Variations on the Indo-European "Fire and Water" My theme in Three Alchemical Accounts.

Author:White, David Gordon

    In my 1996 study of the Siddha traditions of South Asia, I noted the description of a novel technique for extracting mercury from the 'wells' (kupa) in which it was naturally found. (1) This description appears in seven Sanskrit-language (2) alchemical works from the Indian subcontinent. In chronological order, (3) these are the circa thirteenth-century Rasendracudamani (RC) of Somadeva (4) and Rasaprakasasudhakara (RPS) of Yasodhara Bhatta; (5) the thirteenth-to fourteenth-century Rasaratnasamucchaya (RRS) of Vagbhatta; (6) the fourteenth-century Anandakanda (AK) of Mahabhairava (or Bhairava); (7) the fifteenth- to seventeenth-century Sivakalpadruma of Sivanatha; (8) the 1682-83 C.E. Rasakautuka of Mallarinabha; (9) and the 1709 C.E. Sivatattvaratnakara of Keladi Basava. (10) Both Sivanatha's and Mallarinabha's narratives are virtual copies of Vagbhatta's account; Keladi Basava transcribes the Anandakanda's description verbatim.

    Somadeva, who likely hailed from Gujarat," provides the following account. After describing the various wells in which mercury is naturally found, he writes

    snatam adyarajasvalam hayagatam praptam jighrksus ca tarn/ so 'py agacchati yojanam hi paritah pratyeti kupam punah// tanmarge krtagartake ca bahusah samtisthate sutarat/ so 'yam tatra nivasibhih khalu janair evam samaniyate// (12) [A maiden] who has had her first menstrual bath has approached [a well of mercury] mounted on a horse, and he who wishes to take her hand in marriage (jighrksuh) (13) pursues her everywhere for a full yojana. (14) Then he returns to the well, but King Mercury (or the Prince Royal, sutarat) often settles (samtisthate) into the hollow [previously] dug along his path. Then he is collected there by the people living in that place. The two verses that follow refer to the country in which said mercury is found:

    niyamanas tu gangaya vayuna gauravena yat/ apatad duradese vai sa desah paradah smrtah// tat tato mrdgatah sutah patanavidhina khalu/ aniyate sa vijneyah parado gadaparadah// (15) Now, that mercury was being carried by the Ganges [River], the wind, and [its own] mass; (16) and since it fell in a truly distant land (duradese), that country is known as 'Setting the Limit' (parada). The mercury (suta) that is in the clay (i.e., mercury ore) is indeed extracted through the sublimation method. Setting the limit to diseases (gadaparada), [mercury] is to be known as 'setting the limit' (parada). The Gujarati author Yasodhara Bhatta, whose RPS was either coeval with or slightly later than Somadeva's work, (17) offers a rather laconic description, sans reference to the maiden's menstrual bath.

    himalayat pascimadigvibhage girindranama ruciro 'sti sailah/ tat sannidhane 'tisuvrttakupe saksad rasendro nivasaty ayam hi// kumarika rupagunena yukta svalamkrta vahavare 'dhirudha/ tatragata kupam aveksamana nivartita sa mahata javena/ pradhavitah sutavaras catursu kakupsu bhumau patito hi nunam// kupasya paritah samyak ksetram dvadasayojanam/ vistirnam ca suvrttam hi paradasya samiritam// tanmrdah patane yantre patitah khalu rogaha/ jayate rucirah saksad ucyate paradah svayam// (18) West of the Himalaya there is a beautiful peak named "Lord of the Hills." In close proximity to that [peak], the Champion of Minerals (rasendra) (19) dwells in bodily form (saksat) inside a perfectly rounded well. A beautiful, well-adorned young maiden mounted upon the finest of horses [once] came there. Looking down into the well, she [then] very speedily turned back. Most excellent Mercury (sutavara) (20) rushed [after her and] fell to the earth in the four directions. Nowadays there is a perfectly circular field, which, stirred up by Mercury [at that time], is evenly spread out for twelve yojanas around the well. Sublimated in a sublimation apparatus, the clay (i.e., mercury ore) of that field is truly [a] disease killing [agent]. The mercury that is produced [through sublimation] is manifestly beautiful. It is itself called 'setting the limit' (parada).

    One to two centuries later, Vagbhatta's account is slightly more prolix:

    prathame rajasi snatam hayarudham svalamkrtam/ viksamanam vadhum drstva jighrksuh kupago rasah// udgacchati javdta'pi tam drstva yati vegatah/ anugacchati tam sutah simanam yojanonmitam// pratydyati tatah kupam vegatah sivasambhavah/ marganirmitagartesu sthitam grhnanti paradam// patito darade dese gauravadvahnivaktratah/ sa raso bhutale linastattaddesanivasinah/ tarn mrdam patanayantre ksiptva sutam haranti ca// (21) A well-adorned maiden who has bathed on the occasion of her first menstrual period is mounted upon a horse, [and] looking [all around]. Beholding her, Mercury (rasa), who is situated in a well, wishes to take her hand in marriage (jighrksuh). He suddenly rushes forth, but seeing him, she swiftly takes flight. Mercury (suta) follows her for the distance of one full yojana. Then He Who Was Born from Siva quickly returns to the well [but] he [ends up] settled (sthita) in hollows that have been fashioned along his path. [That is how] they catch the mercury (parada). That mercury, because of its mass, fell from the mouth of Agni in Darada country. It was absorbed into the surface of the earth. The people of this and other countries cast that clay (i.e., mercury ore) into a sublimation apparatus and extract the mercury. About a century later, the Anandakanda, a work likely compiled in the southwestern part of the subcontinent, (22) adds several details:

    prathamdrtavasusnata surupa subhalaksana// sudahambaradhara malyagandhalipta subhusita/ uttamasvasamarudha ratisahgavivarjita// abharcya gananatham ca bhairavam ca gurum pura/ rasendrabhairavam dhyatva kupastham paradam priye// pasyec chlghram tato gacchet na punah prstham iksayet/ ekayojanamatrena kumdri hayasadhana// tadanim aharet tat tu kumari sanjighrksaya/ kupamadhyat samutpatya so 'nudhavati tam prati// yavad yojanam agatya punah kupe viset ksanat/ paritah krtagartesu tesu tesu ca samsthitam// ta. rasendram sucir bhutva grhnlyad rasadesikah/ gauravad agnivadanat patito daradahvaye/ dese sa suto bhulinah tantrajnai rasakovidaih// niksipya mrttikayantre patanakhye samagatah/ parado grhyate devi dosahinah sa ucyate// evam evam tatra tatra siddhavidyadharaih sada/ niksepitah paradendro vidyate devi siddhidah// (23) An attractive, fine-featured [maiden], well-bathed after her first menstruation and wearing fresh clothing, fine ornaments, and anointed with fragrant garlands, is mounted upon the finest of horses. She has shunned sexual intercourse. After reverencing Gananatha and Bhairava, and contemplating the ancient guru Bhairava the Lord of Minerals (rasendrabhairava), she should, O my darling, quickly gaze upon Mercury (parada), who is dwelling in a well. The equestrian maiden should then make off over the distance of one yojana, without once looking back. But now the maiden should bring that [Mercury] home [as her bridegroom] (aharet). Out of a desire to take her hand in marriage (sanjighrksaya), he rises up from the heart of the well and chases after her. When he has covered a yojana, he will suddenly [attempt to] re-enter the well; but a native from the Land of Mercury shall, after purifying himself, take hold of that Champion of Minerals who has settled into hollows [previously] dug on all sides [of the well]. That mercury (suta), because of its mass, fell from the mouth of Agni in the country called Darada. [There] it was absorbed into the ground. Cast into the earthen apparatus called "Sublimation" by alchemists conversant in the Tantras, (24) the collected mercury (parada) is extracted. O Goddess! It is said to be flawless. O Goddess! Perfected Ones (siddha) and Wizards (vidyadhara) everywhere have always inscribed [its name as] 'the champion among those setting the limit' (paradendro) and known it as a provider of supernatural powers. The mytho-logic behind this extraction technique is clear. The Hindu alchemical tradition identifies mercury as the phallic god Siva's semen in mineral form. Sulfur, which is mercury's principal chemical reagent, is the mineral form taken by the uterine or menstrual blood of Siva's divine consort. The origin myths for the two minerals, found in a number of alchemical works, depict them as the only slightly altered sexual emissions of the primal dyad of Hindu Tantra. (25) This conceptual interplay between sexual fluids and minerals is sufficient for understanding the attraction that a menarcheal maiden would have on mineral semen. Its eruption out of a subterranean well would appear to be orgasmic in everything but name--but to what end? The hollows dug in its path constitute a novel form of contraception.

    As for the detail that the maiden is mounted on a horse, this would appear to be a piece of South Asian exotica. Traditional South Asian women did not ride horseback. However, women from faraway lands, west of the Himalayas, situated at the limit of the world, apparently could. Such may be seen in a half-dozen extant Mughal miniatures, wherein the landscapes across which mercury is pursuing the maiden on horseback feature groups of figures wearing exotic European-style cloaks and hats. (26) The matrimonial language of these accounts also brings equestrianism into the picture, since in traditional Indian weddings the groom rides to the house of the bride to fetch her back to his home. Here as well, the reversal of roles would once again be of a piece with the exotic venue of these unconsummated alchemical marriages.

    A few notes on terminology are in order here. These accounts enshrine all of the principal Sanskrit terms for mercury: rasa ('essential element'), rasendra ('champion of minerals'), suta(ka) ('he who was born'), and parada ('setting the limit'). However, the reader will also have noted that in my translation I have alternated between using the masculine ("he") and neuter ("it") pronouns for mercury. In the first part of each narrative, in which Mercury...

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