Ayurveda and alchemy
For many, Ayurveda is associated with natural remedies based on herbs, massages and cleansing treatments, and above all, with a healthy lifestyle of balanced nutrition and self-care. Ayurveda is indeed all that, but also much more. One of Ayurveda’s less well-known aspects is its historical connection with Indian alchemy, or Rasashastra (= rasaśāstra). The medical elements of Rasashastra survive to this day as they have been incorporated into formal ayurvedic education in India: Rasashastra is now considered a subsidiary discipline of Ayurveda and a specialist practice, with a range of its traditional formulations produced by pharmaceutical companies and available as over-the-counter and prescription medicines.
Historically, Ayurveda and Rasashastra were separate disciplines, each with their own body of literature. The first ayurvedic works were compiled in the early centuries CE, while Sanskrit works on the practice of alchemy started appearing around the tenth century CE. Over time, demarcations between the two literatures and the practices described in them became less clear.
The ayurvedic works (especially the early ones) cover a wide range of topics, including philosophical and religious content, but their main focus is always on medicine. They describe how to diagnose disorders, explain the causes of disease, and lay out strategies for the preservation of health and alleviation or cure of disease. The early alchemical works describe the world view, aims and activities of alchemists and much of their content is dedicated to procedures for producing the central product of the alchemical endeavour: the elixir. The treatises propose a variety of outcomes from the intake of elixirs, ranging from improved health and longevity to the attainment of superhuman powers to immortality, spiritual liberation and transcendence.
Even the earliest alchemical works show knowledge of and concern with medicine, broadly relying on ayurvedic categories such as the humoral theory of disease causation. Later alchemical works expanded their focus on medicine, sometimes to the near exclusion of alchemical aims. At the same time, medical treatises started incorporating elements originally developed in alchemical works. The intersection of medicine and alchemy is iatrochemistry: a medicine using substances central to alchemical practice and also adopting originally alchemical procedures for processing substances. This is the part of alchemy that has survived into modern Rasashastra.
Medical elements occur in several ways in the alchemical texts. In the earliest, the attainment of health and longevity is presented as the very foundation for achieving enlightenment. For example, the “Book on the Heart of Mercury” (Rasahṛdayatantra = RHT, 11th c.), one of the oldest Sanskrit alchemical treatises states:
With one exception, what is better than an ageless and deathless body that is the seat of (all kinds of) knowledge, that is the root of righteousness, prosperity, pleasure and liberation? (RHT 1.27)
One who is worn out with ageing and subdued by afflictions such as cough, respiratory disease, etc. and whose mental and sensory functioning is impeded cannot achieve absorption (samādhi).
Alchemical texts also show a general concern with health and medicine when they introduce ingredients for alchemical processes: very often they describe the medicinal efficacy of substances together with their other characteristics. For example, a certain type of iron may be praised for its ability to bind mercury – an essential step in the making of mercurial elixirs – but also be valued for its rejuvenating properties, or its ability to counter disorders of the liver.
Descriptions of how to process raw substances to make them suitable as an ingredient of the alchemical elixir are often followed by compound recipes with medicinal applications.The most important of alchemical ingredients is mercury. And it is also considered the most powerful medicine of all. A saying about mercury, found in variations in most alchemical works, states that
(h)aving thickened, it cures disease; bound, it gives liberation; well-killed (i.e. made into ash), it makes immortal. What promotes compassion more than mercury? (RHT 1.3)
But there is also mention of more specific diseases that are addressed with medicinal substances such as sulphur, gold, mica, and others. The disease categories referred to are for the most part well-known from Ayurveda. For example, the Rasendracūḍāmaṇi (12th/13th c., Rcūm) describes preparations of sulphur thus:
One should eat two niṣka (ca 75 g) of purified sulphur that was melted in an iron vessel smeared with clarified butter and stirred with a ladle smeared with clarified butter. It cures diseases such as wasting disease, and above all leprosy (kuṣṭha). Sulphur mixed with an equal part of black pepper and six parts of the three myrobalans and taken with the root of Indian laburnum completely cures skin diseases. (Rcūm 11.20)
The proper preparation of substances is emphasized. For example, the Rasendracūḍāmaṇi describes how to make ash of gold, which, if properly prepared can be used to treat several serious diseases:
That ash (properly) obtained from gold, administered with two guñja (ca 24 mg) of black pepper and clarified butter destroys exhaustion because of low digestion, dyspnoea, cough and lack of appetite when imbibed. It increases the body’s vital element (ojodhātu), gives strength, removes anaemia and enhances virility. It removes all kinds of poisons and toxins and cures chronic intestinal disorders, etc. (Rcūm 14.23)
On the other hand, there are plenty of warnings about using substances that are not prepared correctly, since the use of raw, unprocessed materials would cause diseases. For example, the Rasaratnākara (ca 15th c., RRĀ) notes that
(s)ilver that has not been purified and calcined decreases lifespan, semen and strength and causes the outbreak of disease. Hence, purified silver should be calcined by the wise. (RRĀ 1.8.)
Warnings about not using unprocessed substances are later picked up in ayurvedic literature. Indeed, the concept of having to process and especially purify (śodhana) materials before their use first occurs in ayurvedic texts around the eleventh century, clearly as a result of engagement with alchemical thought. Later medical works, such as the Śārṅgadharasaṃhitā (ca 13th c.), the Bhāvaprakāśa (16th c.) and the Yogaratnākara (18th c.), quote or paraphrase the earlier alchemical works’ descriptions of the medical actions of substances, procedures for processing materials, and recipes.
While later medical works freely adopt materials from alchemical texts and vice versa, intertextuality between early alchemical works and medical works is rare. In fact, there seems to be only one clear instance of an early alchemical work quoting an ayurvedic work: The Rasārṇava, an alchemical text that dates to about the twelfth century, repeats a verse from the Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasaṃhitā (AH) and the Aṣṭāṅgasaṃgraha (AS), classic works of Ayurveda from about the seventh century. The same verse is also found in the fifteenth-century alchemical work Rasaratnasamuccaya. It reads as follows:
The depleted tissues of the body of one who eats shilajit, honey, false black pepper, clarified butter, iron, chebulic myrobalan, mercury, and pyrites are replenished within fifteen nights like the moon.
(AH Uttarasthāna 39.36, AS Uttarasthāna 49.392, Rasārṇava 18.14; Rasaratnasamuccaya 26.13. A similar verse is found in Rasahṛdayatantra 19.19-20)
In the medical works, the verse is found in the section on ‘rasāyana’, i.e., rejuvenation and vitalisation therapies. In the Rasārṇava, it is part of the final section of the work in which the transmutation of the practitioner’s body through the intake of the elixir is described: a process called ‘dehavedha’ in the Rasārṇava and ‘rasāyana’ in other alchemical works. And here, aside from the quotation, we can see a deeper connection between the medical and alchemical worlds.
In Ayurveda, rasāyana is one of eight traditional subject areas of medical knowledge. Most pre-modern Sanskrit medical works dedicate a section to rasāyana therapy: treatments that are meant to counter the effects of ageing and to prolong life. Medical rasāyana consists of a series of therapeutic interventions that begin with various purgative treatments for inner cleansing, followed by a period of recovery and a specific dietary regimen and concluded by the main medical application: the intake of a tonic over a period of time. The expected results include better general health, rejuvenation, and a prolonged lifespan. In a few instances, the promised results are bolder and consumers of rasāyana tonics are promised an indefinite extension of lifespan and an indestructible body.
In alchemy, ‘rasāyana’ is the culmination of the alchemical process. It involves preparing the practitioner’s body for the intake of the elixir, the final concoction of the elixir, its intake, and the subsequent transformation of the practitioner. The procedures employed in alchemical rasāyana period closely resembles the rasāyana of the medical treatises, especially in the preparations preceding the intake of the tonic or elixir. There is an overlap in the concept of inner cleansing, in the substances used for purging, and in the accompanying dietary advice. Also, procedures in both medical and alchemical rasāyana can span long periods of time. The main difference between the two lies in the aims, medical rasāyana being predominantly therapeutic, alchemical rasāyana having spiritual aims. But even here, there are parallels, since alchemical elixirs are also described as eradicating disease and prolonging life, and medical tonics are in some cases ascribed with providing superhuman powers.
It seems quite obvious that alchemical rasāyana was modelled on the general structure of the much older medical rasāyana. Here, we have a trajectory from medicine to alchemy. But the relationship between medicine and alchemy went both ways, with Ayurveda integrating alchemy’s iatrochemical knowledge and Rasashastra emphasising its medical elements more and more, to the point where a sharp distinction between medical and alchemical literature becomes difficult. The interaction of Ayurveda and Rasashastra over time has been intimate and multi-layered. To study one discipline without the other is therefore to miss what is in fact a deeply entangled history of divergent and intersecting concerns, goals and technologies.