Rasāyana (Alchemy)

David Gordon White

in Hinduism

ISBN: 9780195399318
Published online January 2011 | | DOI:
Rasāyana (Alchemy)


Rasāyana (the way of the rasas) is the overarching Sanskrit term employed in South Asian texts for “alchemy.” The classical alchemical scriptures date from no earlier than the 10th century ce; however, several centuries earlier, the term rasāyana was used in Āyurveda, classical Indian medicine, to denote “rejuvenation therapy,” with the plural, rasāyanas, being the elixirs employed in said therapy. In about the 8th century ce, the term rasa-rasāyana first appeared in Buddhist and Hindu tantric texts in reference to the supernatural power (siddhi) of obtaining a magical elixir. The birth of Indian alchemy, as an idea at least, may be traced back to these early medieval sources. This “magical” use of alchemical reagents persisted well into the medieval period in works of tantric sorcery (see Alchemical Folklore). The earliest systematic alchemical texts, which date from the 10th century, introduced the dual goal of all Indian alchemy: the transmutation of base metals into gold (dhātuvāda, transmutational alchemy) and the production of elixirs of immortality (dehavāda, elixir alchemy). A term for mercury, the prime alchemical reagent, was rasa, and so the term rasāyana now became specifically applied to the alchemical use of mercurials. The classic Indian alchemical texts were written in the period from the 10th to the 13th century. These were, for the most part, tantric works inasmuch as their stated goal of achieving an immortal, invulnerable body possessed of supernatural powers aligned with many of the goals of tantric practice. As such, the 10th to the 13th century was the period of “tantric alchemy.” From the 13th century forward, mercurial, mineral, and plant preparations came to be increasingly applied to various sorts of medical therapies, many of which complemented the older ayurvedic rasāyana treatments. However, new terminology was introduced: rogavāda (medical alchemy), rasacikitsā (mercurial medicine), or, most often, rasaśāstra (applied alchemy). Another offshoot of tantric alchemy was siddha alchemy. In a number of alchemical works, legendary figures called Rasa-Siddhas were evoked as the founders of alchemical lineages and traditions. These were part of a broader medieval religious current, which saw the emergence of several groups self-identifying as siddhas, perfected beings possessed of siddhis. A rich mythology of the siddhas emerged in this period, which portrayed these legendary supermen as combining alchemy with the practice of yoga and tantric techniques. These groups were responsible for internalizing much of laboratory alchemy into yogic practice.

Article.  9700 words. 

Subjects: Hinduism

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribeRecommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »