Reconstructing alchemical procedures: The third procedure, thickening (mūrchā)
The third procedure, thickening (mūrchā)
The mercury has by now been exposed to various herbal ingredients and steamed with sour gruel; it was rubbed for several days with other substances, such as burnt wool, brickdust and molasses and then washed with water and vinegar. Now, it is time for the third step in the series of refinement procedures (saṃskāra). This is how the Rasahṛdayatantra describes the third procedure:
"The three inherent faults of mercury are called ‘dirt’, ‘fire’, and ‘poison’.
Through dirt, it produces fainting, through fire, a burning sensation, through poison, death.
Aloe removes dirt, the three myrobalans remove fire, and leadwort removes poison. Therefore, one should thicken it seven times with a mixture of these."
(Rasahṛdayatantra, chapter 2, verses 5-6)
For once, we are given an explanation for the use of the substances mercury is mixed with: to remove the 'inherent faults'. The Sanskrit word used for this is doṣa, a term well-known in Ayurveda, where it denotes the three humours of the body (vāta, pitta, and kapha), and more specifically, the humours when they are causing problems through being in the wrong quantity or in the wrong place in the body. Too much or too little of a humour in the body leads to disease. Conversely, humours in the right amounts and in the right place lead to perfect health. In the case of mercury, the term doṣa is always used in a negative sense, as a flaw. One cannot use ‘dirt’, ‘fire’, and ‘poison’ in a positive way.
The effects of these qualities range from unpleasant to lethal, and it is clear that their removal is paramount. The substances used for this, aloe, the myrobalans (triphala), and leadwort, are all drugs used in ayurvedic treatment. Aloe addresses the flaw of 'dirt' (mala), which could perhaps be understood as a kind of waste product of mercury as opposed to literal dirt coating mercury, since it would then not be an inherent (naisargika) flaw. In ayurvedic therapy, aloe addresses the aggravation of the humour pitta ('bile' or 'fire'). An excess of pitta is associated with digestive problems and a build up of undigested matter in the digestive tract. Aloe has cooling properties, which counter the heat of pitta. It also helps to clear waste matter from the digestive tract. So, in a roundabout way, in the third procedure, aloe may be understood to clear away the waste matter of mercury.
The use of the three myrobalans (triphala) against fire, on the other hand, is not easily explicable in ayurvedic terms. There, triphala is thought to enhance the digestive fire. However, it is also understood to pacify pitta, so perhaps it is the soothing of that 'fire' that can be understood as a parallel to the fire of mercury. When it comes to leadwort, things become more complicated, because leadwort is itself a poisonous substance. All its parts (fruit, bark, pollen, seeds, roots, seed capsules, foliage and sap) irritate the skin and eyes, and cause an upset stomach if ingested. Even the earliest ayurvedic works list leadwort as a poisonous substance. Its use can result in a burning sensation and fainting: two of the effects of the flaws of mercury! Nevertheless, leadwort's therapeutic use is also attested in these works. It is attributed with heating properties and as such is used to counter problems with the humour kapha ('phegm'). Nevertheless, how a poison removes poison, is unclear. There is also an odd circularity in the term used for this procedure: mūrchā, which can mean fainting. So making mercury 'faint' will remove its flaw that causes fainting.
I have translated mūrchā as 'thickening' here, as this is what visibly happens to the mercury. In this, I take my cue from Jan Gerrit Meulenbeld's understanding of the term. Other scholars, such as David Gordon White, and earlier, P.C. Ray, translate mūrchā (or mūrchana) with 'swooning'. As noted in the last blog, the terminology used for the alchemical procedures often seems to draw on ayurvedic terminology, with mercury, the substance that is being treated, standing in for the patient. What would it mean for mercury to faint or to swoon? Amongst other things, ayurvedic works describe fainting (again mūrchā) as a loss of strength. And indeed, mercury is raised up in the next procedure (utthāpana) and properly brought back to strength in its 'awakening' or 'revivification' (nirodhana) in the sixth procedure. And yet, while mercury does change its appearance in the third procedure, it seemed much more sluggish, or thickened, or faint to me in the second procedure, before it was washed. Did we get the procedures right? What if we had not washed the mercury after its trituration and just added the new herbal materials? Would there have been even more of a thickening?
As a final note here: this passage points to the fact that Indian alchemists were well aware of the toxicity of mercury. However, they felt that this toxicity could be addressed through the procedures, and that mercury could be made safe. Most of the alchemical texts describe the detrimental effects of mercury, but always emphasize that it is the intake of mercury that was not properly processed or taken in the wrong way that causes the problems, including death.
Here is the third procedure, in Andrew's interpretation: