A History of Hindu Chemistry Vol 1/Introduction/Chapter 4
The Tantric Period
Circa 1100—1300 A. D.
Origin of the Tantric Cult.Before we proceed further it would be advisable to take a hasty glance at the origin of the Tantric Cult, as Indian Alchemy very largely derives its colour and flavour from it. In almost every country the progress of chemistry can be traced to medicine and the belief in the artificial gold-making,—the search after elixir vitæ and the philosopher's stone. In India, however, these ends have played a secondary part in promoting a knowledge of the chemical processes. Here the origin of astronomy, geometry and anatomy is to be sought in the exigencies of religious rites. No less is the case with alchemy. We have already seen how the Atharva-veda deals almost exclusively in charms, sorcery, exorcism of diseases by means of amulets and so on. It is sometimes supposed that the A.V. represents the latest of the Vedas. This is evidently a misimpression. The truth seems to be that human frailty has always fought shy of the tedious and laborious methods of gaining an object. The spiritual hankering as foreshadowed in the prayers of the Rik, and later on so fully developed in the Upanishads, represents only the aspirations of the few cultured Rishis. The bulk of the people have always sighed for a royal road to salvation, hence the necessity for an A.V.; as Emerson appositely says in his essay on Demonology, "the history of man is a series of conspiracies to win from Nature some advantage without paying for it." Atharvanic rites have therefore more or less held sway over mankind in every age and clime. As the Aryan conquerors began to settle in India and came into frequent contact with the aborigines, they had unconsciously to imbibe some of the gross superstitions of the latter, and thus in course of time a superstructure of monstrous growth sprang up, ready to swallow even the purer and more othodox creed. Hence the protests recorded from time to time in the Mahábhárata and in the law-books against the vulgarity of the aims of the A. V. and the refusal to accept its authority (see ante p. viii). But on the other hand, by virtue of its profound hold upon popular beliefs and because indispensable sciences like medicine and astrology are Atharvanic by distiction, the fourth Veda has always retained a considerable following. If we turn to Europe in the middle ages, we find the professors of the "black art" sharing a fate similar to the priests of the Atharvanic rites,——now openly received into the bosom of the holy church——now anathematised and flung into prison.
In the Sanskrit Literature whenever there is any reference to sorcery or magic, it is generally laid to the account of the A. V. But in the course of time the worship of Siva came into vogue, which incorporated much that was non-Aryan in character, and which seems to have got blended with A. V. rites as modified by changes and requirements of the time. The original inhabitants, "the Dasyus are described in the Rigveda as non-sacrificing, unbelieving and impious. They are also doubtless meant by the phallus-worshippers mentioned in two passages. The Aryans in course of time came to adopt this form of cult. There are many passages in the Mahábhárata showing that Siva was already venerated under the emblem of the phallus when that epic was composed."
Tantric rites prevalent in the seventh century.By the VIIth century A. D., we find Siva's worship well established in India. In the life of King Harsa by Vána there is a graphic description of a weird ceremony performed by a Saiva saint named Bhairavácháryya. "Seated on the breast of a corpse which lay supine, anointed with red sandal and arrayed in garlands, clothes and ornaments, all of red, himself with a black turban, black unguents, black amulet, and black garments, he had begun a fire rite in the corpse's mouth where a flame was burning." In the drama of Málatímádhava by Bhavabhúti (690 A.D.) we have also references to similar rites.
We have here the outlines of what has been known latterly as the Tantric Cult—a curious admixture of alchemical processes on the one hand, and grotesque and obscene and sometimes revolting rites on the other—all centred round the worship of Siva and his consort Párvatí. The sidelight which is thrown in the life of King Harsa and the graphic account left by his contemporary, the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Thsang, enable us to draw a picture of N. India in the VIIth century A.D. It has hitherto been taken almost for granted that Buddhism was expelled from India by the persecution of the Brahmins of the Renaissance period. There may have been zealous bigots who now and then went the length of hunting down Buddhists; but the concensus of testimonies seems to be that both the The causes which brought about the extinction of Buddhism.people and the princes generally maintained an attitude of philosophic toleration towards the creed of Sákyamuni even so late as the XIth century A.D. The causes which brought about the extinction of Buddhism in India Worked from within. The purity of life, and the austerity of practices enjoined on the followers of the creed, become in the long run irksome. The monasteries degenerated into hot beds of corruption, so much so that the semi-savage Mussulman conquerors felt little compunction in putting the inmates thereof to the sword. Hinduism also, which has been noted in all ages for its assimilative and elastic character, swallowed up the remnants of the Buddhists by acknowledging the founder of their religion to be an Avatāra or Incarnation of Vishnu.
We have seen that the A.V. rites as also the Tantric cults cover almost identical ground; both had their origin in the attempts at popularising the religion among the masses by appealing to the baser or the less refined elements of human nature. An enormous bulky literature has thus sprung up representing this corrupt and effete outgrowth of Tantras—Brahminic and BuddhisticBrahminism. There are however two distinct classes of Tantras—Brahminic and Buddhistic—dealing in magic, alchemy, sorcery, and allied subjects, which will claim our attention here. The causes which favoured the rise and progress of the Hindu Tantras equally contributed to the development of the Buddhistic, only in the latter, instead of Siva and Párvatí, a Buddha, a Tathágata or an Avalokitesvara is often addressed in the invocation as the source and fountain of all knowledge. We have also a class of Tantras which is an admixture of Buddhistic and Saiva cult. A notable example of which is afforded by the Mahákála Tantra. Rasaratnákara, the authorship of which is ascribed to Nágárjuna, also belongs to this category; this work as well as Rasárnava, a Tantra of the Saiva cult, will claim our special attention, as they embody much valuable information on chemistry.
What is it that made these Tantras the repositories of chemical knowledge? The answer is given in the words of Rasárnava (lit. sea of mercury) itself, which extols the virtues of mercury and its various preparations:—
"Asit is used by the best devotees for the highest end, it is called pārada (quicksilver)."
"Begotten of my limbs, it is, O goddess, equal to me. It is called rasa because it is the exudation of my body."
"It may be urged that the literal interpretation of these words is incorrect, the liberation in this life being explicable in another manner. This objection is not allowable, liberation being set out in the six systems as subsequent to the death of the body, and upon this there can be no reliance, and consequently no activity to attain to it free from misgivings. This is also laid down in the same treatise.
"Liberation is declared in the six systems to follow the death of the body."
"Such liberation is not cognised in perception like an emblic myrobalan fruit in hand."
"Therefore a man should preserve that body by means of mercury and of medicaments."
A few more typical extracts are given below which will throw further light on the subject:
"The body, some one may say, is seen to be perishable, how can then its permanency be effected? Think not so, it is replied, for though the body, as a complexus of six sheaths or wrappers of the soul, is dissoluble, yet the body as created by Hara and Gaurī under the names of mercury and mica, may be perdurable. Thus it is said in the Rasahridaya:—
"Those who without quitting their bodies have attained to new ones through the influence of Hara and Gourī (mercury and mica), are to be praised as Rasasiddha (alchemists). All mantras are at their services."
"Mica is thy seed, and mercury is my seed;
"The combination of the two, O goddess, is destructive of death and poverty."
"There is very little to say about the matter. In the Rasesvarasiddhánta many among the gods, the Daityas, the Munis and mankind, are declared to have attained to liberation in this life by acquiring a divine body through the efficacy of quicksilver."
"Certain gods, Mahesa and others; certain Daityas, Kāvya (Sukrāchārya), and others; certain sages, Bālakhilyas and others; certain kings, Somesvara and others; Govinda-Bhāgavat, Govindanáyaka, Charvati, Kapila, Vyāli and others—these alchemists, having attained to mercurial bodies and therewith identified are liberated though alive."
"The meaning of this, as unfolded by Siva to Párvatí, is as follows:—
"The preservation of body, O Supreme goddess! is obtained by mercury and by (the suppression of) breath. Mercury, when swooned, cures diseases and when killed, restores life to the dead. Mercury and air when confined, enable a man, O goddess, to fly about.
"The swooning state of mercury is thus described:—
"They say quicksilver to be swooning when it is thus characterised.—
"Of various colours, and free from excessive fluidity or mobility (see p. 74).
"A man should regard that quicksilver as dead, in which the absence of the following properties is noticed.—
"Wetness, thickness, brightness, heaviness, mobility.
"The fixed condition is described in another place as follows:—
"The character of fixed quicksilver is that it is:—
"Continuous, readily fusible, efficacious, pure, heavy, and that it can revert to its own natural state," Cf. p. 241.
"Some one may urge: If the creation of mercury by Hara and Gaurí were proved, it might be allowed that the body could be made permanent; but how can that be proved? The objection is not allowable, inasmuch as that can be proved by eighteen modes of elaboration. "Thus it is stated by authorities.—
"Eighteen modes of elaboration are to be carefully discriminated."
"In the first place, as pure in every process, for perfecting the adepts."
And these methods of elaboration are enumerated thus.—
"Sweating, rubbing, swooping, fixing, dropping, coercion, restraining."
"Kindling, going, falling into globules, pulverising, covering."
"Internal flux, external flux, burning, colouring, and pouring."
"And eating it by parting and piercing it——are the eighteen modes of treating quicksilver."
"By the science of mercury is to be understood not only a branch of chemistry alone, but it is also to be applied to salvation by means of dehavedha. Rasárnava says.—
"You have, O God, explained the killing of metals. Now tell me that process of dehavedha by means of which aærial locomotion is effected. Mercury is equally to be applied to metals and body. First make its experiment on metals and then [having thus gained experience] apply it to the body." Emancipation of a man when alive, as declared in the mercurial system, O subtile Thinker! is (to be found) in the tenets of other schools though holding different methods of arguments. It is according to all sacred texts to be known by knowledge. None, when not alive, is likely to know the knowable and therefore a man must live (to know the knowable)."
"It is mercury alone that can make the body undecaying and immortal, as it is said:—
"Only this supreme medicament can make the body undecaying and imperishable."
"Why describe the efficacy of this metal? Its value is proved even by seeing it, and by touching it, as it is said in the Rasárnava:—
"By means of seeing it, touching it, eating it, remembering it, worshipping it and bestowing it upon others, six kinds of highest merits are attained.
"Equal merit accrues from seeing mercury as accrues from seeing all the phallic emblems."
"On earth, those at Kedāra, and all others whatsoever."
"In another place we read:—
"The adoration of the sacred quicksilver is more beatific than the worship of all the phallic emblems at Kásī and elsewhere."
"Inasmuch as there is attained thereby enjoyment, health, exemption from decay, and immortality."
"The sin of disparaging mercury is also set out:—
"The adept on hearing quicksilver heedlessly disparaged should recall quicksilver to mind."
"He should at once shun the blasphemer, who is by his blasphemy for ever filled with sin." Cf. under R. R. S. p. 78.
The quotations given above are from the "Sarvadarsanasamgraha," or a "Review of the different systems of Hindu Philosophy" by Mádhaváchárya, prime minister to Bukka I. of Vijayanagara, and who was elected in 1331 A. D. head-abbot of the monastery of Sringeri. or the sixteen philosophical systems current in the 14th century during the author's lifetime, Rasesvaradarsana or the "Mercurial System," is one. From the fact that Rasârnva is quoted in it as a standard work on this subject it would be safe to conclude that it must have been written at least a century or two earlier, say sometime about the 12th century. In Amarasimha's Lexicon (ca. 1000 A. D.) the following synonyms of pârada (mercury) are given, namely, chapala, rasa, and suta; but in the vocabulary of Visvakosha by Mahesvara (1188 A. D.) haravíja (lit. semen of Siva) is added thereto. Now in the Tantric literature, of which the philosophy of mercury is the main outcome, quicksilver is regarded as the generative principle, and directions are given for making a mercurial phallus of Siva. We may, therefore, take it that the Tantras Which deal in mercurial preparations, had their origin sometime about the 11th to 12th century A. D. It whould not be justifiable however to hold that the Tantras did not exist before this time.
The age of the Tantras, dealing with mercury.Although we have maintained above that the alchemical Tantras had their origin about the 11th century A. D., it would be safer to conclude that the Tantric processes had sprung into existence long before this time, but that they did not acquire sufficient importance to force the attention of the physicians, as we have seen above that the R. V. and the A. V. existed almost side by side though the latter was held for a long time in contempt and was not quoted in the orthodox treatises.
One very strong argument in favour of much older dates of the above Tantras is that Mádhavácharya, a very cautious and discriminating writer, whom we have quoted above, describes the works he cites, including Rasárnava, as "ancient authorities" in his life-time (see above p. lxxvi).
Earliest historical evidence of the internal use of mercury.We have already had occasion to draw attention to the non-mention of metallic preparations, notably of those of mercury, in the writings of Vána and I'Tsing (p. li). But this is another apt illustration of the dangers of the argumentum ex silentio. In the Vrihatsamhitá of Varáhamihira (d. 587 A. D.) there is mention of iron and mercury among the aphrodisiacs and tonics; and this historical evidence is of great use to us in deciding the age of the Tantras, dealing with mercury.
Contemporary collateral records by foreign writers go to corroborate the date of the alchemical Tantras tentatively fixed by us, as the name and fame of mercurial remedies as used by the Hindu yogis had spread far and wide. The following two extracts will suffice:
"There is another class of people called Chughi (yogi), who were indeed properly Abraiman but they form a religious order devoted to the idols. They are extremely long-lived, every one of them living to 150 or 200 years. They eat very little * * * and these people make use of a strange beverage, for they make a potion of sulphur and quicksilver mixed together, and this they drink twice every month. This, they say, gives them long life; it is a potion they are used to take from their childhood."—Yule's "Macro Polo," Vol. II. p. 300.
"Arghun, der alchymie und den geheimen Wissenschaften ergeben hatte indisehe Bachschi, d. h. Schreiber, gefragt, durch welche Mittel sie sich ihr Leben so langwierig fristeten. Sie gaben ihm ein aus Schwefel und Merkur zusammengesetztes Mittel als die Panacee der Lebensverlängerung ein." (1290 A. D.)—Hammer-Purgstall; "Geschichte der Ilchane," I. p. 391.
Alchemical TantrasIt is to be regretted that of the several works quoted by Mádhava, Rasárnava alone seems to have s'u'rvived to our days. This work is almost unknown in Bengal, and extremely rare even in N. India and the Deccan. We have been fortunate enough to procure a transcript of it from the Raghunátha Temple Library, Kásmír, and another from the Oriental Mss. Library, Madras. As one of the earliest works of the kind, which throws a flood of light on the chemical knowledge of the Hindus about the 12th century A. D., Rasárnava must be regarded as a valuable national legacy. It has, besides, the merit of being the inspirer of several works of the Iatro-chemical period, notably Rasaratnasamuchchaya and Rasendrachintámani. Although Rasárnava as a Tantra pretends to have been revealed by the God Siva himself, its author, whoever he may be, now and then blurts out hints, which clearly prove it to have been complied from preexisting works, for instance, it has not hesitated, as we find; to borrow copiously from Rasaratnákara attributed to the renowned alchemist Nágárjuna. Of this last work we have been able to obtain as yet only a fragment from the Kásmír Library; but it has been of signal use to us, as by the parallelism of its text the genuiness and authenticity of a great portion of the Rasárnava have been established.
Collation of Mss.In the present volume it has been our aim to compare and collate carefully the passages in the Mss. of Rasaratnákara, Rasárnava and Rasatnasamuchchaya, in so far as they bear on chemistry and allied subjects; in this way several important lacunæ have been filled up and many doubtful readings resored. Parallel passages have often been quoted in the foot-notes and references given, pointing out where the probable borrowing has taken place. It is to be hoped that by instituting this sort of intercomparison, the verbal integrity of the texts adopted may be depended upon, and the danger of interpolation has been avoided. The texts of Charaka, Susruta, Vágbhata and Chakrapáni have not been reproduced as they are available everywhere in the most reliable shape.
Recommendatory features of R. R. S.The translations presented do not always pretend to be strictly literal, and we hope the indulgent reader will put up with infelicities of expression here and there, which could not be avoided without taking undue liberty with the original. We have drawn very largely upon R. R. S., because it has several features to recommend. First, an excellent edition of it has been published at Puna, based upon a comparison of 13 Mss., procured from different parts of Southern India. Second, there exists a Ms. of it in the library of the Sansklit College, Benares, in a very neat and legible handwriting, copied in samvat 1850 i. e. 1793 A.D., to which we have had access whenever required. We have also obtained a transcript of it from the Kásmír Library. The Benares and the Kásmír Mss. agree in all essentials, but differ in certain places from the Puna edition. The text we have adopted is thus based upon a comparison of the Deccanese and N. Indian exemplars. Third, while Rasaratnákara and Rasárnava are Tantras pure and simple in which alchemy is incidentally dwelt upon, R. R. S. is a systematic and comprehensive treatise on materia medica, pharmacy and medicine. Its methodical and scientific arrangement of the subject-matter would do credit to any modern work, and altogether it should be pronounced a production unique of its kind in Sanskrit literature. Its value is further enhanced from the fact that the materia medica portion is harmoniously blended with chemistry.
pseudo-Vágbhata.The author, whoever he may be, is very anxious to establish his identity with Vágbhata, the celebrated author of the Ashtáṅga and describes himself as such in the colophons at the end of every chapter (p. 78); but he forgets that in doing so he is guilty of a glaring piece of anachronism. The chemical knowledge, as revealed in the Vágbhata, is almost on a par with that in the Susruta. But this sort of utter disregard for chronological accuracy is by no means uncommon in the alchemical literature of the middle ages in Europe. The world is indebted to the genius and perseverance of M. Berthelot for unravelling the mysteries which so long hung about the writings of Geber; and the interval of time between our pseudo-Vágbhata and the author of Ashtáṅga is even much wider than that between the Latin Geber and the real Geber. We are apt to be very harsh on these literary forgerers; rather we ought to give them credit for their utter self-effacement. We often forget that the spirit of the times in which they wrote was dead against them—reluctant to accept revolutionary ideas or discoveries; hence the temptation to fasten them on old and recognised authorities.
Probable date of R. R. S.Although no direct historical evidence is available, we are not left entirely in the dark. Our author, at the very outset, names twenty seven alchemists from whose writings he derives his materials (p. 77 ), and later on, in the section on apparatus (p. 130), he quotes Rasárnava as a source of his information. Opium was not employed in medicine in his time nor is there any mention of Phiraṅgaroga, (lit. the disease of the Portuguese), which was introduced into India about the middle of the 16th century, and the treatment of which by means of calomel and chob-chini (China root) occupies a conspicuous place in in the much later work, Bhávaprakása. The date of the R. R. S. may, therefore, be placed between the 13th and 14th centuries A. D.
- Cf. the opening remarks by Dr. Thibaut on the "Sulvasútras":—
"It is well known that not only Indian life with all its social and political institutions has been at all times under the mighty sway of religion, but that we are also led back to religious belief and worship when we try to account for the origin of research in those departments of knowledge which the Indians have cultivated with such remarkable success. At first sight, few traces of this origin may be visible in the Sástras of the later times, but looking closer we may always discern the connecting thread."—"Journ. As. Soc." (1875) Vol. XLIV. part 1. p. 227.
- As Bloomfield remarks:—There is no proof that even the oldest parts of the R. V. or the most ancient Hindu tradition accessible historically, exclude the existence of the class of writings entitled to any of the names given to the Atharvan charms.' Intro. to A. V. X. pXX.
- Bloomfield:— Intro. to A. V. xlvi.
- This is exemplified in Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon. The former rose to be a Bishop but "minder glücklich oder unvorsichtiger als Albertus Magnus, entging Roger Baco der Verfolgung als Zauberer nicht. Er wurde in Oxford von seinen eigenen Klosterbrüdern in das Gefängniss geworfen."—"Gesch. d. Chem." I. 63.
- Macdonell: "Hist. Sansk. Lit". p. 153.
- Cowell and Thomas' "Trans. of the Harsa-charita p. 92."
- Cf. 'The annual report of the Asiatic Soc. to hand:—
"The copper-plate of Madanapála which has just been referred to is interesting also from a sociological point of view. We know that all the Pála kings were followers of the Buddhist religion, and that it was during their reign that Buddhism flourished for the last time in India. Now the grant recorded in the plate was made by Madanapála to a Brahman as a dakshina or honorarium for having read the Mahábhárata to the queens of the king's harem. This is one more fact, in addition to others previously known, showing the intimate connexion that existed in the time of those Buddhist kings between Buddhism and Hinduism, a connexion that resulted in the former losing more and more its ground against the latter, and that thus prepared the way for the final destruction of Buddhism by the Muhammedan invadors." p. 26. Similar evidence is also afforded by Raj. Tar. e.g.
"Kalhana does not hesitate to refer repeatedly to'the Bodhisattvas or to Buddha himself as the comforters of all beings, the embodiments of perfect charity and nobility of feeling. They are to him beings of absolute goodness "who do not feel anger even against the sinner, but in patience render him kindness."—Stein's' Intro. p. 8.
- According to Waddell, the monks with shaven heads were mistaken for idolatrous Brahmins and massacred wholesale. "Journ. As Soc." LXI. pt. 1. p. 20.
- Tantras grew up in Kásmír also: "Tantric cult which in Kásmír is still closely connected with Saiva worship, seems also to have been well known to Kalhana." Stein's Intro. to Raj. Tar p. 80.
- Cf. "Pour des esprits grossiers et ignorants, de tels livres ont certainement plus de valeur que les légendes morales des premiers temps du Buddhisme. Ils promettent des avantages temporels et immédiats; ils satisfont enfin à ce besoin de superstitions, à cet amour des practiques dévotes par lequel s'exprime le sentiment religieux en Asie, et auquel ne répondait qu'imparfaitement la simplicité du Buddhisme primitif."—Burnouf's —"Intro a l'hist. du Buddhisme Ind." p. 466. Regarding Buddhistic Tantras and their relationship to Saiva Tantras, the reader is referred to Burnouf's admirable exposition (loc. cit). See also Barth's. "Religions of India." p. 201. 3rd ed.
- Intro. Hist. Buddh. Ind., p. 480.
- Here Cowell and Gough translate पवन simply as 'air'. We are inclined to think, however, that it is used in the sense of closing the nostrils—प्राणायाम of Yoga philosophy.
- We have in some places adopted Cowell and Gough's trans. of Sarvadarsanasamgraha, but the rendering appears to be faulty in many instances, notably in the above sloka.' The original runs as follows:—
न च रसशास्त्रं धातुवादार्थमेवेति मन्तव्यं देहवेधद्वारा मुक्तेरेव परमप्रयोजनत्वात्। तदुक्तं रसार्णवे
लोहवेधस्त्वया देव यद्दत्तं परमोशितः।
तं देहवेधमाचक्ष्व येन स्यात् खेचरी गतिः॥
यथा लोहे तथा देहे कर्त्तव्यः सूतकः सता।
समानं कुरुते देवि प्रत्ययं देहलोहयोः।
पूर्व्वं लोहे परीक्षेत पश्चाद्देहे प्रयोजयेदिति॥
I. C. Vidyáságar's Ed. (1858).
Here Cowell and Gough render धातुवादार्थं as "eulogistic of the metal;" and लोह as "blood." Regarding धातुवादः See p. 191.
- Regarding are the date of Amarsimha see also p. 146.
- A recent examination of the Sanskrit Mss. in the Durbar Library of Nepal has brought to light important old Tantric works. One, the Lamkávatára, a Hindu Tantric work on medicine, written in a later Gupta hand (908 A. D.); another, "the composition of which must go back to the early centuries of the Christian era." This discovery upsets all established theories as to the age of the Tantras, a full discussion of which must be reserved for the second volume Vide.—Rep. on the Search of Sans. Mss. (1895-1900) by M. H. P. Sástri.
- रक्तोऽधिके स्त्री पुरुषस्तु शुक्रे नपुंसकं शोणितशुक्रसाम्ये ।
यस्मादतः शुक्रविवृद्धिदानि निषेवितव्यानि रसायनानि ॥१॥
पथ्याशिलाजतुविडङ्गघृतानि योऽद्यात् ।
सैकानि विंशतिरहानि जरान्वितोऽपि
सोऽशीतिकोऽपि रमयत्यबलां युवेव ॥२॥
- "L'hypothèse la plus vraisemblable à mes yeux, c'est quun auteur latin, resté inconnu, a écrit ce livre dans la seconde moitié du XIIIe siècle, et l'a mis sous le patronage du nom vénéré de Géber; de même que les alchimistes gréco-égyptiens avaient emprunté le grand nom de Démocrite pour en couvrir leurs élucubrations."—"La Chimie au Moyen âge, T. 1. p. 349.
- This is the name by which syphilis is known in the later Hindu medical works. See p. 252.