THE NATURE OF MATTER
Ancient Indian Concepts and Practices
B. V. Subbarayappa
The early concept of transmutation had perceivably two facets : one of converting the base metals into gold of ever-lasting glitter, and the other of transforming the transient human body into one of permanence with the soul. The Bhagavadgita says: ". . . The soul has neither birth nor death; it is not slain when the body is slain; it is eternally the same. . . just as a person puts on new garments, giving up the old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material body, giving up the old and decaying ones".
The exalted imperishable status accorded, over the ages, to the soul in the percipience of body-soul relationship had in it the seeds of challenge to make the material mortal body itself immortal. The responses to this challenge, which were varied in different cultures, were often associated with a shroud of mystery. It took some time for the human mind to cast off the esoteric envelope and, as a first step, to conceive of rejuvenation, thus extending the longevity of the material body, but within the concept that the body has birth and death in contradiction to the soul.
In India, the beginnings of such endeavours can be seen in the Rigveda wherein Somarasa was extolled as an exhilarating divine elixir. Later in the Ayurvedic classic, Susruta Samhita, Soma elixir, it was claimed, would enable its consumer to live for ten thousand years with a youthful body and supernatural powers. The Ayurveda, the Science of Life par excellence, has eight divisions and one of them is entitled Rasayana, concerned with rejuvenating elixirs and processes for arresting physical and mental decay. There are references in both the Caraka and Susruta Samhitas to several other compositions with the claim that they would confer on the consumer a long youthful life of thousands of years. These elixirs were mostly herbal and, what is more, certain amount of processed gold was added to some of them to make them more effective. The rasayana of the Ayurveda, it may be noted, was more in the nature of prolonging the life of the material body than ‘transmuting’ it into an immortal state. Even so, it seemed to have paved the way for speculating on the immortality of the body.
The concept of material immortality per se received its sustenance from a natural phenomenon, namely, the perennial glitter and colour of gold, the anointed king of metals. Here was a metal, it was believed, which had reached the highest state from the other inferior metals and possessed imperishable characteristics. It was supposed that the other metals would undergo transformation, eventually into the immutable gold.
There was a sort of theoretical framework too for such a supposition. The well-known Greek thinker, Empedocles (5th century b.c.) developed a theory of four ‘elements’: Earth, Fire, Water and Air and the four primary qualities: hot, cold, dry
The Four 'Elements' of Empedocles
and moist (wet). Aristotle (384-322 b.c.) conceived of these ‘elements’ and their qualities as emphasising the unity of matter amidst all the changes. The ‘primary matter’, a potential one, would become Earth with the pair of primary qualities, cold and dry; water with cold and wet; Fire with hot and dryness; and Air with hot and moist, thus explaining the phenomena of change. These postulates held out the possibility of transmuting inferior metals into silver and ultimately into gold, by changing their qualities. The most perceptible of the changes effected was the colour and the object was to bring about a change in the colour of inferior metals to that of silver or gold. This theory was adopted by the Greco-Roman (Hellenistic) and later the Islamic alchemists in furtherance of their twin objective of the so-called transmutation of metals and the preparation of elixir of life for attaining material immortality. Strange it may seem, the Indian doctrine of five elements which had provided a theoretical foundation for the Ayurveda and for the explanation of the phenomenal world, did not lead to concepts of the foregoing type. The Indian five ‘elements’ had also a metaphysical undertone which often subsumed their physical concepts. Moreover, it was a holistic doctrine and the concept of change was circumscribed by it.
The seed ideas of Indian alchemy, which made their appearance in the fifth-sixth centuries a.d., were at variance with the Hellenistic ones. For, its inspirational source was not in the West, but in the Far East, in the Chinese concepts and practices. Indian alchemy had social compulsions too. The Ayurvedic elixirs and rejuvenating treatment were reserved only for males of the upper castes, (women were excluded), as enjoined by both the Caraka and Susruta Samhitas. But, to live long in perpetual youth and to experience the best in life have been the goals of all human beings. Such dispositions as these react vehemently against rigid caste-structures and privileges of the few. They go out in search of systems which are conducive to the realisation of their goals. In India, the tantras offered such a system and, more importantly, admitted into their fold all — irrespective of caste, creed or sex in an esoteric, but ingenious manner. The tantric concept of siddhi evolved certain pathways for disciplined aspirants. And inherent in that concept was the attainment of bodily immortality with even supernatural powers (animadi astasiddhi). This was reinforced by the mythical male-female symbolism, the union sublime of immortality.
The Chinese male-female symbolism of Yin and Yang, mercury-sulphur union of cinnabar (mercuric sulphide) to which was attributed extraordinary powers of attaining immortality, found a congenial home in the Indian Tantric milieu. Buddhist pilgrims and the vajrayana seemed to have played a seminal role in this alchemical transmission.
Be that as it may, Indian alchemy of both Sanskritic and Tamilian traditions, developed a wide variety a chemical processes for the ostensible transmutation of metals and preparation of elixir of life, in which mercury occupied a prime position. The literature on Indian alchemy called the Rasasastra is perceptibly voluminous and methodical in the presentation of a variety of processes whose number is legion. Of these processes, eighteen samskaras or complex treatments, which were adopted for the potentiation of mercury, deserve special mention:
Briefly stated, the eighteen processes concerning mercury as the central element, are as follows:
(This sequence was rigorously followed by Indian alchemists; but there were variations in the choice of plants and their extracts, salts, alkaline and acidic substances, minerals and other ingredients).
The important, through esoteric, concept which lay behind these extremely complex processes was that the mercurial product, after undergoing sequentially the seventeen processes, was believed to have all the powers of transmutation. At this stage, it was to be tested for its efficacy in transmuting base metals into gold and, if the test was positive, it was to be used for the eighteenth process. The final product, if consumed in prescribed quantity would, it was claimed, rejuvenate the body in such a way that it would make the body as resplendent and imperishable as gold. One could see the ideal of Philosopher’s Stone of the medieval European alchemy, in the mercurial product emerging out of the seventeen processes.
There are hundreds of verses in the Rasasastra texts which overtly deal with a wide variety of processes, some simple and many complex. Three examples may be cited:
The technique of effecting transmutation was of five kinds:
It is well-nigh impossible even to surmise the nature and extent of chemical or other types of reactions that occur in the process of the so-called transmutation, until an experimental verification is attempted from the modern chemical point of view. It would, nevertheless, seem that the colour of the ‘inferior’ metal like copper, tin or lead, would change into that of gold or silver. The emerging colouration, might be too uniform and intimate enough with the ‘inferior metal’ to expose, under ordinary conditions, its true colour. The specific gravity and other physical characteristics of the so-called transmuted metal might manifest themselves, as a result of skilful manipulation of the ingredients such as mercury or its compounds, arsenic sulphides, pyrites, sulphur as well as the deliberate addition of the noble metals themselves.
Indian alchemists specially of Tamil Nadu, knew the distinction between the transmuted ‘gold’ and the real one. A Tamil text (Amudakalaijnanam by Agastya) states clearly that if the artificial ‘gold’ and the natural gold are separately subjected to prolonged heating or calcination, the former gives out ashes and the real face of the metal appears, while the natural gold remains uneffected by this method.
The transmutation of metals and the preparation of elixir of life which were vigorously pursued by Indian alchemists, were more esoteric than scientific, despite their attempts at classification and selection of substances, and the use of a wide variety of apparatus (mostly earthern), for distillation, sublimation, incineration, trituration and the like, which the Rasasastra texts describe meticulously and in great detail. To transmute the base metals into the noble one, and to make the perishable body an ever immortal one, were goals ever in sight, but never reached.
It was, nevertheless, a pursuit which was not without a spin-off and that was in the direction of formulating certain mineral medicines. Mercury, sulphur, mica, arsenic and iron compounds, alum, gems and others on the one hand and on the other, metals like gold, silver, copper and its alloy brass, and lead were processed elaborately by using a wide variety of apparatus. Generally it was believed by the rasavadins that the minerals and metals would not acquire the desirable iatro-chemical properties unless they were treated with one medicinal plant or the other. The rasasastra texts give details of the preparation of a large number of medicines, and their therapeutic effects as well as their dosages. One of the popular preparations called Makaradhvaja contains specially processed mercuric sulphide and stimulants like camphor, pepper and cloves. During its preparation a certain amount of purified gold is also added.
The most important medicinal preparations, as described in the Rasasastra texts, relate to a class of what are called the bhasma of metals and minerals. Although the process leading to the formation of a bhasma is one of incineration of the metal or mineral concerned, the original substance is subjected to several processes before it undergoes prolonged heating. Even the heating known as the Putapaka, is carried out of several days with extreme care. Various types of Putas are mentioned in the texts, recommending a particular puta for the desired product, along with its measurement and the quantity of cow-dung cakes or husk to be used for prolonged heating in order to obtain the most efficient composition.
This method is believed to impart extraordinary qualities, both physico-chemical and medicinal, on to the treated substance. A bhasma is an extremely fine powder, very light and, when thrown on water, just spreads itself as a thin film on it. Of the bhasmas, that of mica, gold and silver are most widely used in minute quantities and are generally mixed with other medicinal compositions.
The Siddha (medical) System which is mostly prevalent in Tamil Nadu, appears to have been evolved from the earlier alchemical concepts and practices. Though the System had originally its own ways of preparing certain substances of medicinal value, like muppu (a specially prepared mixture of three salts), it assimilated gradually some of the alchemical preparations and developed a number of mineral compositions which go under the names, bhaspam (Skt.: bhasma), cendurams (Skt.: sindura) and cunnams (probably calcium compounds or earthly substances).
There is no denying that the Indian alchemists had realised the importance of medicinal preparation more than of the transmutation of base metals into gold. In the West, such a realisation came about only in the sixteenth century a.d., as a result of the ceaseless efforts of several thoughtful iatro-chemists led by Paracelsus. But in India, a trend in this direction could be perceived even in the eleventh century a.d. Although the Rasasastra is not regarded as an integral part of the Ayurveda, some of the medicinal compositions of the former have found a place for themselves in the traditional medical care in India.
©1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi