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Transmutation : Ancient Indian Concepts and Practices by B. V. Subbarayappa

The early concept of transmutation had perceivably two facets : one
of converting the base metals into gold of ever-lasting glitter, and
the other of transforming the transient human body into one of
permanence with the soul. The Bhagavadgita says: ". . . The soul has
neither birth nor death; it is not slain when the body is slain; it
is eternally the same. . . just as a person puts on new garments,
giving up the old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material body,
giving up the old and decaying ones".

The exalted imperishable status accorded, over the ages, to the soul
in the percipience of body-soul relationship had in it the seeds of
challenge to make the material mortal body itself immortal. The
responses to this challenge, which were varied in different cultures,
were often associated with a shroud of mystery. It took some time for
the human mind to cast off the esoteric envelope and, as a first
step, to conceive of rejuvenation, thus extending the longevity of
the material body, but within the concept that the body has birth and
death in contradiction to the soul.

In India, the beginnings of such endeavours can be seen in the
Rigveda wherein Somarasa was extolled as an exhilarating divine
elixir. Later in the Ayurvedic classic, Susruta Samhita, Soma elixir,
it was claimed, would enable its consumer to live for ten thousand
years with a youthful body and supernatural powers. The Ayurveda, the
Science of Life par excellence, has eight divisions and one of them
is entitled Rasayana, concerned with rejuvenating elixirs and
processes for arresting physical and mental decay. There are
references in both the Caraka and Susruta Samhitas to several other
compositions with the claim that they would confer on the consumer a
long youthful life of thousands of years. These elixirs were mostly
herbal and, what is more, certain amount of processed gold was added
to some of them to make them more effective. The rasayana of the
Ayurveda, it may be noted, was more in the nature of prolonging the
life of the material body than ‘transmuting’ it into an immortal
state. Even so, it seemed to have paved the way for speculating on
the immortality of the body.

The concept of material immortality per se received its sustenance
from a natural phenomenon, namely, the perennial glitter and colour
of gold, the anointed king of metals. Here was a metal, it was
believed, which had reached the highest state from the other inferior
metals and possessed imperishable characteristics. It was supposed
that the other metals would undergo transformation, eventually into
the immutable gold.

There was a sort of theoretical framework too for such a supposition.
The well-known Greek thinker, Empedocles (5th century b.c.) developed
a theory of four ‘elements’: Earth, Fire, Water and Air and the four
primary qualities: hot, cold, dry

The Four 'Elements' of Empedocles
and moist (wet). Aristotle (384-322 b.c.) conceived of these
‘elements’ and their qualities as emphasising the unity of matter
amidst all the changes. The ‘primary matter’, a potential one, would
become Earth with the pair of primary qualities, cold and dry; water
with cold and wet; Fire with hot and dryness; and Air with hot and
moist, thus explaining the phenomena of change. These postulates held
out the possibility of transmuting inferior metals into silver and
ultimately into gold, by changing their qualities. The most
perceptible of the changes effected was the colour and the object was
to bring about a change in the colour of inferior metals to that of
silver or gold. This theory was adopted by the Greco-Roman
(Hellenistic) and later the Islamic alchemists in furtherance of
their twin objective of the so-called transmutation of metals and the
preparation of elixir of life for attaining material immortality.
Strange it may seem, the Indian doctrine of five elements which had
provided a theoretical foundation for the Ayurveda and for the
explanation of the phenomenal world, did not lead to concepts of the
foregoing type. The Indian five ‘elements’ had also a metaphysical
undertone which often subsumed their physical concepts. Moreover, it
was a holistic doctrine and the concept of change was circumscribed
by it.

The seed ideas of Indian alchemy, which made their appearance in the
fifth-sixth centuries a.d., were at variance with the Hellenistic
ones. For, its inspirational source was not in the West, but in the
Far East, in the Chinese concepts and practices. Indian alchemy had
social compulsions too. The Ayurvedic elixirs and rejuvenating
treatment were reserved only for males of the upper castes, (women
were excluded), as enjoined by both the Caraka and Susruta Samhitas.
But, to live long in perpetual youth and to experience the best in
life have been the goals of all human beings. Such dispositions as
these react vehemently against rigid caste-structures and privileges
of the few. They go out in search of systems which are conducive to
the realisation of their goals. In India, the tantras offered such a
system and, more importantly, admitted into their fold all —
irrespective of caste, creed or sex in an esoteric, but ingenious
manner. The tantric concept of siddhi evolved certain pathways for
disciplined aspirants. And inherent in that concept was the
attainment of bodily immortality with even supernatural powers
(animadi astasiddhi). This was reinforced by the mythical male-female
symbolism, the union sublime of immortality.

The Chinese male-female symbolism of Yin and Yang, mercury-sulphur
union of cinnabar (mercuric sulphide) to which was attributed
extraordinary powers of attaining immortality, found a congenial home
in the Indian Tantric milieu. Buddhist pilgrims and the vajrayana
seemed to have played a seminal role in this alchemical transmission.

Be that as it may, Indian alchemy of both Sanskritic and Tamilian
traditions, developed a wide variety a chemical processes for the
ostensible transmutation of metals and preparation of elixir of life,
in which mercury occupied a prime position. The literature on Indian
alchemy called the Rasasastra is perceptibly voluminous and
methodical in the presentation of a variety of processes whose number
is legion. Of these processes, eighteen samskaras or complex
treatments, which were adopted for the potentiation of mercury,
deserve special mention:
Briefly stated, the eighteen processes concerning mercury as the
central element, are as follows:
1. Svedana: Steaming mercury with a number of plant substances, some
minerals, alkalis and salts;
2. Mardana: Rubbing steamed mercury in a mortar along with some
plant and acidic materials;
3. Murchana: Triturating mercury in a mortar with some more plant
extracts till it loses its own character and form;
4. Uthapana: Steaming mercury again along with alkalis, salts, the
three myrobalans, alum etc., and rubbing mercury again in sunlight so
that the characteristics of mercury, freed from impurities, are
brought into play again;
5. Patana: Three types, viz. urdhva (upwards); adhah (downwards);
and tiryak (sideways); grinding mercury with alkalis, salts and
others, and subjecting the product to distillation;
6. Rodhana: Mixing the distilled mercury with saline water in a
closed pot to restore the ‘vigour or potency’ of mercury;
7. Niyamana: Continuation of the process by steaming mercury for
three days with a number of plant products, alum, borax, iron
sulphate, etc., to restrain the motility of mercury;
8. Sandipana: Steaming this product with alum, black pepper, sour
gruel, alkali and some vegetables substances to ‘kindle’ the desire
of mercury to attain the power of assimilation;
9. Grasa or Gaganagrass: Fixation and assimilation of the ‘essence’
of mica (gagana) to the desired extent;
10. Carana: Boiling this product with sour gruel, leaves of certain
plants, alum and others for a week so that mica is fully assimilated;
11. Garbhadruti: Heating and treating mercury with the desired
metallic substances so that the ‘essence’ of the latter becomes
‘liquified’ and the resultant, after cooling, passes through a piece
of cloth;
12. Bahyadruti: Obtaining ‘essence’ of minerals or metallic
substances also externally;
13. Jarana: Heating the mercurial product with the desired minerals
or metals, alkalis and salts so that they are fully digested or
14. Ranjana: A complex process involving the treatment of mercury
with sulphur, gold, silver and copper as well as salts in such a way
that mercury attains colour;
15. Sarana: Digesting mercury with gold or silver in an oil-base to
increase its ability towards transformation;
16. Kramana: Smearing mercury with several plant extracts, minerals,
milk, etc., and then heating it carefully with a view to enabling it
to possess transmuting powers;
17. Vedhana: Rubbing the resultant mercury with a few select
substances including oil so that it acquires the transmuting power;
18. Bhaksana: Consuming the prescribed quality of the mercurial
product which has undergone the foregoing 17 processes, for the
rejuvenation and longevity.

(This sequence was rigorously followed by Indian alchemists; but
there were variations in the choice of plants and their extracts,
salts, alkaline and acidic substances, minerals and other ingredients).

The important, through esoteric, concept which lay behind these
extremely complex processes was that the mercurial product, after
undergoing sequentially the seventeen processes, was believed to have
all the powers of transmutation. At this stage, it was to be tested
for its efficacy in transmuting base metals into gold and, if the
test was positive, it was to be used for the eighteenth process. The
final product, if consumed in prescribed quantity would, it was
claimed, rejuvenate the body in such a way that it would make the
body as resplendent and imperishable as gold. One could see the ideal
of Philosopher’s Stone of the medieval European alchemy, in the
mercurial product emerging out of the seventeen processes.

There are hundreds of verses in the Rasasastra texts which overtly
deal with a wide variety of processes, some simple and many complex.
Three examples may be cited:
(i) Mercury, cinnabar, pyrites, alum of excellent quality borax,
black pepper — each one part — and sauvarcala salt in equal
proportions to them; six parts of rock salt; powdered iron in the
same proportion; and hundred parts of the juice of Emblic myrobalan,
are to be kept in a stone bowl which is to be deposited in a heap of
cow-dung. After one year, a liquid emerges out of it. This (liquid)
is divine as well as flawless, and is to be compounded with mercury
admixed with pure gold as ‘seed’. This compound possesses the
capability of transmuting a thousand times its weight of all metals
into gold. (Rasopanisat, XVI, 241-245)
(ii) One part of the essence of capula (bismuth compound); two parts
of mercury; four parts of gold (as seed); and sulphur of equal
proportion to that of mercury which is to be mascerated, are to be
heated in a closed crucible. Gold and capula of equal quantities are
to be blended with this mercury. If this mercury is infused with a
hundred times its weight of copper, it makes the latter red and this
attains the power of transmuting a hundred times its weight of silver
into gold.
(Rasasara, XV, 19-22)

(iii) One pala of powdered seed (gold); one pala of pyrites; one pala
of sulphur; one pala of mercury extracted from cinnabar; and one pala
of borax — all together mascerated with the juices of plants endowed
with the properties of ‘fixation’ of mercury. Heated over fire urged
by means of a blow-pipe, mercury attains ‘fixation’ and undergoes
colouration with the aid of sulphur. Blended with an equal weight of
gold by the sarana operation, it is ‘killed’ by heating in a puta.
This mercurial preparation transmutes sixty times its weight of
silver-copper into excellent gold. (Rasasara, XIV,1820)

The technique of effecting transmutation was of five kinds:
1. Lepa Vedha (smearing copper or silver foils with a potent
mercurial product);
2. Ksepa Vedha (throwing such a product into the base metals;
3. Kunta Vedha (pouring the transmuting agent into them);
4. Dhuma Vedha (subjecting the base metal to the action of the fumes
of mercurial preparation); and
5. Sabda Vedha (effecting transmutation by the ‘impact’ of the
transmuting agent)

It is well-nigh impossible even to surmise the nature and extent of
chemical or other types of reactions that occur in the process of the
so-called transmutation, until an experimental verification is
attempted from the modern chemical point of view. It would,
nevertheless, seem that the colour of the ‘inferior’ metal like
copper, tin or lead, would change into that of gold or silver. The
emerging colouration, might be too uniform and intimate enough with
the ‘inferior metal’ to expose, under ordinary conditions, its true
colour. The specific gravity and other physical characteristics of
the so-called transmuted metal might manifest themselves, as a result
of skilful manipulation of the ingredients such as mercury or its
compounds, arsenic sulphides, pyrites, sulphur as well as the
deliberate addition of the noble metals themselves.
Indian alchemists specially of Tamil Nadu, knew the distinction
between the transmuted ‘gold’ and the real one. A Tamil text
(Amudakalaijnanam by Agastya) states clearly that if the artificial
‘gold’ and the natural gold are separately subjected to prolonged
heating or calcination, the former gives out ashes and the real face
of the metal appears, while the natural gold remains uneffected by
this method.
The transmutation of metals and the preparation of elixir of life
which were vigorously pursued by Indian alchemists, were more
esoteric than scientific, despite their attempts at classification
and selection of substances, and the use of a wide variety of
apparatus (mostly earthern), for distillation, sublimation,
incineration, trituration and the like, which the Rasasastra texts
describe meticulously and in great detail. To transmute the base
metals into the noble one, and to make the perishable body an ever
immortal one, were goals ever in sight, but never reached.
It was, nevertheless, a pursuit which was not without a spin-off and
that was in the direction of formulating certain mineral medicines.
Mercury, sulphur, mica, arsenic and iron compounds, alum, gems and
others on the one hand and on the other, metals like gold, silver,
copper and its alloy brass, and lead were processed elaborately by
using a wide variety of apparatus. Generally it was believed by the
rasavadins that the minerals and metals would not acquire the
desirable iatro-chemical properties unless they were treated with one
medicinal plant or the other. The rasasastra texts give details of
the preparation of a large number of medicines, and their therapeutic
effects as well as their dosages. One of the popular preparations
called Makaradhvaja contains specially processed mercuric sulphide
and stimulants like camphor, pepper and cloves. During its
preparation a certain amount of purified gold is also added.

The most important medicinal preparations, as described in the
Rasasastra texts, relate to a class of what are called the bhasma of
metals and minerals. Although the process leading to the formation of
a bhasma is one of incineration of the metal or mineral concerned,
the original substance is subjected to several processes before it
undergoes prolonged heating. Even the heating known as the Putapaka,
is carried out of several days with extreme care. Various types of
Putas are mentioned in the texts, recommending a particular puta for
the desired product, along with its measurement and the quantity of
cow-dung cakes or husk to be used for prolonged heating in order to
obtain the most efficient composition.

This method is believed to impart extraordinary qualities, both
physico-chemical and medicinal, on to the treated substance. A bhasma
is an extremely fine powder, very light and, when thrown on water,
just spreads itself as a thin film on it. Of the bhasmas, that of
mica, gold and silver are most widely used in minute quantities and
are generally mixed with other medicinal compositions.

The Siddha (medical) System which is mostly prevalent in Tamil Nadu,
appears to have been evolved from the earlier alchemical concepts and
practices. Though the System had originally its own ways of preparing
certain substances of medicinal value, like muppu (a specially
prepared mixture of three salts), it assimilated gradually some of
the alchemical preparations and developed a number of mineral
compositions which go under the names, bhaspam (Skt.: bhasma),
cendurams (Skt.: sindura) and cunnams (probably calcium compounds or
earthly substances).

There is no denying that the Indian alchemists had realised the
importance of medicinal preparation more than of the transmutation of
base metals into gold. In the West, such a realisation came about
only in the sixteenth century a.d., as a result of the ceaseless
efforts of several thoughtful iatro-chemists led by Paracelsus. But
in India, a trend in this direction could be perceived even in the
eleventh century a.d. Although the Rasasastra is not regarded as an
integral part of the Ayurveda, some of the medicinal compositions of
the former have found a place for themselves in the traditional
medical care in India.

Primary Sources
Rasahrdaya-tantra of Govinda Bhagavatpada: (ed.) Jadavji Trikumji
Acarya, Bombay, (eds.) B.V. Subbarayappa et. al., (under publication
by INSA) 1911.
Rasakaumudi of Jnanacandra Sharman: (ed.) S.S. Pranacarya, Lahore
Rasamrtam: (ed.) Jadavji Trikumji Acarya, New Delhi (1951).
Rasapaddhati of Bindu Pandita: (ed.) Madhava Pandita, Bombay (1925).
Rasasanketakalika: (ed.) Jadavji Trikumji Acarya, Bombay (1912).
Rasaprakasasudhakara of Yasodhara: (ed.) Jadavji Trikumji Acarya,
Bombay (1912).
Rasarnava: (ed.) P.C. Rayand Harish Candra Kaviratna, Calcutta (1910).
Rasarnavakalpa: (eds.) Mira Roy and B.V. Subbarayappa, New Delhi (1976).
Rasaratnakara of Nityanatha Siddha: edited (annoon) with Hindi
commentary, Bombay (1897).
Rasaratnasamuccaya of Vagbhata: (ed.) Vinayak Apte, Poona (1890).
Rasasara of Govindacarya: (ed.) Jadavji Trikumji Acarya, Bombay (1912).
Rasendracintamani of Ramachandra: (ed.) Jivananda Vidyasagar,
Calcutta (1878).
Rasendracudamani of Somadeva: (ed.) Yadav Sarman, Lahore (1932).
Rasatarangini: (ed.) Sadananda Sarma, New Delhi (1953).
Rasopanisat: (ed.) K. Sambasiva Sastry, Trivandrum (1928).
The Rgveda: (tr.) H.H. Wilson, 6 vols, London (1860).
(t.) R.T.H. Griffith, Banaras, (1963) (reprint).
Holmyard, E.J., Alchemy, Penguin Books, London (1957).
Ray P., (ed.), History of Chemistry in Ancient and Medieval India,
Calcutta (1956).
Ray P.C., History of Hindu Chemistry (2 vols), Calcutta (1902, 1905).
Read, John, Through Alchemy to Chemistry, London (1957).
Subbarayappa, B.V., ‘Chemical Practices and Alchemy’, In A Concise
History of Science in India, (eds.) D.M. Bose, S.N. Sen, and B.V.
Subbarayappa, New Delhi (1971).
Taylor, Sherwood, The Alchemist, London (1958).


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  2. the things that are related to the soul are so interesting and you can spend a lot of time in search it but you can learn a litlle.

  3. Really interesting because I knew few things about transmutation it's something new for me I thought it was related to the soul but in other way, for example when the soul leaves the body and we can see our body through the soul, that's exciting.

  4. Biological transmutation, photosynthesis, acquiring the energy necessary for supporting vital processes by metabolizing nutrients are far from being new entries to a specialist in biology or physiology. But these processes are still hiding many mysteries. According to conventional science we cannot separate carbon from CO2 but at very high temperatures. Some animal species go through long periods of hibernation, and while food and water are not supplied to their body, this maintains its vitalitaty and functioning in very good conditions. The human being cannot live for an indefinite period of time without food and water. These are only a few enigmas.
    I became interested in the issue of the so-called paranormal phenomena as far as 1990, under the impact of the enthusiasm of the period. At that time, my interest was rather theoretical than practical, as initially supplied by the sensational mediatic coverage, which enabled the access to this information (documentary and SF films, esoteric literature and other resources). With the time being I understood that, in reality, a more profound mystery was hidding behind the sensational. I pursued the discovery of the mystery key by going deeper into theoretical studies and by extending them to all aspects of paranormal phenomenology. But theoretical studies were not sufficient for a profound understanding of these aspects, while being subsequently supplemented by 14 years of practice and experiments. At the beginning of the year 2006, I succeeded in going beyond an important barrier, which determined me to write this book, even if, at the beginning, I didn’t want it because, in the same period, I used to be involved in finalising another book of about 600 pages, dedicated to climate changes.
    This book aims to establish a closer relationship between medical sciences and the somehow „enigmatic” biochemical and biophysical aspects of the human being. Until now, they have been approached by mystics, in an obsessive extended measure, from a unilateral mystic-religious perspective, with far too many gaps.

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