A note on govinda, a medieval chemist and physician from South India

Years ago while examining the sarva-darshana-saMgraha it became clear that the rasa cult probably had a notable following in the Vijayanagaran territory. A visitor from the chera country had shown me a text titled the Ayurveda-prakAsha-TIkA composed by the medieval physician somadeva, which quoted from a text termed the rasasAra. The more recent vaidya named yadava-jI trikam-jI also quotes from the rasasAra in his exposition on rasa-vidyA. A few features of this text revealed some interesting details about the author of this rasasAra, who also seems to have composed another text the saMnipAta-ma~njarI on fevers. He was a brAhmaNa, the son of surAditya and the grandson of sahadeva. He is supposed to have been a student of dhIradeva, the son of abhayapAla from the region of antarvedI. He also states that abhayapAla was a sArasvata brAhmaNa probably settled in that town. He calls himself a moda j~nAti, a mantra-siddha and a sarva-shAstrovid. The first term is unclear – a rather speculative inference could be that is he was a follower of the moda shAkha of the atharvaveda. Alternatively, it can be emended to the term moDhaj~nAti, which is also not entirely clear in meaning. It appears to refer to a guild of brahminical teachers in northern India and is encountered in texts from Gujarat, Varanasi and Rajasthan. The place of his studies, antarvedI is also defined by kalhaNa as the land between the Ganga and the Yamuna with the capital of the vaishvAmitra-s, kAnyakubja as its central city. This is consistent with his teacher being a sArasvata brAhmaNa as they had a major epicenter in the city of kAnyakubja. This is confirmed by the use of the term antarvedI in inscriptions of rAShTrakUTa and chandrAtreya (chandella) chiefs ruling the kAnyakubja region. Another important place in this region was the great shaiva center of voDAmayUtA which had a famous maTha of the saiddhAntika-s. He also mentions the li~Nga of kirAteshvara in Varanasi as his personal deity. These observations suggest that govinda was active in northern India in the Gangetic Doab probably in kAnyakubja or kAshi. However, interestingly an examination of his text reveals the use of certain Tamil or Dravidian words which suggest that govinda was likely to have been from southern India. He also indicates that after studying Ayurveda and rasAyana from dhIradeva he journeyed to Tibet (bhoTadesha) to learn a mercurial technique termed ra~NgAkR^iShTi from the Lamas by which amalgams are given various colors. This is described in the 9th chapter of the rasasAra and it interestingly mentions the use of oShAdhi-s such as kAkAhvA, kAkamAchI and kAkatuNDI in the “killing” of mercury. This link to the kAkachandishvara-mata suggests that there was an earlier transmission of ra~NgAkR^iShTi to Tibet during the absorption of shaiva tantric material by the bauddha-s. But this material was lost in India and regained by brAhmaNa visitors such as govinda. We have no clear idea of when he lived but he was cited by toDaramalla’s panel of scholars, who were contemporaneous with the Mogol tyrant Akbar, and hence definitely prior to him. The somadeva who cites him was could have been before Akbar too.

One striking feature of govinda’s work is the description of tetrodotoxins produced by four fishes [tetraodontiforms] from the Indian ocean (Chapter 17, verses 36-38). These toxins are termed ahiphena-s by govinda and should not be confused with opium in the later texts. This to my knowledge is the earliest Hindu awareness of tetrodotoxins.

Following the classical tradition of rasAyana, govinda expounds that the practice of rasAyana is taken up along with a female partner (the kAkinI in other texts). The rasayogin and the rasA~NganA set up the laboratory where they would conduct their experiments in the form a maNDala of rasabhairava, an emanation of aghora. The rasabhairava or rasesha and his wife rasA~NkushI are installed in the center. There are several surrounding AvaraNa-s, which in order are:
1) Square: nandin, mahAkAla, the demon kumbhakarNa and the monkey sugrIva with the skeletal bhR^igin probably in the middle holding the foot of shiva.
2) Octagon in E-S-W-N orientation: shukra, skanda, rudra, vayu, sadashiva, agni, umA, and space (vyApaka)
3) Ten rasa-dUti-s or rasa-yoginI-s: lepikA, kShepikA, kShArikA, ra~njikA, lohaTI, bandhakArI, bhUcharI, mR^ityunAshinI, vibhUti and khecharI. These are placed as an octagon with the last two on top and bottom.
4) Octagonal lotus in E-S-W-N orientation containing: mAkSika, vimala, shaila, chapala, rasaka, sasyaka, and two gandhatAla-s. These are the 8 vidyeshvara rudra-s, each of a different color with 5 heads with 3 eyes on each. They are blue-throated, with cresent moon ornaments and eighteen hands and bull-banners.
5) In the pericarp of this lotus are situated their shakti-s: mAlinI, hemashakti, parA, balA, aparA, vajrashakti, kAnti and parAparA.

In the middle of these circuits is situated the great rasa-bhairava: He is like pure quartz, with five heads, three eyes each, with flames shooting from them, a blazing tongue, locks and eye brows like flames, and difficult to look at. He stands on a corpse with a cresent moon on his head gear, wearing a tiger skin, a snake upavIta, holding a bull-banner and has 18 arms with several weapons and a slight smile on his faces. He is invoked with the glorious mantra:
OM hrIM krIM raseshvarAya mahAkAlAya mahAbalAyAghorabhairavAya vajravIra krodha-ka~NkAla kShlauH kShlaH ||
The part after raseshvarAya and ending with the two rasa bIja-s is the core rasesha mantra of 32 syllables. The whole mantra is said to correspond syllable for syllable to the aghora mantra and represent the emanation of rasabhairava from aghora:
aghorebhyo .atha ghorebhyo ghora ghoratarebhyaH | sarvebhyas sarva-sharvebhyo namaste astu rudra-rUpebhyaH ||

His shakti rasA~NkushI is conceived thus:
She is well decked with jeweled ornaments, with a crescent moon on her headgear, is kindly faced, with three eyes and a blue throat. She shines like pure gold and is draped in yellow garments in the midst of white flywhisks and a pearl decked parasol. In her two right hands she holds a hook and rosary and a lasso and the abhaya mudra in her left hands. She is invoked by the glorious mantra:
aIM hrIM shrIM klIM sauH ||

Of the yantra-s actually used in the laboratory described by govinda most are obscure. Some of these are clarified in modern rasAyana works such as bhUdeva devasharman’s bilingual manual but there is no guarantee that these modern interpretations are what govinda meant. Among them some are simple tools to process ores and metals, tongs, mortal and pestle and the like. Others appear to be more complex. A centrifuge-like device appears to be described as the chakra yantra; however, it is not clear if sufficiently high speeds could be achieved for being useful. The jalakUrma and the sthalakUrma appear to be distillation devices and crucible heaters. The heating of a collyrium like black mercurial in one such device is supposed to yield the red rasasindhUra. Another mysterious yantra is the agnIsomAkhyAya yantra which is used to heat a mixture of two salts to obtain an amalgam at the end. While rasAyana is full of strange things to the modern mind, one unusual feature is the making of extracts from particular earthworms (bhUnAga). The earthworms living near gold, silver or iron mines are used to extract what are known as sattva’s of various metals.

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