A word on resources
In new research projects, one sets out to cover new ground, explore the unknown, make exciting discoveries, and set the record straight on some previous assumptions. With this focus on discovering the new, it is easy to forget just how much of research depends on work already done by others.
Thinking about indispensable tools to my own research, I would like to mention a work that I have found extremely helpful for learning about Indian alchemy and its literature: Oliver Hellwig's Wörterbuch der Mittelalterlichen Indischen Alchemie (“Dictionary of Medieval Indian Alchemy”). EJournal of Indian Medicine Supplements 2. Barkhuis & University of Groningen, 2009.
This is a glossary of about 400 technical terms for chemical processes, technical equipment, measuring units and substances mentioned in medieval Sanskrit alchemical texts. These are explained through summaries of their usage, references to their occurrence in the alchemical works and, in the case of apparatuses, through diagrams. Crucially, Hellwig provides the Sanskrit text of the relevant passages, a translation and a discussion of how the chosen passage compares with descriptions in other texts.
This is extremely useful as it enables the reader to closely follow Hellwig’s translation choices and to consider the definition of each term in the context it arises. The comparison of passages shows how certain key terms are used consistently in alchemical texts and how some were understood differently or developed into more complicated subcategories in various texts and/or over time.
The glossary also contains various graphs and images that complement the textual descriptions. I found images of alchemical apparatuses particularly helpful, as it is often difficult to visualize them from their descriptions in the text.
Further aids include cluster-dendrograms, which provide a visual representation of what parallels and variants in texts can tell us about the texts' relationship, and structural graphs, which are used to show the sequences of procedures. These are quite complex and can accordingly be somewhat difficult to follow.
Entries on substances are multi-layered, they can include synonyms; their classification; identification; application; where they are found; how they are sourced; and descriptions of the methods used for processing them. Explanations of terms for procedures (like śodhana, “purification”, or māraṇa, “calcination”) can therefore be found within an entry solely dedicated to them, or as part of an entry on a substance. Entries on substances are listed under their German name if identification is unproblematic, and under the Sanskrit term, if there is no established German equivalent. See, for example, the entry for “Koralle” (coral). This is actually the general rule for any entry.
One of the features of the dictionary that appeals to me (although it can also be frustrating) is that the author gives space for doubt and sometimes refrains from a final conclusion on a term’s meaning, showing how the passages in which the term occurs are not clear or are open to various interpretations. Sometimes uncertainties arise because of the state of the texts available to us. As Hellwig points out in his introduction (“Einleitung”, page 2), most editions of alchemical texts are of relatively low quality and contain many typographical mistakes, wrong readings or simply gaps in the text. Critical editions are rare. Hellwig does not seem to have consulted any manuscripts for his glossary and does not comment on their availability or condition.
Another issue, however, is the identification of raw materials mentioned in the texts. The identification of plant and mineral materials is also a “thorny subject” in ayurvedic studies. Hellwig mostly orientates himself on indexes of plant names in two publications by Gerrit Jan Meulenbeld – The Mādhavanidāna and its Chief Commentary (Brill, Leiden 1974) and “Additions to the Sanskrit Names of Plants and Their Botanical Equivalents” (In: R.P. Das. Surapālas Vṛkṣāyurveda, Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart, 1988: 425-465) – for the identification of plants, using common German names where possible. If no common name exists, he uses the Latin botanical name, or, if in doubt about the identification of the plant, the Sanskrit name of the plant. There is a comprehensive index of all plant names referred to on pages 537-545.
Minerals, however, are not part of this index and Hellwig does not always supply an identification for them. In some cases, several possible identifications and the sources for these are given. In other cases, the reasons for not providing an identification remain unclear. For example, the Sanskrit terms for the different kinds of iron are listed under “Eisen” (iron), but no German translation of the individual terms is given. However, one does find translations of the different kinds of iron in other works, including Monier Williams (for example, “loadstone” for kāntaloha, or “steel” for tīkṣṇa). Hellwig's decision not to follow those is not explained, though one can perhaps conclude that he finds the identifications doubtful.
As Hellwig states in his introduction, the glossary is based on parts of alchemical texts that focus on alchemical procedures rather than parts dealing with medicine or with philosophical or spiritual questions. Since the AyurYog project specifically focussed on medical elements in the alchemical texts, Hellwig's choice means that many of the text passages that are particularly relevant to our enquiry are not presented or discussed in his book. This is, however, not always the case. For example, as we are examining what rasāyana practices mean in the alchemical texts, the nineteenth chapter of the Rasahṛdayatantra, which is a chapter on rasāyana, is important for our study and Hellwig has translated a number of its verses in the glossary. And of course, entries that are based on particular text passages can still be useful in understanding other, unrelated texts.
Finally, it should be said that the glossary is certainly not an easy read, although Hellwig has taken pains to keep his descriptions and definitions as simple as possible. However, the glossary offers an excellent introduction to the world of Indian alchemical thought if one takes the time to work through it. Since it is written in German, it is perhaps not accessible to as wide a readership as it might be were it translated into English. An English translation (perhaps by Hellwig himself?) would be highly welcome!