Hinduism Alchemy and Yoga
Patricia Sauthoff
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0272


At the heart of both yoga and alchemy (rasaśāstra/rasavāda) we find practices meant to change bodies. These disciplines offer a variety of ways in which one can counteract greying hair, eliminate wrinkles, prolong life, and cure disease. However, their approaches are often quite different, with yoga focusing on physical and mental practice and alchemy emphasizing the use of herbal, mineral, and metallic medicines. Both systems prioritize a sort of divine body, describing the attainment of enlightenment during life (jīvanmukti) or a perfected body (dehasiddhi). While both yoga and Indian alchemy persist today as part of the global wellness industry, for the purpose of this bibliography we will consider the premodern developments of these disciplines. In the case of yoga this means examining works from the 6th century on that focus on tantric and haṭha yogic schools of thought. Rasaśāstra literature proper dates to no earlier than the 10th century and makes explicit reference to tantric texts and traditions. Thus though tantric and yogic texts rarely make overt references to the use of mercurials we can see that these traditions overlapped and were very much aware of one another. In addition to an emphasis on the body we also find tantric mantras, yantras, and maṇḍalas throughout the rasaśāstra corpus. Recent work on yoga has also demonstrated early connections to alchemy through the metaphors of Śiva’s semen as mercury and Śakti’s menstrual blood as cinnabar as well as these substances’ life-preserving usages. Several Sanskrit terms that appear in yoga and rasaśāstra can cause issues on first glance. First and foremost, the word “yoga” itself. Meaning union, “yoga” appears as early as the Vedas. It also appears in the Upaniṣads and Bhagavad Gītā in which it refers to a source of knowledge and perception. It is the usage in the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali that “yoga” appears as a philosophical term connected to meditation. This is the beginning of yoga for our purposes. In rasaśāstra “yoga” is rarely used in this way. Most often “yoga” denotes a recipe or alchemical preparation, the union of substances that transform the body through medical intervention. The second term we must note is “rasa.” Within tantra and yoga “rasa” means “juice” “fluid” or most commonly “elixir.” This rasa is the elixir that brings about immortality and often appears as a substance already within the body. In rasaśāstra the term nearly always denotes “mercury.” This rasa too brings about immortality but only after it has been processed through alchemical procedures (saṃskāras).

General Overviews

Research on the connections between yoga and rasaśāstra is quickly proliferating. This work focuses almost exclusively on textual studies of a vast array of literature. Without the proper background, the two disciplines may appear much more closely linked due to shared terminology. Both Birch 2018 and Maas 2017 have carefully examined these terms to determine differences in usage and meaning. White 1996 takes a broader approach when comparing rasaśāstra to other South Asian traditions, including religious practice, medicine, culture, and science. Meulenbeld 2000 approaches alchemy systematically, offering detailed descriptions of hundreds of works of medicine and alchemy. Cowell and Gough 2000, a translation of the premodern Sarvadarśanasaṃgraha, brings rasaśāstra into the framework of authoritative schools of philosophical thought, quoting heavily from early Sanskrit alchemical works and exploring the various systems of thought important to the 14th century. Although somewhat outdated, Ray 1956 remains a classic and useful tool in tracing the history of chemistry and chemical experimentation in ancient and medieval India. Wujastyk 2017 and Wujastyk 2013 deftly introduce the use of mercury in Indian medicine and describe how one must process the material for internal use. For a background in Ayurvedic medicine, Curtin 2017, a historical study, and Wujastyk 2003, a text-based work, situate medicine within the South Asian context over two millennia. Finally, Wujastyk 2020 explores pre-rasaśāstra rejuvenative therapies (rasāyana) that made their way into the alchemical tradition.

  • Birch, Jason. “Premodern Yoga Traditions and Ayurveda: Preliminary Remarks on Shared Terminology, Theory and Praxis.” History of Science in South Asia 6 (18 April 2018): 1–83.

    DOI: 10.18732/hssa.v6i0.25

    This in-depth discussion of shared terms, concepts, and practice within yoga and Āyurveda covers materials from the 11th to 19th centuries and is essential reading for anyone looking into the medical aspects of health and well-being in the Sanskrit tradition.

  • Cowell, E. B., and Archibald Gough, trans. The Sarva-darśana-saṃgraha, or Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy, by Madhava Ācārya. London: Routledge, 2000.

    Ninth in this 14th-century compendium of Indian philosophical systems we find Raseśvarasiddhānta. The chapter provides a synopsis of alchemical theory and practice and quotes or refers to several important rasaśāstra works such as the Rasārṇava and Rasahṛdayatantra. This work is, however, an outlier in its presentation of rasaśāstra as philosophy (darśana).

  • Curtin, Sarah. “Embodied Ayurveda.” Denison Journal of Religion 16.14 (2017): Article 3, 1–13.

    An important work that traces different conceptions of embodiment in Āyurveda from the earliest period, through colonization, and into today with a special focus on pharmacology and virility.

  • Maas, Philipp André. “Rasāyana in Classical Yoga and Āyurveda.” In Special Issue: Transmutations: Rejuvenation, Longevity, and Immortality Practices in South and Inner Asia. Edited by Dagmar Wujastyk, Suzanne Newcombe, and Christèle Barois. History of Science in South Asia 5.2 (December 2017): 66–84.

    DOI: 10.18732/hssa.v5i2.32

    Offering clarification on the term rasāyana, which is sometimes used incorrectly to denote alchemy, Maas traces the usage of the term to Pātañjali’s Yoga Sutras to demonstrate the multitude of ways writers have approached aging and death in yoga and medicine.

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

    Encyclopedic in scope, part 10 of volume 2A of the text and its companion volume (2B) with regard to its references and notes, the HIML examines nearly forty alchemical works in depth, including detailed descriptions of the works and their contents, manuscript, author, and dating information, and basic information on some five hundred more alchemical and alchemical- adjacent works.

  • Ray, P. C. History of Chemistry in Ancient and Medieval India: Incorporating the History of Hindu Chemistry. Calcutta: Indian Chemical Society, 1956.

    Originally published in 1907 as A History of Hindu Chemistry (London: Williams and Norgate), this 1956 reissue includes a prefix of chapters discussing the pre-Harrapan and Harrapan Civilization. Although some chapters, especially those that discuss Nagarjuna, are historically inaccurate, the discussions of chemical data remain important for the exploration of alchemy.

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

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226149349.001.0001

    A lengthy and detailed work, which provides the best primer for the study of alchemy for use in both undergraduate and graduate level studies. White highlights the history of alchemical practice, provides detailed information on key alchemical texts, and situates rasaśāstra in its Indic cultural, religious, and scientific contexts.

  • Wujastyk, Dagmar. “Perfect Medicine: Mercury in Sanskrit Medical Literature.” Asian Medicine 8.1 (2013): 15–40.

    DOI: 10.1163/15734218-12341278

    An overview of the usage of mercury in Indian medicine from the earliest references to the 19th century, including various descriptions on the purification of mercury for internalized use.

  • Wujastyk, Dagmar. “Acts of Improvement: On the Use of Tonics and Elixirs in Sanskrit Medical and Alchemical Literature.” In Special Issue: Transmutations: Rejuvenation, Longevity, and Immortality Practices in South and Inner Asia. Edited by Dagmar Wujastyk, Suzanne Newcombe, and Christèle Barois. History of Science in South Asia 5.2 (2017): 1–36.

    DOI: 10.18732/hssa.v5i2.26

    This article compares rejuvenative therapies (rasāyana) in Sanskrit medical and alchemical works. The preparations for the internal cleansing of the body that are a key component of rasāyana in both systems remain present though the ayurvedic preparations contain mostly herbs while the alchemical ones introduce organic and inorganic substances with a special focus on the use of mercury.

  • Wujastyk, Dagmar. “On Attaining Special Powers through Rasāyana Therapies in Sanskrit Medical Literature.” In Body and Cosmos: Studies in Early Indian Medical and Astral Sciences in Honor of Kenneth G. Zysk. Edited by Toke Lindegaard Knudsen, Jacob Schmidt-Madsen, and Sara Speyer. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2020.

    Wujastyk examines vitalization therapies (rasāyana) and their magico-religious elements in the Carakasamhitā and Suśrutasamhitā, demonstrating that curing disease, perfecting the body, and liberation have long been the focus of Sanskrit medical literature. Available online.

  • Wujastyk, Dominik. The Roots of Ayurveda. London: Penguin Classics, 2003.

    Although not focused on alchemy, this accessible work provides an entry point to the study of classical Āyurveda through lucid passages describing both basic and complex topics and translations. Good for nonacademics and undergraduates as well as scholars.

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