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A History of Hindu Chemistry Vol 1/Introduction/Chapter 5

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Iatro-Chemical Period

Characteristics of the iatro-chemical period.During the Tantric period, with its system of the "Philosophy of Mercury" a vast mass of chemical information was accumulated, which was pressed into signal service in the period immidiately succeeding it—the Iatro-chemical Period of India. The prominent feature of the former lies in the search after the elixir vitae and the powder of projection as the contents of the Rasaratnákara and Rasárnava amply testify; whereas in the latter these phantastic and extravagant ideas, impossible of realisation, had subsided into something more practical and tangible. The numerous preparations of mercury, iron, copper and other metals, although they could not secure immortality or revive the dead, were found to be helpful accessories in medicine. At first they came to be used cautiously and tentatively, mixed up with the recipes of the Charaka and the Susruta, which are drawn chiefly from the vegetable kingdom; but they soon began to assert a supremacy of their own and even to supplant the old Ayurvedic treatment by herbs and simples. Nay more, absurd pretentions were set up on behalf of these metallic preparations. Thus in Rasendrachintámani, a work probably co-eval with R. R. S., we come across this remarkable passage:— "Revered teacher! be pleased to instruct me, for the benefit of the weak and the timid, in a mode of treatment which will dispense with the use of the lancet, and both active and potential cauteries," thus putting in a plea for the indiscriminate use of mercurial remedies.

R. R. S. is a typical production of the Iatro-chemical period. The name of treatises treating of medicinal chemistry is simply legion. But they are all cast in the same mould, and the close similarity of their contents would render their translation only a works of supererogation. We have, therefore, confined ourselves to quoting only such parallel passages in the foot-notes as are calculated to throw light upon or corroborate the authenticity of, the text of R. R. S.

Nágárjuna.An account of this period will be scarcely complete, which fails to take note of the conspicuous figure whom the Indian alchemists unanimously look upon as the inventor of the processes of distillation and calcination—the renowned and the venerable Nágárjuna, the reputed author of Kakshaputatantra, Rasaratnákara and Arogyamañjarí, etc. Our R. R. S., in the opening lines, invokes him as one of the 27 alchemists, and in the chapter on minerals quotes him as an authority. So does Rasendrachintámani as also Chakrapáni while describing the process of roasting iron (p. 62).

We have already seen that according to Vrinda and C. p., Nágárjuna was the first to introduce the preparation known as Kajjvali (black sulphide of mercury p. 61). Dalvana also makes him the redactor of the Susruta. The mention of Nágárjuna by all these authorities would not remove him far from the 8th or the 9th century A. D., a date which is also confirmed by Albéruní, who says:

"A famous representative of this art [alchemy] was Nágárjuna, a native of the fort Daihak, near Somnáth. He excelled in it and composed a book which contains the substance of the whole literature on this subject and is very rare. He lived nearly a hundred years before our time.'—'India, I. p. 189.

But there are difficulties in the way of accepting this chronolgy of the age of Nágárjuna. Hiouen Thsang, who resided in India from 629 A. D. onwards, relying upon local traditions, speaks of Nágárjuna[1] as a learned and revered Buddhist and alchemist, and a friend of King Satváhana.[2] The poet Vána, a contemporary of the Chinese pilgrim, also corroborates this account in his life of King Harsha.

In the Buddhist canonical literature, Nágárjuna is a prominent figure as the founder, or, at any rate, the systematiser of the Mádhyamika philosophy. Western scholars maintain that he lived in the 1st century A.D., while according to Rájatarañginí, the "History of Kasmír" by Kalhana Misra (11 century A. D.), Nágárjuna flourished 150 years after Sakyasimha had betaken himself to asceticism, i.e. he lived in the last quarter of the 4th and first quarter of the 3rd century B. C. It is doubtful, however, if Nágárjuna, the philosopher, is the same as Nágárjuna, the alchemist, considering that we find no reference whatever to the processes of distillation. sublimation etc. in the Charaka, the Susruta, and the Vágbhata, though it must be admitted that the latter can lay claim to superior chemical knowledge. (see p. xlviii).

Patañjali.We have also another alchemist in Patañjali, who is better known as the commentator of Pánini. He probably lived in the 2nd century B. C.[3] Sivadása, in his commentary of Chakrapáni, quotes him as an authority on Lohasástra, or the "Science of Iron," and Chakrapáni himself speaks of him as the redactor of Charaka (see p. xv). Bhoja in his Nyáyavártika speaks of Patañjali, as a physician both to the mind and to the body.[4] The moksha (salvation), as taught in the Yoga system of Pátañjali, is also connected with alchemy.[5] We have already seen, while discussing the "Philosophy of Mercury" (see ante p. lxxvi), the Rasáyana or Alchemy was simply regarded as a means to an end—as a path leading to moksha. It is significant that this connection can be traced from so early a date.

Progress of chemical knowledge in Europe.In the present volume we shall seldom have occasion to go beyond the 14th century A. D. It will, perhaps, add to the interest of the subject, if we turn our eyes for a moment to the progress of chemical knowledge in Europe at that time, and the alchemistic ideas and beliefs dominating it. Contemporary with the authors of Rasárnava and Rasartnasamuchchaya, were Roger Bacon (d. 1294), Alertus Maguns, Raymond Lully, and Arnaldus Villanovanus. Roger Bacon does not hesitate to assert that the philosopher's stone was able to transform a million times its weight of base metal into gold. The above-named alchemists are also unanimous in regarding it as a universal medicine, and "it was no unusual assertion that adepts, the fortunate possessors of the panacea, had been able to prolong their lives to 400 years and more."—Meyer. The readers of Rasárnava and the other Tantras will not fail to find that there is much in common between the Hindu alchemists and their European confrères.

Knowledge in practical chemistry, prevalent in India in the 12th and 13th centuries A. D., and perhaps earlier.The knowledge in practical chemistry, prevalent in India in the 12th and 13th centuries A. D., and perhaps earlier, such as we are enabled to glean from Rasárnava and similar works, is distinctly in advance of that of the same period in Europe. It was known for instance that blue vitriol and a variety of the pyrites (see p. 70) yielded an essence in the shape of copper; and calamine, zinc. The colour of flames as a diagnostic test of metals was well understood (p. 68). The metallurgical processes, described under the latter, leave little to improve upon (p. 88), and, indeed, they may be transferred bodily to any treatise on modern chemistry. Even Paracelsus, who flourished some three centuries later, leaves us in the dark as to the nature of his 'zinken,' which he designates a 'semi' or 'bastard' metal. And Libavius (d. 1616) "who stood up manfully against the excesses of Paracelsus, and who vigourously combated the defects in his doctrines, * * * and the employment of "secret remedies," believed in the transmutation of the metals and the efficacy of potable gold.[6] It is not necessary to pursue this subject further here, as details will be found in the chapter on metallurgy (pp. 152-169).

The truth is that up till the time to pseudo-Basil Valentine (ca. 1600 A. D.), very little scientific progress was achieved in Europe. The doctrines of Aristotle and of the Arabian alchemists held the ground, and the enigmatic and mystic language, which was often used as a cloak for ignorance, simply confounded the confusion.

Still more solid progress was effected in pharmacy. For two thousand years or more the Charaka and the Susruta have been paid all the honours of a state-recognised Pharmacopœia. Partly due to their being regarded as of revealed origin, and partly due to that veneration for the past, which is inherent in the Hindu, the text of the above works has seldom been allowed to be tampered with. A critical examination of the Bower Ms. such as we owe to Dr. Hoernle, shows that the recipes of several important preparations agree in all essentials, and sometimes word for word, with those of the Charaka and the Susruta of the existing recensions (see ante p. xix). Mr. Ameer Ali is scarcely correct when he claims that "the Arabs invented chemical pharmacy, and were the founders of those institutions which are now called dispensaries.'[7]

We have only to refer our reader to the chapter on the preparation of caustic alkali, in the Susruta, with the direction that the strong lye is to be "preserved in an iron vessel," as a proof of the high degree of perfection in scientific pharmacy achieved by the Hindus at an early age (p. 37). It is absolutely free from any trace of quackery or charlatanism, and is a decided improvement upon the process described by a Greek writer of the IXth century, as unearthed by M. Berthelot.[8] As regards dispensaries and hospitals, every one knows that Budhistic India was studded with them (vide p. xxxii).

Speaking of the progress of chemistry in Europe in the XVIth century, Prof. Schorlemmer remarks:—

"Up to the XVIth century almost the sole object of chemical research had been to find the philosopher's stone. But now chemistry began to develop itself two new and different paths, opened by two distinguished men—Agricola, the father of metallurgy, and Paracelsus, the founder of Iatro-chemistry or medical chemistry. Both contributed chiefly to the development of inorganic chemistry * * * In opposition to the school of Galen and Auicenna, Paracelsus and his followers chiefly employed metallic preparations as medicines."[9]

Udoy Chand Dutt, in the preface to his Materia Medica of the Hindus, states:—

"The oldest work, containing a detailed account of the calcination or preparation of the different metals (such as gold, silver, iron, mercury, copper, tin and lead) for internal use with formulæ for their administration, is, I believe, a concise treatise on medicinal preparations by Sārngadhara.

This is evidently a mistake. Sārngadhara is simply a compilation based upon the Charaka and the Susruta on the one hand, and the Tántric works described above on the other. It cannot be regarded as going beyond the latter part of the 14th century, and it will come under our notice in the second volume of the present work. In the European histories of chemistry, the credit of being the first to press chemical knowledge into the service of medicine and introduce the use of the internal administration of mercurial preparations, is given to Paracelsus (1493-1541). The Nágárjunas and the Patanjalls of India, however, had the merit of anticipating Paracelsus and his followers by several centuries. The earliest historical record of the internal use of black sulphide of mercury dates so far back as the 10th century A. D. at the latest[10] (see ante p. 59). We have indeed, reasons to suspect that Paracelsus got his ideas from the East, and in Chapter on Arabian indebtedness to India we have pointed out the media through which Indian sciences filtered into Europe.

Dutt says: "We cannot help admiring the ingenuity and the boldness of the Hindu physicians, when we find that they were freely and properly using such powerful drugs as arsenic, mercury, iron, etc., when the Mussulman Hakims around them with imperial patronage and the boasted learning of the West, recording such remarks regarding them as the following:—

"Soomboolkhar, 'the white oxide of arsenic.—' There are six kinds of this, one name Sunkia, the third Godanta, the fourth Darma, the fifth Huldea. The Yunāni physicians do not allow this to form a part of their prescriptions, as they believe it destroys the vital principle. The physicians of India, on the contrary, find these drugs more effectual in many disorders than others of less power such as the calx of metals. For this reason too I am in the habit of seldom giving these remedies internally, but I usually confine my use of them to external application and as aphrodisiacs which I prescribe to a few friends, who may have derived no benefit from Yunāni prescriptions. It is better to use as few of them as possible."[11]

"Pārā, 'Mercury.'—It is very generally used throughout India in many ways, both in its native and prepared state, but in the latter we ought to be very cautious, for it is seldom sufficiently killed or removed from its native state, in which it is a dangerous drug."[12]

"Loha, 'iron.'—It is commonly used by physicians in India, but my advice is to have as little to do with it as possible."[13]

Nor must we forget that so late as 1566 A. D. the Parliament and the Faculty of medicine, Paris, condemned and forbade what was regarded as the dangerous innovations of Paracelsus.[14]

Apart from the historical data already adduced, the above extracts from a Mohammedan writer would show that the Hindus were perhaps the earliest in the field to advocate the internal use of mercury.[12] Ainslie, in a note appended "Lepra Arabum," written in the early part of the last century, thus expresses his views on the subject:—

"It is well known that the Eastern nations were the first who employed mercury in the cure of obstinate, cutaneous and leprous affections; and it may be questioned whether the natives of India were before the Arabian or only second in order in availing themselves of the virtues of that powerful mineral. Rhases,[15] Mesu and Avicenna[16] all notice it, and according to Fallopius, as we find observed by Le Clerc in his "Histoire de la Médicine" pp. 771-791, it was the opinions of those writers which first suggested its use in venereal diseases.[17]

From the evidences we have adduced all along there can now be scarcely any question as regards the priority of the Hindus in making mercurial remedies a speciality; and they are entitled to claim originality in respect of the internal administration of metals generally seeing that the Charaka and the Susruta, not to speak of the later Tantras, are eloquent over their virtues.


  1. "Nagarjuno Bodhisatva was well practised art of compounding medicines; by taking a preparation (pill or cake) he nourished the years of life for many hundreds of years, so that neither the mind nor appearance decayed. Satváha-rája had partaken of this mysterious medicine."—Beal's Buddhist Records of the Western World, vol. II. p. 212.

    Again:—Then "Nágárjuna Bodhisatva, by moistening all the great stones with a divine and superior decoction (medicine or mixture) changed them into gold."—Ibid. p. 216.

  2. Nágárguna was a friend of Satváhana, a king of Kosala country to the South West of Urisya and watered by the upper feeders of the Mahánadi."—Ibid. II. p. 209. As to the age of Satváhana see Burgess' Archæological Survey of S. India. Regarding Nágárjuna see also Introd. a l'histoire du Buddh. Ind. p. 508.
  3. Proof. Bhandarkar: Ind. Antiquary, 1872, pp. 299-302.
  4. "योगेन चित्तस्य पदेन वाचां मलं शरीरस्य तु वैद्यकेन।
    योऽपाकरोत् तं प्रवरं मुनीनां पतञ्जलिं प्राञ्जलिरानतोऽस्मि॥"

    —Bhoja: Nyáyavártika, quoted by Sivaráma, the commentator of Vásavadatta.

  5. The author (Patañjali) adds to the three parts of the path of liberation a fourth one of an illusory nature, called Rasáyana, consisting of alchemistic tricks with various drugs, intended to realise things which by nature are impossible."—Albérúní's 'India'—I. p. 80.
  6. Gesech. d. chem. I. 13.
  7. Hist. of the Saracens, p. 462. (Ed. 1899.)
  8. See p. 22.
  9. Rise and development of Organic chemistry (ed. 1894) p. 9.
  10. In Europe, its use dates from the 17th century. "Das schwarze Schwefelquicksilver lehrte zuerst Furquet de Mayerne im Anfange des 17, Jahrhunderts, durch Zussanmmenreiben von warmen Quicksilver mit geschmolzenem Schwefel darstellen." Kopp. Gesch. 186.
  11. Taleef Shareef trans. George Playfair, p. 99.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Ibid, page 26.
  13. Taleef Shareef, page 146.
  14. Gesch. d. Chem. I, 110.
  15. "Argentum vivum cum extinguitur ardens est, quod scabei, et pediculis auxilium offert"—Rhazes: "de Re med." (lib iii. cap. xxiv). In the days of Pliny the Elder the medicinal virtues of mercury do not appear to have been at all ascertained; that writer termed quicksilver the bane and poison of all things and what would with more propriety be called death silver. "Nat. Hist." lib xxxiii. Cap. vi).
  16. Avicenna says of mercury "argentum vivum extinctum adversus pediculos et lendes cum rosaseo oleo valet." Vide ." lib. ii. tract. ii. p. 119.
  17. Trans. R. As. Soc. (1824-27).