Metallic Medicines of Indian Alchemy
This article about metallic medicine from Indian alchemy has
been condensed from a presentation given at the 2009 International Alchemy
Convention held in Los Angeles,
California and a preview of a
forthcoming book on the subject.
The history of Indian alchemy is linked with ancient Vedic
scriptures which are arguably the most ancient writings that we have. Dates for
their origination are still under debate and range from 17,000BC to 3000BC.
Tradition asserts they existed for quite a few generations as an oral heritage
before anything was written down.
There were four Vedic texts, the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Samma
Atharva Veda. The first three Vedas give details of
ceremonies and rituals for honoring the gods and goddesses.
The fourth Veda, Atharvaveda, dealt more with personal
attainments of health, wealth and happiness. It is filled with magic and
sorcery, incantations for stones and plants to bring out their healing powers.
Although popular, the Atharvaveda was considered by many to be “Dark Arts”.
The Atharvaveda is also largely responsible for the
development of Ayurveda or “the Science of Life” which forms the core of Indian
According to tradition, the Vedic scriptures were of divine origin
received by seers and transmitted by poetic verse to humans in the most remote
As legend goes, there are two main traditions regarding the
transmission of this science of life and the lines of decent through
generations of disciples.
Brahma, the Creator, was first to perceive Ayurveda. He
later taught it to Daksha Prajapati, who in turn taught the Ashvin Twins who
became known as the Divine Healers. The Ashvin Twins later taught Indra, king
of the gods. From here the tradition
separates into two main lines.
In one line, Indra teaches Dhanvantari who later teaches
disciples among whom was Sushrut. He wrote Sushruta Samhita which presented all
the medical knowledge he received with special emphasis on surgical methods.
The second line of the tradition is that Indra taught Bharadvaja
who later taught Atreya who was one of his disciples. Among Atreya’s disciples was Charaka who
later wrote Charaka Samhita, which presented the medical teachings with
emphasis on preparations of medicines and drugs. This happened somewhere around
600 or 700 BC. The dates are unclear and scholars are at odds with the actual
dates. Both of the Samhitas form the core texts of Ayurveda.
The Vedic scripts mention the use of gold and silver, copper
and iron for medicinal purposes as well as certain gems, but not much detail as
to how they are to be prepared and how to be administered.
Charaka and Sushruta supply a little more detail, they
develop a few minerals for internal uses such as iron, also caustic materials
for use in surgeries. Most of these are for external uses, but the interest and
development in metallic medicines is apparent.
One important concept that we will come into later is the
term Rasa. In the Vedic scripts as well as in Charaka and Sushruta Samhitas,
rasa is mentioned as being the life sap or the nutritive plasma of the body; whichever
body that is, be it plant, mineral or animal.
By about 300 BC, the texts of Charaka and Sushruta had
become mutilated and scattered. Two important figures at that time were
Nagarjuna, highly respected as the “Father” of Indian Alchemy. Also Vagbhata,
who collected all the scattered fragments of the Samhitas as well as current
knowledge into a work, entitled Ashtang Hridayum Samhita, which became the
third core text of ayurveda.
In the writings of both Nagarjuna and Vagbhata, work with
metal and mineral preparations are much more developed and gaining importance
as experience with their power to heal has improved over time.
A testament to the metallurgical skills during this time,
referred to as the Vedic Period of development, is the Iron Pillar at Delhi. This is an iron
pillar that is a little over 20 feet tall, weighs about 6 tons, and although it
has been standing out in the weather since 600 AD it shows very little signs of
corroding at all, in fact it has been dubbed the “Rustless Wonder”. Some
believe this was constructed using iron prepared by alchemical methods
developed at the time.
By around 800 AD to 1100 AD there was a Transitional Period. Work with metallic medicines increased substantially
and their effectiveness was now considered to be far above the effectiveness of
common herbal drugs.
In fact medicine at the time became classified into three
parts. Demonic Medicine, which dealt largely with invasive or surgical methods;
Human Medicine, which consisted of the common herbal preparations easily
available to all. And thirdly there was Divine Medicine, including mineral and
metallic medicines which required special knowledge to correctly prepare.
From 1000 AD onward, metallic medicine became much more
widespread. During the ninth Century one writer, Govinda Bagavatpada, composed
a text called Rasa Hridya Tantra, wherein he specifically mentions two goals of
medicine. One is medicine designed to heal people, and one is medicine designed
to heal metals. These were later classified as Deha Siddhi, for perfecting people
and Loha Siddhi which was medicine for perfecting metals. Metals were to be
cured with different classes of drugs just as the human body would be cured. By
using the proper drugs, metals could be cured of their defects and thus make
superior medicines or elevate them into noble metals.
Later writers followed this same type of distinction in Deha
Siddhi and Loha Siddhi so it became part of the alchemical tradition.
Around this time also, the caliphs in Arabia
had many of the Indian texts translated into Arabic. So this information
filtered into the Middle East and ultimately into the European alchemical
traditions. Two other important writers during this time were Vrinda (900AD)
and Chakrapani (1060 AD). Both wrote texts dealing with metallic elements in
both Deha Siddhi and Loha Siddhi. The progress and success of metallic
medicines after generations of experience becomes apparent. The texts clearly
explain the apparatus to be used and give clear instructions on the processing
of different metals, minerals and gems for medical or alchemical uses.
By 1100 AD to 1300 AD which is also called the Tantric
Period, there were various political and religious changes going on. During this time use of mercury became very
prominent. Mercury had been known since Vedic times though not used as a medicine.
But at this time, Mercury became the centerpiece of Indian Alchemy. It was
considered to be the root and source of all of the other metals and minerals. Mercury became known as Rasa, which we
mentioned earlier as being the life sap, and now equated with the semen of the
god Shiva, and thus the generative force of the universe. The science of
mercury became known as Rasa Shastra and this term later designated Indian
Alchemy in general. Mercury was considered to act as a catalyst to all other
metal or herbal preparations and had the ability to penetrate deeply into all
materials. So mercury was a key medicinal element used by itself or as part of
a formulation. During this time the use of metallic medicines and their preparations
start to proliferate. Part of the reason being that during the tantric period
there was a move toward an individual religious experience. The tantric period
taught that all people could attain “salvation while still alive” and this was
possible by performing certain rites and ceremonies and the use of specially
prepared medicines. A great deal of interest was poured into the types of medicines
which would cure all illnesses and also prolong life so that one would be able
to attain the blissful state of enlightenment.
In order to create a body that would last in perfect health
and allow a higher type of awareness to manifest required medicines which
worked on subtle as well as physical realities. You become enlightened while
you are still alive in this body, perfectly preserved and healthy and fully
conscious of who you are and what your place in the universe is. This quest for
the elixir of life and the powder of projection saw its peak here around 1400AD.
There were again
large political changes happening in the country following foreign invasions. A
lot of people were executed, dispersed, or exiled from the country; schools and
temples were destroyed. Interest in metallic medicines had a shift in focus
toward a goal of creating superior agents for the relief of human suffering.
This became what was known as the Iatro Chemical Period and
is considered to have run from about 1400 to 1600AD. During this period all of the previous work
with metallic medicines became coalesced and pointed toward developing superior
medicines to heal diseases. These medicines not only address the body but the
subtle principles that precede the structure of the body.
One important text of this period was Rasa Ratna Samuccaya which
was written around 1350 and became a sourcebook of alchemical knowledge to that
point in time. After 1600 there were more changes within the country. The cast
system became more pronounced at this time and the upper class considered physical
labor to be below them and would contaminate them. With regard to alchemical
works, alot of the intellectual input was not there any more and tasks were
relegated to artisans to prepare various materials from a recipe. Alchemy
slowly began to stagnate and then by the 1800s, India became part of the English
empire. Under English domination modern medicine and science were introduced to
the old ways were neglected and practiced only in remote villages.
Today alchemy is making a comeback in Indiaas it is
in the West. Worldwide there is a growing interest in metallic preparations
available through ayurvedic medicine. However, many countries have restricted
access to them and imports are not available in some countries due mainly to
concerns over heavy metal presence in the metallic medicines. The controversy around the metallic medicines
presents an opportunity to look into these materials and the procedures behind
making them. Hopefully this will provide some insight into the difficulties of
resolving that controversy.
Classification of substances
In practical works of rasa shastra materials are classified
into 5 main groups, each containing subgroups as shown in table 1
The most important minerals used in the preparations are
shown in table 2
And the metals employed by Indian alchemists are shown in
Each of the materials were considered to have certain
imperfections that needed to be removed and these were called doshas.
There were three main types of dosha associated with
minerals and metals, the first were called Naisargic doshas and these were defects
of nature associated with the specific material.
The second type of dosha was called Yougic dosha and these
were defects added for commercial purposes such as adding lead or mercury to a
gold or silver alloy in order to increase weight and make it appear to be more
valuable. The third type is Kanchuka
dosha imparted by the mountain, earth, and water where the metals were
obtained. These are defects derived from the environment and include natural
waste products from animal, vegetable and mineral activities of the area.
Each of these types
of doshas associated with a mineral or metal had to be removed by various
processes which we will talk about later.
Another class of materials used in rasa shastra are
described as groups of drugs to be used in treating the subject mineral or
metal. Table 4 lists the general classes of drug materials which were used to
remove defects and assist conversion of the material into a medicine.
According to theory, desired qualities of a substance could
be enhanced and undesirable qualities removed by treating it with a proper
selection of drugs. The treatments were aimed at transforming the five
elemental constitution of the subject.
Such treated materials would then provide medicines effective on
physical and subtle levels of man or metals.
There are many processes developed in the science of rasa
shastra which mirror those of Western alchemy but also many which are unique to
this system. The processes can be quite
laborious and yet employ elegantly simple apparatus and materials.
One of the main processes involves grinding or trituration
to extremely fine particles. This often takes place with numerous herbal
extracts used to counterbalance particular imperfections or doshas in the
subject. Part of the guiding principles
for deciding which drugs to use follow the same rules as ayurvedic medicine. A
simple rule of thumb is that like increases like while opposites balance. For
example, a mineral which possesses excess fire qualities would be cooled with
drugs of a cooling nature. Excessive earthy
qualities would be treated with volatile drugs. In addition, the use of fire
would counter the earthy qualities predominant in the mineral realm. Extensive
grinding would supply impact force associated with aerial qualities.
Each material would
first undergo purification specific to its nature; this was known as Shodhan. Indian
alchemists were adamant about performing these initial purifications because
they were well acquainted with the toxic nature of raw minerals and metals. An
imperfect material could cause more medical problems than they were meant to
In practice there are
two main processes for converting materials into medicines.
The first one mentioned already is Shodhan, and the second,
Maran which is described as “killing” the metal or killing the toxic metallic
nature of the material. The process of Shodhan involved a number of sub
processes or routines. A few of the most common methods are shown in table 5.
The general purification of metals would include heating
thin strips very hot and then quenching in various liquids in a specific order
as shown in the table.
Another process for low melting point metals like zinc, lead
or tin, involves melting the metal and then powdered herbs or other drugs are
slowly added with stirring until an ash like solid is produced.
Another method, called Dhalana, is performed by melting the
metal and pouring it into another specified liquid.
The processes of shodhan were said to affect the following
types of changes;
1. The substance becomes more brittle making grinding easier,
reduces its hardness and its cohesive nature.
2. Conversion into organo metallic complexes
3. Toxic substances were boiled or steamed for days in order
to reduce or eliminate any toxic effect in the final medicine.
4. Balancing the doshas and gunas by treating with similars
to increase desired qualities or with opposites to decrease unwanted qualities.
5. Extraneous materials are removed from the subject.
This was considered
the purification of the subject matter. It is contrary to what we would
normally consider the purification of a substance. Today, we would normally
remove any foreign substances until we are left with a chemically purified matter.
In rasa shastra, other substances are added to cause changes within the matter
at the atomic and molecular levels as well as non material levels.
There are two levels of shodhan which most materials would
undergo. The first is called Samanya, which is a general purification applied
to a similar class of materials.
The second is called Vishesh Shodhan, which is a material specific
purification. Each material would receive a general purification followed by
the more specific purification recommended for that individual material and
there are usually a number of process options. Gold would have to undergo a
different type of purification compared to copper or lead. Each had a specific
process designed to remove imperfections in that specific substance. These
processes were developed over centuries of trial and error. Much of the theory
or the why behind the how is currently lost but there are studies going on
trying to recover this valuable information.
After the shodhan of a material was complete, it was ready
for the marana process, which was the killing of the toxic metallic nature and creating
the actual medicine. This process was designed to bring it into a state which
was more compatible with the human system.
Most metallic medicines were reduced to a fine powder state
called bhasma. Bhasma means an ash, and the metals or minerals were processed
by fire and grinding in such a way as to reduce them to this fine powdered
state. There is another method where materials were not exposed to fire and this
is called a Pisti. Some gems and certain minerals could be reduced to power simply
by grinding with specific liquids over a period of time. Pisti tend to have
more of a cooling effect than the bhasmas which are prepared in the fire.
In the process of
marana the subject material is usually heated in sealed containers for a
specified number of times. There are several methods employed in this calcination
as shown in table 6.
Metals can be calcined with mercury, which was considered
the best way, or with select herbs which is next best and finally with sulfur
which was considered to be inferior.
Although the use of sulfur in the calcination of metals was
considered to produce inferior medicines, it could always be counted on when
other processing drugs were unavailable. In fact the texts state that “there is
no such elephant of a metal that cannot be killed by the lion of sulfur”. A
final group of calcining aids were known as arilohas. These are rarely used as
their end products are still toxic and suitable for external uses only.
In the general maran process, a metal which has gone through
the shodhan would be ground to a paste with herbal decoctions. The grinding may
take several days. Grinding continued until dryness and the cycle of wetting
and grinding repeated a specified number of times. This was known as bhavana or
The final ground paste was formed into small cakes and dried
in the sun. Once dried they were sealed into crucibles with cloth strips smeared
with clay. This package was dried and
then exposed to fire under given conditions.
The crucibles themselves were held to take part in the
purification and were called mushas. The term came to mean crucible in general
and were described as “that which helps to eliminate the defects or impurities”. There were many different types of crucible developed;
over 20 different types are described in the texts, and each one for a different
Typical materials for making crucibles include, clay, soil,
ash, jute fiber, charcoal, cow dung, calcined sea shells, iron rust and
These materials would be measured out and then ground to a
fine paste, formed into various shapes of crucibles and finally fired prior to
The crucible itself was to remove certain types of imperfection
in the subject and not only aided in the reactions taking place, certain trace
elements would be added from the crucible and they also would absorb unwanted
In addition to the crucibles themselves, there were certain
liners formed by drug pastes of herbs and minerals used to coat the inside and
adjust the reaction by creating an acid or alkaline condition inside the
crucible. They also adjust the heat resistance and porosity of the crucible and
provide a mechanism for adding other reactants to the mix during the heating
process in a sort of time release method. There is a whole science to just
understanding the crucibles and liners and their part in this whole process of
creating the different types of medicines
In Rasa Shasta the use of various furnaces called Putas
provide a specified amount of heat to accomplish a specific purpose. The amount
heat was controlled by size of the furnace which are generally pits of various
sizes dug into the ground. For example, Mahaputa, which is the largest, is a
cube about 44 inches on the side. The next size, Gajaputa is a 22 in cube.
These pits would be filled about two thirds of the way with dried
cow dung cakes as fuel.
The material to be processed, which was now dried and sealed
inside the crucibles, would be placed on top of this cow dung and the pit
filled with more cow dung. Once ignited the cakes would burn down and cool
naturally. This supplied a certain quantum of heat energy required to cause
changes in the subject. Generally, temperatures up to about 700 C were reached and
the time would vary from half an hour to two hours at maximum temperature
before they were allowed to cool naturally.
Once fired, the clay seal was broken and the material
removed. The fired material would then be processed again, so it would go
through the bhavana process of grinding with specific herbal decoctions until
dryness several times before again forming in to small cakes. They were dried
in the sun and sealed in the crucible with strips of cloth, dried and again
fired in the puta of the specified size. This process of firing and grinding
would be repeated for a number of times. Some would require four or five cycles,
though twenty one cycles is a number that was used often. Some materials would
require in excess of one hundred firings like this. Mica for instance was
considered to be ambrosial after it was fired a thousand times. A great deal of
time and energy are required to prepare these materials correctly.
The texts of rasa shastra are clear in specifying type of
puta system and number of cycles. Cow dung was the main fuel; rice patty cakes
and charcoal were also used for other types of material and desired temperature.
All of these factors are designed to control the amount of heat energy and maximum
temperature that the material was subject to.
The texts are very precise about how to prepare each
material and they provide information that if the methods aren’t followed you can
expect to have any number of bad effects, so they were well aware of the
problems of inappropriate processing of materials. Shortcuts were not an
option. Materials had to go through specific procedures in order to bring out
their medicinal nature and eliminate their toxic qualities.
The metals after processing this way were considered to be
no longer toxic to the human body even though chemical analysis may show they
contain mercury or lead or other heavy metals. They are considered to be
compatible with the human body at this point and have only medicinal qualities.
The toxic qualities which were due to the defects and imperfections of the
metals were removed in the process and now the metal was in a state useful for
medicine or alchemy.
The advantages of the metallic medicines are that they act
quickly, often as soon as taken in. They are tasteless, which is a big plus
compared to many herbal formulations and they require small doses generally in
the range of 5 to 200mg. Toxic side effects are eliminated and the medicines
have a long shelf life.
There is an increasing interest in these metallic medicines
growing worldwide with scientific and medical studies taking place in many
countries. The importance of correct processing according the tradition plays a
major part in validating their effectiveness.
The government of Indiais making a great effort to
insure consistency and repeatability in their preparation but there are still
those who would take short cuts which hurts the process of validation and feeds
the fire of controversy.
There is something strangely compelling about working with
these materials and methods. The practical alchemist can easily learn to
prepare their own metallic medicines and thus know the complete history of its
creation. Simple technology and alot of labor, these medicines are works of Art
and a labor of love with a 5000 year old history.