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The Vedas describe a connection between eternal life and gold. The use of Mercury for alchemy is first documented in the 3rd– or 4th–century Arthashastra. Buddhist texts from the 2nd to 5th centuries mention the transmutation of base metals to gold. Greek alchemy may have been introduced to Ancient India through the invasions of Alexander the Great in 325 BC, and kingdoms that were culturally influenced by the Greeks like Gandhāra, although hard evidence for this is lacking.
The 11th-century Persian chemist and physician Abū Rayhān Bīrūnī, who visited Gujarat as part of the court of Mahmud of Ghazni, reported that they have a science similar to alchemy which is quite peculiar to them, which in Sanskrit is called Rasayāna and in Persian Rasavātam. It means the art of obtaining/manipulating Rasa: nectar, mercury, and juice. This art was restricted to certain operations, metals, drugs, compounds, and medicines, many of which have mercury as their core element. Its principles restored the health of those who were ill beyond hope and gave back youth to fading old age.
The goals of alchemy in India included the creation of a divine body (Sanskrit divya-deham) and immortality while still embodied (Sanskrit jīvan-mukti). Sanskrit alchemical texts include much material on the manipulation of mercury and sulphur, that are homologized with the semen of the god Śiva and the menstrual blood of the goddess Devī.
Some early alchemical writings seem to have their origins in the Kaula tantric schools associated to the teachings of the personality of Matsyendranath. Other early writings are found in the Jaina medical treatise Kalyāṇakārakam of Ugrāditya, written in South India in the early 9th century.
Two famous early Indian alchemical authors were Nāgārjuna Siddha and Nityanātha Siddha. Nāgārjuna Siddha was a Buddhist monk. His book, Rasendramangalam, is an example of Indian alchemy and medicine. Nityanātha Siddha wrote Rasaratnākara, also a highly influential work. In Sanskrit, rasa translates to "mercury", and Nāgārjuna Siddha was said to have developed a method of converting mercury into gold.
Reliable scholarship on Indian alchemy has been advanced in a major way by the publication of The Alchemical Body by David Gordon White. Trustworthy scholarship on Indian alchemy must now take the findings of this work into account.
An important modern bibliography on Indian alchemical studies has also been provided by David Gordon White at Oxford Bibliographies Online.
The contents of 39 Sanskrit alchemical treatises have been analysed in detail in G. Jan Meulenbeld's History of Indian Medical Literature. The discussion of these works in HIML gives a summary of the contents of each work, their special features, and where possible the evidence concerning their dating. Chapter 13 of HIML, Various works on rasaśāstra and ratnaśāstra (or various works on alchemy and gems) gives brief details of a further 655 (six hundred and fifty-five) treatises. In some cases Meulenbeld gives notes on the contents and authorship of these works; in other cases references are made only to the unpublished manuscripts of these titles.
A great deal remains to be discovered about Indian alchemical literature. The content of the Sanskrit alchemical corpus has not yet (2014) been adequately integrated into the wider general history of alchemy.
On the Swift Wings of the Mighty Dragon.