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asian medicine 8 (03) 540
Perfect Medicine
Mercury in Sanskrit Medical Literature
Dagmar Wujastyk
University of Zrich
This article gives an overview of the earliest uses of mercury in classical South Asian
medicine up to the nineteenth century, tracing and discussing important stages in the
development of mercury processing. The use of unprocessed mercury might date back
to the period when the oldest Indian medical compendia, the Carakasahit and the
Surutasahit, were composed. It is certain that medical compounds containing
apparently unprocessed mercury were used by the time the works ascribed to
Vgbhaa, the Agahdayasahit and the Agasagraha, were written (c.
early seventh century CE). However, with one notable exception, it was only from the
thirteenth century onwards that ways of processing mercury were developed or
adopted from alchemical sources in ayurvedic medicine. Elaborate procedures were
applied for the purifying and calcining of mercury and for extracting mercury from
cinnabar. Through these procedures, mercury was meant to be perfected, i.e. made
safe for human consumption as well as efficacious as a remedy. By the sixteenth cen-
tury, the use of processed mercury had become standard in ayurvedic medicine for a
great number of diseases, and processed mercury was considered extremely potent
and completely safe: a perfect medicine.
Ayurveda medical history alchemy mercury processing of mercury
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asian medicine 8 (3) 540

[Its names are] prada, rasadhtu, rasendra, mahrasa, capala, ivavrya,

rasa, sta, ivhvaya. Mercury has all the six flavours and is unctuous; it
mitigates all three humours and is an elixir of life; it assimilates to itself
and it is a powerful aphrodisiac; it always strengthens eyesight; it is declared
the destroyer of all diseases and especially removes all skin diseases.
After it has been solidified, it cures disease, having been bound, it lets
one move in the sky, having been killed, it gives youth. What is more com-
passionate than mercury? Be it an incurable disease or one for which
there is no treatment, mercury removes the diseases of men, elephants
and horses.
Bhvapraka, Prvakhaa, Dhtvdivarga 909ab, 9495, sixteenth
century CE

Mercury in the Older Ayurvedic Works:

First to Twelfth Centuries CE
Our knowledge of Indian medical literature is at present far from complete,
and any attempt at a survey of particular themes within the ayurvedic corpus
is limited by the availability of its texts as well as our knowledge of their exis-
tence. According to Meulenbelds comprehensive survey of the corpus of
Sanskrit medical literature,1 more than 100 medical works (that we know of)
were composed between the beginning of the Common Era and 1500 CE.2
Of these, four date to the first half of the first millennium CE, 27 to the second
half of the first millennium, and nearly 80 works to the period 10001500 CE. In
the following centuries, literary production increased, and several hundred
works were added to the older treatises. It is not possible to consider the con-
tents of all these works (which are in any case not all available in either print
or manuscript form), and it is very difficult to choose a representative selection
1 Meulenbeld 19992002.
2 It is often not possible to date ayurvedic works with any accuracy, since the texts (especially
the older ones) often have complicated transmission histories and rarely furnish the reader
with any information on when they were written. The dating of ayurvedic works is in such
cases based on clues from within the texts that point to the place or time of their composi-
tion or on the texts relative chronology to each other.
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asian medicine 8 (3) 540
from such a large number of works. However, some works are considered more
central to the ayurvedic tradition than others. There are a number of ways
of identifying a work as important to the ayurvedic tradition. For example,
the importance or popularity of a text is indicated by how often its manu-
scripts were copied, how often it is quoted in other medical works, how many
commentaries were written on it, whether it was translated into other lan-
guages, and finally, whether it is still used in ayurvedic education, research, and
practice today.3 This lets us arrive at a somewhat more manageable though
admittedly not universally accepted list of core texts. A selection of these were
used for the present study, supplemented at times with less important treatises
of particular interest, in the hope that the selected works will highlight some of
the most important trends in the use of mercury in ayurvedic medicine even if
they do not represent the complete picture.
The medical use of mercury in medicine has a long tradition in India. There
are claims that recipes containing mercury can be found in the oldest of the
classical Sanskrit medical texts known to us, the Carakasahit and the
Surutasahit (c. first and third century CE, respectively).4 A verse in the
Carakasahit in a section on skin disease states that rasa, which cures all
diseases, should be used by persons afflicted with skin disease.5 According
to Dutt6 the commentators interpret rasa as mercury. However, as the term
rasa signifies many other things besides mercury, such as the sap or juice of
plants or fruits, etc., one cannot decide with any certainty that rasa indeed
means mercury here, though it also cannot be entirely discounted. In the
Surutasahit, we find a curious reference to mercury in a chapter on
poisons, in which Suruta claims that playing various musical instruments
smeared with anti-poison will cure food poisoning in animals and humans.
One of the ingredients of Surutas anti-poison paste is sutra, which is
interpreted as mercury in alhaas commentary, the Nibandhasagraha
(c. twelfth century CE).7
It is certain that medical compounds containing apparently unpro-
cessed mercury were used by the time the works ascribed to Vgbhaa, the
3 See Wujastyk 2012, p. 18, on the topic of the core texts of the ayurvedic tradition.
4 As mentioned, the dating of the older ayurvedic works is fraught with uncertainty. Dating the
Carakasahit to the first, and the Surutasahit to the third centuries CE is a very rough
estimate that does not reflect their complicated transmission histories. For a more detailed
discussion of the issues surrounding the dating of these works, see Meulenbeld, 19992002,
IA, pp. 10515 (on the Carakasahit) and pp. 33344 (on the Surutasahit).
5 The passage in question is Carakasahit, Cikitssasthna 7.71.
6 Dutt 1922, p. 27.
7 See Surutasahit, Kalpasthna 3.1315 and Wujastyk 2003, pp. 789, on this section in the
Surutasahit and the commentator alhaas interpretation.
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asian medicine 8 (3) 540
Agahdayasahit and the Agasagraha, were written (c. early sev-
enth century CE). For example, both works prescribe a medicinal paste for the
treatment of the eye disease timira that contains rasendra, an unequivocal
term for mercury.8 The Agahdayasahit also has a recipe for a topical
cream against freckles, where the term for mercury is prada.9 The A-
gahdayasahit further prescribes prada as an ingredient of a rejuvenating
tonic (rasyana), the first recipe for the internal use of mercury.10
The Jain medical treatise Kalyakraka (c. ninth century CE) by Ugrditya
is the earliest medical text to mention procedures for purifying (odhana) and
calcining mercury (mraa, killing, i.e., the calcination or powdering of mer-
cury which make it fit for application as a medicine).11 If its dating to the ninth
century is correct, its descriptions of mercury processing are among the earli-
est in Sanskrit literature available to us at present. The processing and calcina-
tion of mercury are also described at length in texts belonging to the genre
of rasastra (alchemy), the earliest works of which might predate the
No other contemporary medical text we know of at present contains instruc-
tions similar to those of the Kalyakraka. The Siddhayoga by Va, which
dates to about the ninth or tenth century, prescribes an ointment made of
datura (dhattra)13 and mercury (rasendra) against lice, but does not describe
any procedures for processing mercury.14 The eleventh-century Cikitssagraha
8 Agahdayasahit, Uttarasthna 13.36 and Agasagraha, Uttarasthna 49.392.
9 Agahdayasahit, Uttarasthna 32.31.
10 See Agahdayasahit, Uttarasthna 39.161.
11 See Meulenbeld 19992002, IIA, p. 152, on mercury in the Kalyakraka.
12 For example, the early alchemical treatise Rasendramagala of Ngrjuna Siddha con-
tains chapters describing the killing and solidifying, the making into ash and binding of
mercury. See Wujastyk 1984, pp. 778, for an overview of chapter contents of the
Rasendramagala. It should be noted that alchemical works (rasastra) are considered
a separate genre from medical literature, though alchemical texts often contain large sec-
tions on iatrochemistry. The development of ayurvedic iatrochemistry seems to have its
origins in rasastra literature, as methods of processing and using mineral- and metal-
based drugs first described in rasastra works were incorporated into ayurvedic medi-
cine. Meulenbeld 19992002, IA, p. 4, notes that rasastra and Ayurveda are overlapping
areas and became intimately connected in the course of time. The merging of Indian
alchemical and medical traditions has to date not been studied in any detail and would
provide an interesting area of research.
13 In this article, I use English words for plants where I could find appropriate translations.
In the other cases, I use botanical terms. Not all ayurvedic plants have English equiva-
lents, and even the botanical identification can be difficult, in which case I provide the
Sanskrit term.
14 See Meulenbeld 19992002, IIA, p. 80, on mercury in the Siddhayoga.
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asian medicine 8 (3) 540
(also called Cakradatta) by Cakrapidatta, which gives about nine recipes for
mercurial medicines, all for internal use, describes a simple procedure for puri-
fying mercury which involves macerating mercury with the juice of a number
of plants (ginger, castor oil plant, black night-shade, and Sesbania aculeata),
but does not mention calcination processes.15 Vagasena, who wrote the
Cikitssrasagraha in around the eleventh or twelfth century, seems to have
known about some procedures for purifying and thickening or solidifying mer-
cury, since he mentions mercury together with the technical terms vimrchita
(solidified), mrchana (solidifying), and uddha (purified).16 However, he does
not describe the actual procedures for arriving at purified or solidified
Mercury Processing in the rgadharasahit:
Thirteenth Century CE
Some 400 years after the Kalyakraka (if its dating to the ninth century is
correct), an elaborately formulated system of processing and using mercury
appears in the rgadharasahit. Its long chapter on mercury contains one
quite complicated recipe for the purification of mercury (rasaodhana), one
recipe for purifying sulphur (gandhakaodhana), two recipes for extracting
mercury from cinnabar (daradaodhana), four recipes for giving mercury a
mouth to devour other metals, i.e. to amalgamate with them, four recipes for
the killing, i.e. turning mercury into ash, and nearly 50 recipes for medicines
prepared from the above products.17
These are the instructions given in the rgadharasahit for purifying
One should place mercury in a receptacle of black mustard and garlic,
enclose it with cloth, and steam it with sour gruel (kjika)18 in the cradle
apparatus (dolikyantra) for three days. One should grind the mercury for
one day with an equivalent amount of aloe juice, then one should grind
it for one day with a decoction of leadwort, and one should also grind it
with the juice of black night-shade for a day. In like manner, mercury is
15 See Meulenbeld 19992002, IIA, p. 88, on mercury compounds in the Cikitssagraha.
For a discussion of the ayurvedic purification processes, see the section Concluding
reflections below.
16 See Cikitssrasagraha, Rasyandhikra 264, 287, and 461, respectively.
17 rgadharasahit 2.12.
18 Kjika is typically fermented rice or barley gruel.
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asian medicine 8 (3) 540
diligently ground with a decoction of the three myrobalans. One should
separate the mercury from them, having rinsed it with sour gruel. Then,
having placed the mercury and half its amount of rock salt on a grind
stone, one should grind them continuously with lime juice for one day.
Then, the mercury is likewise ground with equal amounts of, first of
all, ammonium chloride, black mustard, garlic, and with sour gruel. Then,
one should dry it, form a round disk and coat it with asafoetida. One
should encase it inside a vessel consisting of two bowls. A wise person
should fill the lower pot with salt and should firmly seal it. Having dried
it, and having placed a fire underneath, one should sprinkle it repeatedly
with water from above.
Then, one should make a strong fire underneath it for three hours.
That way, one causes upward condensation. The mercury becomes free
from blemishes. Now, the best of mercury that sticks onto the upper pot
can be collected.19
These instructions describe several of the eight main standard procedures of
mercury processing (aasaskra) detailed in alchemical works. These are
1. svedana (steaming), 2. mardana (triturating), 3. mrcchana (thickening/
solidifying), 4. utthpana (resurrecting), 5. ptana (distilling), 6. bodhana
(awakening), 7. niymana (regulating/restraining), and 8. dpana (kindling).20
The procedures in the rgadharasahit include svedana (steaming), mar-
dana (triturating), and utthpana (sublimation). Though the technical term is
not used here, the second to fourth steps in the procedure (in which mercury
is triturated with leadwort, aloe, and the three myrobalans, and then washed
with sour gruel) could also be categorised as mrcchana (solidifying), there
being an overlap in technique (of grinding the ingredients together) and sub-
stances used.
Three further steps in mercury processing are described in the
1. Maceration with certain poisonous plant materialsthe nine main poi-
sonous plants (via) and the seven mildly poisonous plants (upavia),
or with other herbal substances, salts, or even certain insects.21 This
19 rgadharasahit 2.12.413.
20 See Dole and Paranjpe 2004, pp. 90108 and White 1996, pp. 2659, on the saskras for
mercury processing in alchemical literature. There are 18 saskras altogether, of which
eight are supposed to be used to prepare mercury medicines.
21 This is described in rgadharasahit 2.12. 1824.
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asian medicine 8 (3) 540
causes mercury to lose its wings (chinnapaka), i.e., it suppresses its vol-
atility. It also gives mercury a mouth (mukha) with which to devour
(gras) other metals, i.e. it enhances its ability to amalgamate with other
2. Assimilation of sulphur to mercury (gandhakajraa) by grinding sul-
phur and purified mercury together, enclosing them in a sealed container
with slaked lime and heating the container. This is also supposed to
enhance the capability of mercury to absorb other metals.23
3. Killing mercury, i.e. reducing it to a fine ash or oxide (bhasman). The
reason for doing this (though not mentioned in this text) is that ash of
mercury, unlike liquid mercury, is thought to be absorbable by the human
body. Mercury ash is produced by mixing mercury with various sub-
stances (for example, with soot, sulphur, ammonium chloride, and some
acidic liquid) and heating them in a sealed container (a glass bottle, or a
crucible made from mud or plant materials).24
The recipes for mercury medicines that follow are diverse in production meth-
ods, ways in which they are applied and diseases they are meant to treat.
A common denominator of all recipes is the occurrence of sulphur as one of
the ingredients. Mercury is ingested mixed with honey or ghee, as a beverage,
or in the form of pills. It is also applied as an eye ointment, smeared into the
nose, rubbed into a small incision in the skin, or used topically on areas of the
skin affected by skin disease.25 Diseases or conditions to be treated with the
various medicines span from fevers (the disease category, not the symptom of
heightened body temperature) to digestive complaints (diarrhoea, constipa-
tion, indigestion, colics, etc.), wasting (possibly tuberculosis), and skin dis-
eases (including leprosy). Mercury medicines are also prescribed as what we
now term general tonics and aphrodisiacs, which is expressed in phrases, such
as the user becomes capable of copulating with many women or the person
obtains radiance in the face and strength in the body.26
22 rgadharasahit 2.12.1824. White 1996, p. 461, note 166, explains that clipping the
wings of volatile mercury is the remedy for cpalyadoa, the flaw of instability. This is
effected through niymana (regulation), the seventh of the eighteen alchemical
saskras. White gives Rasahdayatantra 4.5 and Rasendracmai 16.4, 44, 525, 75, as
his sources. Giving mercury a mouth to devour metals is meant to be the result of the
saskras of awakening (bodhana) or kindling (dpana). See White 1996, p. 267.
23 rgadharasahit 2.12.259.
24 rgadharasahit 2.12.2942.
25 See rgadharasahit 2.12.135, 136, 1216 and 1903, respectively.
26 See, for example, rgadharasahit 2.12.266 and 275 for descriptions of such effects.
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rgadhara, the author (or compiler) of the rgadharasahit, con-
sciously sought to make his work concise and simple to use. He noted that his
treatise collects in one place just the bare essentials.27 Therefore, although we
encounter in this work a much more elaborate description of mercury process-
ing and a greater number of recipes for mercurial medicines (for a much wider
range of diseases) than in the older medical works, we can still assume the
chapter on mercury medicines to be a selection from much richer source mate-
rials. There are clear signs for rgadharas chapter being a synopsis of more
detailed descriptions from other alchemical works. For example, as noted,
rgadhara uses alchemical technical terms and metaphorical language for
the procedures: processed mercury has a mouth to devour other metals, or it
has its wings severed.28 rgadhara also mentions the use of alchemical
apparatuses, such as the dolikyantra (an appliance for steaming drugs con-
tained in a cloth; see infra, Fig. 4) or the kacchapayantra (an appliance for dis-
tillation), but gives no systematic explanation of their use.29 There is generally
little information on methodology. We are, for example, not told why mercury
has to be purified, bound, amalgamated, or made into ash. Given that
rgadhara defines his work as the bare essentials, he presumably thought
his readers would beat least to some extentfamiliar with alchemical ter-
minology and procedures, and therefore judged further explanations on the
outlined procedures to be unnecessary.
Mercury Processing in the Bhvapraka:
Sixteenth Century CE
Searching for an ayurvedic work that gives more context and a somewhat clearer
methodology for the medical use of mercury brings us to a treatise written
about 300 years later: the Bhvapraka by Bhvamira. In this sixteenth-
century work, the processing of mercury is systematically discussed at some
length in two places in the glossary section, namely in a chapter on metals and
minerals (Prvakhaa, Dhtvdivarga 86106) and in a chapter on the purify-
ing and killing of metals and minerals (Prvakhaa, Dhtvdiodhanamra-
27 rgadharasahit 3.13.128. Wujastyk 2003, p. 255.
28 These terms are found in rgadharasahit 2.12. 201.
29 See rgadharasahit 2.12.5 and 25 for the mention of dolikyantra and kacchapayan-
tra, respectively. The dolikyantra or dolyantra will be described in detail below. For a
description of the kacchapayantra (as described in the yurvedasaukhya), see Dash and
Lalitesh Kashyap 2002, p. 157.
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asian medicine 8 (3) 540
avidhiprakaraa 143204). We also find many recipes for mercury medicines
scattered throughout the therapy section of the treatise.
In the chapter on metals and minerals, the section on mercury begins
with an abbreviated retelling of the mythical origin of mercury, according to
which semen of the god iva fell on the ground and then became mercury.30
Bhvamira differentiates between four kinds of mercury: white, red, yellow,
and black mercury. These are found in four different regions and each is asso-
ciated with one of the four Vedic divisions of classes in society (brahmaa,
katriya, vaiya, and dra). According to Bhvamira, white mercury is best for
curing diseases, red mercury for rejuvenation therapy, yellow for the transmu-
tation of metals, and black for moving in the sky.31 Mercury is defined as having
all the six flavours (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent) and as
being unctuous. Significantly, it is understood to mitigate all three humours,
i.e. to redress any potential disturbance to their quantity or movement through
the body.32 This makes it a panacea, and indeed, Bhvamira calls mercury
an elixir of life and the destroyer of all diseases that will cure even incur-
able diseases. Specific applications include using it as an aphrodisiac, to
strengthen eyesight and particularly to remove all skin diseases. Bhvamira
adds that (a)fter it has been solidified (mrcchita), it cures disease, having
been bound (bandhanam anubhya), it lets one move in the sky, having been
killed (mta), it gives youth.33
30 On the mythical origination of mercury see Sarma and Sahai 1995, especially pp. 1535.
31 On the property of mercury of moving in the sky (or letting move in the sky) when bound,
see White 1996, p. 212: Mercury, when bound, is said to become khecari, possessed of the
power of flight, a power it transmits to the alchemist who holds a capsule of said mercury
in his mouth. Whites source for this is Rasrava 2.89; 11.151; see White 1996, p. 461, note 165.
The Rasrava is one of the earliest Indian alchemical works transmitted to us at present.
32 The doctrine of the three humours, wind (vta), bile (pitta) and phlegm (kapha), is one
of the key concepts in ayurvedic medicine, though the classical texts display some dispar-
ity in their definition of how the humours function. In the seminal seventh-century trea-
tise Agahdayasahit, they are defined as both necessary substances in the body
that fundamentally sustain its functioning and as potential sources for the arising of dis-
ease. Disease may arise when there is an imbalance in the proportional quantity of the
humours, i.e. a pathological predominance of one or two of the humours or conversely
their pathological diminution; if one or several of the humours spread outside their nor-
mal pathways; or if one or several of them are hindered from flowing through their nor-
mal pathways. Mitigating a humour means to counteract its abnormal growth and thus
avoiding its overflow from the area that is supposed to contain it, or to counteract its
diminution and its decreased flow and functioning in the body. See Agahdayasahit
Strasthna 11. Also see Benner 2005, pp. 38545.
33 Bhvapraka, Prvakhaa, Dhtvdivarga 945.
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asian medicine 8 (3) 540
The Bhvapraka on the Dangers of Mercurial Treatments and
Appliances to Process Mercury
The following section (verses 905) is dedicated to the dangers of mercurial
treatments. Bhvamira explains that mercury can have two kinds of faults,
innate (naisargika) and acquired (updhija) ones. The innate faults of mer-
cury are defined as dirt (mala), poison (via), fire (vahni), heaviness
(gurutva), and being unsteady (capala); the acquired faults are the admixture
of tin (vaga/ trapu) and lead (nga).34 Each fault is associated with a par-
ticular problem: dirt causes fainting, poison kills, fire causes a severe burning
sensation, heaviness leads to exhaustion and unsteadiness to the loss of viril-
ity; tin produces skin disease (kuha: perhaps leprosy) and lead causes impo-
tence. Bhvamira notes that some physicians mention further faults in
mercurythis is probably a reference to the seven coatings (kacuka) of mer-
cury that are outlined in rasastra literature.35 The faults of fire, poison, and
dirt are considered the most severe, and Bhvamira warns that special atten-
tion must be given to their eradication. In the chapter on purification methods,
he explains that aloe removes dirt (mala), the three myrobalans remove fire
(here: agni) and leadwort removes poison (via), and that therefore, mercury
should be triturated seven times with a mixture of these substances.36 The
glossary section on mercury concludes with the emphatic warning that mer-
cury must be purified before use, since consuming mercury that has not been
subjected to different processes would destroy the body or give rise to severe
diseases, such as leprosy.37
The methods Bhvamira suggests for ridding mercury of its impurities are
laid out in Bhvapraka, Prvakhaa, Dhtvdiodhanamraavidhipra-
karaa 143204. General procedures for purification processes and the appa-
ratuses used for them are described in the same chapter, in verses 2142,
following a section on the purification of gold.
The first procedure outlined by Bhvamira is pit cooking (puapka).
Pit cooking is meant to reduce metal to ash, so that it cannot transmute any
further. For this, a pit is dug and filled with dried cow pats. The sealed ves-
sel (containing the mercury and other substances) is placed on top and cov-
ered with an equal amount of cow pats which are then set on fire. Depending
on how big the pit is, the procedure is called mahpua (great pit), gajapua
34 One should note that neither tin nor lead are considered poisonous substances on their
own (once they have been purified), but are listed as medicinal substances in Bhvapraka,
Prvakhaa, Dhtvdivarga 2932 (tin) and 348 (lead).
35 See Dole and Paranjpe 2004, p. 75, on the coatings or layers of impurities called kacuka.
36 Bhvapraka, Prvakhaa, Dhtvdiodhanamraavidhiprakaraa 165.
37 Bhvapraka, Prvakhaa, Dhtvdivarga 100.
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asian medicine 8 (3) 540
(elephant pit), vrhapua (boar pit), kaukkuapua (cock pit) or kapoapua
(dove pit).38
Bhvamira further lists the following appliances:
1. Govarapua (pulverised cow dung pit, see Fig. 1): a big earthen pot is used
instead of a dug-out pit. It is filled with shredded cow dung. A sealed con-
tainer is placed on the cow dung and also covered by it.
Figure Govarapua39
2 Bhapua (pot pit, see Fig. 2): a big pot is filled with paddy husk. The
sealed container is placed on top and the pot is covered with a lid. A fire
is lit underneath.
Figure Bhapua40
3. Vlukyantra (sand apparatus, see Fig. 3): a sealed glass bottle contain-
ing the mercury, etc. is placed in an earthen pot, which is then filled with
fine sand. The pot is placed on a fire.
38 Bhvaprak, Prvakhaa, Dhtvdiodhanamraavidhiprakaraa 219.
39 This sketch was prepared by Brigitta Gerke-Jork.
40 Ibid.
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asian medicine 8 (3) 540
Figure 3 A nineteenth-century version of the Vlukyantra41
4. Dolyantra (see Fig. 4). A number of drugs and mercury are macerated
and made into a ball, which is enveloped in leaves and then fastened with
string. A pot is half filled with sour (fermented) liquid, and placed on an
oven. The bolus is tied to a stick placed over the mouth of the pot. The
liquid is brought to the boil so that it will foment the drugs inside the
Figure 4 A nineteenth-century version of the Dolyantra or Dolikyantra42
41 Ray 1903, p. 271.
42 Ibid., p. 273.
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asian medicine 8 (3) 540
5. Svedanayantra (see Fig. 5). Water is placed into a pot. The mouth of the
pot is covered with a thick cloth. The drugs to be steamed are spread over
the cloth, which is then covered with a tight lid. The pot is kept on a fire.
As the water boils, its steam cooks the drugs.
Figure 5 A nineteenth-century version of the Svedanayantra43
6. Vidydharayantra (see Fig. 6). Mercury is macerated with other sub-
stances and made into a paste. The paste is smeared onto the inside of a
pot. A second pot is placed over the first and their joint is sealed with
mud. The upper pot is filled with water, and both pots are set on a fire for
15 hours. After the pots have cooled down, mercury is found adhering to
the bottom of the top pot.
Figure 6 A nineteenth-century version of the Vidydharayantra44
43 Ibid.
44 Ibid., p. 279.
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asian medicine 8 (3) 540
7. Bhdharayantra (earth-bearing apparatus; see Fig. 7): mercury is macer-
ated with other drugs and made into a paste, which is put into a crucible
(ma). The sealed crucible is placed into a pit in the ground that is then
filled with sand. Heaps of cow dung are placed on top and set on fire.
When the pot has cooled down, the drugs are taken out and made use of.
Figure 7 Bhdharayantra45
8. Damaruyantra (drum container; see Fig. 8): the mouths of two pots of
equal size are placed together and sealed with mud. The pots are addi-
tionally fastened with ropes.46
Figure 8 Damaruyantra47
45 This sketch was prepared based on Chandra Murthy 2008, p. 86 (artist: Brigitta
46 Bhvaprak Prvakhaa Dhtvdiodhanamraavidhiprakaraa 3042.
47 This sketch was prepared based on Sen Gupta 1999, p. 41, and Chandra Murthy 2008, p. 78
(artist: Brigitta Gerke-Jork).
29 perfect medicine
asian medicine 8 (3) 540
The Bhvaprakas section on the purification of mercury follows the first five
steps mentioned as the standard saskras in alchemical literature: first 1. sve-
dana (steaming), then 2. mardana (trituration), followed by 3. mrcchana
(thickening/solidifying), 4. rdhvaptana (upward distillation), and finally 5.
adhaptana (downward distillation). Similar concepts of the final three
alchemical saskras, i.e. awakening (bodhana), taming (niymana), and
kindling (dpana), are briefly described in verses 1678, where Bhvamira
explains how mixing mercury with certain substances turns mercury into a
eunuch, i.e. makes it inactive; how steaming it with other drugs makes mer-
cury strong again; and how boiling it with another substance returns its lustre.
Below the five saskras are explained in more detail:
1. Svedana (steaming)
Bhvamira gives two recipes for purifying mercury through subjecting it to
steaming (svedana). According to the first, the husks of a variety of grains are
removed. The grains are then placed in a large mud pot and covered with water.
The pot is covered with a lid and kept undisturbed until the liquid in it has
fermented. A number of plants are made into a paste and added to the sour
liquid. The fermented liquid is known as dhnymla (sour grain gruel). If
dhnymla is not available, one can also use ranla (fermented rice and bar-
ley water). Bhvamira does not use the term dolyantra for his apparatus, but
his description seems to match Fig. 4.
Additional plants and salt are mixed with some of the sour liquid and made
into a paste. This paste is smeared onto a small piece of cloth. Mercury is placed
on it and covered with some more paste. The cloth is folded into a bundle, fas-
tened well with threads and then tied to a stick. The stick is placed over the
mouth of the pot so that the bolus containing mercury will be exposed to the
steam of the sour liquid, once it has been brought to the boil. The pot is kept on
a fire for three days.48 In the second set of instructions, there is an alternative
recipe for the herbal and salt paste that contains fewer plants.
2. Mardaa (trituration)
There are two recipes:
In the first, mercury is rubbed together with brick powder, slaked lime, curds,
jaggery, rock salt, black mustard seeds, and chimney-soot. In the second, mer-
cury is rubbed together with a decoction of kumrika, leadwort, black mustard
seeds, Solanum indicum (bhat), or else the three myrobalans (emblic, belliric,
48 Bhvapraka, Prvakhaa, Dhtvdiodhanamraavidhiprakaraa 14653.
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asian medicine 8 (3) 540
and chebulic myrobalans alias Emblica officinalis, Terminalia bellerica, and
Terminalia chebula) for three days continuously.49
3. Mrcchaa (thickening)
A decoction is made containing the three peppers, the three myrobalans, the
two types of Solanum indicum, leadwort, sheeps wool, turmeric, alkaline ash,
and the sap of aloe, blue madar, and ironwood (kanaka). Mercury is rubbed
together with this decoction seven times. Bhvamira asserts that by this
method, mercury is thickened and parts with its seven coverings.50
4. rdhvaptana (upward distillation)
Pulverised mercury is mixed with blue vitriol and iron pyrites and prepared in
a vidhydharayantra (as described above, see Fig. 6).
5. Adhaptana (downward distillation)
Mercury is mixed with the sap of a number of herbs and salt and made into a
paste, which is smeared on the upper pot of a bhdharayantra (earth-bearing
apparatus, see Fig. 7).
Mraa (Killing Mercury)
These procedures are followed in Bhvamiras text by the so-called killing
(mraa), i.e. reducing to ash, of mercury. Five methods of turning mercury
into ash are described, including recipes for producing rasakarpra (lit. mer-
cury that is like camphor, a mixture of calomel and corrosive sublimate), and
rasasindra (lit. mercury that is red, synthetic cinnabar), the most commonly
used forms of mercury in ayurvedic medicine. The other methods repeat those
from the rgadharasahit more or less verbatim (with slightly different
49 See Bhvapraka, Prvakhaa, Dhtvdivarga 1578.
50 Bhvaprak, Prvakhaa, Dhtvdiodhanamraavidhiprakaraa 15960.
51 Bhvapraka (Bhv.), Prvakhaa (Prv.), Dhtvdiodhanaprakaraa (Dhp.) 16973
follow rgadharasahit (r.) 2.12.2934, Bhv., Prv., Dhp. 1758 follow r. 2.12.35
8, Bhv., Prv., Dhp. 17980 follow r. 2.12.3840, Bhv., Prv., Dhp. 181 follows r.
2.12.412. Bhvamiras method for producing rasasindra is very similar to rgadharas
bhasman recipe (2.12.2934), but uses only mercury and sulphur, leaving out alum and
ammonium chloride. There is no equivalent for rgadharas recipe in 2.12.259 in the
Bhvapraka, though one could understand it as a different method of preparing
31 perfect medicine
asian medicine 8 (3) 540
Bhvamiras recipe for rasakarpra specifies that purified mercury should
be mixed with equal parts of red ochre, brick dust, chalk, alum, rock salt, earth
from an ant-hill, sodium sulphate, and red earth (usually used for colouring
pots). The mixture is strained through cloth and placed in an earthen pot,
which is covered with another pot, mouth to mouth. The pots are luted together
with clay and cloth, then placed on a fire, and heated for four days. After they
are opened, the white camphor-like deposit in the upper pot is collected for
use.52 The section concludes with a summary of the medical uses of mercury,
and its characteristics, basically a reiteration of what was said in the defini-
tions given in the chapter on metals and minerals.
Mercury in the Bhaiajyaratnval:
Eighteenth to Nineteenth Century CE
The Bhaiajyaratnval by Govindadsa is the first ayurvedic compendium to
devote an entire chapter (chapter 97, pradavikracikitsprakaraa) to the
subject of mercury poisoning. The chapter includes a description of remedies
against mercury poisoning. The main part of this treatise was written (or com-
piled) in the eighteenth century, but substantial materials were probably
added in the nineteenth century, and the chapter on mercury poisoning in all
likelihood belongs to the later additions.53
There is also a section on the processing of mercury: chapter two
(odhanamraaprakaraa), verses 113 describe the characteristics of mer-
cury, its impurities, how to extract it from cinnabar, and how to purify it.
Cinnabar is dealt with separately in verses 768, where its names, purification
method, and applications are described. Generally, the Bhaiajyaratnvals
section on the purification of mercury is much less elaborate than that of the
Bhvapraka and the gadharasahit, though we also find some added
information or different interpretations on some common subjects. An exam-
ple of the latter case: Govindadsa lists eight kinds of imperfectionswhich
he does not categorise as innate or acquiredas lead (nga), tin (vaga),
dirt (mala), fire (vahni), unsteadiness (ccalya), poison (via), heaviness
52 See Bhvapraka, Prvakhaa, Dhtvdiodhanamraavidhiprakaraa 18290.
Recipes for making rasakarpra, or similar products, can be found in older alchemical
works, as for example in the Rasendracintmai (thirteenth to fourteenth century). See
Ray 1903, p. 251.
53 See Meulenbeld 19992002, IIA, p. 336, on the dating of the Bhaiajyaratnval. According
to Meulenbeld, chapters two and four, and 76106 may have been added by Brahmaa-
kara Mira in the nineteenth century.
32 wujastyk
asian medicine 8 (3) 540
(giri/guru), and the inability to withstand fire (asahygni). The last item on
the list is a new addition to the faults already listed in the Bhvapraka.
Presumably, asahygni refers to the characteristic of mercury to change aggre-
gate if heated. Govindadsa advises that since these imperfections cause
ulcers, skin disease, insensibility, a burning sensation, loss of virility, death,54
apathy, and boilsan extended list to that of the Bhvaprakaphysicians
should only use purified mercury. He notes that mercury that has not been
freed of its impurities is a poison, but that purified mercury is a nectar that
controls death and fever.
The following verses describe the extraction of mercury from cinnabar.
Cinnabar is ground into coarse grains, placed in an earthen vessel and
immersed in a lot of lemon juice and the juice of wood-sorrel (cger) for
three days. The mixture is distilled in a sealed vessel, the mercury collecting in
the top, which is kept cooler than the rest of the vessel by placing a pot of water
on it throughout the heating process. This procedure is similar to what is
described in the rgadharasahit (2.12.1617). Govindadsa also gives an
alternative and rather simpler recipe for purifying mercury, in which mercury
(not cinnabar) is macerated with the juices of garlic, betel leaves, and the three
myrobalans and then washed with sour gruel (verses 1213). This is reminiscent
of rgadharas recipe (2.12.57), where mercury is ground with various plant
juices, including those of garlic and the three myrobalans (but excluding betel
leaves), and then washed with sour gruel. However, this is presented as one
among several steps rather than as the main procedure. In verse 77, Govindadsa
further describes the maceration of cinnabar in lemon juice and goats urine
and its subsequent steaming in a cradle-apparatus (dolikyantra, Fig. 4). The
chapter on mercury poisoning seems disproportionally more developed, but
one should remember that it was probably added to the main compilation of
Govindadsa at a later time.
The list given in chapter 97 for symptoms of mercury poisoning reiterates
those of Bhvamira, but adds many more: destruction of the bridge of the
nose, catarrh, falling out of teeth, bulging of the eyes, spreading eruptions and
spots on the skin, itching, severe headache, discoloration of the skin, sores in
the nose, etc., tender nodules and swelling in the scrotum, stiffness, and trem-
ors.55 Specifically, damage to the gums (ulceration and pain) is described at
some length, as is the loosening of teeth and salivation, symptoms conspicu-
54 It seems a bit odd that death (mraa) is so casually included in this list of symptoms,
and one could understand it to refer to virility (vrya) as well, i.e. loss or cessation of
virility, and possibly also substituting virility with semen, another meaning of vrya.
However, one would expect these words to be connected by an and, which they are not.
55 See verses 417.
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asian medicine 8 (3) 540
ously missing from the accounts of the authors mentioned earlier.56 Here
again, poisoning is understood to be the result of contact with unpurified mer-
cury, either through taking improperly prepared medicines, or through inhaling
mercury steam (stabpa). Both the Bhvapraka and the Bhaiajyaratnval
prescribe fumigation therapy against a disease called phiragaroga (possibly a
correlate of syphilis), in which pills made from a mixture of mercury, sulphur,
and rice grains are burnt and their smoke directed at the affected body parts.57
The term used for fumigating, however, is to apply dhma (smoke) rather than
bpa (steam). The mention of mercury vapour may point to industrial con-
texts, such as mercury mining and mercury processing factories. This is how
Kanjiv Lochan interprets this passage in his translation (which has a commen-
tarial character). However, we cannot be sure that the author of this section of
the Bhaiajyaratnval had factories or mercury mining in mind. Mercury min-
ing does not seem very likely, since there are no mercury mines in India (though
there are some in what today is Afghanistan). However, there were certainly
mercury processing factories in India by the nineteenth and even the eigh-
teenth century, so that the author could have easily had first-hand experience
with the results of industrial mercury processing.58
56 Salivation (udgra) is mentioned as a symptom of mercury poisoning in the sixteenth-
century alchemical and iatrochemical work Rasaratnasamuccaya (2.132). Rice prepared
with sour milk and black fish (kamna) with cumin are prescribed as treatments.
57 See Bhvapraka, madhyakhaa 59, 1819 and Bhaiajyaratnval 97, 1819.
58 See White 1996, pp. 645, who seems to suggest that there were mercury processing facto-
ries in India as early as the sixteenth century: [...] we know that the Indian port cities of
Surat (Gujarat), Murshidabad (Bengal), Calcutta, and Madras have long been centres for
the fabrication of synthetic cinnabar and calomel (mercurous chloride), using native
Indian minerals and imported mercury, since at least the sixteenth century AD. This
statement, however, seems to be at least partly based on conjecture. White refers to Watts
Dictionary of the Economic Products of India (V., p. 233) as his source, but Watt merely
notes that Ainslie states that it [cinnabar] was, in his time, an export from Surat to
Madras, and a recent communication states that it is still manufactured in that place to a
small extent and exported through Bombay to China. Ainslie (p. 542) indeed states that
cinnabar is an export from Surat to Madras, also from China and Batavia, but since he
was writing about his time, we can assume a rather later date for this (late eighteenth
century at the earliest). Neither Watt nor Ainslie mention mercury processing in the
named Indian cities.
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asian medicine 8 (3) 540
Treating Mercury Poisoning
One of the special features of the Bhaiajyaratnval is that it describes a num-
ber of treatments against mercury poisoning; the main one among them is
the intake of purified sulphur with honey. The author also suggests making
decoctions of mixtures of various herbs (including herbs that Bhvamira and
rgadhara used for the purification of mercury), and further gives instruc-
tions on diet and regimen (using particular ointments, taking cold baths, and
other cooling treatments). He also recommends using medicines otherwise
employed against vtaoita (a diseased state of the humour wind and blood,
today associated with gout or rheumatism), kuha (a group of skin diseases,
including leprosy) or upadaa (genital chancres). The prescriptions in the
Bhaiajyaratnval are antedated by a number of earlier (mostly alchemical)
works that also tackle the question of how to treat mercury poisoning.
The Rasrava, an alchemical text dating to about the twelfth century,59
suggests purging the poison of mercury (pradavia) from the body by drink-
ing sour gruel, sodium carbonate, and bitter gourd juice together with cows
urine and rock salt; or to drink cows urine mixed with the root of the five-
leaved Chaste tree, the juice of the small bitter gourd, and sonchal salt.60 In the
Rasasaketakalik (composed by Cmua in 1474),61 the author prescribes
drinking citrus juice with dried ginger and rock salt, or the root of the small
bitter gourd mixed with cows urine against mercury sickness (rasasya vikti).
The Rasaratnasamuccaya (an alchemical and iatrochemical treatise dated to
about the sixteenth century) lists various symptoms of mercury poisoning dis-
played by the patient and prescribes simple remedies accordingly:
These are the means against mercury sickness: in the case of salivation,
[eat] rice prepared with sour milk and black fish with cumin; in the case
of trembling caused by wind, massage with Nryana oil, etc; in the case
of apathy, pour cold water on the head; in the case of thirst, [drink] coco-
nut water and green gram soup with brown sugar.62
And the Vaidyavallabha, composed by the Jain author Hastiruci in about the
middle of the seventeenth century, recommends sulphur with milk for remov-
ing the poison of mercury.63
59 On the dating of the Rasrava, see Meulenbeld 19992002, IIA, p. 684.
60 Rasrava 18.1412.
61 On Cmuas works, see Meulenbeld 19992002, IIA, pp. 1636.
62 Rasaratnasamuccaya 11.1325.
63 Vaidyavallabha 8.8.
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asian medicine 8 (3) 540
In modern ayurvedic iatrochemistry (rasastra), mercury poisoning caused
by mercury treatment still seems to be an issue. The authors Dole and
Paranjpe,64 both physicians of Ayurveda and rasastra, a medical discipline
of alchemy in itself65 note, for example, that treatment with rasakarpra can
lead to severe reactions in the patient, such as vomiting, retrosternal burning,
and abdominal pain. This is explained in terms of overdosing, rather than a
lack of proper processing. In contrast to the older texts, they consider calomel
a very toxic substance that has to be administered with great care. As an emer-
gency measure in cases of adverse reactions, they recommend the administra-
tion of egg white as an antidote, explaining that the albumen in the egg white
would interact with the rasakarpra to form a nontoxic substance that is insol-
uble in water.
Concluding Reflections
To conclude this brief overview of the use of mercury in selected ayurvedic
medical texts, I would like to highlight and discuss some points.
First, mercury does not seem to have been a widely (if at all) used drug at
the time when the earliest medical compendia, the Carakasahit and the
Surutasahit, were written. Even in later works, such as Vgbhaas treatises
(the Agahdayasahit and the Agasagraha), the Siddhayoga by
Va or the Cikitssagraha by Cakrapidatta, its use was very limited.
Second, the use of mercury in medicine precedes techniques for processing
mercury. The early formulations for mercury medicines seem to have con-
tained unprocessed mercury (liquid quicksilver), or at least do not mention
processing methods such as calcination (though Cakrapidatta does mention
macerating mercury with plant materials to purify it).
Third, an elaborately formulated system of processing mercury seems to
have emerged by the ninth century, if the dating of Ugrdityas Kalyakraka
is correct. This little-studied work deserves closer attention, as it seems to
bridge developments in both alchemy and medicine.
Fourth, it is only in the thirteenth century with the composition of the
rgadharasahit that processed mercury medicines become standard
among ayurvedic medicines. Since rgadharas treatise was deliberately kept
concise, it does not give comprehensive information on how (or why) mercury
64 Dole and Paranjpe 2004, p. 144.
65 In their very accessible Textbook of Rasashastra (2004), Dr Vilas Dole is presented as the
Head of Department of Rasashastra at the Tilak Ayurveda Mahavidyalaya in Pune, and
Dr Prakash Paranjpe as the Director of the Ayurveda Research Foundation at Pune.
36 wujastyk
asian medicine 8 (3) 540
was processed for medical use. The sixteenth-century Bhvapraka gives
more detailed information which is also more clearly structured. It provides a
brief introduction to the mythological origins of mercury, lists its characteristics
in ayurvedic terms (i.e. that mercury mitigates all humours, that it combines in
itself all tastes, and that it is unctuous), explains the reasons why it needs to be
processed before it can be used as a medicine, and then lays out the proce-
dures of mercury processing step by step. Bhvamira also gives fairly compre-
hensive descriptions of appliances and methods employed in the purification
process and even explains to some extent the choice of plant materials used
(i.e. which plant acts on which kind of impurity).
Both the rgadharasahit and the Bhvapraka heavily depend on
alchemical works, but it seems to me that there is a difference in their treat-
ment of the subject that goes beyond the matter of giving less or more infor-
mation. It is, for example, striking that all of rgadharas recipes for mercury
medicines contain both mercury and sulphur, while Bhvamira lists many
recipes in which mercury is not combined with sulphur. This might be a signifi-
cant difference, as the combining of mercury and sulphur plays a central role
in alchemical practice. According to White,66 the merging of mercury with sul-
phur in alchemical practice is a re-enactment of the sexual union of iva and
akti. Mercury is understood to be the essence (the semen) of iva and sulphur
the menstrual blood of the goddess akti, which is at the same time her procre-
ational fluid. The union of iva and akti and the mingling of their procreative
substances creates and sustains the universe.67 This makes mercury and sul-
phur the two elements which are the most essential in alchemical practices,
both for the enactment of the alchemical ritual, and for the end-result achieved
by the ritual. The culmination of alchemical practice is the intake of the power
substance created in the alchemical ritual, which is ultimately meant to render
the alchemists body immortal while endowing him with insight into the high-
est reality. The alchemist becomes a jvanmukti, one who has found liberation
in the body, and as such controls the universe.68
This is unlikely to be the aim of the physician administering a mercury med-
icine to a sick patient, but the question arises why the merging of mercury with
sulphur remains the basis of each medicinal mercury formulation in the
rgadharasahit. Bhvamira still explicitly refers to mercury as the semen
of iva69 and to sulphur as the menstrual blood of ivas spouse, Parvat.70
66 White 1984, pp. 467.
67 White 1996, p. 194.
68 See White 1984, p. 57.
69 Bhvaprak, Prvakhaa, Dhtvdivarga 87.
70 Bhvapraka, Prvakhaa, Dhtvdivarga 1078.
37 perfect medicine
asian medicine 8 (3) 540
However, the combination of mercury with sulphur, while still important, is no
longer central to his medicinal formulations, pointing to a shift away from the
alchemical world-view. This might be an overinterpretation of a simple matter
of developments in drug formulation, the two treatises representing earlier
and later stages of iatrochemistry. But in any case, a comparison of iatrochemi-
cal elements and their development in both alchemical and medical literature
would be a rewarding subject of research that could provide crucial insight
into the relation between Indian alchemy and medicine.
Finally, the concept of purification (odhana) deserves some discussion.
Dole and Paranjpe comment on the confusion created by the translation of
purification for odhana:
[A]ny student who has studied the basics of chemistry is bound to get
confused. [...] Metals and metallic compounds when they are heated
and dipped in various organic liquids, most of them of acidic nature,
are bound to get converted into some other substance due to chemical
reaction. Similar are the cases where substances are roasted or liquefied
and dipped into various liquids. It means almost every purification
method makes the substance impure, and still the procedure is called
Dole and Paranjpe go on to explain that these purification procedures do not
produce what we might today understand to be a pure, unadulterated product,
but rather create a product that can be absorbed by the body and will not harm
it when it is absorbed. Negative or undesired characteristics of the substances
are counteracted, the innate toxicity of a substance is removed, or heavy sub-
stances (which are thought to put too much strain on the organism) are made
light. At the same time, the positive or desired innate properties of the sub-
stance are enhanced by adding other substances with similar characteristics to
it (e.g., in order to enhance the ability of mercury to absorb other metals into
an amalgam). Perhaps translating odhana as perfecting would be more
appropriate than purifying. The end product is then considered extremely
potent and completely safe. This is an important point, since the early modern
writers (up to the nineteenth century) only discuss the question of toxicity in
mercury medicines in terms of them not having been properly processed and
cleansed of their impurities or rid of their innate faults. Otherwise, mercury
preparations are depicted as the best of all remedies, truly perfect medicines.
71 Dole and Paranjpe 2004, p. 84.
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asian medicine 8 (3) 540
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