Alchemy is not exclusively European or Mid-Eastern phenomenon. This tradition had been known in India long before the earliest Greek texts on the subject were written.
Rasashastra, often mentioned as “Indian alchemy”, exists for about 27 centuries. Sanskrit word shastra means “science” or “specialized knowledge”; rasa is very abundant in meanings. It fits many aspects of the teaching; however its main meaning in the context is “Mercury” – quite polysemantic in itself. The most common meaning of the word rasa is “juice” or “essence”. It also means “taste”, “emotion”, “spiritual breakthrough”, and even the state of divinity: raso vai sah – “the Lord is truly rasa” – says Taittiriya Upanishad. In this latter aspect it is inseparable from devotional love: Rasa-lila (the game of rasa) is the dance that Krishna performs together with his beloved Radha. And still, in many texts of Rasashastra it simply means “quicksilver”, the greatest medicine of all as believe adherents of the doctrine, – of course, if properly prepared… However, with all decency we shouldn’t say “simply” in this case, since quicksilver or mercury in Hindu mythology is identified with the semen of Shiva – the great, transcendent and benevolent God, Mahadeva, ruler of all gods.
Before presenting even the most basic principles of the traditional Science of Mercury, we need to point out the typical problems of our modern understanding that usually lead to misjudgments and wrong conclusions. First of all, any discussion related to alchemy – and even more to alchemies, when we take a bold step beyond the border of European culture – should start with a clarification of the motives of alchemical quest, for any confusion in this area often results in a profound distortion of the whole doctrine. Usual prejudice against mercantile goals in the context of “sacred sciences” (and especially Eastern ones, since we are accustomed to see the East as a stronghold of spirituality) can play a malicious trick to a newbie. Any truly traditional doctrine such as hermeticism or alchemy is based on the cardinal concept of Unity, and if for any reason you identify “material” with “mercantile”, you are guaranteed lost, because “material” and “spiritual” in traditional context are just two virtual grades of density of the great One. A very ancient Ayurvedic text known as Charaka Samhita mentions three human ambitions that any human being follows instinctively: Pranaishana, Dhanaishana and Paralokaishana, which means long life, material prosperity and salvation after death. Those three goals are considered as natural, there is nothing “sinful” about them, and reprehensible can be only the improper use of the achieved fruits, not the goal itself. There’s nothing bad or profane in transmuting lead into gold; one can be blamed only for the reason why he or she does it. If you perform a metal transmutation as a test, or to prepare a medicine, or to help someone in need when you have no other way to help him, no one can blame you for violating Tradition. If you attain longevity to finalize those undertakings that would be impossible to finish in a shorter lifetime, to properly prepare for the afterlife, or perfect yourself “to better serve God” as Hindu text put it – you are totally within the boundaries of Tradition. Nevertheless, our passion for analysis that fatally exceeds our ability of synthesis was not satisfied with splitting alchemical triune goal into isolated purposes during many centuries; it went further and invented separate alchemies – “mineral alchemy” that deals with metal transmutation, “plant alchemy” or manufacturing of “spagyric drugs”, and “spiritual alchemy” that deals with immortality or “liberation”. In fact, even superficial considerations show that all of those are connected and interdependent. So called “spagyric drugs” are hardly more than another New Age nonsense if they are prepared by a person not familiar with transmutational Alchemy; however, to get proven that one is actually proficient in it, he or she should perform the traditional test and, therefore, confirm one’s success as a “mineral alchemist”. On the path of so called “spiritual alchemy” one has to be able to control not just his or her mind (which is quite a material although special manifestation of Mercurial flow), but also the functions of human body, for there are many physiological challenges during the process, and some of them are dangerous; it is very difficult to achieve success without involvement of alchemically obtained medicine. Besides, this long and winding road can lead an operator to the desired end when one is too old and weak for the final effort when such an opportunity presents itself; banal longevity and health are very important on the alchemical path, even if one considers it purely “spiritual”.
Well-known treatise Arthashastra dated 304 B.C. presents a classification of the types of gold. One of the entities on the list is called Rasavedhaj Survana – “gold, artificially made from mercury”. Manufacturing of gold by alchemical means was well known in India over 23 centuries ago, and although not encouraged as a mean of enrichment, never treated as “black magic” or charlatanry. Here we come to another problem of modern mentality that tends to split the world phenomena into “sacred” and “profane”, “holy” and ‘sinful”, “spiritual” and “materialistic” with precision of a blunt axe. Accepting the fact that Alchemy is a sacred science and not proto-chemistry we can be easily deluded and decide that it has nothing to do with chemistry at all; such an idea would lead us “out of the frying pan into the fire”, as Julius Evola duly noted in his “Tradizione Ermetica” – in other words, from proto-chemistry to “depth-psychology”. There should be no slightest doubt that Alchemy as a traditional art and science of ancient origin cannot be explained and understood in terms of modern chemistry, and with even smaller chances can it fit the Procrustean bed of modern psychology; however, to some degree it has to do with both. And of course, its connections with archaic chemistry and traditional teachings of the nature of human soul are much tighter.
The root of misunderstandings related to such a complex phenomenon as Alchemy is narrowness of our modern worldview and consequent narrowness of the field of phenomena that we accept as “legitimate” for any specific field of knowledge; Alchemy hides in the borderlands, and after having been found there requires a truly holistic mind to be put together in a coherent picture. Yes, there is some use of chemistry in Alchemy during Preliminary works; however chemical methods of XVII-XVIII с.с. in this case are more applicable than modern ones. Besides, there is even more considerable usage of what we call physics in the whole process (as the creator of this blog emphasised elsewhere); and yet Alchemy is bigger than that. Narrow-mindedness reveals itself when modern researchers delving into mineral process treat their subject as lifeless matter and all plant symbolism and botanical terminology as pure “allegories”, despite many alchemical phenomena can be understood only in terms of animate nature. Julien Champagne, one of the operators behind the Fulcanelli mask, wrote a rather explicit treatise on this topic entitled “La Vie Minérale” in 1908. René Schwaller de Lubicz in his works persistently repeated that the inner structure of metals and minerals, the “crystal lattice”, is but a manifestation of consciousness, that there is nothing in the Universe that could get organised on its own being unconscious “dead matter”: both a stone and a human being are carriers of consciousness in its different stages of manifestation. The implications of this approach are huge; it not only opens the door to metal transmutation in true sense, but also to human transmutation on very deep level.
Speaking of the origins of Rasashastra, we can tell one thing for sure: it was already well developed by III c. BC, since we have document evidence dating back to that period (treatises of Chanakya in first place) where metal transmutation is explained and Rasavedhaj Survana is established as the standard term for artificial gold. It is also known that Rasashastra started and for long period existed as a separate independent science; the process of its partial merging with Ayurveda took about a millennium. The ancient Ayurvedic texts such as Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita in fact already mention many “alchemical” substances such as sulphur (gandhaka), arsenic oxide (somal), blue vitriol (copper sulphate), green vitriol (iron sulphate), lead oxides, and even mercury, however all those inorganic matters were used for external applications only; remedies for internal use on the basis of metal compounds were accepted in Ayurveda much later and represent direct influence of Rasashastra.
Modern scholars have developed two different theories in relation to the origins of the Science of Mercury. One of them hold to the idea of a unique source of what we now call “alchemy” that has its place somewhere in Ancient Egypt, and then spread in all directions thanks to Greeks and Romans , including the rest of Europe, Middle East, India and China. In fact, namely in III c. (period of Mourya dynasty rule in the territory of India) the cultural relations between the two regions were established. In addition to that, it is confirmed that before the abovementioned period neither chemical mercury nor its compounds were widely known in India, since they were never mined there. Common terms for these substances – Mlechchha and Darada – in fact are the names of the regions from where they were imported. On the other hand, many scholars believe that since mercury was mentioned in the oldest ayurvedic texts and also in Ramayana, the Science of Mercury might have travelled the opposite way – from India to the West as a part of cultural exchange with Roman Empire, and eventually became “alchemy”.
In any case, the history of what is known today as Rasashastra should be split into two major trends or ways according to the main goals of the quest – Dhatuvada (the doctrine of the elements) and Dehavada (the doctrine of the body). The first relates to the transmutation of nonprecious metals into gold and silver; it is synonymous with Rasashastra in its original meaning. This is the most ancient branch of the science fully developed by III c. BC (some researches date it from XX c. BC basing on indirect evidences). Dehavada is the term for inventing and preparing medicines that promote long life, vigor and good health; it is synonymous with Rasayan-Shastra and this branch was developed in later period in the process of merging with Ayurveda.
Despite the fact that history of Rasashastra is abundant with famous names such as Nagarjuna (or rather Nagarjunas, since there are at least four people with this name that lived between I-VIII cc. AD), which reminds of the European alchemy and famous names associated with it, it actually was practised in secrecy, often in the depth of the jungle. Approximately from VIII c. onwards the practice of Rasashastra was more systematically documented, the conventional terminology and processes developed and defined. By XIV с. this process was over, and all subsequent treatises represent mere compilations or commentaries to the earlier works. Also in that that period adherents of various cults developed a complicated system of related rituals difficult to understand and follow, main purpose of which was to discourage laymen and keep them away from the heart of the doctrine. Tradition of Rasashastra does not have an exact equivalent of the European langue-des-oiseaux, however in the course of centuries it adopted similar verbal ways of disguise. The natural synonymy and polysemantics of Sanskrit terms creates a textual milieu where outsider never can be completely sure about what he sees and understands. For instance, Rasayana, a rather famous part of Ayurveda dealing with life prolongation, is not identical with the abovementioned Rasayan-Shastra, for in the first case rasa means “essence” in general (which can be literally anything that serves the purpose), and either our Mercurius or common quicksilver is implied as rasa in the second case.