Despite we defined the main goals of European alchemy and Hindu teaching of rasa as identical, we still have a huge actual discrepancy between these two branches of alchemy in terms of documented lot of the alchemical Opus.
The fact that any truly esoteric teaching does not entrust its most secret parts to paper and reserves them for oral transmission is commonly known; however, in case of European alchemical tradition the situation is even more complicated, because what we have for textual sources is directly applicable to the laboratory operations only – regardless of how symbolic their contents is; the “inner” part of the European alchemy is not explicitly presented in medieval and Renaissance texts even under the guise of symbols.
Above statement without a doubt will raise a wave of indignation among the adherents of “depth psychology” school, New Age movement, the masonic and various esoteric orders and societies; it does not really alarm me, since we speak not about opinions and beliefs, but about practical questions and facts, and in such a perspective sectarian prejudices can be simply ignored. All alchemies – European, Mid-Eastern, Indian, or Chinese – have common philosophical ground, and that ground is known in Western culture as “Hermetic doctrine”. This is essentially a philosophy of Unity, or non-duality, and in its scope the very suggestion that there could be two different alchemies – external and internal – sounds wrong, which means we should be totally satisfied with only one practical teaching. What is the problem then? The problem hides in translation: how external operations can be applied to the inner process. If we look at the history of European alchemy from the Middle Ages to modern days, we can easily notice that discussions related to its possible “inner” applications (we should avoid the term “spiritual” in this context as dangerously misleading) started relatively recently, when “golden days” of Traditional alchemy were long gone – together with the translation technique if such had ever been clearly formulated and transmitted orally. All known “internal” readings of the classical texts and concepts are but interpretations, and there’s nothing reprehensible in this since we Western followers of the doctrine have no other choice. We are doomed to rely on interpretations – either our own, or someone else’s – in everything related to the inner process, for there’s no openly declared inner part of the Work in any of the “classical” alchemical sources, and there’s no literal or linear translation of laboratory process into the body and soul of an operator. There exist just two basic criteria that can help us evaluating a third-party interpretation – how deep it is rooted in hermetic philosophy and how well it is proven in our experience. While the second criterion is practical and intrinsically depends on our diligence and individual abilities as artists, the first is theoretical and can basically help us to differentiate between interpretations purely speculative and therefore not promising in terms of achieving alchemical goal (such as those presented by C. G. Jung, various News Age schools, self-styled “magical orders” etc.), and interpretations philosophically sound and potentially helpful like those presented by Julius Evola, Giammaria, Marco Daffi and some others that I touch on later in more detail.
In case of Hindu alchemy, situation is very different. As I already pointed out, the “external” part, or the one related to laboratory work (including rituals, operator preparation, lab space organizing and specific means of propitiating the deities, since we do not speak of a chemical lab), is presented in voluminous legacy of rasashastra, rasayan-shastra and rasayana. This is strictly “alchemy” and its spagyrical particularia in terms of similarity to what we have got source-wise in our European tradition. However, Hindu textual legacy in the perspective of the integral alchemical goal is by far richer and more diverse. It is not limited with preparing alchemical substances however advanced they could be; its final end is not only metal transmutation and effective medicine. In fact, the ultimate goal of operator’s total deconditioning, liberation and immortality is openly declared and the ways of achieving it are taught – of course, partially and/or symbolically – in the integral alchemical texts of what we can rightly call rasa-marga, or “The Way of Mercury”, since it embraces numerous and multiform branches of Hindu alchemical tradition, most of which (but not all) include the word rasa as a part of their name.
Rasārṇava (“The Flood of Mercury”, or “The Ocean of Mercury” – a XII c. Sanskrit text considered to be one of the fundamental sources of the abovementioned integral alchemical tradition) presents the following statement of the crucial importance in its first chapter: “Rasa and Pranayama are known as Work in two parts” (1.18b). So, the twofold character of alchemy is announced, and we should not go wrong: there is no duality, it is the same Opus; however, its second part – or rather aspect – consists in controlling the operator’s prana, subtle energy that Egyptians called Ka, Greeks called pneuma, and which we call “spirit” from Latin spirare – “to breathe” (in this context we should get rid of any religious connotations of the term; also we should avoid confusion with alchemical “spirit” which designates a rarefied state of our matter). However, pranayama, usually translated as “breath control”, should not be understood here in the narrow sense of a specific breathing practice only. Yes, we breathe to provide circulation of prana in our body which is necessary to support our life, but prana can be controlled not only through the function of our lungs. We should remember that prana is not the air that we inhale and exhale in the same way as Mercurius is not the chemical compound that we have in our alembic.
Although very explicit and therefore valuable to our consideration, the above definition from Rasārṇava still is somewhat limitative, since prana and its subdivision types (prana, apana, vyana, udhana and samana) are “life-energies”, they are intrinsically linked to physiology of the living organism and its functioning; the ultimate and radical alchemical metamorphosis involves more potent and “raw” universal force known as Shakti in Hindu tradition, the sacred primordial cosmic energy also called svātantrya,“independent”, since Shakti simply is on its own as a direct emanation of One while all the cosmos depends on it including more specific forms of energy. With some reserve one may say that both prana and rasa (our Mercurius) are specific forms of Shakti that is their root and the point where they meet. Which fact directs us to another tradition that deals with this cosmic energy in its personalized form as the Great Goddess, and the coiled snake-like form called kundalini; this tradition nowadays is usually referred to as Tantra. In late medieval Hindu world alchemy and tantra were so tightly interweaved that it makes less confusion to consider them as one tradition. For instance, major alchemical texts – Rasārṇava and Rasahṛidaya – present themselves as “tantras”. Alchemical and tantric traditions have the same pantheon, types of worship, iconography and even common mantras. The supreme male and female deities of Rasārṇava – Rasabhairava and Rasankushi – are iconographically identical to tantric Svacchanda Bhairava and Bala Tripurasundari (see the pictures). Alchemists who achieved supernatural powers through their practice normally called themselves Rasa-Siddhas, however among Nath-Siddhas there were many alchemists as well as tantrikas among Rasa-Siddhas; differences in terminology in this case is very arbitrary and inessential.
Since erotic aspects of the alchemical doctrine have exact counterparts in tantric tradition, alchemical operators in India were actually following tantric recommendations in terms of female laboratory assistants’ involvement; for instance, alchemical text Rasaratnasamucchaya states that “a woman who menstruates in the dark half of the lunar month is most excellent for the fixation of Mercury” (6:34-35, trans. by D. G. White). In fact, Hindu alchemical texts in many cases imply that sexual intercourse between the operator and his female assistant(s) is necessary to succeed in activation of Mercury; in other words, a tantric ritual is recommended to accomplish an alchemical task. Male and female sexual liquids were considered useful and sometimes indispensable both in tantric practices and alchemical laboratory operations, and here we come to a very interesting point, where East and West meet…
(to be continued)