasamucchaya of Māikyadeva Sūri. Therefore, the focus of the present article will be Hindu alchemy.

A number of scientific subfields and disciplines, linked with a body of religious practices and techniques, comprise Hindu alchemy. These include metallurgy, traditional Indian medicine in its northern (āyurveda ) and southern (siddhacikitsā ) forms, iatrochemisty (rasa śāstra, the "science of essential substances"), rejuvenation therapy (rasāyana, the "path of essential substances"), sexual rehabilitation therapy (vājīkaraa ), transmutational alchemy (dhātuvāda, the "doctrine of the elements"), elixir alchemy (dehavāda, the "doctrine of the body"), hahayoga, and Tantra. Although rasa śāstra, which persists as a subfield of Āyurveda, has incorporated many of the old alchemical formulas, apparatuses, techniques, and nomenclatures into its production of plant- and mineral-based pharmaceuticals for therapeutic use, there are no practitioners of elixir or transmutational alchemy on the Indian subcontinent today. Moreover, there are virtually no archaeological or inscriptional data related to the practice of alchemy. Therefore, any historical reconstruction of the Hindu alchemical tradition, which flourished between around 900 and 1300 ce, will of necessity be based on textual data; that is, on what may be termed the Hindu alchemical canon.

Basic Principles

The polyvalent term rasa is central to an understanding of Hindu alchemy. From the time of the Vedas, rasa has signified "fluid, juice, sap" (it is a cognate of the English "resin"). With the emergence of the alchemical tradition, the term took on a number of specialized uses, including "essential element" and "mercury." The former is a general term, applied to a group of alchemical reagents usually described as consisting of eight primary (mahārasas ) and eight secondary (uparasas ) elements, while the latter constitutes the supreme fluid that is quicksilver, identified by Śiva, the supreme alchemical deity, as his own essential element, i.e., his semen. (In the eleventh-century ce alchemical classic the Rasārava, Śiva reveals that "because it is the rasa [essential element, vital fluid] of my body, one is to call it rasa [mercury]" [1:36].) Mercury, purified and potentiated through its interactions with sulfur and micathe mahārasas that are the mineral homologues of the female discharge (rajas ) of Śiva's consort, the Goddesseffects the transformation of both metals and the human body into their higher essences in the Indian great chain of being. Because the universe in all its parts is constantly being regenerated out of the sexual union of the divine in its male and female hypostases, all vital animal, mineral, and vegetable substances are emanates or devolutes of divine sexual emissions; and because all participate in the same flow of the godhead, all are interchangeable, recombinatory, and perfectible. Therefore, elixir therapy, transmutation, hahayoga, and the erotico-mystical elements of Tantra are all interpenetrating and mutually reinforcing bodies of practice that fall under the general rubric of Hindu alchemy.

The theory and practice of Hindu alchemy is predicated on the concept of the perfectibility of matter, as found in both the emanationist metaphysics of Vedānta philosophy and in certain elements of dualist Sākhya philosophy. According to Samkhyan metaphysics, prakti, materiality, the "stuff" of the universe, has disintegrated into twenty-five categories (tattvas ) that can be reintegrated back into their higher evolutes. Therefore earth, the lowest of the five gross elements (mahābhūtas ), has the potential to be reintegrated into ether, the highest element in the series, via the intermediate elements water, fire, and air. The same capacity of the higher tattvas of the Samkhyan hierarchiesto reintegrate their lower devolutes into themselves without themselves being modifiedapplies to the hierarchized elements (dhātus ) of Hindu alchemy. In the words of the tenth-century ce Rasahdaya Tantra of Govinda, arguably the earliest systematic work on Hindu alchemy, "Woody plants are absorbed into lead; lead into tin, and tin likewise into copper. Copper [is absorbed] into silver, silver into gold, and gold is absorbed into mercury" (1:12). A parallel dynamic is observable in the cakra system of Hindu hahayoga, a tradition that emerged in approximately the same period.

At the heart of tantric alchemy are eighteen operations (saskāras ) leading to the "perfectioning" of chemical reagents, and most especially of naturally occurring mercury, which must be purified and potentiated before it can be applied to other bodies, both metallic and human. The first sixteen of these saskāras prime mercury for the final two operations, vedha (transmutation: literally "penetration, piercing") and śarīrayoga (transubstantiation, bodily transformation: literally "body work"), in which mercury truly confounds itself with the metallic or flesh-and-blood "bodies" in question, ultimately replacing them with a mercurial or alchemical body.

The Hindu alchemical and hathayogic scriptures repeatedly invoke the goal of becoming "a second Śiva," which echoes the goal of mainstream medieval Śaiva practice as described in the Āgamas: one does not seek to become Śiva, but rather to become intimately close to Śiva, or to become like Śiva. Similarly, the alchemist's goal is not to become mercury, but rather, to become like mercurycapable of transmuting base metals into gold and human bodies into superhuman bodiesto become mercurial. It is in this way that transmutation is described in Hindu alchemical texts. Purified and potentiated mercury simultaneously penetrates and absorbs base metals into itself, causing them to become their higher evolutes, until alchemical gold is realized. At the end of the process, the transmuting mercury has itself disappeared: there is only gold, the noble, "immortal" metal, which can never be further transmuted into mercury itself. The relationship between transmutation and bodily transformation, in which the alchemist's body is itself transformed into an immortal, unaging, perfected, golden or adamantine body, is explained in the Rasārava : "As in metal, so in the body. Mercury ought always to be employed thusly. When it penetrates a metal and the body, [mercury] behaves in an identical way: first test [mercury] on a metal, then use it in the body" (17:164165). The relationship of these processes to Śaiva metaphysics is clearly stated in the thirteenth- or fourteenth-century ce Kulārava Tantra : "Just as penetration by mercury brings about aurifaction [in metals], so the self, penetrated through initiation, attains Śiva-hood" (14:89). Ultimately, the transmutation of base metals into gold was, for the alchemist (although perhaps not for his royal clients), but a means to the higher end of bodily immortality and perfectibility, to becoming a second Śiva.

Historical Parameters

Although nearly every aspect of Indian alchemy is Hindu in its worldview and metaphysical assumptions, it remains a fact that mercury, the materia prima of alchemy, does not occur naturally anywhere on the subcontinent, except in trace quantities, in the form of cinnabar (mercuric sulfide) in zones of geothermal activity. Some Sanskrit terms for mercury indicate the foreign origin of the metal, which likely came to India overland or by sea from China, Tibet, or the Mediterranean world. These terms include cīnapia ("Chinese powder"), pārada (a reference to either the Parthian or Pārada lands of Transoxiania or Baluchistan), and mleccha ("barbarian"). South Indian Sittar alchemy likely received its mercury through such port cities as Surat and Madras, which remain centers for the fabrication of synthetic cinnabar and calomel (mercurous chloride) from imported mercury and indigenous Indian minerals. Sittar tradition maintains that its founding alchemists Nandi and Bogar both traveled to China.

The most remarkable evidence of cultural exchanges in matters alchemical is a body of instructions for the extraction of quicksilver from the "wells" in which it naturally occurs. Virtually identical instructions are found in a fourth-century ce Syriac recension of the alchemical corpus attributed to the Greek Pseudo-Zosimus, in the twelfth- or thirteenth-century ce Rasendracūāmai of Somadeva, and in the seventeenth-century ce Chinese encyclopedia, the Ho han san cai tu hui. In all three sources, mercury is induced to rise up out of its well when a naked maiden rides or walks past it: when the flowing metal pursues her, it is captured by alchemists and "killed" by them. Furthermore, the Chinese source identifies the land in which this mercurial well is found as fou lin, i.e. Syria, "far to the west." Clearly, the details of this fantastic extraction technique traveled along the same trade routesvia the Silk Road and China shipsas mercury itself. Similarities between Indian, Greek, and Chinese alchemical apparatuses and laboratory procedures are striking, but are best explained by the chemical behavior of the reagents themselves, and by the similar results of trial-and-error experiments with techniques of distillation, amalgamation, fixation, and so in the allied technologies of metallurgy, coinage, and perfumery.

The history of Indian alchemy may be broken down into three chronological phasesof magical, tantric, and Siddha alchemy. In the first of these phases, dating from about 300 to 900 ce, alchemy is the stuff of fairy tales. Transmutation and bodily immortality are its stated goals, but the means to these ends are a matter of serendipity: nowhere are laboratory techniques for the processing of mercury or the production of alchemical gold broached. Its watchword is rasa-rasāyana a miraculous elixir and one of the eight supernatural powers (siddhis ) of Gupta-age and early medieval Indian mysticism. Most often, this is an elixir or power that one wins or spirits away from gods, demigods (called Siddhas), or demons, often by traveling to their atmospheric or subterranean worlds. Alchemy of this sort becomes a staple of secular adventure and fantasy literature in this period, with kings and princes often cast in the roles of alchemical seekers.

Tantric alchemy bursts upon the scene in the tenth century, and the four hundred years that follow constitute India's alchemical "golden age." There are a number of reasons for referring to this period and its collection of alchemical classics as "tantric. " Not only are the goals of tantric alchemy consistent with those of the broader Hindu tantric tradition, but so too are the means it employs to attaining those goals. The alchemical Tantras abound in references to tantric formulae (mantras ) and diagrams (maalas ), as well as in descriptions of divine pantheons, yogic and meditative techniques, sexual and ritual practices, and the Śākta-Śaiva devotionalism that are the hallmarks of Hindu Tantra. Many of the major alchemical works of the period call themselves Tantras, and are cast as the revealed teachings of Śiva (often in his tantric Bhairava form) to one or another tantric form of the Goddess (Pārvatī, Kākacaeśvarī, etc.).

What truly sets tantric alchemy apart from magical alchemy is the rigor of its method and the remarkable breadth of the botanical, mineralogical, chemical, geographical, religious, and technical knowledge it mobilizes in the pursuit of its ambitious ends. While Chinese and Persian alchemical traditions no doubt interacted with tantric alchemy, the content of the Indian alchemical classics is so specifically Indian (and Hindu) as to preclude any possibility of wholesale borrowing. The roots of the revolution that was tantric alchemy may be traced back to the powerful impact of Tantra on medieval Indian technologies of power on the one hand, and to developments within the medical schools on the other. In this latter context, a gradual phasing out of the practice of surgery (śalyatantra )a development some attribute to the pervasive influence of the Buddhist ideal of noninjury (ahisā )seems to have been compensated for by discoveries and innovations in the field of mercury- and mineral-based pharmacy.

An explanation for the near absence of South Asian Buddhist alchemical literature is in order here. Two reasons may be adduced, the first of which is historical. By the time tantric alchemy emerged in India, Buddhism was very much on the wane on the subcontinent. Two relatively early Buddhist works, the Subāhuparipccha (pre-726 ce) and Śāntideva's Śīkāsamucchaya (eighth century ce), contain short passages on magical alchemy; but apart from the second chapter of the Kālacakra Tantra (likely composed in twentieth-century Pakistan), the only post-tenth-century Buddhist discussions of external alchemy come from Tibet, Burma (Myanmar), or east Asia. The second reason is philosophical. Generally speaking, the focus of Buddhism is more psychological than that of Hinduism, and so it is that much of what constitutes Indo-Tibetan Buddhist alchemy is of an internal, symbolic order. Through yogic practice, mercury, identified with male Skill in Means (upāya ), and sulfur, identified with female Wisdom (prajñā ), are united internally, effecting a bodily transformation conceptualized as the fixing of the Thought of Enlightenment (bodhicitta ). This is not to say that mercury-based alchemy (called "gold-making") had no place in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: rather, because the practitioner was dependent on external elements rather than his own contemplative practice, it was deemed inferior.

In India, external, laboratory-based Hindu alchemy would also become internalized from the thirteenth century onward. No original works on the subject appear after 1300 ce, and much of elixir alchemy becomes applied to more modest therapeutic ends in the emergent field of iatrochemistry. There was, however, a final phase in the history of Indian alchemy that may be referred to as Siddha alchemy. This is most readily identified by its emphasis on combining the use of mercurial preparations with the practice of external sexual and internal yogic techniques, with the aim of attaining both an immortal, unaging body and the status or mode of being of a semi-divine Siddha. Practitioners of Siddha alchemy often referred to themselves as Siddhas that is, the "Perfected Beings" they aspired to become through their practice. This two-pronged approach is already alluded to in the Rasārava : "Mercury and breath [control] are known as the Work in two parts" (1:18). Over time, the external, laboratory techniques, as well as the use of mercury-based compounds as elixirs and agents of transmutation would come to be fully internalized in the various techniques of hahayoga ; however, a close examination of the terminology and dynamics of the latter tradition shows that it developed, at least in part, out of the former.

One may deduce from internal textual references, manuscript colophons, and Siddha lists that most of the authors of the major tantric alchemical works were either court physicians or members of one of the medieval Śākta-Śaiva or tantric religious orders. Many of these authors had names ending in the -nātha suffix, and their names figure in a number of lists of Siddhas found in both Indo-Tibetan Buddhist and Hindu sources. These include lists of the Buddhist Mahāsiddhas and of a number of Hindu groups: the Tamil Sittars of the eastern Deccan, the Māheśvara Siddhas of the western Deccan, the alchemical Rasa Siddhas, and the hathayogic Nāth Siddhas. Internal geographical references point to the Vindhya region and western Deccan as the heartland of Indian alchemical practice, in spite of the fact that the literature identifies the Himalayan region and Inner Asia as the source of many of its botanical and mineral reagents. Śriśailam, a sacred Śaiva mountain located in the eastern Deccan, is the most frequently mentioned "paradise" of Indian alchemy, and it is here, on the outer walls of the Mallikārjuna Temple, that one finds the sole extant sculpted images of Siddha alchemists and their apparatuses. These bas-reliefs date from about 1300 to 1400 ce.

Apart from the foundational Rasahdaya Tantra and Rasārava already mentioned, the "canonical" works of Indian alchemy include the following, all from the common era: the twelfth-century Kākacaeśvarīmata and Rasopaniat ; Gorakhnāth's Bhūtiprakaraa and Somadeva's Rasendra-cūāmai, both from the twelfth or thirteenth century; Yaśodhara Bhaa's Rasaprakāśasudhākara, Nityanātha's Rasaratnākara, and the Mātkabheda Tantra, all from the thirteenth century; Nāgārjuna's Rasendramagala and Vāgbhaa the Second's Rasaratnasamucchaya, both from the thirteenth or fourteenth century; the fourteenth-century Ānandakanda, and Ādinātha's Khecarī Vidyā, also from the fourteenth century.

See Also

Āyurveda; Gorakhnāth; Nāgārjuna.


The most comprehensive studies of Indian alchemy are David Gordon White's The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India (Chicago, 1996) and the rich survey of the alchemical canon found in G. Jan Meulenbeld's A History of Indian Medical Literature, 5 vols. (Groningen, Netherlands, 19992003). Several outstanding articles on Indian alchemy have been authored by Arion Roşu, among which are "Alchemy and Sacred Geography in the Medieval Deccan," Journal of the European Ayurvedic Society 2 (1992): 151156, and "Mantra et Yantra dans la médecine et l'alchimie indiennes," Journal Asiatique 274, nos. 34 (1986): 205268. A useful compendium of Indian alchemical texts in Sanskrit, with commentary and selected English-language translations, is Bhudeb Mookerji's Rasa-jala-nidhi; or, Ocean of Indian Chemistry and Alchemy, 5 vols. (Calcutta, 19261938). Excellent historical studies of Indian alchemy, in Hindi, are Satya Prakash's Prācīn Bhārat me Rasāyan kā Vikās (Allahabad, India, 1960) and Siddhinandan Mísra's Āyurvedīya Raśāsastra, Jaikrishnadas Āyurveda Series no. 35 (Banaras, India, 1981).

David Gordon White (1987 and 2005)