Open main menu

A History of Hindu Chemistry Vol 1/Introduction/Chapter 1

< A History of Hindu Chemistry Vol 1



Alchemlcal Ideas In the Vedas

Dawn of Hindu Alchemy.In tracing the progress of chemical knowledge among the civilized nations of old, one always finds it intimately associated with medicinal preparations, metallurgical operations, the technical arts and the belief in the transmutation of metals. In India, more so than in Europe, chemistry has, however, been evolved chiefly as a handmaid of medicine; and, somewhat later on, as an adjunct of the Tantric cult. The efficacy of the drug alone was by no means considered sufficient unless backed by the kindly interposition of the deities. Thus in the Rigveda we find the Asvins, the divine physicians, invoked, who give sight to the blind and make the lame walk. These twin gods have many points in common with the Dioskouroi of Greek mythology. One very curious myth is that of the maiden Vispalá who, having had her leg cut off in some conflict, was at once furnished by the Asvins with an iron limb.

The higher gods of the Rigveda are almost entirely personifications of the elements and the other natural phenomena, such as the fire and the wind, the sun and the dawn. But we often find also herbs and plants endowed with potent and active properties, raised to the dignities of the gods and addressed as such. The Soma plant is an object of particular adoration and the Vedic worshippers are in ecstacy over the exhilarating effects of the fermented juice expressed from it.[1] The Soma rasa (juice) began even to be regarded as the amrita; this immortal draught, allied to the Greek ambrosia, is "the stimulant which conferred immortality upon the gods . . . it is medicine for a sick man and the god Soma heals whatever is sick." It will be seen later on that in the Soma rasa and its attributes we have the dawn of Hindu Alchemy (Vide p. 79).

Other plants were likewise invoked as divinities. Thus one entire hymn is devoted to the praise of plants (oshadhi) alone, mainly with regard to their healing powers.[2]

Again, in another hymn we read: "O King Varuna! a hundred and a thousand medicinal drugs are thine."

It is in the "Atharva-veda" however, that plants and vegetable products in general are fully recognised as helpful agents in the treatment of diseases, though their use is invariably associated with the employment of charms, spells, and incantations. Thus the plant apámárga (achyranthes aspera), which still occupies a prominent place in the Hindu system of medicine as a di-uretic and laxative etc., is invoked as the "mistress of remedies" (IV. 17, 1.) and "sole ruler over all plants." In another hymn the Soma plant is thus referred to:—

"The strength of this amrita (ambrosia) do we give this man to drink. Moreover, I prepare a remedy, that he may live a hundred years!"

Again, "as many (plants), as the human physicians know to contain a remedy, so many, endowed with every healing quality, do I apply to thee!"[3] Here is a spell for the cure of leprosy by means of a dark-coloured plant:—

Born in the night art thou, O herb,
Dark-coloured, sable, black of hue:
Rich-tinted, tinge this leprosy,
And stain away its spots of grey! (I.23,1).

There is also a distinct reference to a remedy for promoting the growth of hair.

"As a goddess upon the goddess earth thou wast born, O plant! We dig thee up, O nitatní, that thou mayest strengthen (the growth) of the hair.

"Strengthen the (old hair), beget the new! That which has come forth render more luxurious!" VI. 136. 1-2.

The Healing Arts differentiated.Although in the Vedic age caste as a hereditary system did not exist, the healing arts had evidently acquired sufficient importance to be pursued by particular members of the patriarchal families. Thus with that charming simplicity which is the characteristic beauty of the Rigveda, one Rishi says pathetically of himself:

"Behold I am a composer of hymns, my father is a physician, my mother grinds corn on stone. We are all engaged in different occupations[4]" (IX. 112, 3),

"Princes like Divodása, and bards and leaders of the tribe of the Angiras, administered medicines and gloried in effecting cures. A skilled physician is distinctly defined as one who lives in a place abounding with medicinal plants, and who assiduously devotes his time to the acquisition of knowledge[5]."

The earliest literary record of Indian Medicine.Thus not only in the Atharvan but even in the Rik, we can trace the earliest literary record of Indian Medicine.

The "Atharva-veda" deals chiefly with sorcery, witch-craft and demonology. There are deadly imprecations against evil-doers; magical incantations for bringing about ruin, death, dementation and stupefaction of one's adversaries; and charms intended to secure the love of women through the potency of various herbs. Some of them are of hostile character, being meant to injure rivals. The picture here presented has its counterpart in the ancient Egyptians, who were noted for their magical lore to which the Greeks were no less attached. There is a close resemblance between the contents of the A. V. and those of the Papyrus of Leyden in some essential features. In the latter also there is an intermixture of magic, astrology, alchemy as well as recipes for love philters.[6]

The A. V., on account of its frequent calling-in-aid of super-natural agencies for selfish and malevolent purposes, has not generally been accorded the canonical sanctity of the Vedic Triad—The Rik, the Yajus and the Sámán; the very authority of the fourth Veda as a scripture has been questioned in the several law-books of the Apastamba, the Vishnu, the Yájñavalkya and the Manu schools, and the practices it sanctions strongly condemned.

As Hindu medicine has seldom been able to shake itself completely free from the influence of magic and alchemy as auxiliaries, physicians, as practicers of the "black art," have been given an inferior position in the legal treatises. The Mahábhárata, reflecting the spirit of the above law-books, regards the physicians as impure. In spite of this "the Atharvan retains in a measure its place by virtue of its profound hold upon popular beliefs, because the Atharvan performs, especially for the king, inestimable services in the injury and overthrow of enemies."[7]

Rasáyana or AlchemyIn the A. V., the hymns for the cure of diseases and possession by demons of disease are known as "bhaishajyáni," while those which have for their object the securing of long life and health are known as "áyushyáni"—a term which later on gave place to rasayana, the Sanskrit equivalent of alchemy (see p. 80). We shall quote two under the latter heading as invocations to pearl and its shell and gold respectively. "Born in the heavens, born in the sea, brought on from the river (Sindhu), this shell, born of gold, is our life-prolonging amulet."

"The bone of the gods turned into pearl; that, animated, dwells in waters. That do I fasten upon thee unto life, lustre, strength, longevity, unto a life lasting a hundred autumns. May the (amulet) of pearl protect thee!"

"The gold which is born from fire,[8] the immortal, they bestowed upon the mortals. He who knows this deserves it: of old age dies he who wears it."

"The gold, (endowed by) the sun with beautiful colour, which the men of yore, rich in descendants, did desire, may it gleaming envelop thee in lustre! Long-lived becomes he who wears it!"

While gold is regarded as the elixir of life, lead is looked upon as the dispeller of sorcery: "To the lead Varuna gives blessing, to the lead Agni gives help. Indra gave me the lead; unfailingly it dispels sorcery."[9]

It is of interest to note the alchemical notions which had gathered round gold and lead[10] at the time of the A. V.

To the student of Hindu medicine and alchemy, the A. V. is thus of special interest as the earliest repository of information on the subject.


  1. See Eggeling's Intro. to "Satapatha Bráhmana." Pt. 11, pp. 1 et seq. also Roth; Ueber den Soma; "Zeit. deut. morg. Ges." XXXV. pp. 680-692; also ibid, XXXVIII. 134-139: Wo wächst der Soma? And Windischmann: Ueber den Somacultus der Arier: Abhand. d. Münch. AK. d. Wiss. IV. B. Abh. 2.
  2. One or two typical hymns may be quoted here:—

    या ओषधीः पूर्व्वा जाता देवेभ्यस्त्रियुगं पुरा।
    मनौ नु बभ्रूणामहं शतं धामानि सप्त च
    शतं वो अम्ब धामानि सहस्रमुत वो रूहः X.97.1.
    अधा शतकृत्वो यूयमिमं मे अगदं कृत॥ ibid,. 2

    Sáyana's commentary to the above is:—-

    याः ओषधयः पूर्व्वाः पुरातन्यः जाताः उत्‌पन्नाः, केभ्यः सकाशात्? देवेभ्यः; यहा देवाः द्योतमानाः ऋतवः, तेभ्यः। कस्मिन् काले? त्रियुगं त्रिषु युगेषु प्रादुर्भावापेक्षया कृतादियुगत्रयमुक्तं, कलौ तु अत्यन्ताल्पत्वात् उपेक्षितम्। अथवा त्रिषु युगेषु वसन्ते प्राबृषि शरदि चेत्यर्थः। अहं बभ्रूणां बभ्रुबर्णानां सोमाद्योषधीनां शतं सप्त च धामानि अनुलेपमार्जनाभिषेकादिरूपेण आश्रयभूतानि स्थानानि नु क्षिप्रं मनौ मन्ये संभावयामीत्यर्थः।

    हे अम्ब भातरः ओषधयः वो युष्माकं धामानि स्थानानि जन्मानि वा शतम् अपरिमितानि; उतापि च वो युष्माकं रूहः प्ररोहः प्रोद्गमः सहस्रपरिमितः। अधा अपि च हे शतकृत्वः हे शतकर्स्माणः ययमिमं मे मां मदीयं वा जनम् आमयग्रस्तम् अगदं गदः रोगः तद्‌रहितं कृत कुरूत।

  3. Bloomfield: "Hymns of the Atharva-veda" pp. 43-44.
  4. R. C. Dutt: "Civilisation in ancient India," p. 65 (Calc. ed.)
  5. Introduction to "Astáñgahridaya" of Vagbhata, by Anna Morsvar Kunte, B. A., M. D., p. 2.
  6. The reader may compare this portion with Berthelot's "Les Origines de l’ Alchimie," pp. 81-83.
  7. Bloomfield's "Hymns of the Atharva-veda":—Introduction, p. XLVI.
  8. Among the five kinds of gold referred to in the "Rasaratna-samuchchaya" (p. 10 5 वह्निसम्भूतं (born from fire) is one.
  9. The quotations are from Bloomfield’s A. V. pp. 62-65.
  10. In the alchemy of the West, lead, as is well known, is associated not with beneficient but "Saturnine" influence.