SOMA AND THE ORIGINS OF ALCHEMY
Evidence indicates that the Rg Vedic soma and soma ceremony lie close to the origins of the world's alchemical traditions. To the best of my knowledge this connection has never been discussed before. In fact, the evidence suggests that the soma tradition may well be the oldest systematic form of alchemy in the world.
India was known from ancient times to be in possession of the elixir of immortality and the fountain of youth. It was even thought to be the site of the earthly paradise and the beginning of the creation of life, as well as the origin of the primordial first man. The origin of the English word man is derived from the Sanskrit name Manu, the first man.
According to the Greek physician Ktesias, who served as personal physician to the Persian king Artaxerxes Mnemon from 405 to 397 B.C.E., the fountain of youth was located in India. Ktesias says of the inhabitants of India, "They are .just, and of all men are the longest lived, attaining the age of 170 and some even of 200 years."(1) According to Middle Eastern tradition, Alexander the Great went to India to search for the "water of life."(2) In 326 B.C.E. Nearchus, the admiral of Alexander's fleet in India, described the Indians in his journals as healthy, "free from disease, and living up to a very old age."(3) Onesikritus of Astyplaia was the Greek pilot of Alexander's fleet. He also accompanied Alexander into India and kept a journal of his experiences and observations. He wrote that Indians "live 130 years without becoming old, for if they die then they are cut off as it were in mid‑life."(4) Around 321 B.C.E., the Greek ambassador Megasthenes went to India and served for the Seleucid Empire at the court of Chandragupta. Megasthenes wrote a book about India based on firsthand observation in which he mentions the long life span of Indians. He tells us that the Greek myth of the Hyperboreans was of Indian origin. He mentions that these Indian Hyperboreans "live a thousand years." He also says that wine was never drunk by the Indians except at sacrifices when soma juice was consumed. This indicates that at this time soma was a fermented drink.' Sedlar speculates that the Greeks did not use the term soma to avoid confusion because it meant "body" or "corpse" in Greek.(6) There is also evidence among the Greek historians that the Indians used some form of supernatural means to rejuvenate themselves and to heal the sick. Arrian, a Greek historian and philosopher born toward the end of the first century C.E., compiled from the most reliable sources an account of the Asiatic expedition of Alexander the Great. He noted that when the Greeks felt "themselves much indisposed, they applied to their sophists [Brahmins] who by wonderful, and even more than human means, cured whatever would admit of cure."(7)
As early as the third century B.C.E., Chinese tradition tells of the emperors of China sending expeditions into India and the West in search of the fabled paradise, the plant of immortality, and the elixir of life.(8) There is ample evidence that early Chinese knowledge of the Indian soma motivated the searches of the emperor Ch'in Shih Huang‑ti of the Ch'in Dynasty (249‑210 B.C.E.) and the emperor Wu‑ti of the Han Dynasty (202 B.c.E. 220 C.E.) for the elixir of immortality.(9) Much later, the Chinese pilgrim Pahiyan, while visiting India around 405‑411 C.E., was told by the Indian priests that Indians of former ages had long life spans.(10)
Many centuries later the same idea of a miraculous method of increasing longevity found only in India was restated by Marco Polo after his visit to India, circa 1280 C.E. He wrote, "They live to a great age, some of them even to 150 years, enjoying health and vigour . . . although they sleep upon the bare earth."(11)
The location of the original paradise, of the original homeland of mankind, and of the secret of immortality has intrigued humanity for millennia. The original paradise or the Garden of Eden has always been associated with longevity and immortality. Knowledge of the discovery in India of the elixir of immortality and the original Eden of the Bible had reached Europe at least by the twelfth century. Many church fathers and leaders expressed the idea that the original paradise, fountain of youth, and the origin of man were located in India. Some examples are from Saint Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria (300 C.E.), who stated in his Questionary, "We are taught that paradise was to the East .... For this reason, say the accurate historians, fragrant spices are found in the orient in the direction of India . . . ." Saint Jerome (375 C.E.) pictured paradise as lying somewhere north of India in the Himalayas. In speaking of the original river of paradise that split into four rivers, he writes in his De sita et nommibus that "Phison is the river which our Greek scholars call the Ganges. This river pours out of paradise and flows around the regions of India, and finally into the Indian Ocean." In his De paradiso, Saint Ambrose, archbishop of Milan (400 C.E.), says, "Paradise was planted in the Orient‑in a place of delights." He says its source is the Ganges that flows around India.
Legends about India became widely circulated throughout Europe. It was said that not only the fountain of youth but also the much sought‑after origin of creation, the land of Eden, the earthly paradise, was to be found in India. This Indian paradise contained a fountain of youth from which flowed the water of life that could heal the sick and rejuvenate the aged. Europeans were eager to find this place. If the legends were true, then this fountain in paradise would be the key to Adam's longevity and the source of bodily immortality.
In the twelfth century, Hugo of Saint Victor (d. 1142 C.E.) placed the earthly paradise in the East along with its tree of life and fountain of youth:
Asia has many provinces and regions whose names and locations I shall set forth briefly, beginning with paradise. Paradise is a place in the East, planted with every kind of timber and fruit trees. It contains the tree of life. No cold is there nor excessive heat, but a constantly mild climate. It contains a fountain which runs off in four rivers. It is called paradise in Greek, Eden in Hebrew, both of which words in our language mean a Garden of Delight. (12)
It is interesting that in the Rg Vedic soma ceremony four rivers are mentioned. These are the four rivers of paradise that branch off from the single river, which is symbolic of the central pillar/tree of light produced by soma during the ceremony. These rivers of light, equated with a timeless paradise and the fountain of youth, are created by the soma flow at the center of the world where the ceremony is being conducted.
Earlier legends mentioned by Ktesias clearly state that the fountain of youth was located in India. Later, Dion Chrysostom (d. 117 c.E.), in his Oratio (25.834), states that the Brahmans of India "possess a remarkable fountain" of youth. Other legends, such as those of Prester John, the mythical Eastern Christian king, also describe paradise as being in India. The paradise of Prester John contained a fountain of youth "which preserves health for three hundred and three years, three months, three weeks, and three days."'(13) Not only the Christian but also the Islamic tradition placed paradise in India. According to traditions current among the Muslims, Adam, the first man, called manu or man in Sanskrit, originally descended from heaven to India and received his first revelation there.(14)
All of these stories, myths, and legends are connected to a variety of traditions that existed in ancient India. The source of these legends lies in the traditions and ancient stories in the Rg Veda that discuss rejuvenation. The rejuvenation stories found in the Rg Veda are the oldest written sources that we possess concerning the rejuvenation of humans rather than gods, goddesses, or serpents.(15)
The Rg Vedic soma ceremony also appears to be the oldest preserved document in which human beings attain immortality while still living in a physical body. The only exception to this is Utnapishtim, who lived with the gods in Dilmun in the garden of the sun and was made immortal after the flood. Another source for the legends derives from eyewitness accounts of travelers exposed to the sages and the long traditions of the saints of India who were renowned for such supernatural abilities as healing the sick, rejuvenating the aged, and personal immortality. The genesis of such stories is the logical outcome of the cosmogony and cosmology developed by the ancient Indians in their earliest literature. This cosmology allowed for the existence of a fundamental constituent of the universe, derived from the source of creation, that could nourish and rejuvenate matter. This special substance was called soma. It maintained the rejuvenating abilities of not only plant and human life, but the earth, sun, moon, planets, and the eternity of the universe as a whole. These early ideas led to the notion that the earthly paradise, the fountain of youth, and the water of life were to be found in India. The origin of these ideas in their fully developed forms are directly connected to the earliest soma ceremonies described in the Rg Veda.
Widespread knowledge of soma as an elixir of immortality or "water of life" demonstrates its emergence and diffusion throughout the Rg Vedic period and must be at least as old as the oldest hymns, if not older. This would date the soma system of alchemy to around 1800 B.C.E. and make it the oldest developed form of elixir alchemy known. The rituals of the soma ceremony, and soma itself, are used for mystical union and healing in the Rg Veda, and they form the foundation of the beliefs in rejuvenation and healing in portions of the Artharva Veda. The soma alchemical system forms the basis of the later alchemical, rasayana, and Ayurvedic schools of India. Parts of this system are also incorporated into the different techniques of yoga and tantra in the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist schools.
The "water of life" is infrequently mentioned in Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Egyptian texts, and it does not appear to lave ever been developed in these cultures into either an herbal or specific internal alchemical system as soma was. Nor did mortals ever obtain the immortal status of the gods as they did after drinking soma in the Rg Veda. The old Indo‑European mead drink reached its fullest development in Indo‑Iranian rituals as the ambrosia of the gods. This is specifically true of the Indo‑Aryan soma, which became I lie drink of both the gods and human beings. A number of Rg Vedic hymns clearly state that at one time only the gods gained immortality through drinking soma. But through supernormal means, the Atharvans (soma priests) discovered the gods' ancient secret of the preparation of the entheogenic soma drink that allowed human beings to obtain the same immortal status as the gods.
The notion of a substance such as the water of life, later called an alchemical elixir, was systematically formulated among the Indo-Iranians at an early date, possibly as early as 3500 B.C.E. It was the Vedic Aryans, the originators of Sanskrit, the "language of the gods," who called this elixir soma, a Sanskritized form of the Avestan haoma drink, and who advanced this elixir idea to a fully developed internal system of alchemy. The priests of the Rg Veda considered the celestial elixir that flowed through the trunk of the cosmic tree to be the universal panacea, the water of life that could heal, rejuvenate, and give immortality directly. Interestingly, the theory of an elixir of life did not originally exist in other forms of alchemy that were to develop many centuries later throughout the world. There is strong evidence that the elixir theory in early alchemical traditions was transmitted to these traditions from the early Indo‑Iranian sacrificial rituals of soma and haoma. The Indian soma, more so than its counterpart haoma, was much further developed as the internal elixir and was transmitted to subsequent alchemical traditions. Soma was the original healer, rejuvenator, and life‑span extender of ancient civilization. The soma of the Aryans described in the Rg Veda is the source of the notion of the elixir of life that influenced the development of the alchemical elixir vitae in such diverse cultures as China, Islam, and Europe. The transmutation of base metals into gold may have originated elsewhere; however, there is early and clear evidence that this notion may also have come from the Indo‑Iranian sacrificial rituals. This evidence can be clearly seen in the Rg Vedic soma ceremony in its teaching of the internal method for inducing paranormal abilities such as psychogenesis (mind‑born creations or transmutations). Current research has suggested that elixir alchemy was first developed in China among the Taoists. It can be shown, however, that Chinese elixir theories were derived from the elixir theory in India that came from the Rg Veda. The notion of a rejuvenating elixir appears to have been transmitted to China from India at a very early date and from the Chinese and Indians to the Arabs, from which it was transmitted through Arabic alchemical and scientific writings to Jewish philosophers and to Roger Bacon, who disseminated this information throughout Europe around 1250 C.E.16 Joseph Needham shows that soma was the original alchemical elixir of life in Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and European alchemical texts. Some of these influences came directly from the Rg Veda soma ceremony of the Brahmans and the Atharva Veda while others were by way of later Hindu and Buddhist religious and philosophical texts.
My purpose is to show how Indian religion and philosophical doctrines derived from the Rg Vedic soma ceremony have influenced Chinese, Greco‑Egyptian, and Islamic alchemy, and how they became incorporated into European alchemical texts, practices, and lore.
Chinese alchemy is primarily concerned with prolonging life and the search for the elixir vitae. As noted above, this search for an elixir was carried out by the rsis of the Rg Veda and other Indian ascetic groups dating back to at least 1800 B.C.E. Some of the practices developed by these sages were completely internal, while others used triggers such as entheogens in conjunction with breathing, sound and visualization practices. The groups of ascetics known as the Munis and the Kesins, whose names in Sanskrit mean "silent, long‑haired sages," have a special and powerful hymn written about them in the Rg Veda. They were great miracle workers who internalized the concepts of the soma sacrifice and perfected the uniting of the opposites of fire and water. By internalizing the soma sacrificial concepts, these ascetics were able to develop a subtle body, identified with the sun as the cosmic pillar/tree, through which they attained immortality. As described in the Rg Veda, this solar body was said to exit and return to the physical body, and it was through this solar body that the alchemical elixir soma was drunk. Their deity was the fierce god Rudra, lord of plants. Known as the "red howler," Rudra is directly connected with Indra, Soma, and the sun. The Rg Vedic Maruts are Rudra and Indra's companions, and they are associated in both the Rg Veda and the Atharva Veda with the seven vital breaths that howl like a whirlwind when leaving the body. The Munis and Kesins used various herbal concoctions to produce states of ecstasy and were able to leave the body at will.
Another early ascetic group, called the vratyas, were great miracle workers. They internalized the principles of the soma ceremony and practiced special forms of ascesis that are still not completely understood. The vratyas, who were herbal alchemists, also worshipped Rudra, lord of plants. They are said to have searched for and found the elixir of life." Their ascesis involved not just the mortification of the physical body, but a practice based on the internal vibrations (vipra) within the matrix (hrdyakasa, or space within the heart), the universal womb of creation associated with the Anthropos. Their practices involved a combination of fasting, breath control, entheogenic drug use, and the internal repetition of phonemes. They entered ecstatic states and cosmicized their subtle bodies into replicas of the universe.
Both Indian ascetics and early texts such as the Rg Veda, Atharva Veda, and the Upanisads, as well as Buddhism, influenced the development of Chinese alchemy. In both the Rg Veda and the Atharva Veda, the elixir was associated with gold, the imperishable solar metal. The emphasis of the Chinese alchemists was placed upon making gold, a substance that would confer longevity or immortality to the body. This idea does not appear to enter Western alchemy until the Islamic period.
Legend has it that Chinese alchemy originated in the teachings of the naturalist school, whose founder was Zou Yan (300 B.C.E.). The naturalist school propagated the yin‑yang and five‑element theory, but that the idea of an "elixir of immortality" developed from their doctrines without outside influence cannot be shown. As will be discussed later, from before the time of the development of the naturalist school, there was a direct influence upon the development of Chinese alchemy from Indo‑Iranian sources with regard to the plant of immortality and the "elixir of life." The oldest treatise in China devoted entirely to alchemy is the Cantongqi by Wei Bo‑yang, which dates only to about 142 C.E.(18) Taoism, however, can be traced back to its founder, Lao‑tzu, who lived around the fourth century B.C.E.'9 Taoist alchemy, much like its Indian counterpart, became associated with all manner of wonder‑working and magic. Early on, its attention was focused on the problem of mortality. By bringing the body into a perfect harmony with the Tao, the way of the universe, the body would acquire the attributes of the Tao and so become deathless. The concept of the Tao is not different from the Rg Vedic concept of rta, the foundation of eternal order, the principle of universal harmony and balance at the cosmic center of being. This principle operates throughout all of nature in both its animate and inanimate forms.
There are many similarities between the Rg Vedic soma and Chinese alchemy. In both Chinese alchemy and European alchemy, the elixir or philosopher's stone undergoes various color changes to reach perfection. The soma of the Rg Veda goes through similar color changes during the soma ceremony, including black, symbolic of primal matter before creation, and then various shades of white, gold, red, and purple or rainbow colors. In the soma ceremony, the color of the soma juice was alchemically altered by the priests from white before dawn to a golden color after dawn until midday (by the union of white and reddish yellow) and then to reddish yellow in the evening. These same color changes in the matter of the philosopher's stone are found in Chinese, Islamic, and European alchemy.
In China the language of alchemy was applied to various techniques of breath control whose aim was also physical immortality. The goal of the practices was the resurrection of the integral personality in a new and imperishable body form, a body of light. In Chinese alchemy this special body was nurtured like an embryo within the physical body by yogic disciplines. The European alchemist, working along the same lines, brings an elixir to maturity in a matrix of lead. The development of a new, embryonic, imperishable body inside the physical body is derived from the soma ceremony of the Rg Veda, Within the matrix of the heart‑cave‑womb in the soma ceremony a golden embryo is generated that becomes the internal body of light or Anthropos.
Special breathing techniques are first encountered in the Rg Vedic soma ceremony with the chanting of sacred syllables by the rsis and during their practice of generating internal heat and light. The Rg Vedic hymns were written in a variety of magical chanting meters. The rhythmic monotony of these incantations was accompanied by breathing techniques specific to each meter; the method of chanting each meter was a well‑kept secret. The ritual development of the embryonic alchemical sun within the womb is a special part of the Rg Vedic soma ceremony that employed special breathing techniques (tapas) associated with fire and sound. In the Atharva Veda there are detailed examples of methods of embryonic womb breath
ing. The healing power is said to reside in the breath, remaining latent until stimulated according to the established magical ritual.
A number of Chinese alchemists used Indian breathing (Sanskrit prana, Chinese chi) techniques in their practices. Some of these are Lu Pu‑wei (d. ‑237 B.C.E.), Liu An (d. 122 B.C.E.), and Hua T'o (189 C.E.). Hua T'o was a famous physician and master of life energy (chi). Hua T'o's techniques have been shown to be derived from India. Even his name is derived from a transliteration of a Sanskrit word for medicine, agadya, which means "universal cure‑all."(20) Breathing techniques themselves are a very ancient tradition in China, certainly older than Chinese alchemy itself. (21) Even though breath or chi control practices were being used in China already in the sixth century B.C.E.(22) the Indian counterpart to such practices dates from the hymns in the Rg Veda, Atharva Veda, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanisads, which places the use of these techniques in India at least before 1200 B.C.E. And since the generation of the solar embryo with special breathing techniques is present in the early development of the Rg Vedic soma ceremony as an integral component, this could push the above date back to 1800 B.C.E. or even earlier. Portions of the Atharva Veda can be dated to before 1150 B.C.E. by the mention of iron in the text. Other parts are much older and incorporate yoga‑type practices, breathing techniques, and medicinal knowledge from indigenous Indian cultures.
The great French Indologist Jean Filliozat addressed the question of whether Taoist breath control antedates the corresponding Indian yogas. He suggests that while each system is peculiar to its culture, there are too many similarities to argue entirely independent development. At the same time, he is convinced that such common elements as the concern with retention of the pneuma or breath and the use of certain positions go back too far in India and must have been imported directly into China.(23)
The embryonic respiration described in Taoist texts is more like the early forms found in the Rg Vedic soma ceremony and must be derived from the latter. As noted by Mircea Eliade, "The embryonic respiration (of the Chinese) was not, therefore, like pranayama, an exercise preliminary to meditation, nor an auxiliary technique, but sufficed in itself . . . to set in motion and bring to completion a `mystical physiology' which led to the indefinite prolongation of life of the material body."(24) This is exactly what we find as the goal of the creation of the subtle body in the Rg Vedic soma ceremony. Within the creative matrix of the universal womb the golden embryo is nurtured and brought to full development. It does not involve a continued pranayama regimen of breathing exercises, yet internal fiery breath within the womb plays a vital part. These techniques may have been part of the religious practices of the Indus Valley cultures (2700 B.C.E.), where seal impressions have been found that depict sages seated in yogic postures. It is now known that the Indus Valley cultures were in direct contact with central Asia (Bactria), which was the original homeland of the Indo‑Iranians. In the Rg Veda itself womb breathing is associated with the ecstasy states of the soma ceremony and the heart‑sun‑womb of one's internal being. The drawing in and breathing out of rays as breaths from the solar heart is a basic component of the practice described there.
As we have shown, there is overwhelming evidence that the Chinese Taoist rejuvenation and longevity techniques have their origin in the Rg Veda and Atharva Veda, which far predate any Chinese Taoist or alchemical texts. The soma ceremony described in both the Rg Veda and the Atharva Veda is the source of the elixir theory, the practice of embryonic womb breathing, various psychogenic processes, other breathing exercises, and the concept of the breath as an energy source in the universe.
Another important idea derived from the Rg Vedic soma ceremony is the association between the Pole Star and Big Dipper and the heavenly elixir and rejuvenation and longevity concepts. The Pole Star and Big Dipper figure in the archaic myths of most cultures, but their use as the source and holder‑of the elixir of immortality in a developed cosmogony and cosmology comes from the soma ceremony of the Rg Veda. In India from an early date, kingship was associated with the Pole Star in an older form of cosmology involving the deity Varuna.
There is evidence in the Indus Valley culture and in the Rg Veda that associates not only Varuna but also Indra and Soma with the Pole Star. Indra, the main deity of the hymns who plays an essential role in the soma sacrifice, actually replaces Varuna as the Pole Star during the soma ceremony: Varuna is said to become Indra.(25)
In China, according to Confucian philosophy, the Pole Star was also associated with kingship. Both the Pole Star and the Big Dipper are prominent aspects of Taoist alchemical techniques, and it is highly likely that their source can be found in the hymns of the Rg Veda (Fig. 5).
Furthermore, certain alchemical texts of China have been directly borrowed from Indian alchemical texts. An example of this is the writing of the third‑century‑C.E. alchemist Ko‑Hung, surnamed Paop'u tzu, who borrowed from the Buddhist Nagarjuna's Rasaratnacara. In addition to borrowing Indian alchemical knowledge, Ko‑Hung discussed certain miracles that could be performed through consumption of the elixir, including walking on water and levitation.(26) These two feats have only one source, the Indo‑Aryan Rg Veda somapa tradition. They never occurred in China prior to their introduction from India. These miracles were probably incorporated into alchemical texts from Buddhist sources.
The ancient Indo‑Iranian soma/haoma rituals have been shown by Joseph Needham to have had a direct influence on the development of Chinese alchemy. In addition to these early influences, there was continuous contact with India through Hindu and Buddhist envoys, as recorded in Chinese history. This contact included Hindu envoys of 105 B.C.E., 89 B.C.E., 159 C.E., and 161 C.E., as well as the introduction of Buddhism around 2 B.C.E. or before. It was during this span that Indian alchemical texts as well as texts on respiration were translated into Chinese.27 Further proof that India was the source of the elixir comes from the Han emperors, who, upon asking for instruction in the Buddhist faith, first requested that the Buddhists supply them with the "herbal elixir of immortality," which only India was known to possess.(28) In India, however, the elixir ideas associated with immortality were more greatly developed than in the Iranian Avesta. As mentioned by Lu Gwei‑Djen, India appears to have been the original influence upon Chinese alchemy's development of physiological alchemy or nei tan, which is a quasi‑yogistic system of internal alchemy in which an elixir of immortality is synthesized within the body of the alchemist .(29) The ancient soma plant of the Rg Veda also had an influence on the development of Chinese herbal alchemy. Chinese sages are known to have sought a special plant in India‑which had to be soma‑that was supposed to bestow healing, longevity, and immortality. Not only did the Chinese emperors of the Ch'in and Han Dynasties seek out the soma plant of India, but one of the oldest Chinese medical texts, Pen‑ts'ao Kang Mu, mentions a lotus plant called hung pai‑lien‑hua, which was from a foreign country and considered the plant of immortality. We can attribute the many parallels between Chinese alchemy and the elixir theories of immortality found in early Indian texts directly to the influence of Indian elixir theories on Chinese philosophy.
The Rg Vedic soma ceremony includes within itself cosmic processes and cycles of creation, maintenance, and destruction that are models for alchemical processes. The soma of the soma ceremony is a combination of entheogenic plant juices and pneumatic development within the body of the adept. The process of developing an etherealized subtle body within the heart is the foundation of the soma ceremony. This imperishable body, which is able to remain in the physical body or to leave it behind, is used for healing, longevity, paranormal abilities, and immortality. The Atharva Veda is full of hymns that tell of the leaving of the physical body through an internal, golden, subtle form generated within the womb of the heart. This concept, and the meaning of the soma ceremony as an early form of internal alchemy, has not been fully appreciated or understood by scholars of the origins of alchemy.
The ritual processes of the soma ceremony not only developed a special internal body in the adept but also gave the adept the capacity for psychogenesis and other psychic abilities. We find in the soma ceremony that the soma elixir not only creates an immortal subtle body of light but also is the method by which miracles are conducted. In the soma ceremony there is a process in which the mind and the heart are combined during the ritual in order to access the matrix continuum called the skambha. The matrix continuum is the creative, universal womb located within the heart of being. This continuum‑womb is identical to the Islamic philosopher's egg, the internal elixir embryo of Taoist alchemy, and the Hermetic vessel of European alchemy. These ideas originally come from the Rg Vedic soma ceremony.(30) For example, Joseph Needham says that "the alchemist undertook to contemplate the cycles of cosmic process in his newly accessible form because he believed that to encompass the Tao with his mind (or, as he would have put it, his mind‑and‑heart) would make him one with it. That belief was precisely what made him a Taoist."(31) This combining of heart and mind is also central to the soma ceremony. "Looking at all the evidence impartially, one cannot escape the conclusion that the dominant goal of proto‑scientific alchemy was contemplative, and indeed the language in which the elixir is described was ecstatic." (32) This also shows a close correlation to the ecstatic states attained by the priests that are mentioned in the Rg Vedic soma ceremonies.
The motivation of both the first emperor of the Ch'in Dynasty, Ch'in Shih Huang‑ti, and Wu‑ti of the Han Dynasty for seeking the elixir of immortality comes from Indo‑Iranian sources,(33) and, more specifically, from the Rg Veda and the Atharva Veda, where the ideas were formulated into a coherent system of internal alchemical practice, a fact that is not the case for the Iranian Avesta.
The soma practices of India were all that was needed to trigger the development of elixir alchemy in Taoist China. Joseph Needham has mentioned that China in the Warring States, Chin, and Han periods would have provided precisely the supersaturated solution from which elixir alchemy would crystalize, given the right seed. Fifty years ago H. H. Dubs proposed that this seed was knowledge of (or hearsay about) the Indo‑Iranian plant used by priests in their sacrifices late in the second millennium B.C.E. Called haoma by the Persians and soma by the Indians, its use must antedate the Aryan invasions because it is firmly attested to by both Avestan and Vedic sources. The juice of this plant was believed, as far as one can tell from the phraseology of the hymns, to cure all diseases of body and mind and to confer immortality. Dubs went on to suggest that the means of transmission to China was through the Yueh‑Chih people, who occupied western Kansu down to the third century B.C.E., and whose chief city was Kanchow (modern Changyeh). This is the people, in fact, whose alliance Chang Chien went to seek in Han Wu‑ti's time after they had moved further to the west. Thus Dubs envisaged an overland transmission of the idea of the drug or plant of immortality from the Indo‑Iranian cultural area to China early in the fourth century B.C.E., if not before.(34) Evidently we have here something far more concrete than the metaphors of the Greco‑Egyptian protochemists, and something that would have supplied just the element necessary to make the Chinese Taoist set of ideas gel into full elixir alchemy.(35) How this could have come about, according to Needham, can be seen most strikingly if we examine ancient Indian liturgical texts, where the essential germ of alchemy is defined as the art of long life plus aurifaction, noting, by the way, that the connection of the idea of eternal life with the incorruptible metal gold was probably a good deal older. It is easy to say that this connection must go back to the very first knowledge of the properties of metals. When one looks for it in texts from ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, there is not much to be found. (36) What is much more important is the remarkable fact that in ancient India gold was intimately bound up with the soma sacrifice itself.(37) Such then, it would seem, is the background both of the "plant of immortality" that Ch'in Shih Huang‑ti sought and the alchemical gold that Li Shao‑Chun undertook to manufacture. Surely some rumor or persuasion of a most compelling character, reaching China from Indo‑Aryan sources, turned divinity into philosophy, or, to speak more precisely, liturgiology into protoscience.(38)
The Chinese continued to consider India as the main source for the knowledge of the "elixir of life" and sent many missions there in order to bring back specific persons who could prepare the elixir for the emperor. In 648 C.E., the emperor T' ai Tsung sent to India the envoy Wang Hsdan‑tse, who brought back a Brahman named Narayanaswamy who was a specialist in "prolonging life." In 664‑65 C.E. the Buddhist monk Hsiian‑chao was ordered by Kao Tsung to bring from Kashmir one Lokaditya, who possessed the herbal drug of longevity. Lokaditya remained at the Chinese court at least until 668 C.E.(39)
India continued to influence Chinese alchemical ideas through the introduction of Buddhism." After the development of Chinese alchemy, the elixir ideas of soma and the soma ceremony continued to influence other cultures, particularly Islam. The ideas of soma were passed on to Islam indirectly through Chinese alchemy and directly by contact with India.
There are traditions that claim the origin of alchemy was in Egypt. But like the Gnostic schools and the Hermetic literature, alchemy as formulated in Egypt was a syncretic philosophical system developed from many sources. The foundation of much of the spiritual dimension of Greco‑Egyptian alchemy comes from Indo‑Iranian sources.
An important figure in Greco‑Egyptian alchemy was Demokritos (460‑370 B.C.E.), who is said to have traveled widely and is thought to have spent time in India.(41) Demokritos is recalled mainly as the founder, with Leukippos, of the atomic theory, according to which all bodies are made of atoms that are themselves complete, indivisible, simple, eternally existent in empty space, but differing in form and magnitude, with proportional weight. All change comes through combinations or dissociations of atoms in a purely mechanical way. The atomic theory is closely associated with alchemy in its creation and transmutation aspects. The atomic theory was already known in India by the Ajivikas, an ascetic sect of miracle workers that existed before and at the time of the Buddha, around 500 B.C.E. From what we know of his life, Demokritos appears to have lived as an ascetic. It is very possible that he obtained his atomic theory from India. He also believed in a void, a purely Rg Vedic concept found in the soma ceremony and later taken over by the Buddhists. In addition, he said that souls were soul‑atoms and that the soul consisted of smooth spherical storms of fire, a concept directly related to the fiery pneumatic body in the heart where the soul resides. These same ideas are found among the theological concepts of the Ajivikas and are derived from the soma ceremony.
Demokritos was interested in much more than atoms. An entire a alchemical school formed around him and his ideas. The Greek author Pliny consistently links Demokritos with the Magi of Persia. Pliny notes that Demokritos wrote an important book about plants in which he says that he will start with the magical wonder plants. According to Pliny, these magical plants were first brought to the notice of the West by Pythagoras and Demokritos, who invoked the Magi as their authority. The magical plants mentioned by Demokritos mainly are connected with altered states of consciousness and are derived from the haoma and soma plants of Persia and India.(42)
During the formulation of alchemy in Greco‑Roman Egypt in the first and second centuries C.E., there were direct trade links with India. A statuette found at Pompeii of the Hindu goddess Laksmi, who is associated with the lotus plant, has been dated to this time .(43) According to Greek sources, the Persian mystic and magus Ostanes (500 B.C.E.) was the first to explain both magic and alchemy to the Greco‑Egyptians. According to Pliny, he was the first writer on magic and a direct pupil of Zoroaster. Ostanes was obviously an Indo‑Iranian well acquainted with the magical/alchemical rituals of the entheogenic haoma/soma ceremonies.
Very important Greco‑Egyptian magicians and alchemists were said to be Ostanes' disciples. These included "Maria the Jewess," who wrote several important books on alchemy, as well as the famous Demokritos himself.(44) One other very influential writer associated with Greco‑Egyptian alchemy is Poisidonius (135‑51 B.C.E.) from Apamea in Syria. He was head of the Stoic school at Athens and was responsible for many Stoic doctrines. He blended science with astrology, magic, and alchemy. He was directly influenced by Indo‑Iranian thought and fused Greek philosophy with Indo‑Iranian sacrificial mysticism.(45)
We find ideas identical to those of the Rg Vedic soma ceremony in books ascribed to Ostanes. He describes seven gates through which the goal of gnosis can be reached; he goes on to say that the land of Egypt is superior to all others on account of its wisdom and knowledge. The people of Egypt as well as those of the rest of the world, however, have need of the inhabitants of Persia and cannot succeed in any of their works without the aid that they draw from this country. All the philosophers who have devoted themselves to the science of alchemy have addressed themselves to persons from Persia whom they have adopted as brothers.(46)
The main ideas that were transmitted through Greece and Egypt concern the Indo‑Iranian sacrificial rituals of haoma/soma. These rituals involve an up‑and‑down motion and circulation process, both within the human body and the greater universe. The notion of up-and‑down movement is important in Greek alchemy. It has a direct relationship to uniting the aspects of microcosm and macrocosm. Another important part of the sacrificial rituals is the concept of the spiritual water. The subtle water is the luminous soma energy or fiery water. This water is both the source of the unification of opposites and the ultimate goal of the alchemical quest. The sacrificial ritual unites the above and the below and opens up the source of the light of lights. All of these Greco‑Egyptian alchemical operations take place within the bowl‑shaped altar as the alembic‑womb of transformation. This universal matrix is located at the cosmic center within the heart of being. An understanding of the Greek alchemist Zosimos can be achieved only by an understanding of the Indo‑Iranian sacrificial rituals, especially the soma ceremony. During the soma ceremony a dismemberment and then a rememberment occur within the solar heart, the Hermetic vessel. Within the heart as the alembic‑womb, luminous rays of being are gathered together through the sensory channels and alchemical creations and transmutations are formed within the oceanic‑pneumatic matrix and projected from the heart outward into manifestation.(47)
The Islamic world was affected by China, Greece, and India. Both China and Greece had incorporated ideas about soma, and through direct contact with India, the elixir theory entered Islamic thought, having a measurable impact upon Islamic alchemy. Impressed with Indian learning, the Arabs incorporated many Indian ideas into Islamic alchemical texts. Relations between India and the Arabs go back far before the rise of Islam. From among all the cultures with which the Arabs came into contact, they were most impressed by the Greeks and the Indians. According to 'Amr b. Bahr al‑Jahiz of Basra (d. 869 C.E.), "I have found the inhabitants of India to have made great advancement in astrology and mathematics. In the science of medicine also they are highly advanced. The Chinese do not possess the qualities which they have .... With them originated mysticism and charms which counteract poisons. The origin of astronomical sciences goes back to the Indians."(48)
Another important Arabic author, the well‑known historian al‑Ya Qubi (d. 900 C.E.), remarks, "The Indians are men of science and thought. They surpass all other peoples in every science; their judgement on astronomical problems is the best; and their book on this subject is the Siddhanta which has been utilized by the Greeks as well as the Persians and others. In the science of medicine their ideas are highly advanced . . . ."(49)
Still another great Arabic writer of the ninth century, Abu Ma‑shay al‑Balkhi (d. 885 C.E.), says, "The Indians are the first (most advanced nation). All the ancient peoples have acknowledged their wisdom and accepted their excellence in the various branches of knowledge. The kings of China used to call the Indian kings, `the kings of wisdom,' because of their great interest in the sciences."(50)
Many Indian physicians came to Arabia and not only practiced medicine but helped in the translation of Indian medical and philosophical texts from Sanskrit to Arabic .(51) As one Tamil work states, "One of the Siddhars of Tamilnadu, Ramadevar, says in his work on alchemy that he went to Mecca, assumed the name of Yakub and taught the Arabians the alchemical art. It is significant that some of the purification processes and substances of alchemical significance are common to both the Islamic and the Indian alchemy.”(52)
Living in the later part of the eighth century, Geber (Jabir), an Arab alchemist and Sufi, is credited with the formulation of the famous sulphur/mercury theory of alchemy. The sulphur/mercury theory is probably of foreign origin, because it occurs in the oldest Chinese alchemical text, Cantongqi, written in 142 C.E. by Wei Bo‑yang. In India the theory can be traced back to the Rg Vedic soma ceremony, where the Asvins produce a golden elixir composed of sun and moon lotus plants by the union of Agni (fire) and Soma (water). Many eighth‑century alchemical manuscripts written in Arabic, Syrian, and Persian abound in references to the sulphur/mercury theory. Through their eventual translation into Latin by European scholars around the beginning of the twelfth century C.E., much of the academic knowledge of the Arabs, including the sulphur/mercury theory, was transmitted to Western Europe. The sulphur/mercury theory of alchemy was really an attempt to show in chemical terms the union of opposite natures in the production of the Grand Elixir. In sixteenth‑century Europe, the sulphur/mercury theory was expanded to include salt, which then became known as the triune microcosm. These three principles form the backbone of much of European alchemical speculation.
"According to Latin as well as Arabic books, Geber was surnamed El‑Sufi, the Sufi. He acknowledges in his works the Imam Jafar Sadiq (700‑765 C.E.) [the great Sufi teacher] as his master." Geber "was for a long time a close companion of the Barmecides, the viziers of Haroun el‑Rashid. These barmakis [as they were called] were descended from the priests of the Afghan Buddhist shrines, and were held to have at their disposal the ancient teaching that had been transmitted to them from that area."(54) Geber's philosophical views were no doubt greatly influenced by his contacts with the Barmecides, who were also the priests of the fire temple of Balkh, located in Harran, and associated with the Sabians. This reveals another source of Indian alchemical ideas transmitted to the West through the teachings of the Sabians of Harran, who had close relations with India. According to Al‑Masud, the ancient Sabians went on pilgrimage in the land of Sindan to a temple of Saturn, built by the Indian Mashan, in the city of Al‑Mansurah. This city was situated in ancient times along the old channel of the Indus and was called Brahmanabad by the Indians. It was about one hundred miles south of the Indus Valley city of Mohenjo Daro.(55)
The knowledge the Barmecides transmitted was the ancient wisdom of the Hindus and Buddhists. This information had come by way of the various trade routes connecting Afghanistan to central Asia and India. Shamanism, Hinduism, and Buddhism contributed to the formation of the wisdom of the area.
The entire sulphur/mercury theory of alchemy has its probable antecedents in the Indian philosophy of the Rg Veda. It was in the alchemy of the soma ceremony that a structure was developed that created a separation in the original unity of light, which was then restored by the ritual of the soma ceremony. The symbolic union of fire and water, as Agni/Soma, occurs within the heart of the priest during the ceremony in a special alchemical process that culminates in a transmutation of being, granting immortality on the one hand, and the actual abilities of psychogenic creation and transmutation on the other.
The separation and union of the duality of Agni/Soma in the Rg Veda is the origin of all Indian speculation on the union of opposites. It is also the probable origin of the dualism found in Islamic alchemical texts. This knowledge from India was probably transmitted to Islamic thought from Greece and China, both of which had already been influenced by Indian philosophy. As noted by H. E. Stapleton, "The dualistic Yin/Yang theory found in Chinese alchemy and philosophy has been shown to be another influence upon China from Indo‑Iranian sources. Dualist theories are much older in Indo‑Iranian religion than in China."(56) This makes it likely that Indo‑Aryan dualist theories of Agni/Soma are the original precursor of the sulphur/mercury theory. It was also transmitted by direct influence from India itself. Paracelsus later added salt to the sulphur/mercury duality for chemical reasons; salt was also a substance that represented the body as the medium in which the two contraries could unite.
European writers have looked on Geber as the founder of the alchemical art, but recent research seems to show that alchemical books attributed to him are another case of attributing the work of many hands to a single legendary figure. Under Geber's name appear numerous treatises; most of them are alchemical, but others cover medicine, astronomy, astrology, magic, mathematics, music, and philosophy. All together they indeed constitute an encyclopedia of the sciences. Still, it has recently been maintained that no Arab author mentions Geber until two centuries after the time in which he was supposed to have lived. It is now regarded as very probable that this vast body of writings was composed by the members of a group that resembles in its religious leanings the secret sect of nature philosophers who called themselves Ikwan al‑Safa, a name that has been variously translated as the "Brethren of Purity" or the "Faithful Friends." The Brethren of Purity composed an encyclopedic collection of letters much resembling the Geberian writings. We may suppose then that a sect with a strong belief in the power of science to purify the soul ascribed the works of its members to the legendary Geber.(57) In other words, the Geberian writings, although not without a chemical basis, are really concerned with spiritual alchemy and personal transmutation. This follows closely the origin of alchemical ideas and their deep spiritual nature. As the soma ceremony reveals, the alchemical processes are internal and spiritual.
Indian sciences, therefore, came to play an important part in the growth of the sciences in Islam, a part far greater than is usually recognized. In zoology, anthropology, mathematics, astronomy, and in certain aspects of alchemy, the tradition of Indian and Persian sciences was dominant, as can be seen in the Epistles (Rasa'il) of the Brethren of Purity and the translations of Ibn Muqaffa'. It must be remembered that the words magic and magi are related, and that according to the legend, the Jews learned alchemy and the science of numbers from the Magi while in captivity in Babylon (58) It should also be noted, however, that Ammianus Marcellinus, the great Roman historian of the fourth century, tells us that the Magi or Persian priests derived their secret arts from the Brahmans of India.(59) Parts of the Indo‑Aryan Rg Veda are much older than any Iranian religious text. In fact, several prominent scholars, including Thomas Burrows, have argued that an Indo‑Aryan empire existed from northern Syria to the Indus Valley in ancient times. The Iranian branch of the Indo‑Europeans moved into the Indo‑Aryan territory at a later date as an intrusive element. Therefore, the Indo‑Aryan soma ceremony may be older than the Iranian haoma ceremony from which it is claimed to be derived. This is especially true if it contains components derived from indigenous India and the Indus Valley cultures.
Islamic alchemy had both a chemical and spiritual side, but it is the spiritual side that really seems to hold out the possibility of transmutation. This idea was clear to many Islamic philosophers as well. The spiritual side of alchemy, rather than just the physical practice, was first revealed by Geber's contemporaries, such as Al‑Biruni and Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Both are greatly respected in European alchemical circles. These two adepts accepted the cosmological principles of alchemy while rejecting the possibility of transmutation because of the lack of evidence.(60) The cosmological ideas that make up the spiritual aspects of alchemy are sound. This fact is a clue to the possible spiritual foundations of transmutation, which probably antedate the chemical practices, and the idea is further strengthened by the numerous examples of yogis in India and Sufis in Islam being able to transmute any substance into gold without any chemicals, but through the force of the heart of being. The spiritual‑elixir ideas contained within Islamic alchemical texts were to have an important impact upon European alchemy. In addition, Indian ideas were to influence the cosmological structure of the Judaic Kabbalah. These cosmogonic and cosmologic ideas then entered European alchemical texts and made a significant impact upon Western alchemy.
Before discussing the purpose of soma in European alchemy, however, it is important to backtrack a bit and see how soma influenced the development of magic in the West.