Untangling Histories – Commencing the Project

Suzanne Newcombe
Melting zinc.

Image: The author melting zinc under the instructions of Andrew Mason. This is one of the steps in the preparation of a zinc rasāyana.



The metaphor of ‘entangled histories’ implies distinct traditions – three pieces of string perhaps – that can somehow be untangled. Historically, yoga, ayurveda and rasaśāstra each have identifiable literary corpuses, and my colleagues hope to begin the process of unraveling likely historical connections between extant works of medical, alchemical and yogic literature. My role in this ambitious project is to examine these traditions in the modern period, from the nineteenth century to the present.

However, an initial snapshot of the contemporary scene suggests something more blurry than a braid of three distinct traditions which intersect at certain points in history, but retain separate identities. Common aims can arise in disparate locations, while similar practices might be seen as paths to very distinct aims. The exchange of concepts and practices between these three traditions is complex and fluid:

How should we understand a yoga practitioner who actively uses concepts of the five elements (pañcamahābhūta) to design their daily practice, but may not be consciously influenced by ayurveda? Should a contemporary yoga practice focused on avoiding the pains of old age be considered a contemporary rasāyana practice?

As an initial focus of my research on these traditions in the modern period, I hope to acquire a broader understanding of what contemporary practitioners are doing in regard to yoga, ayurveda and rasaśāstra: What are their practices and aims? What are the most compelling sources of authority? What criteria are used to determine an ‘authentic’ practice? What is captivating about the experience?

I anticipate that these broad-brush queries will help elicit more specific concerns inherent in the experience of practitioners in these distinct and overlapping fields. I hope to apprehend the sources of captivation for practitioners and identify circumstances creating mutation within traditions. It is my expectation that this modern perspective will provide a window on the complicated relationships between living practices and textual traditions, which will enrich our understanding of both past and present.

A particularly understudied aspect of this project is that of the rasāyana practices of India, i.e. practices to prolong life and preserve youth. Rasāyana practices form part of the eight traditional divisions of ayurvedic knowledge. The prolongation of life and preservation of youth is also an important concern in rasaśāstra and yoga literatures, where it is associated with the aim of the legendary ‘yogic’ rishis and siddhars to achieve spiritual liberation (mokṣa) in a living body. 

Through careful interrogation of current practices, I hope to investigate how these legends and recipes for immortality affect contemporary understandings. There are few today who might claim to be actively seeking an elixir of immortality. However, although the use of heavy-metal based compounds has been much restricted by issues of scarcity and modern legislation, there are still those preparing ancient rasaśāstra recipes. Meanwhile, secondary contamination and mercury toxicity in commercial ayurvedic preparations periodically becomes a focus for media attention. Yet there is a thriving contemporary market for products that claim to prolong quality of life and preserve youth. A preoccupation with maintaining youthfulness perhaps reflects a perennial concern of mortal humans. It also inspires specific, and very popular articulations of yoga and ayurveda. My research will explore some of the ways in which yoga, ayurveda and rasaśāstra traditions have stretched and transformed into modernity.

Untangling Histories – Commencing the Project

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