5. Mercury Tonics (Rasāyana) in Sanskrit Medical Literature
Soulless Matter, Seats of Energy - Metals, Gems and Minerals in South Asian Traditions - Fabrizio Ferrari
Dagmar Wujastyk [+]
University of Zurich
The use of mercury has a long history in Indian medicine with clear evidence of mercurial treatments found in Sanskrit medical treatises from about the seventh century. Mercury medicines were understood to be particularly potent remedies and as such were often used in the treatment of serious diseases that were difficult to treat. Mercury preparations were also widely used in rejuvenation therapy (rasāyana) - one of the eight classical areas of Indian medicine. Rasāyana sections in Sanskrit medical works describe the preparation and application of tonics for restoring health, stopping and even reversing the aging process, generally improving physical appearance and significantly increasing lifespan. Chapter 5 is freely available under Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 here While rejuvenation therapies are already described in the oldest Sanskrit medical works known to us, the first recipe containing mercury occurs in a seventh-century treatise called the Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasaṃhitā (“Heart of medicine”). From about the eleventh century, mercury became a significant ingredient in rasāyana therapy with works such as Cakrapāṇidatta’s Cakradatta (eleventh century) and Vaṅgasena’s Cikitsāsārasaṃgraha (eleventh/twelfth century) recording multiple recipes for mercurial tonics. The use of mercury in rasāyana recipes reflects a profound change in Indian medicine in this period, namely the increasing importance of iatrochemistry. Older medical works already contained recipes for metallic and mineral medicines, but now metallurgical procedures aimed at making metals and minerals fit for medical application (and human consumption) were described in detail and the number of metallic and mineral medicines, including mercury preparations, increased substantially. Both procedures and recipes for metallic and mineral medicines seem to have been adopted from alchemical sources - we often find reference to alchemical works or authors in recipes for mercurial or other metal or mineral medicines in the medical treatises. This essay will provide an overview of the uses of mercury preparations in rasāyana therapy, discussing their position within rejuvenation therapy in regard to other rasāyana formulations and exploring their link with Indian alchemical traditions.