Sexual Alchemy in Hindu Tantra

By David Gordon White, PhD

The following piece is an extract from David Gordon White’s chapter,  ‘Mercury and Immortality: The Hindu Alchemical Tradition’, as featured in Aaron Cheak, ed., Alchemical Traditions: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde (Numen Books, 2013).

The polyvalent Sanskrit term rasa is central to an understanding of Hindu alchemy. From the time of the Vedas (ca. 1500-1000 BCE), rasa has signified ‘fluid, juice, sap’ (it is a cognate of the English ‘resin’). With the emergence of the alchemical tradition in about the tenth century CE, rasa took on a number of specialized meanings, including ‘essential element’ and ‘mercury’. So, for example, the eight primary and eight secondary alchemical reagents are called mahārasas (‘great essential elements’) and uparasas (‘subordinate essential elements’) respectively, with rasāyana, the ‘path of the rasas’ the most widely-used overarching term for Hindu alchemy. Rasāyana has an additional usage: in Ayurveda, alchemical elixirs (rasāyanas in the plural), combinations of rasas, both mineral and botanical, are essential to rejuvenation therapy (rasāyana, in the singular). When, however, rasa is not compounded with another word, it generally signifies quicksilver, the supreme fluid identified by Śiva, the supreme alchemical deity, as his own essential element, i.e. his semen. This is stated in the eleventh-century alchemical classic, the Rasārnava (‘Flood of the Rasas’), in which Śiva reveals that: ‘because it is the rasa [essential element] of my body, one is to call it rasa [mercury].’ Mercury, purified and potentiated through its interactions with sulfur and mica, the mahārasas that are the mineral homologues of the sexual or menstrual emission (rajas) of Śiva’s consort, the goddess Bhairavī or Pārvatī, effects the transformation of both metals and bodily fluids and tissues into their higher essences in the Indian great chain of being. This terminology is disclosive of one of the basic presuppositions of Hindu alchemy (and Hindu Tantra):  in a universe that is the product of a sexual union, vital animal, mineral, and vegetable substances are emanates or devolutes of the sexual fluids of the supreme divine dyad. Because all participate in the same flow of the godhead, all are interchangable, recombinatory, and perfectable. As such, the interpenetrating techniques of elixir therapy, transmutation, hatha yoga, and ‘tantric sex’ all fall within the purview of ‘Hindu alchemy’. 


The foundational works of Hindu alchemy are tantric in both form and style, presented as divine revelations made by a god to a goddess. In many cases, the names of the tantric gods (Śiva, Bhairava, Śrīkantha, etc.) who offer these alchemical teachings and the tantric goddesses (Bhairavī, Pārvatī, Candikā, etc.) who receive them are the same as those found in the broader Hindu tantric canon. Some of these works (the Rasahrdaya Tantra and Rasārnava [Tantra]) call themselves Tantras; others (such as the Kākacandeśvarīmata) call themselves matas (‘doctrines’), another common tantric literary classification. Detailed descriptions of the iconography, divine families, mantras and mandalas of tantric deities found in some of these works are explicitly patterned after the pantheons and worship programs of specific tantric schools and sects. In the Kākacandeśvarīmata, Bhairava, the god who reveals the alchemical gnosis to the goddess Kākacandeśvarī, is encircled by eight yoginīs, just as he is in the class of highly esoteric Tantras known as the Yamalas. Descriptions of the multi-headed, multi-armed Rasabhairava and Rasānkuśī, the supreme worship deities of the Rasārnava, show them to be iconographically identical to the tantric deities Svacchanda Bhairava and Bālā Tripurasundarī. Also included in the Rasārnava’s worship mandala are Parā, Aparā, Parāparā and Mālinī, the four principal goddesses of the Trika Kaula, the dominant form of non-dualist Tantra in Kashmir during this period. A greatly expanded tantric mandala of the same type is detailed in the Rasendracūdāmani.


Because mercury and sulfur originated from the sexual fluids of the gods, their manipulation in the laboratory also entailed sexual interactions between the male alchemist and his female laboratory assistant, interactions that closely resemble certain aspects of “tantric sex”. So, for example, the Rasaratnasamucchaya states that ‘[a woman] who menstruates in the dark half of the lunar month is most excellent for the fixation of mercury in alchemical practice’. Here, it is the correlation between menstrual blood and sulfur that is crucial: ‘For twenty-one days, she is to eat sulfur [mixed with clarified butter] . . . Her menstrual blood [then] becomes efficacious in the fixation and calcination of mercury’. The Kākacandeśvarīmata instructs the alchemist to place mercury, wrapped in a piece of cloth, deep in a woman’s vulva, to the same end; or to macerate sulfur in a woman’s menstrual blood in order to increase its potency. Sexual symbolism is explicit here: mercury, one of the names of which is sūta (‘that which is born, generated’), must enter into the sulfurous womb of a woman to become activated. According to the Bhūtiprakarana, the alchemist is able to bind or stabilize mercury by placing it in his urethra ‘together with the menstrual blood of Gaurī’. Here, Gaurī may be read either as a name for the Goddess, in which case it is sulfur that is being manipulated here; or it may be taken adjectivally to stand for any ‘fair woman’, in which case it is human menstrual blood that the alchemist commingles with his own seed, through the tantric technique of urethral suction (vajrolī mudrā). At the conclusion of these procedures—which serve to stabilize and potentiate mercury—this “divine semen” in its mineral form may at last be ingested by the alchemist in the culminating samskāra of bodily transformation. Here, the Rasārnava stipulates that sexual intercourse is essential to the activation of the mercury the alchemist has ingested. The alchemist’s virility becomes greatly enhanced, and his bodily fluids, like those of the god Śiva, transmute base metals into gold.