Indian Alchemy: Soma in the Veda

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Item Code: IDE220
Author: S. Kalyanaraman
Language: English
Edition: 2004
ISBN: 8121508800
Pages: 348
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.9" X 5.9"
Weight 570 gm
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Book Description
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The book is an epoch-making work - a paradigm-shift in Vedic studies - which identifies soma as electrum (gold-silver metallic compound). Soma is referred to in the Rgveda as the soul of the yajna (atmayajnasya). The path-breaking identification is based on textual evidence and a penetrating analysis of the Indian alchemical tradition, spanning nearly five millennia.

The author is also the discoverer of the integrating role played by the mighty Sarasvati river adored in the Rgveda as the best of mothers, best of rivers and best of goddesses, Sarasvati and soma are no longer mythology but relevant to present-day children, respectively, as the repository of groundwater sanctuaries in north-west India and the metallurgical tradition starting with the Bronze Age civilization, c. 3000 BC.

Sarasvati and soma are the symbols of the great Indian traditions of devi worship and personification and deification of natural, material phenomena. The tirthas along the rivers are reminders of the critical nature of water management problems all over India and soma as in integral part of the yajna process, is the embodiment of the scientific, technological and materialist temper of ancient India.


About the Author:


Dr. S. Kalyanaraman, is an Indologist and has contributed to the History of Science and Technology in Ancient India (collaborating with Dr. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya), compiled a multi-lingual comparative dictionary for twenty-five Indian languages. He has also designed and maintained the websites.




Focus of the Rgveda
Soma is the very soul of the yajna elaborated in the Rgveda.

The adhvaryu takes the skin (carma or tvac) and puts on it's the filaments or shoots of the soma (amsu). He then takes two boards (adhisavana), puts one on top of the soma shoots, and beats them with the stones (gravana). Then the soma is put between the two boards, and water is poured on them from the vasafivari pot. Soma is then shaken in the hota cup (camasa), wetted again with vasafivari water and put on a stone. Grass is laid on them, and they are beaten so that the juice runs out. The juice is allowed to run into the trough (ahavaniya), then strained through the cloth (pavitra or dasapavitra) which is held by the udgata. The filtered soma is caught in another trough (putabhri). Libations are poured from two kinds of vessels: grahas or saucers, and camasas or cups. [Adapted from Haug's notes from Sayana's commentary on Aitareya Brahmana].

Soma as electrum and soma as a process (jajna).
Soma is meant for the gods; thus, gods in the Rgveda are an allegorical personification of the purifications processes (of soma), just as Soma is an apri deity, together with other materials and apparatus (ladles and vessels) employed in the yajna, accompanied by rcas (or, agnistoma).

If soma is electrum and indra is burning embers (such as charcoal, indha, used in a furnace), the yajna can be interpreted, at the material level, as a process of reduction (or, paritram, purification), using ksara, of a metallic ore compound (maksika or quartr or pyrites) to yield the shining metals: potable (pavamana, rsa-raso varjrah, cf., RV, 9.48.3, i.e., rasa, vigorous as a thunderbolt) after oxidizing the baser metallic elements (in the unrefined pyrite ores) such as lead (naga or ahi or vrtra) and copper (sulba).

Reducing agents include alkaline as well as combustible materials-vegetable and animal products-such as: herbs (ksara), barley-grains and cooked panda, milk, curds, clarified butter, viands (animal fat), bones (used in cupellation processes, and for making crucibles, during the Bronze Age), sheep's hair or wool (reminisced as golden fleece).

For e.g., soma is described as parvatavrdhah in a verse, that the pyrites are from the mountain slopes: 9.46.1. Begotten by the stones the flowing (soma-juices) are effused for the banquet of the gods' active horses. [Begotten by the stones: or, growing on the mountain slopes.]

The exchange value of gold and silver in Vedic times, is elaborated in metaphorical terms related to wealth and lineage: such as food, cattle, rain, and progeny.

The vedi (altar) is the earth and as the agni (fire) raises towards the heaven, the poetic imagination of the rsis (priests) expands into realms of cosmological thoughts, unparalleled in recorded history of early human civilizations. Thus, at a cosmic level, the Rgveda raises profound philosophical questions which have been the fountain-head of Indian philosophical traditions.

In such a perspective, the entire Rgveda can be viewed as an allegory, the human quest for achieving material which has exchange value. In transcending the material level to realms of philosophical explorations, and in expanding the semantic and morphological limits of language to attain new insights into the very concept of "meaning," using language, through metrical, chanted mantras, as a means of understanding the atman and the paramatman, thereby, attaining svarga, or bliss.

All the suktas are thus, governed by a framework of four principal metaphors, rendered in scintillating, ecstatic, spiritual poetic resonance: work, prayer, gods, material well-being. An epitomy of this framework may be seen from the following selections:

Sarasvati river is adored in the Rgveda as: ambitame, naditame, devitame (best of all mothers, best of all rivers, best of all goddesses). She is a mother because she nourished a civilization on her banks. She is a river which had flowed from the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea carrying the glacier waters which are today carried y the Sutlej and Yamuna rivers. Over 1200 of the 1600 archaeological sites of the civilization unearthed during the last 70 years have been found on the Sarasvati river basin. For e.g. sites of Ropar, Rakhigarhi, Kunal, Banawali, Kalibangan, Ganweriwala, Kotdiji, Chanhudaro, Dholavira (Kotda), Rojdi, Lothal, Bet Dwaraka where the typical civilization artifacts such as seals with inscriptions, Bronze Age metal weapons and tools, beads, jewellery, weights and measures, water-management systems have been found.

She is a goddess adored ever since all over India as the goddess of arts and crafts, as the goddess of learning. The civilization nourished by the Sarasvati had transformed the chalcolithic (copper and stone) age into the Bronze (copper-tin, copper-arsenic alloys or bronze and brass) Age resulting in a revolutionary way to relate to the material phenomena of the world, using hardened metal tools and weapons. She is a goddess of the Saptasindhu region; her vahana is a peacock or a hamsa. She carries a vina (lute, string-instrument) on her hands. As Mother Goddess, she is also depicted as Durga who is adored with weapons in her multiple hands, as Mahisasura-mardini (the killer of the demon, Mahisa, of the bull form).

The river was desiccated due to a number of geological reasons: Yamuna (called Chambal earlier) cut a deeper channel and captured the tributary of Sarasvati (Tons river) at Paonta Sahib (Himachal Pradesh, a famous Sikh pilgrimage centre). Hence, the cherished memories of the people of Triveni Samgam at Prayag (Allahabad) where Yamuna brought in the waters of the Sarasvati to join the Ganga river. Sutlej (which originated from Mansarovar lake in Mt. Kailas, Tibet) which was a tributary of Sarasvati river, joining the latter at Shatrana (Punjab), took a 90-degree turn at Ropar (due to tectonic disturbances) and migrated away from the Sarasvati and joined the Sindhu (Indus) river. The phenomenon called amdhi (sand-storms) which is common even today, resulted in the build-up of sand-dunes on the bed of the Sarasvati in the areas close to Jaisalmer (Thar or Marusthali desert, also called Cholistan in Pakistan area). Thus Sarasvati river got choked up and lost the perennial waters coming from the Har-ki-dun glacier (Bandarpunch massif, W. Garhwal, Himalayas). When the river got desiccated, many people moved towards the Ganga-Yamuna doab and moved south towards the Godavari river (there is an archaeological site called Daimabad, on Pravara river, a tributary of Godavari, near Nasik).

Sarasvati has been found using scientific techniques: satellite images, carbon-14 dating, tritium analysis of water samples from deep-wells all along the palaeo-channels shown on the satellite images. These have helped in establishing that the river was a mighty one prior to 3000 BC and was desiccated around 1500 BC.

Balarama, elder brother of Krsna goes on a pilgrimage alone the Sarasvati river from Dwaraka to Mathura, after visiting Plaksa-prasravana and Yamunotri (Karapacava). During the pilgrimage, he offers homage to his ancestors. (Even at this time, the river was navigable of a distance of 1600 miles from Paonta Saheb to Lothal/Dwaraka.) The pilgrimage is described in great detail in the Salyaparva of the Mahabharata. So, our epics contain valuable historical, geographical information of ancient Bharata.

The evidence from archaeology has firmly established the continuity and substantially indigenous evolution of the civilization right from c. 3000 BC to today. So, we have to rewrite the history of our ancient civilization.

Bronze Age Civilization and the fire/metal-workers

Rgvedic times are a transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. The inscriptions found from hundreds of archaeological sites along the banks of the Sarasvati and Sindhu rivers have been interpreted elsewhere as lists of Bronze Age weapons.

Rgveda is a documentation of the processes of the fire-and metal - workers of the Bronze Age, with particular reference to the most valuable process: soma, the purification of the electrum, gold-silver quartz or pyrite ores, the maksika. It is notable that the term sulba connotes copper (perhaps, pyrite mineral ores); hence, Sulbasutras are metallurgical manuals elaborating the process of transmutation of minerals to yield the transformed, purified metals: gold and silver.

The book was written while the author was collaborating with the late Prof. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya for the latter's History of Science and Technology in Ancient India.

A remarkable development has been the announcement by the author in the Tenth World Sanskrit Conference held in Bangalore in January 1996, that the most expansive civilization of c. 2500 BC was sustained on the banks of the Sarasvati river which was a mighty and perennial river, which emanated from the Bandarpunch massif, W. Garhwal, Himalayas and which had carried the waters currently carried by the rivers Yamuna and Sutlej. Another remarkable development is the announcement in November 1998 through the Sarasvati web that the inscriptions of the civilizations have been deciphered as lists of Bronze Age weapons, using a comparative lexicon of Indian languages.

The discovery of the Sarasvati river is the discovery of the millennium between c. 2500 to 1500 BC, which heralded the Bronze Age civilization in India.

Sarasvati river was indeed hiranyavartani, the carrier of potable, placer gold; there are frequent references in the Rgveda to the vasafivari waters taken from the Sarasvati river, in the processes related to the Soma yajna.

The identification of soma as electrum in this book is consistent with the later-day developments in Indian alchemical tradition and with the discoveries of the Bronze Age artifacts of necklaces made of gold-and silver-discs (niska) found in Kunal and Lothal (c. 3000 BC and 2300 BC respectively)-two archaeological sites on the banks of the Sarasvati river, separated by a distance of over 1200 kms and united by the bonds of cooperative society (samana urve, RV, 7.76.5), sustained and nourished by a mighty, navigable river which facilitated commerce and trade by the people of marutam (=fertile plain, Tamil) or marusthali. The people are the ancestors (pitrs) of the present-day India-the ancestor to whom Balarama offered homage on his pilgrimage along the Sarasvati river.



The argument: Ignis fatuus-alchemy and the "universal' lust for gold

"I am about to give in this little work the history of the greatest folly, and of the greatest wisdom, of which men are capable." These are the opening statements of Lenglet Dufresnoy in his Histoire de La Philosophic Hermetique, 1742. Alchemy is perhaps the fiercest passion (ignis fatuus) which the world of science has ever known.

This work follows in the footsteps of the pioneering work of P.C. Ray, A History of Hindu Chemistry (vol. I, sec. edn., 1903 and vol. II, 1909), which is a unique contribution to the study of chemistry from the earliest times to the middle of the sixteenth century AD. For references to manuscripts, P.C. Ray's work continues to be the prin- cipal sourcebook; in this work, there will be little elaboration of chemical substances, preparations and tonics; the principal objec- tive is to update P.C. Ray's work with some historical information based on researches done since 1909 and to highlight those pieces of evidence which have been ignored in the revision of P.C. Ray's work carried out in 1956.

This is, therefore, a tribute to P.C. Ray; it is apposite to invoke the eloquence of P. Masson-Oursel's review in French, of the origi- nal work by P.C. Ray:

Isis est heureuse de saluer en ect ouvrage non seulement un des rares exernplaires de serieuse etude critique faite par un savant non Euro- pean sur I'historire de la science dans sa proper patrie, independent des distinctions de langue et de race. Decteur es-sciences, profeseur de chimie a Presidency College (Calcutta), depuis de longues annees, l'auteur reunit toutes les conditions pour s'acquitter excellement de sa tache, puisqu 'I joint a la competence scientifique et a une connaissance approfondie de l'histoire ces naturelles affinites si utiles a la compre- hension des doctrines, et qui resultent de la communaute de culture entre Ie chercheur et les theories quit font I'object de la recherche .... The contribution made by P.C. Ray is so grand that the best tribute that the historian and scientist communities can pay to him is to continue the work he has started. He has enriched the disci- pline of history of science with profound insights and perspectives, relating the evolution of sciences to the socio-political context.

The focus is restricted and is on only one component of proto- chemistry or a pseudo-science called alchemy. It should be noted that modern chemistry did not develop from alchemy alone.

Substantial, scholarly work has been done on the alchemical traditions of contemporary civilizations of China, Etypt, Greece, and Islam. In recent years, the Indo-Tibetan alchemical traditions have also been outlined, based on translations of texts from Tibetan. Many Tibetan texts trace their sources to almost all contemporary civilizations, in general, and to India in particular. Tibet may, therefore, like Arabic, prove to be the conservatory of texts of antiquity which are reportedly lost in their places of origin. Since alchemy has progressed across millennia and across civilizations with almost identical objectives not only of aurifiction but also of esoteric alchemy with concepts of elixirs of life and material or spiritual immortality, the alchemical traditions of these civilizations have been used as touch-stones to seek parallels or contrasts with the Indian experience. Quotations from the works related to the alchemical traditions of these civilizations have, therefore, been used liberally to underscore the universal nature of this pseudo- scientific discipline.

The first task attempted was, therefore, to prepare a bibliogra- phy of alchemical literature which may have relevance to the Indian traditions. The bibliography includes references to subjects which have spun-off from or are closely allied to the pseudo-science of alchemy, for example: Ayurveda and Siddha medicine, metallurgy, magic, yoga, and tantrism. Since the pseudo-science focuses on gold-making, a background note on the importance of gold has been included. Only a few of the references have been read and evaluated for the purposes of this essay. The objective of this bibliography is to provide a reference base for further explorations on this complex, inter-disciplinary area of research which will call for multi-lingual expertise, and hence, a team of researchers who are proficient in Tibetan, Arabic and Tamil.

The major limitations of this work is that it does not succeed in isolating (and does not even provide milestones in the chronology or) the Indian tradition from the alchemical traditions of other con- temporary civilizations spanning from C. 2500 BC. At the present state of research, many questions are raised and a few are answered.

The questions are raised in the hope that they may provoke more detailed research work. But, one point is apparent: it would be an impossible task to write alchemical history without writing a social history or evaluating the political economy within which alchemical concepts and practices evolved. The subject of alchemy is shrouded in texts using bizarre techniques of secrecy. The danger of excessive reliance on texts has also to be guarded against since the texts [other than mythologies) generally written by the elite are likely to repre- sent only a fragment (and even, distortion) of reality. In fact, in many cases, the texts shrouded in allegorical and mystical terms are a hin- drance to the delineation of reality. On the contrary, the plebeian traditions encapsulated in popular etyma, icons and in the potsherds unearthed by the archaeologist's spade provide reliable evidence. However, the problem becomes tougher since reality has to be re- constructed based on non-textual material, subject to varying de- grees of reliability and the unresolved problems of dating.




Preface vii
Abbreviations xiii
Introduction xv
1. Gold and the Grammar of Money in Antiquity 1
2. Indus: Roots of Alchemy 20
3. Yaksa: Alchemical Potential and Transmutation 53
4. Soma and Alchemy 67
5. Brahmanas: Aurifiction 103
6. Alchemy as a State Enterprise 144
7. Political Economy of Alchemy 164
8. Siddha and Tantric Alchemy 204
9. Apparatus, Terms, and Symbols 224
10. Conclusions 263
11. A Survey of Sources for History of Alchemy 271
Bibliography 296
Index 314


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