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Perfect Medicine

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Mercury in Sanskrit Medical Literature

image of Asian Medicine

This article gives an overview of the earliest uses of mercury in classical South Asian medicine up to the nineteenth century, tracing and discussing important stages in the development of mercury processing. The use of unprocessed mercury might date back to the period when the oldest Indian medical compendia, the Carakasaṃhitā and the Suśrutasaṃhitā, were composed. It is certain that medical compounds containing apparently unprocessed mercury were used by the time the works ascribed to Vāgbhaṭa, the Aṣṭāṅgahṛdayasaṃhitā and the Aṣṭāṅgasaṃgraha, were written (c. early seventh century ce). However, with one notable exception, it was only from the thirteenth century onwards that ways of processing mercury were developed or adopted from alchemical sources in ayurvedic medicine. Elaborate procedures were applied for the ‘purifying’ and calcining of mercury and for extracting mercury from cinnabar. Through these procedures, mercury was meant to be perfected, i.e. made safe for human consumption as well as efficacious as a remedy. By the sixteenth century, the use of processed mercury had become standard in ayurvedic medicine for a great number of diseases, and processed mercury was considered extremely potent and completely safe: a perfect medicine.

Affiliations: 1: University of Zü


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