Rasāyana (the way of the rasas) is the overarching Sanskrit term employed in South Asian texts for “alchemy.” The classical alchemical scriptures date from no earlier than the 10th century CE; however, several centuries earlier, the term rasāyana was used in Āyurveda, classical Indian medicine, to denote “rejuvenation therapy,” with the plural, rasāyanas, being the elixirs employed in said therapy. In about the 8th century CE, the term rasa-rasāyana first appeared in Buddhist and Hindu tantric texts in reference to the supernatural power (siddhi) of obtaining a magical elixir. The birth of Indian alchemy, as an idea at least, may be traced back to these early medieval sources. This “magical” use of alchemical reagents persisted well into the medieval period in works of tantric sorcery (see Alchemical Folklore). The earliest systematic alchemical texts, which date from the 10th century, introduced the dual goal of all Indian alchemy: the transmutation of base metals into gold (dhātuvāda, transmutational alchemy) and the production of elixirs of immortality (dehavāda, elixir alchemy). A term for mercury, the prime alchemical reagent, was rasa, and so the term rasāyana now became specifically applied to the alchemical use of mercurials. The classic Indian alchemical texts were written in the period from the 10th to the 13th century. These were, for the most part, tantric works inasmuch as their stated goal of achieving an immortal, invulnerable body possessed of supernatural powers aligned with many of the goals of tantric practice. As such, the 10th to the 13th century was the period of “tantric alchemy.” From the 13th century forward, mercurial, mineral, and plant preparations came to be increasingly applied to various sorts of medical therapies, many of which complemented the older ayurvedic rasāyana treatments. However, new terminology was introduced: rogavāda (medical alchemy), rasacikitsā (mercurial medicine), or, most often, rasaśāstra (applied alchemy). Another offshoot of tantric alchemy was siddha alchemy. In a number of alchemical works, legendary figures called Rasa-Siddhas were evoked as the founders of alchemical lineages and traditions. These were part of a broader medieval religious current, which saw the emergence of several groups self-identifying as siddhas, perfected beings possessed of siddhis. A rich mythology of the siddhas emerged in this period, which portrayed these legendary supermen as combining alchemy with the practice of yoga and tantric techniques. These groups were responsible for internalizing much of laboratory alchemy into yogic practice.
There are two overarching approaches to the study of Indian alchemy. That adopted by nearly all Indian authors views Indian alchemy as a pre-chemistry, many of whose principles remain applicable to modern-day ayurvedic therapies. The prototype for the Indian history of chemistry approach is Ray 1902–1909. Indian works that build on Ray 1902–1909 are Misra 1981 (in Hindi) and Himsagara 2008 (in English). The approach adopted by the few Western authors writing on the subject studies Indian alchemy from literary historical or religious studies perspectives. Meulenbeld 2000 is by far the most comprehensive source on the history of Indian alchemical literature, both published and in manuscript form. White 1996 and White 2005 are more analytical, linking Indian alchemy to the broader contexts of Indic religion, culture, and science. Mahdihassan 1979 is the work of a highly cultivated dilettante. None of the works by Indian authors are easily accessible in Western libraries; Meulenbeld 2000 and White 2005 are available through university research libraries. White 1996 is widely available.
Himasagara, Chandra Murthy. Rasaśāstra, the Mercurial System. Varanasi, India: Chaukhamba Krishnadas Academy, 2008.
Written as a textbook for university examinations in rasaśāstra (applied alchemy), this is the most complete and systematic English-language survey of Indian alchemy from an applied scientific perspective.
Mahdihassan, S. Indian Alchemy or Rasayana in the Light of Asceticism Geriatrics. New Delhi: Vikas, 1979.
Collection of short, idiosyncratic essays by a chemist on the historical and scientific parameters of Indian alchemy, the relationship between Indian and Chinese alchemy, and alchemical mythology and symbolism.
Meulenbeld, G. Jan. A History of Indian Medical Literature. Vol. 2. Groningen Oriental Studies 15. Groningen, The Netherlands: Egbert Forsten, 2000.
Volumes 2A, Part 10, and 2B, Part 10, of this five-volume work comprise the most exhaustive descriptive and bibliographical survey of the Indian alchemical literature, with contents, manuscripts, and published editions of every alchemical work meticulously detailed. Accessible through university research libraries.
Misra, Siddhinandan. Āyurvedīya Rasaśāstra. Varanasi, India: Caukambha Orientalia, 1981.
Written as a textbook for university examinations in rasaśāstra (applied alchemy), this is the most complete and systematic Hindi-language survey of Indian alchemy from an applied scientific perspective.
Ray, Prafulla Chandra. A History of Hindu Chemistry from the Earliest Times to the Middle of the 16th century A.D. 2 vols. Calcutta, India: Prithwis Chandra Ray, 1902–1909.
Pioneering work on the history and scientific validity of the Indian alchemical tradition. Contains short English translations of excerpted passages from classic pioneering [STET] alchemical works, and longer edited Sanskrit passages from the same. A facsimile edition was published in Calcutta by Somnath Bal in 2002.
Ray, Priyadaranjan, ed. History of Chemistry in Ancient and Medieval India Incorporating the History of Hindu Chemistry, by Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray. Calcutta, India: Indian Chemical Society, 1956.
Revised edition of Ray 1902–1909, in one volume. Contains an additional and important essay by Brajendranath Seal on “chemical” theorizations of the five elements in the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika school of metaphysics (c. 2nd century BCE to 5th century CE).
White, David Gordon. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Exhaustive study of Indian alchemy as one of India’s many medieval siddha traditions. Hypothesizes that many of the concepts and much of the terminology of hatha yoga is a transposition onto the human body of the substances, structures, concepts, and processes of Indian alchemy. Contains an exhaustive compendium of siddha mythology and alchemical lore. Readily available, and useful as an undergraduate introduction to the field.
White, David Gordon. “Alchemy: Indian Alchemy.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 1. Rev. 2d ed. Edited by Lindsay Jones, 241–244. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference, 2005.
Highly condensed version of White 1996. Readily available, and useful as an undergraduate introduction to the field.
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