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Hinduism Rasāyana (Alchemy)
by
David Gordon White

Introduction

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.

General Overviews

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.

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    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.

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  • Mahdihassan, S. Indian Alchemy or Rasayana in the Light of Asceticism Geriatrics. New Delhi: Vikas, 1979.

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    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.

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  • Meulenbeld, G. Jan. A History of Indian Medical Literature. Vol. 2. Groningen Oriental Studies 15. Groningen, The Netherlands: Egbert Forsten, 2000.

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    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.

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  • Misra, Siddhinandan. Āyurvedīya Rasaśāstra. Varanasi, India: Caukambha Orientalia, 1981.

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    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.

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  • 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.

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    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.

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  • 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.

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    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).

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  • White, David Gordon. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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    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.

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  • 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.

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    Highly condensed version of White 1996. Readily available, and useful as an undergraduate introduction to the field.

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Bibliographies

The vast majority of works on Indian alchemy are Sanskrit-language manuscripts that have yet to be edited or translated into any other language. Meulenbeld 2000 is dazzling in its erudition, providing detailed information on manuscripts, editions, translation, and contents of dozens of works in Sanskrit. Rahman 1982 focuses on manuscript sources, and includes Arabic- and Persian-language sources. It is especially valuable for scholars carrying out archival research in India. Both works are only available through university research libraries.

  • Meulenbeld, G. Jan. A History of Indian Medical Literature. Vol. 2. Groningen, The Netherlands: Egbert Forsten, 2000.

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    Volume 2A, Part 10, and Volume 2B, Part 10, comprise the most exhaustive descriptive and bibliographical survey of the Indian alchemical literature. An extensive bibliography of secondary sources is found at the end of Volume 2B.

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  • Rahman, Abdur, et al. Science and Technology in Medieval India: A Bibliography of Source Materials in Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy, 1982.

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    Contains a long chapter (chapter 4) on Indian alchemical manuscripts. One half of these are Sanskrit-language works on Hindu alchemy; the other half are Arabic and Persian manuscripts held in Indian archives. A useful compendium of Indian manuscript catalogues is found in “Abbreviations”.

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The Alchemical Classics

An understanding of the Indian alchemical tradition requires background in the canon of alchemical works or “classics” of the tradition, written during the period from the 10th to 12th or 13th centuries. A study of their content indicates that nearly all these works were written by Hindus, with a very few extant works by either Buddhists or Jains. The alchemical classics are, for the most part, tantric works inasmuch as their stated goals of an immortal, invulnerable body possessed of supernatural powers align with many of the goals of tantric practice. Furthermore, these works employ tantric terminology and enjoin the worship of tantric deities through the use of tantric ritual technologies, tantric mantras, and so forth. It is in these texts that mercury is identified with the semen of the Hindu god Śiva and sulfur with the uterine blood or sexual emission of one or another tantric goddess, identifications that correspond to the manipulation of sexual fluids that lies at the foundation of “tantric sex.” Over the succeeding centuries, the primary alchemical sources gradually altered their focus away from transmutational and elixir alchemy as ends in themselves toward applications of the same to new ends. Also in these later texts, there are fewer and fewer tantric references; instead, the focus is on therapeutic applications of alchemical reagents. This tradition continues down to the present day in monographs and articles authored by ayurvedic specialists and researchers, many in the employ of Indian ayurvedic university departments and hospitals.

10th through 12th Centuries

The great bulk of Indian alchemical texts exist solely in manuscript form. The works listed below are the principal (and often, the only) published editions of major alchemical texts dating from the 10th to the end of the 12th (or early 13th) century. All of these editions are based on limited numbers of manuscripts, and all are difficult to access and require reading knowledge of Sanskrit and/or Hindi. They are listed here to provide a “gateway” to what is a poorly known and little studied body of tradition. The most important of these is the Rasārṇava, edited in Ray and Kaviratna 1910 and Tripathi 1978. The earliest is the Rasahṛdaya Tantra, edited in Rasasastri 1989. The Bhūtiprakaraṇa, edited in Pandeya 1977, contains the most tantric data of any of the 10th- to 13th-century alchemical works, while the Rasendracūdāmani, edited in Misra 1984, the Rasopaniṣat, edited in Sastri 1928 and Sarma 1959, and the Rasārṇavakalpa, edited in Roy and Subbarayappa 1976, focus more on transmutational alchemy, mercurial medicine, and applied alchemy. Some of these works have been partially or fully translated into English; see English Translations.

  • Misra, Siddhinandan, ed. and trans. Rasendracūḍāmaṇi by Ācārya Somadeva. Varanasi, India: Chowkhambha Orientalia, 1984.

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    Sanskrit edition of the Rasendracūḍāmaṇi of Somadeva, a systematic and stylishly written 12th- to 13th-century work in thirteen chapters on transmutational and elixir alchemy. Contains the earliest version of the alchemical myth of the origin of mercury. Accompanied by a Hindi translation.

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  • Pandeya, Janardana, ed. Bhūtiprakaraṇa: Gorakṣa Saṃhitā (Part Two). Vol. 111, Sarasvatibhavana-Granthamala. Benares, India: Sampurnananda Sanskrit Visvavidyalaya, 1977.

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    Sanskrit edition of the Bhūtiprakaraṇa, a 12th- to 13th-century work that calls itself a division of the Gorakṣa Saṃhitā in its colophons. This work of tantric alchemy divided into nine chapters makes several references to the Trika school of Kashmir Saivism. Contains a useful Hindi-language introduction on the work’s relationship to the Gorakṣa Saṃhitā and Gorakhnāth (also known as Gorakṣa), an 11th- to 12th-century Hindu yogi of the Nāth Siddha order.

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  • Rasasastri, Daultarama, ed. and trans. Śrīmadgovindabhagavatpādaviracitam Rasahṛdayatantram with the commentary of Caturbhuja Misra. Benares, India: Caukhamba Orientalia, 1989.

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    Sanskrit edition of a 10th- to 11th-century work in nineteen chapters, probably the earliest extant Hindu alchemical text. Unlike later works of tantric alchemy, makes no claims concerning the power of treated mercury to afford bodily immortality. Accompanied by a Hindi translation. For English translation, see Subbarayappa 1997 (cited under English Translations).

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  • Ray, Prafulla Chandra, and Harischandra Kaviratna, eds. Rasārṇava. Bibliotheca Indica 174. Calcutta, India: Baptist Mission, 1910.

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    The original Sanskrit edition of the Rasārṇava, the greatest tantric alchemical classic, an anonymous 11th-century work in eighteen chapters. Blends tantric doctrines of Kashmir Saivism with an exhaustive treatment of transmutational and elixir alchemy. Contains a wealth of alchemical mythology. See also Tripathi 1978. For English translation of chapter one, see White 1995 (cited under English Translations).

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  • Roy, Mira, and B. V. Subbarayappa, eds. and trans. Rasārṇavakalpa (Manifold Powers of the Ocean of Rasa). New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy, 1976.

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    Sanskrit edition and English translation of the Rasārṇavakalpa (c. 12th century), which identifies itself as a portion of the Rudrayāmala Tantra. Latter portion closely related to the twelfth chapter of the Rasārṇavam. Geographical references point to composition in the Vindhya region. Roy 1967 (cited under Studies of Indian Alchemical Literature) argues for composition in Gujarat. Includes extensive Sanskrit to English glossary of terms.

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  • Sarma, Badrinarayan, ed. Rasopaniṣat. 2 vols. Ajmer, India: Krsna Gopal Ayurved Bhavan, 1959.

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    Sanskrit edition of an anonymous 12th- to 13th-century work of transmutational alchemy and applied alchemy containing idiosyncratic accounts of alchemical operations, probably written in Kerala in southwestern India. May originally have comprised thirty chapters, although no manuscript contains more than eighteen; this edition comprises sixteen. Contains a Hindi translation and commentary. See also Sastri 1928.

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  • Sastri, Sambhasiva, ed. Rasopaniṣat. Trivandrum, India: Superintendent, Government Press, 1928.

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    Another Sanskrit edition of the Rasopaniṣat (see Sarma 1959). May originally have comprised thirty chapters, although no manuscript contains more than eighteen, the number of chapters in this edition.

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  • Tripathi, Indradeo, ed. Rasārṇavam nama Rasatantram, 2d ed. Benares, India: Chowkhamba, 1978.

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    Reprints the Rasārṇava from the edition of Ray and Kaviratna 1910 (cited under 10th through 12th Centuries), together with Tripathi’s “Rasacandrikā” Hindi commentary and notes, and a highly useful Sanskrit–English glossary by Taradatta Panta. For an English translation of chapter 1, see White 1995 (cited under English Translations).

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13th and 14th Centuries

The great bulk of Indian alchemical texts exist solely in manuscript form. The works listed below are the principal (and often, the only) published editions of major alchemical texts dating from the 13th to the 14th century. Among these, Abhyankar 1987 and Mallinson 2007 are the sole critical editions of works on alchemy (and only one chapter in each is on the subject of alchemy). All other editions are based on limited numbers of manuscripts. With the exception of Mallinson 2007, all the works listed here are difficult to access and require reading knowledge of Sanskrit and/or Hindi (or Tamil, in the case of Sastri 1952). The Mātṛkabheda Tantra (Bhattacharya 1958) is most valuable for its tantric content; whereas the Rasaprakāśasudhākara (Misra 1984) is a more interesting text in the history of applied alchemy. The Rasendramaṅgalam (Sharma 2003) is an important work of tantric alchemy; unfortunately the edition and translation are of poor quality. Of the two editions of the Rasaratnasamucchaya, Giri 1998 is the better edition, but Sharma 1962 has a superior introduction, Some of these works have been partially or fully translated into English; see English Translations.

  • Abhyankar, Vasudev Shastri, ed. Sarvadarśana-saṃgraha of Sāyaṇa-Madhava. 3d ed. Government Oriental Series, Class A, no. 1. Poona, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1987.

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    Chapter 9 of this important 14th-century compendium of India’s principal philosophical systems (the title of which means “System of the Lord of Rasas”) is devoted to alchemy and quotes extensively from several of the alchemical classics. Excellent Sanskrit edition with extensive Sanskrit commentary. Originally published in 1924. For English translation, see Cowell and Gough 2000 (cited under English Translations); for French translation, see Mazars 1977 (cited under Studies of Indian Alchemical Literature).

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  • Bhattacharya, Chintamani, ed. Mātṛkabheda Tantra. Calcutta, India: Metropolitan, 1958.

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    A 13th-century tantric text divided into fourteen chapters, of which four (chapters 1, 5, 8, and 9) are devoted to the subject of tantric alchemy; chapter 8 discusses the fabrication of a mercurial lingam. The sole extant Sanskrit edition of this text, which was probably compiled in Bengal, in the eastern Indian subcontinent. Originally published in 1933. For English translation, see Magee 1989 (cited under English Translations).

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  • Giri, Kapiladeva, ed. Śrīvāgbhaṭācāryaviracitaḥ Rasaratnasamucchayaḥ. Varanasi, India: Chaukhambha, 1998.

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    An excellent Sanskrit edition of the Rasaratnasamucchaya of Vāgbhaṭa, an important and pivotal 13th- to 14th-century work in thirty chapters. Chapters 1–11 and 28–30 are devoted to transmutational and elixir alchemy, while chapters 12–27 are on the subject of applied alchemy. Contains a Hindi commentary by Indradeva Tripathi. Another Sanskrit edition is also available (Sharma 1962). For English translation of chapters 1–11, see Joshi 1991 (cited under English Translations).

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  • Mallinson, James (Sir), ed. and trans. The Khecarīvidyā of Ādinātha: A Critical and Annotated Translation of an Early Text of Hathayoga. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.

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    A wonderful Sanskrit critical edition and English translation of a 14th-century work on tantric yoga; its fourteen-verse fourth (and final) chapter is devoted to siddha alchemy. Contains an exhaustive critical apparatus and copious notes on this work’s links to Kashmir Saivism and hatha yoga. By far the best of all editions and translations to date; however, very little of this work is devoted to alchemy.

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  • Misra, Siddhinandan, ed. and trans. Rasaprakāśasudhākara by Acarya, Yaśodhara. Benares, India: Chaukhambha Orientalia, 1984.

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    A Sanskrit edition of an important 13th-century work on the medical uses of alchemical preparations, which combines principles of siddha alchemy with medical applied alchemy. Accompanied by a Hindi translation.

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  • Sastri, S. V. Radhakrishna, ed. Ānandakandam. Tanjore Saraswathi Mahal Series 15. Tanjore, India: TMSSM Library, 1952.

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    Sanskrit edition (with a Tamil translation) of a 6,900-verse 14th-century text, the most encyclopedic work of the entire Indian alchemical canon. The first twenty-six chapters deal with siddha alchemy, drawing on several tantric and siddha alchemical works. For English translation of chapters 1 and 19, see Rama Rao 1971 (cited under English Translations).

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  • Sharma, Dharmananda, ed. Rasaratnasamucchaya. Varanasi, India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1962.

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    Another Sanskrit edition of the Rasaratnasamucchaya of Vāgbhata (see Giri 1998). This edition is complemented by an exhaustive and extremely useful Hindi-language commentary. For English translation of chapters 1–11, see Joshi 1991 (cited under English Translations).

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  • Sharma, Harishankara, ed. and trans. Rasendramaṅgalam of Nāgārjuna. Varanasi, India: Chaukhambha Orientalia, 2003.

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    A Sanskrit edition of a 13th- to 14th-century work in four chapters on elixir and transmutational alchemy; chapter 4 is devoted to alchemy-based sorcery and aphrodisiacs. A title page in English states that the text is “edited with Aihore Hindī Vimarśa, Bhāvānuvāda and English translation and notes (chapters 1–4) First Part.” This edition is flawed, and the English translation is terrible, although the accompanying Hindi-language translation and commentary are usable. The authorship of this work is discussed in Wujastyk 1984 (cited under Studies of Indian Alchemical Literature).

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Rasaratnākara of Nityanātha

This 13th-century work by Nityanātha Siddha on tantric and siddha alchemy is divided into five divisions (khaṇḍas), which are devoted to transmutational (Rasa-khaṇḍa), applied (Rasendra-khaṇḍa), transmutational (Vāda- or Ṛddhi-khaṇḍa), elixir (Rasāyana-khaṇḍa), and magical (Mantra- or Siddha-khaṇḍa) alchemy, respectively. It is unique in the annals of Sanskrit editions of the alchemical classics inasmuch as there exists no edition of the complete work, but rather only editions of the separate khaṇḍas. Of these, only the first four are extant. Shastri 1940 is a Sanskrit edition of the third division; Tricumji Acharya 1982, the fourth division; Tripathi 1985, the first division; and Vaisya 1987, both the first and second divisions. Much of the content of the Mantra Khaṇḍa, the fifth division, is reproduced in the Kakṣapuṭa; see Bhattacharya 1915 (cited under Alchemical Folklore).

  • Shastri, Jivaram Kalidas, ed. Ṛddhikhaṇḍa: Śrīparvatīputranityanāthasiddha-viracitaḥ Rasaratnākarāntargataś caturtho Ṛddhikhaṇḍaḥ-Vādikhaṇḍaḥ. Gondal, India: Rasashala Aushadhashram, 1940.

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    Sanskrit edition of the Rasaratnākara’s third division (the Vāda- or Ṛddhi-khaṇḍa), which is devoted primarily to transmutational alchemy. Very few libraries in the world hold this extremely rare volume.

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  • Tricumji Acharya, Jadavji, ed. Rasāyanakhaṇḍa: Śrīnityanāthasiddhaviracitah (Rasaratnākarāntargataś caturthah) Rasāyanakhaṇḍah. Benares, India: Chaukhamba Sanskrit Pustakalaya, 1982.

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    Sanskrit edition of the Rasaratnākara’s fourth division (the Rasāyana-khaṇḍa), which is devoted mainly to elixir alchemy. Its final chapter is primarily about the site of Srisailam, which it portrays as an alchemical wonderland. (On Srisailam, see also Roşu 1969, Roşu 1991–1992, and Rao 1983, cited under History of Religious Studies of Indian Alchemy.) This 1982 edition (it was originally published in 1939) includes a Hindi commentary by Indradeva Tripathi.

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  • Tripathi, Indradeva, ed. Rasa Khaṇḍam: First Part of Rasaratnākara of Sri Nitya Nātha Siddha. Caukhamba Ayurveda Granthamala 11. Varanasi, India: Caukhamba Amarabharati Prakashan, 1985.

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    Sanskrit edition of the Rasaratnākara’s first division (the Rasa-khaṇḍa), which is devoted to the preparation and purification of mercury and other primary alchemical reagents. Includes Tripathi’s Hindi-language commentary, with an appendix by Lalbahadur Singh.

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  • Vaisya, Saligrama, ed. Rasaratnākarah. Bombay, India: Venkatesvara Steam, 1987.

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    Sanskrit edition of both the first and second divisions (the Rasa-khaṇḍa and the Rasendra-khaṇḍa) of the Rasaratnākara, published originally in 1909. The Rasa-khaṇḍa is devoted to the preparation and purification of mercury and other of the primary alchemical reagents. The Rasendra-khaṇḍa deals with the treatment of diseases, and is patterned after the ayurvedic Mādhavanidāna.

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English Translations

The sole full or partial English-language translations of the alchemical classics are those listed below. Only two of these are full translations: Roy and Subbarayappa 1976 and Subbarayappa 1997. Three others contain only one or more chapters that are on the subject of alchemy: chapters 1, 5, 8, and 9 of Magee 1989; chapter 9 of Cowell and Gough 2000; and chapter 4 of Mallinson 2007. White 1995 only translates the first chapter of the Rasārṇavam. Joshi 1991 only comprises the first eleven chapters of the Rasaratnasamucchaya; and Rama Rao 1971, only two chapters of the Ānandakandam. Ray 1902–1909 contains English translations of chapters or portions of chapters from the Rasahṛdayam and a sampling of other alchemical works. The quality of these translations varies widely: many of the translations by Indian authors are written in a blend of stilted English and technical Sanskrit. Most of these works are difficult of access outside of university research libraries: the most readily accessible are Cowell and Gough 2000, White 1995, and Mallinson 2007.

Rasāyana in Ayurvedic Literature

Rasāyana, the eighth limb of Indian Āyurveda, comprises therapies for the rejuvenation of aging bodies. These therapies included diets, sudation, and the clinical use of plant-based treatments; but mercury, the principal reagent of elixir alchemy, is not included in the material medica of traditional ayurvedic rasāyana. The Caraka Saṃhitā and Suśruta Saṃhitā, the two earliest foundational ayurvedic works, contain more data on rasāyana than do such later works as the Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayam and Aṣṭāṅgasaṃgraha. All three of the short, specialized studies listed here are devoted to historical and technical discussions of rasāyana therapies in Āyurveda. Singh 1992 is the most accessible; Roşu 1975 is published in a prestigious journal found in many university libraries but is written in French; Anantacharya 1982 is an extremely rare booklet.

  • Anantacharya, E. Rasayana and Ayurveda, 2d ed. Vishakapatnam, India: Vani, 1982.

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    Useful short survey of rasāyana therapy in Āyurveda.

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  • Roşu, Arion. “Considérations sur une technique du rasāyana āyurvédique.” Indo-Iranian Journal 17.1–2 (1975): 1–29.

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    Study of the rejuvenation therapy known as kuṭīpraveśa (“entering the hut”), as described in the principal ayurvedic sources.

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  • Singh, R. H. “Rasāyana and Vājīkaraṇa.” In History of Medicine in India, from Antiquity to 1000 A.D. Edited by Priya Vrat Sharma, 353–361. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy, 1992.

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    Useful overview of rasāyana as a branch of Āyurveda in four foundational texts—the Caraka Saṃhitā, Suśruta Saṃhitā, Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayam, and Aṣṭāṅgasaṃgraha—all of which predate the works of the Indian alchemical canon. Synopsis of rasāyana drugs and therapies. Includes diagram of the three-chambered hut of rasāyana therapy.

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Alchemical Folklore

From about the 7th century, references to supernatural alchemical powers begin to appear in Indian literature, first in novels, plays, and fantasy and adventure anthologies, and later in encyclopedias and works on tantric sorcery. In these works, magicians, alchemists, sorcerers, and kings combine serendipity, spells, and the manipulation of supernatural beings and mercurial preparations in non-systematic ways. Of the works listed below, Sharma 1972 and White 1996 are the sole surveys of alchemical folklore, and White 1996 is by far the more exhaustive of the two. Bāṇabhaṭṭa 1991, Penzer 1968, and Sachau 1983 are English-language translations of primary sources containing data on Indic alchemical folklore (see their respective indexes). Bhattacharya 1915, Sharma 1977, and Srigondekar 1967 are primary sources in Sanskrit with no translation. Several entries under Jain Alchemy also deal with alchemical lore.

  • Bāṇabhaṭṭa. Kādambarī: A Classical Sanskrit Story of Magical Transformations. Translated by Gwendolyn Layne. New York: Garland, 1991.

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    India’s “first novel,” the 6th-century Kādambarī, contains the earliest description of an alchemist in all of Indian literature. Layne’s English-language translation is lucid and elegant.

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  • Bhattacharya, Jivananda, ed. Indrajālavidyāsaṃgrahaḥ. Calcutta, India: V. V. Mukherji, 1915.

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    A Sanskrit compendium of works on magic and sorcery, including the Kakṣapuṭa of Śriman Nāgārjuna (c. 13th century), which contains long passages on use of alchemical reagents as aphrodisiacs, etc. Twenty chapters of this work are borrowed directly from the Mantra-khaṇḍa, the fifth division of the Rasaratnākara of Nityanātha, which is itself unpublished.

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  • Penzer, N. M., ed. The Ocean of Story; being C. H. Tawney’s translation of Somadeva’s Kathā Sarit Sāgara (or Ocean of Streams of Story). 10 vols. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 1968.

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    Somadeva’s sprawling fantasy and adventure anthology from c. 1030 CE contains an alchemical legend involving Nāgārjuna (in Book 7, Part 7) as well as a wealth of data on the siddhas. This English translation by Penzer and Tawney is accompanied by copious notes on the cultural and literary contexts of the Kathāsaritsāgara. Reprint of the 1923–1928 edition (London: Sawyer).

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  • Sachau, Edward, ed. and trans. Alberuni’s India: An Account of the Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Geography, Chronology, Astronomy, Customs, Laws and Astrology of India about A.D. 1030. 2 vols. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1983.

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    Written by al-Biruni, a Muslim scholar who accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni during his conquest of western India in the first decades of the 11th century. Contains a chapter titled “On Hindu Sciences which prey on the ignorance of people,” devoted mainly to western Indian alchemical lore. The two volumes were originally published in 1886 and 1888, respectively (London: Trubner). See also Filliozat 1982 (cited under Indian Alchemy and Alchemists in Foreign Sources).

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  • Sharma, Priyavrat. Indian Medicine in the Classical Age. Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series 85. Varanasi, India: Chowhkamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1972.

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    Contains references to alchemical lore in classical Sanskrit literature between the 4th and 8th centuries CE.

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  • Sharma, Priyavrat, ed. Nāgārjuna’s Yogaratnamālā, with the commentary of Śvetāmbara Bhikṣu Guṇākara. Jaikrishnadas Ayurveda Series 11. Varanasi, India: Chaukhambha Orientalia, 1977.

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    A work on sorcery and aphrodisiacs (c. 13th century) containing references to use of mercury and minerals, possibly by the same Nāgārjuna who wrote the Kakṣapuṭa and the Rasendramaṅgalam. This Sanskrit edition contains a useful historical introduction (in English) discussing the text’s authorship and the identity of its commentator.

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  • Srigondekar, G. K., ed. Mānasollāsa of King Bhūlokamalla Someśvara. 2d ed. 3 vols. Baroda, India: Oriental Institute, 1967.

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    A Sanskrit-language royal encyclopedia from 1131 CE, containing passages on elixir alchemy (2.1.35–51), magical alchemy (2.3.332–361), and transmutational alchemy (2.4.377–394). Includes an introduction in English. Originally published 1925–1961 (Baroda, India: Central Library).

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  • White, David Gordon. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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    Chapters 3 and 10 contain extensive description and analysis of alchemical folklore.

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Tamil Siddha Alchemy and Medicine

Siddha alchemy constitutes a relatively late Tamil variation on north Indian alchemy. Its name comes from the eighteen siddhas or siddhars (perfected beings), who were the legendary discoverers and revealers of this specifically Tamil medical and alchemical tradition. One particular emphasis of siddha medicine is on the use of south Indian mineral- and plant-based elixirs toward the goal of kāyakalpa, the transformation of the degenerative human body into an invulnerable and immortal body. Nearly every study of siddha medicine and alchemy by Tamil authors is written in the context or service of Tamil nationalism: the forging of a Tamil identity over and against the hegemonic power of north Indian and Western polity, culture, religion, and science. Western authors who write about siddha medicine and science tend to focus on the relationship between Tamil nationalism and medicine in the writings of the former. Weiss 2009 is the most accessible book-length study of siddha medicine and alchemy; however, its focus is on the uses of siddha traditions by Tamil nationalist groups of the past one hundred years. Natarajan 2004 is a humanistic study of the historicity of a single siddha. Kandaswamy Pillai 1979 is the most comprehensive source on siddha alchemy and medicine, but is only found in two libraries outside of India. A shorter well-written study of the same is Krishnamurthy and Mouli 1984. Hausman 1996 and Little 2006 are PhD dissertations, and accessible only through university interlibrary loan services. Shanmugan Velan 1992 and Subrahmanian and Madhavan 1983 may be read as primary sources for the myth-making propensities of Tamil nationalist ideologues.

  • Hausman, Gary J. “Siddhars, Alchemy, and the Abyss of Tradition: ‘Traditional’ Tamil Medical Knowledge in ‘Modern’ Practice.” PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1996.

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    Study of the relationship between practices of village siddha physicians and the Tamil state government’s cataloguing and interpretation of the same in its modern systematization of those practices. Contains a chapter on modern-day Tamil interpretations of lost or secret siddha alchemical traditions.

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  • Kandaswamy Pillai, N. History of Siddha Medicine. Madras, India: Government of Tamil Nadu, 1979.

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    The most systematic, encyclopedic work on the subject, containing long passages (pp. 323–371, 622–637, 662–671) on siddha alchemy and alchemists, kāyakalpa, yoga, and siddha mythology and metaphysics.

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  • Krishnamurthy, K. H., and G. Chandra Mouli. “Siddha System of Medicine: A Historical Appraisal.” Indian Journal of History of Science 19.1 (January 1984): 43–53.

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    Balanced historical and scientific appraisal of the relationship of siddha medicine and alchemy to Āyurveda and rasaśāstra (applied alchemy). The former grew out of the latter, but is innovative in its use of mercurials for kāyakalpa. Available online.

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  • Little, Layne Ross. “Bowl Full of Sky: Story-Making and the Many Lives of the Siddha Bhogar.” PhD diss., University of California at Berkeley, 2006.

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    Traces the trajectory of the hagiography of Bhogar, a Tamil siddha reputed to have played a role in the transmission of alchemical ideas between south India and China. Focuses on successive recontextualizations of Bhogar’s hagiography—from local to regional to international—as emblematic of more general trends in Tamil nationalism, from the mid–19th century to the present day.

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  • Natarajan, Kanchana. “‘Divine Semen’ and the Alchemical Conversion of Iramatevar.” Medieval History Journal 7.2 (2004): 255–278.

    DOI: 10.1177/097194580400700206Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Biographical study of the siddhar alchemist Iramatevar (alias Yakoppu) based on his original writings in medieval Tamil, detailing his travel to Mecca and conversion to Islam.

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  • Shanmuga Velan, A. Siddhar’s Science of Longevity and Kalpa Medicine of India. 2d ed. Edited by A. Sundararajan. Madras, India: Directorate of Indian Medicine and Homoeopathy, 1992.

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    Manifesto advocating the antiquity, uniqueness, and miraculous powers of Tamil siddha medicine; Part 3, on the kalpa system of medicine, contains three chapters on siddha alchemy. Epitomizes the Tamil nationalist position.

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  • Subrahmanian, S. V., and V. R. Madhavan, eds. Heritage of the Tamils: Siddha Medicine. Madras, India: International Institute of Tamil Studies, 1983.

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    Collection of historical studies of siddha medicine and alchemy by Tamil siddha physicians and scholars. Contributions emphasize the antiquity, uniqueness, and modern-day scientific value of these traditions, with certain chapters devoted to kāyakalpa and the elixirs of the siddha system.

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  • Weiss, Richard S. Recipes for Immortality: Medicine, Religion, and Community in South India. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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    Fine critical study of the relationship between the championing of the Tamil siddhas, and siddha alchemy and medicine on the one hand, and the rhetoric of Tamil nationalist revivalism on the other. More useful from a sociological or cultural critical standpoint than as a historical work.

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Jain Alchemy

Historically, the Jain populations of medieval India were concentrated in the western part of the country (Rajasthan and Gujarat), the same region as that in which alchemy flourished. Jain traders, who have historically controlled markets in precious metals and stones, would have been interested in the alchemical production and refinement of these materials, even if their goal as householders was to give their wealth away to Jain monks. That interest translated into a rich and specifically Jain body of alchemical lore, which has been documented in a small number of articles. Of the works cited here, Cort 1990 is the sole readily accessible English-language study of Jain alchemical lore, but his chapter is based on a single work. Balbir 1990 and Balbir 1992 study a range of Jain works on alchemists (and to a lesser extent, Jain alchemy), but are in French. Sikdar 1980 is a technical study of Jain alchemy, based on four manuscripts. Sikdar 1986 is the sole edition and translation of a Jain alchemical work.

  • Balbir, Nalini. “Scènes d’alchimie dans la littérature jaina.” Journal of the European Āyurveda Society 1 (1990): 149–167.

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    Surveys references to alchemy in the Kuvālaya Mālā by Udyotana Suri (779 CE), Jain biographies of Nāgārjuna the alchemist, and other Jain narrative works to determine whether there existed a specifically Jain alchemical tradition in medieval India.

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  • Balbir, Nalini. “La fascination jaina pour l’alchimie.” Journal of the European Āyurveda Society 2 (1992): 134–150.

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    An overview of references to alchemy in Jain narrative literature, as well as unattested alchemical works referred to in the writings of Jineśvarasūrı, an 11th-century member of the Jain Kharataragaccha religious order.

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  • Cort, John. “Twelve Chapters from The Guidebook to Various Pilgrimage Places (Vividha Tīrtha Kalpa) of Jinaprabhāsūri.” In The Clever Adulteress and Other Stories: A Treasury of Jain Literature. Edited by Phyllis Granoff, 245–290. New York: Mosaic, 1990.

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    Survey of an early 14th-century Jain guide to pilgrimage sites in western India, in which pools of mercury and other alchemical sites figure prominently. Good for undergraduate teaching; complements Roşu 1991–1992 (cited under History of Religious Studies of Indian Alchemy).

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  • Sikdar, J. C. “Jaina Alchemy.” Indian Journal of History of Science 15.1 (May 1980): 6–17.

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    Study of four 13th to 18th-century Jain alchemical manuscripts from western India, which focus on transmutational, elixir, and applied alchemy. Contains short compendia of laboratory procedures for transmutational and applied alchemy. Available online.

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  • Sikdar, Jogendra Chandra, ed. and trans. The Rasa-ratna-samuccaya of Mānikyadeva Sūri. Jaipur, India: Prakrta Bharati Academy, 1986.

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    Sole published edition (in Sanskrit) and English translation of a 16th-century Jain alchemical work from western India, written in verse, which differs significantly from the 13th- to 14th-century Rasaratnasamucchaya of Vāgbhata (see Giri 1998, cited under 13th and 14th Centuries).

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Buddhist Alchemy

Alchemy is far less represented in Indian Buddhist sources than it is in Hindu works. Scattered references to alchemical folklore and alchemical siddhis are found in a smattering of Indian Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna works. Indo-Tibetan teachings on bcud len (extracting the essence) appear to parallel developments in Indian siddha alchemy, wherein laboratory practices and processes were internalized into yogic techniques. The Buddhist work containing the most alchemical data is the Kālacakratantra, an Indo-Tibetan Buddhist scripture dated to approximately 1030 CE. Composed outside of India, it was widely used in Buddhist universities in the northeastern part of the subcontinent between the 11th and 13th centuries, at which time it was exported to Tibet. Its second and fifth books contain significant alchemical data. It may have influenced the 11th-century Rasārṇava (see Ray and Kaviratna 1910 and Tripathi 1978, both cited under 10th through 12th Centuries). The second book of the Kālacakratantra is translated in Wallace 2004; selected passages from both the second and fifth books are translated in Fenner 1979. Other Indo-Tibetan, Tibetan, and Burmese Buddhist texts and traditions also draw on Indian alchemy. These include the Sarveśvararasāyana and the Dhātuvādaśāstra, from the Indo-Tibetan Tanjur, edited and translated in Bhattacharya 1932; and the sampling of Indo-Tibetan works edited and translated in Walter 1980. Waley 1932 is a short bibliography of alchemical references in Indian Buddhist sources. Stein 1988 and Walter 1992 are devoted to Indo-Tibetan alchemical lore, the former on alchemical geography and the latter on the hagiography of the Indo-Tibetan alchemist known as Jābir. Pranke 1995 is a study of a syncretistic alchemical tradition observed by the Theravada alchemist-monks of Burma.

  • Bhattacharya, Vidhusekhara. “Sanskrit Treatise on Dhatuvada or Alchemy.” In Acharyya Ray Commemoration Volume. Edited by Satya Churn Law, et al., 121–135. Calcutta, India: Oriental Press, 1932.

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    A Sanskrit edition (with English translation) of the Sarveśvararasāyana and the Dhātuvādaśāstra, two short Sanskrit alchemical texts contained in the Tibetan Tanjur.

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  • Fenner, Edward Todd. “Rasayana Siddhi: Medicine and Alchemy in the Buddhist Tantras.” PhD diss., University of Wisconsin, 1979.

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    Contains translations of selected passages on transmutational and elixir alchemy from the second and fifth books of the Indo-Tibetan Kālacakratantra.

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  • Pranke, Patrick. “On Becoming a Buddhist Wizard.” In Buddhism in Practice. Edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., 343–358. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

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    Describes the practices of the zawgyis (siddhas) and weikzas (vidyādharas), the Theravada alchemist-monks of Burma, who perhaps combined principles of Indian and Taoist alchemy when they committed suicide through the ingestion of mercury, which left them with “immortal,” undecaying corpses. May be used for undergraduate teaching.

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  • Stein, Rolf Alfred. Grottes matrices et lieux saints de la déesse in Asie orientale. Publications de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient 151. Paris: École française d’Extrême-Orient, 1988.

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    Contains descriptions, from Indo-Tibetan sources, of wondrous secret caves in Nepal and Tibet that contain streams of the sexual fluids of tantric deities, as well as of their mineral homologue, red mercuric oxide (sindūra).

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  • Waley, Arthur. “References to Alchemy in Buddhist Scriptures.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 6.4 (February 1932): 1102–1103.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0041977X00123535Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Short annotated bibliography of references to alchemical lore in Mahāyāna sources.

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  • Wallace, Vesna, trans. The Kālacakratantra: The Chapter on the Individual Together with the Vimalaprabhā. New York: American Institute of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, 2004.

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    Remarkable critical translation of the second chapter of this early 11th-century Indo-Tibetan tantric scripture, together with its Vimalaprabhā commentary, based on Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Mongolian recensions.

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  • Walter, Michael Lee. “The Role of Alchemy and Medicine in Indo-Tibetan Tantrism.” PhD diss., Indiana University, 1980.

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    Contains a compendium of excerpted Indo-Tibetan alchemical works attributed to Vimalamitra and members of the Nyingma and Dzogchen schools, as well as alchemical lore involving Padmasambhava. Topics include bcud len (extracting the essence), as well as “inner” (yogic) and “outer” (laboratory-based) alchemy.

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  • Walter, Michael Lee. “Jābir, the Buddhist Yogi, Part One.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 20 (1992): 425–438.

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    Surveys Indo-Tibetan traditions concerning Dza-bir (Jābir), who figures in the transmission of bcud len (extracting the essence) teachings. Tibetan hagiography links Jābir to the Nāth Siddhas of India, whose connections to Indian alchemy are discussed in White 1996, as well as to Islamic traditions: his name is a Tibetan rendering of Jābir, the 8th-century Persian alchemist Jābir ibn-Hayyān.

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Indian Alchemy and Alchemists in Foreign Sources

Unlike Indo-Tibetan alchemy (see Buddhist Alchemy), which is highly derivative of Indian alchemy, the indigenous alchemical traditions of the Islamic world and China were highly developed by the time their scientists and scholars first encountered Indian alchemy and its alchemists. These encounters, reported in various sources, provide data for reconstructing a general history of alchemy in Asia. The 11th-century Muslim polymath al-Biruni includes a discussion of Indian alchemists in his India, which is translated in Sachau 1983 and discussed in Filliozat 1982. Needham, et al. 2000 and Needham and Gwei-djen 2000 contain several references to exchanges of alchemical technologies, concepts, and prime materials among the Chinese, Indian, and Muslim worlds. Deshpande 1984 focuses on possible 9th-century Chinese borrowings of Indian alchemical techniques. Mahdihassan 1982 and Mahdihassan 1991 speculate on possible links between Indian and Chinese alchemical symbolism and lore. Pranke 1995 is a study of the alchemical lore of the Theravada alchemist-monks of Burma, which syncretized Indian and Chinese alchemical traditions.

  • Deshpande, Vijaya. “Transmutation of Base-Metals into Gold as Described in the Text Rasārṇavakalpa and Its Comparison with the Parallel Chinese Methods.” Indian Journal of History of Science 19.2 (April 1984): 186–192.

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    Surveys techniques for alloying metals with gold and for transmutation of base metals into gold in a manuscript from about the 12th century. Discusses a Chinese reference in 863 CE to “Punjab water” as a transmuting agent, which indicates that certain of these techniques were employed in India at a far earlier date. Available online.

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  • Filliozat, Jean. “Al-Bīrūnī and Indian Alchemy.” In Studies in the History of Science in India. Vol. 1. Edited by Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, 338–343. New Delhi: Editorial Enterprises, 1982.

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    Compendium and discussion of the Indian alchemical myths and legends recorded in Sachau 1983. Notes the existence of a Cambodian variant.

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  • Mahdihassan, S. Essays on the History of Alchemy, Medicine, and Drugs. Karachi, Pakistan: Hamdard Foundation, 1982.

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    More essays on alchemy by Mahdihassan, with special focus on the Chinese origins of various elements Indian alchemy.

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  • Mahdihassan, S. Indian Alchemy or Rasayana in the Light of Asceticism Geriatrics. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1991.

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    Contains several idiosyncratic essays on the relationships between Indian and Chinese alchemy, viewed through the lens of chemistry, alchemical mythology, and alchemical symbolism. See also Mahdihassan 1982.

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  • Needham, Joseph, Ho Ping-Yụ, Lu Gwei-djen, and Nathan Sivin. Science and Civilisation in Ancient China. Vol. 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 4: Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Apparatus, Theories, and Gifts. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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    Contains extensive references to exchanges of alchemical technologies, concepts, and prime materials among the Chinese, Indian, and Muslim worlds. First published in 1980.

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  • Needham, Joseph, and Lu Gwei-djen. Science and Civilisation in Ancient China. Vol. 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, part 5: Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Physiological Alchemy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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    Contains some references to exchanges of alchemical technologies, concepts, and prime materials among the Chinese, Indian and Muslim worlds. First published in 1983.

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  • Pranke, Patrick. “On Becoming a Buddhist Wizard.” In Buddhism in Practice. Edited by Donald Lopez Jr., 343–358. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

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    Describes the practices of the zawgyis (siddhas) and weikzas (vidyādharas), the Theravada alchemist-monks of Myanmar (Burma).

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  • Sachau, Edward, ed. and trans. Alberuni’s India: An Account of the Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Geography, Chronology, Astronomy, Customs, Laws, and Astrology of India about A.D. 1030. 2 vols. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1983.

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    An English translation (originally published in 1886 and 1888) of a detailed commentary on Indian philosophy and culture written by al-Biruni, a Muslim scholar who accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni in his conquest of western India in the first decades of the 11th century. Chapter titled “On Hindu Sciences Which Prey on the Ignorance of People” contains western Indian alchemical legends and lore. See also Filliozat 1982.

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Studies of Indian Alchemical Literature

The study of Indian alchemical literature is in its infancy. In addition to the monographs by David White and S. G. Jan Meulenbeld (see General Overviews), the articles and chapters listed in this section are the sole useful scholarly studies on the topic. In establishing their chronology of the alchemical literature, the authors of these two monographs rely in part on the text-specific studies presented in Biswas 1987, Roşu 1997, and Wujastyk 1984. Hellwig 2009 confirms this chronology through the novel use of a computer application. Several of these studies (Deshpande 1984, Murthy 1979, Roy 1967) localize medieval Indian alchemy in western India and the Deccan plateau. Mazars 1977 is a French-language study of the ninth chapter of the Sarvadarśanasaṃgraha.

  • Biswas, A. K. “Rasa-ratna-samuccaya and Mineral Processing State-of-Art in the 13th Century A.D. India.” Indian Journal of History of Science 22.1 (1987): 29–46.

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    Identifies the Rasaratnasamucchaya as a work of applied alchemy and a window on 13th-century Indian expertise in minerals, chemical and metallurgical apparatus, and processing techniques. The primary focus of this manuscript was medical applications of the product of chemical reactions between zinc and orpiment. Available online.

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  • Deshpande, Vijaya. “Transmutation of Base-Metals into Gold as Described in the Text Rasārṇavakalpa and Its Comparison with the Parallel Chinese Methods.” Indian Journal of History of Science 19.2 (April 1984): 186–192.

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    Surveys techniques for alloying metals with gold and for transmutation of base metals into gold as found in the 12th-century Rasārṇavakalpa (for English translation, see Roy and Subbarayappa 1976, cited under 10th through 12th centuries). Available online.

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  • Hellwig, Oliver. “A Chronometric Approach to Indian Alchemical Literature.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 24.4 (2009): 373–383.

    DOI: 10.1093/llc/fqn043Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Innovative approach to the dating of medieval Indian alchemical texts. The author encoded portions of the texts in a language model that could be understood by a computer. Phylogenetic trees derived from these alignments showed regularities in the ordering of alchemical texts, whose temporal patterns aligned with results obtained by using traditional philological techniques.

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  • Mazars, Guy. “Un chapître du Sarvadarśanasaṃgraha sur l’alchimie.” Scientia Orientalis 4 (1977): 1–11.

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    An evaluation of (and French translation of) the chapter on alchemy in Mādhava’s important survey of Indian philosophy (for Sanskrit edition, see Abhyankar 1978, cited under 13th and 14th Centuries; for English translation, see Cowell and Gough 1978, cited under English Translations).

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  • Murthy, S. R. “An Occurrence of Cinnabar in Rasārṇavakalpa.” Indian Journal of History of Science 14.2 (1979): 83–86.

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    Argues that the Rasārṇavakalpa, on the basis of its mention of cinnabar, was written in the Siddhipur region of the western Indian state of Gujarat, one of the very few sites on the subcontinent having deposits of mercury ores. Also discusses other rare references to subcontinental cinnabar deposits. Available online.

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  • Roşu, Arion. “À propos de rapports entre rasaśāstra et tantra: Étude sur un fragment du Rasendracūḍāmaṇi.” In India and Beyond: Aspects of Literature, Meaning, Ritual, and Thought; Essays in Honour of Frits Staal. Edited by Dick van der Meij, 408–438. London: Kegan Paul, 1997.

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    Compares and contextualizes data found in the alchemical Rasendracūḍāmaṇi with a passage from a manuscript of the Nitādisaṃgrahapaddhati, a tantric work by Rājānaka Takṣakavarta.

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  • Roy, Mira. “Rasārṇavakalpa of Rudrayāmala Tantra.” Indian Journal of History of Science 2.2 (November 1967): 137–142.

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    Survey of contents of the Rasārṇavakalpa, which the author argues was written in the Vindhya region of western India. Roy erroneously places the Rasārṇavakalpa between the Rasaratnākara, which, following Ray 1902–1909 (cited under History of Science and History of Medicine Studies of Indian Alchemy), he dates to the 8th century, and the Rasārṇava, which he dates to the 12th century.

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  • Wujastyk, Dominik. “An Alchemical Ghost: The Rasaratnākara by Nāgārjuna.” Ambix 31.2 (July 1984): 70–83.

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    Definitively establishes that the alchemical text identified by Ray 1902–1909 (cited under History of Science and History of Medicine Studies of Indian Alchemy) as the 7th- to 8th-century Rasaratnākara of Nāgārjuna (see Sharma 2003, cited under 13th and 14th Centuries) was a conflation of post-12th-century works: the Rasaratnākara of Nityanātha and the Rasendramaṅgalam and Kaksapuṭa of Nāgārjuna.

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History of Science and History of Medicine Studies of Indian Alchemy

Since Prafulla Chandra Ray’s pioneering study (Ray 1902–1909), ayurvedic practitioners and scholars have been writing about Indian alchemy from the perspective of the history of chemistry and the history of medicine. While these studies tend to repeat the errors promulgated by Ray concerning the antiquity and chronology of the Indian alchemical literature, they provide useful accounts of ancient and modern day applications of alchemical techniques in the fields of medicine, metallurgy, and chemistry. The monographs of Himasagara 2008 and Misra 1981 build on Ray’s work, providing more sophisticated and exhaustive accounts of the scientific and medical foundations of alchemy, but Misra 1981 is written in Hindi and Himasagara in a blend of highly technical and stilted English and Sanskrit. Dash 1986 is written in more accessible English, but tends to oversimplify. Bose, et al. 1971 attempt to push back the origins of Indian alchemy and chemistry to the 3rd millennium BCE. Ray 1956 is a one-volume edition of Ray 1902–1909, with an added essay by B. N. Seal on the five elements in Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika metaphysics. Joshi 1979 and Prakash 1997 are solid English-language studies of the chemistry of transmutational and applied alchemy, but both are found in Indian journals of the history of science and medicine, which are difficult to access.

  • Bose, D. M., S. N. Sen, and B. V. Subbarayappa, eds. A Concise History of Science in India. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy, 1971.

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    Chapter 5 of this encyclopedic work is devoted to the scientific history of chemical practices and alchemy in India, from the pre-Vedic period down through the medieval period.

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  • Dash, Bhagwan. Alchemy and Metallic Medicines in Āyurveda. New Delhi: Concept, 1986.

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    General scientific overview of the mineral and mercurial material medica of Āyurveda, written for a non-specialist readership.

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  • Himasagara, Chandra Murthy. Rasaśāstra, the Mercurial System. Varanasi, India: Chaukhamba Krishnadas Academy, 2008.

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    Written as a textbook for Indian university examinations in applied alchemy (rasaśāstra), this is the most complete and systematic English-language survey of Indian alchemy from an applied scientific perspective.

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  • Joshi, Damodar. “Mercury in Indian Medicine.” Studies in History of Medicine 3 (1979): 234–279.

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    Comprehensive scientific overview of the chemistry of the saṃskāras, the alchemical operations that prepare mercury to transmute base metals into gold and render the human body immortal and ageless.

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  • Misra, Siddhinandan. Āyurvedīya Rasaśāstra. Jaikrishnadas Ayurveda Series 35. Benares, India: Chowkhamba, 1981.

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    This is the most complete and systematic Hindi-language survey of Indian alchemy from an applied scientific perspective. However, its noncritical adaptation of the chronology in Ray 1902–1909 weakens its historical section.

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  • Prakash, Bhanu. “Use of Metals in Āyurvedic Medicine.” Indian Journal of History of Science 32.1 (1997): 1–28.

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    Scientific study describes the physical and chemical changes undergone by metals in the preparation of bhasmas (oxides) as described in works of applied alchemy. Available online.

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  • 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.

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    Pioneering work on the history and scientific value of the Indian alchemical tradition from a history of chemistry perspective.

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  • Ray, Priyanaranjan, 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.

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    Revised edition of Ray 1902–1909 in one volume. See also General Overviews.

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History of Religious Studies of Indian Alchemy

Very few scholars have written about the Indian alchemy from a religious studies perspective. The few articles that have adopted this perspective focus on the activities of the medieval Rasa-Siddhas, alchemical mythology, and the relationships between alchemy and tantra. White 1996, the sole monograph on the subject, offers a comprehensive overview of the religious (mainly tantric) content of the alchemical texts, as well as the relationship of alchemy to hatha yoga. White 1997 is excerpted from White 1996. Roşu 1969 and Roşu 1997, which combine historical and archaeological analysis, are of excellent quality, but both are in French; and Roşu 1991–1992 and an abridged English translation of Roşu 1969 lack much of the nuance of the French original. Like Roşu 1969, Rao 1983 focuses on alchemical traditions linked to the site of Srisailam in Andhra Pradesh (see also Rasaratnākara of Nityanātha), but their respective analyses lack Roşu’s precision and scope. Roşu 1986 transforms word descriptions of alchemical diagrams into an arresting visual image. Sarma and Sahai 1995 is an art-historical study of a theme from Indian alchemical mythology, while Treloar 1972 compares a Malaysian archeological find with data from the Indian alchemical literature.

  • Rao, Sanjeeva. “Rasasiddhas of Alampur.” Bulletin of the Indian Institute for the History of Medicine 13 (1983): 38–45.

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    The layout of the Navabrahma temple complex at Alampur in Andhra Pradesh, together with mentions of the site by such alchemists as Nagarjuna, are evidence in support of the hypothesis that this was a medieval center of alchemical practice. See also Roşu 1969, Roşu 1991–1992, and Shaw 1997.

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  • Roşu, Arion. “À la recherché d’un tīrtha énigmatique du Deccan médiévale.” Bulletin de l’École Francaise d’Extrême-Orient 60 (1969): 23–57.

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    Survey of Sanskrit- and Telugu-language references to Srisailam as a center for alchemical practice. Compares textual references to tantric ascetics at the site to unsupported local traditions, which identify figures shown on bas-reliefs at Alampur (the western entrance to the Srisailam temple complex) as Rasa-Siddhas.

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  • Roşu, Arion. “Mantra et Yantra dans la médecine et l’alchimie indiennes.” Journal Asiatique 274.3–4 (1986): 203–286.

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    Remarkable survey of the use of mainly tantric spells and diagrams in Indian medical and alchemical literature. Contains line drawing of detailed alchemical yantra described in Rasendracūḍāmaṇi.

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  • Roşu, Arion. “Alchemy and Sacred Geography in the Medieval Deccan.” Journal of the European Ayurvedic Society 2.1 (1991–1992): 151–157.

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    Condensed English-language version of Roşu 1969. Very readable and a good complement to Cort 1990 (cited under Jain Alchemy).

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  • Roşu, Arion. “À propos de rapports entre rasaśāstra et tantra: Étude sur un fragment du Rasendracūḍāmaṇi.” In India and Beyond: Aspects of Literature, Meaning, Ritual and Thought; Essays in Honour of Frits Staal. Edited by Dick van de Meij, 408–438. London: Kegan Paul, 1997.

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    Surveys possible links between Indian alchemy and the tantric Kaulas and Kāpālikas of medieval India. Contains a transliterated Sanskrit passage from a manuscript of the Nitādisaṃgrahapaddhati, a tantric work by Rājānaka Takṣakavarta.

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  • Sarma, Sreeramula S. R., and Yaduendra Sahai. “Gushing Mercury, Fleeing Maiden: A Rasaśāstra Motif in Mughal Painting.” Journal of the European Ayurveda Society 4 (1995): 149–162.

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    Four 18th-century Mughal miniatures depict a mythological account, found in four 12th- to 14th-century alchemical works, involving the use of a maiden on horseback to entice fluid mercury to rise up out of the ground. See also White 1996 and White 1997.

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  • Treloar, Francis E. “The Use of Mercury in Metal Ritual Objects as a Symbol of Śiva.” Artibus Asiae 34 (1972): 232–240.

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    A chemical analysis of the ruins of the Chandi Bukit Batu Pahat temple in Kedah, Malaysia indicate that a mercurial lingam in a silver yoni chasing stood at the center of this medieval Shiva temple, an indication that it was constructed according to principles found in the Indian alchemical literature.

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  • White, David Gordon. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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    Situates Indian alchemy within the broader context of medieval Indian and Indo-Tibetan siddha traditions, in particular those of the Nāth Siddhas. Contains an exhaustive compendium of siddha mythology and alchemical lore; appropriate for use in undergraduate teaching.

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  • White, David Gordon. “Mountains of Wisdom: On the Interface between Siddha and Vidyādhara Cults and the Siddha Orders in Medieval India.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 1.1 (April 1997): 73–95.

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    Draws on White 1996, linking alchemical myths such as that discussed in Sarma and Sahai 1995 to the history and techniques of Indian alchemy, and the history of the Rasa-Siddhas.

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Historiography of Early European Study of Indian Alchemy

Roşu 1989 and Roşu 1986, both containing facsimile reproductions of original articles and chapters, trace the early history of the study of Indian alchemy in France. The French study of Indian alchemy predates that undertaken in any other country, including India. These works are difficult to access and will only be of interest to specialists.

  • Roşu, Arion. “Marcelin Berthelot et l’alchimie indienne.” Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient 75 (1986): 67–78.

    DOI: 10.3406/befeo.1986.1700Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An account of how the premier French historian of alchemy, Marcelin Berthelot (b. 1827–d. 1907), became interested in Indian alchemy, and of his influence on historical research in this field. Contains facsimile reproductions of correspondence between Berthelot and the Bengali scientist Prafulla Chandra Ray.

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  • Roşu, Arion, ed. Gustave Liétard et Palmyr Cordier: Travaux sur l’histoire de la médecine indienne; Un demi-siècle de recherches āyurvédiques. Paris: Collège de France, Institut de Civilisation Indienne, 1989.

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    Exhaustive facsimile edition of the principal articles and book chapters written by two French pioneers in the study of Indian medicine and alchemy, with a long historical introduction.

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LAST MODIFIED: 01/27/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195399318-0046

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