Nagarjuna SomnathNagarjuna — Perhaps no man in his time has more tales spun around him than Nagarjuna. He was said to be in communion with gods and goddesses, to have the power to change base metal into gold, to know the secret of making the “elixir of life.” He was famous and people looked on him with awe mingled with fear.

Nagarjuna, born at Fort Daihak near Somnath in Gujarat in 931 A.D., was a chemist, rather an alchemist. If he was embarrassed by all the tales told about him, he showed no sign of it. And he only added to the popular belief that he was a messenger of God by writing his treatise, Rasaratnakara, in the form of dialogues between him and the gods.

Rasaratnakara dealt with preparations of rasa (mercury) compounds. It also gave a survey of the status of metallurgy and alchemy in the land. Extraction of metals such as silver, gold, tin and copper from their ores and their purification were also mentioned in the treatise.

To prepare the “elixir of life” and other substances from mercury, Nagarjuna made use of animal and vegetable products, apart from minerals and alkalis. To dissolve diamonds, metals and pearls, he suggested the use of vegetable acids-sour gruel and juices of fruits and plants. A list of apparatus he and earlier alchemists had used was given in the treatise. The process of distillation, liquefaction, sublimation and roasting were also mentioned.

The treatise discussed at length transmutation of metals into gold. Even if no gold could be produced, these techniques could yield metals with gold-like yellowish brilliance. Methods to prepare mercury-like substances from cinnabar and tin-like calamine were also given.

Nagarjuna also wrote Uttaratantra as a supplement to Susrutasamhita, dealing with preparation of medicinal drugs, and an Ayurvedic treatise, Arogyamanjari. His other treatises are Kakshaputatantra, Yogasara and Yogasatak.

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