Professor of Chemistry, Presidency College, Calcutta


of Two Volumes


Since the days of Sir W. Jones, Sanskrit literature, in almost every department, has been zealously ransacked by scholars, both European and Indian. As the results of their labours we are now in possession of ample facts and data, which enable us to from some idea of the knowledge of the Hindus of old in the fields of Philosophy and Mathematics including Astronomy, Arthmetic, Algebra, Trigonometry and Geometry. Even Medicine has received some share of attention. Wilson in a series of essays published in the Oriental Magazine (1823), Royle in his Antiquity of Hindu Medicine (1837), and Wise in his commentary on the Hindu System of Medicine (1845), were amongst the first to bring to the notice of the European world the contents of the ancient medical works of the Hindus, and recently the Thakur Sahib of Gondal has added his quota. These contributions are, however, of a fragmentary nature. A comprehensive history of Hindu medicine has yet to be written. Materia Medica has also found, in Udoy Chand Dutt, an able exponent. One branch has, however, up till this time, remained entirely neglected—namely, Chemistry. Indeed, it may be assumed that on accont of its complex and technical nature it has hitherto repelled investigators.

The progress of chemical knowledge among the ancient nations has always had a fascination for me. The classical works of Thomson, Hoefer and Kopp have been my favourite companions for the last twelve years and more. In the course of my studies in this field I was naturally led to an inquiry into the exact position which India occupies therein, and with this view I undertook a systematic examination, from the chemical standpoint, of the Charaka, the Susruta and the various standard works of the Ayurvedic and Iatro-chemical Periods, which have escaped the ravages of time. It was at this stage that I was brought into communication with M. Berthelot some five years ago—a circumstance which has proved to be a turning-point, if I may so say, in my career as a student of the history of chemistry. The illustrious French savant, the Doyen of the chemical world, who has done more than any other person to clear up the sources and trace the progress of chemical science in the West, expressed a strong desire to know all about the contributions of the Hindus,[1] and even went the length of making a personal appeal to me to help him with information on the subject. In response to his sacred call I submitted to him, in 1898, a short monograph on Indian alchemy; it was based chiefly on Rasendrasara Samgraha, a work which I have since then found to be of minor importance and not calculated to throw much light on the vexed question as to the origin of the Hindu Chemistry. M. Berthelot not only did me the honour of reviewing it at length[2] but very kindly presented me with a complete set of his monumental work, in three volumes, on the chemistry of the Middle Ages, dealing chiefly with the Arabic and Syrian contributions on the subject, the very existence of which I was not till then aware of. On perusing the contents of these works I was filled with the ambition of supplementing them with one on Hindu Chemistry. Although I have written all along under the inspiration of a mastermind, it is not for a moment pretended that my humble production will at all make an approach to the exemplar set before my eyes.

When I first drew up the scheme of the present work, I had deluded myself with the hope of finishing the study of all the available literature on the subject before I took to writing. But I soon found that the task was one of vast magnitude. Some of my friends, whose judgment is entitled to weight, advised me under the circumstances, to curtail the scope of the work as originally planned out, and present a first instalment of it in its necessarily defective and imperfect shape (see Introduction, p. lxxxiv), reserving for a subsequent volume the working-up of the materials which are accumulating from time to time. In the present volume only one or two representative works of the Tanric and Iatro-chemical Periods have been noticed at length.

As regards the transliteration, I have not rigidly adhered to any particular system, but, in the main, I have followed that of the Sacred Books of the East.

Before concluding, I must acknowledge the valuable assistance I have received rom Pandit Navakānta Kavibhusana with whom I have toiled through many an obscure passage of the Mss. of the Tantras. His sound knowledge of the Ayurvedas has also been of much help to me.

And now it only remains for me to discharge the grateful duty of expressing my thanks to the Government of Bengal, which at the instance of Mr. Alexander Pedler, f. r. s., Director of Public Instruction, placed a liberal grant at my disposal to enable me to meet various incidental expences, chiefly in the matter of collecting rare Mss.

And now it only remains for me to discharge the grateful duty of expressing my thanks to the Government of Bengal, which at the instance of Mr. Alexander Pedler, f. r. s., Director of Public Instruction, placed a liberal grant at my disposal to enable me to meet various incidental expences, chiefly in the matter of collecting rare Mss.

P. C. RAY.

Presidency College:
Calcutta, May 1st, 1902


A comparatively limited number of copies was printed in the first edition as it was feared that owing to its technical nature the work would appeal only to a select circle of readers. The exceedingly favourable reception accorded to it not only by the scientists and orientalists but also by the public in general both in Europe and in India has necessitated the bringing-out of a second edition. Some material additions have been made to the historical portion of the Introduction, throwing further light on the independent origin of the Hindu system of medicine and its priority to that of the Greeks.

M. Berthelot, in the course of a lengthy and appreciative review in the “Journal des Savants,” Jan. 1903, expresses his regret at the absence of “any thing which would remind us of the systematic treatises of Zosimus and of the Greco-Egyptians”—a regret which will be shared in by every student of Hindu chemistry. But even the sable cloud is not without its silver lining. I hope, however, to deal with the theories underlying Hindu chemistry in the second volume. For the present, I have to content myself with the pronouncement of my respected and learned friend, Mr. Brajendranātha Seal Principal, Mahārājā’s College, Kuch Behar, whose vast acquaintance with and comprehensive grasp of, the literature of the East and the West, entitles him to speak with authority on the subject. Says Mr. Seal in his plea for our University “striking out a line of communication with the organisations of oriental learning.”—

“Let us not superciliously dismiss these studies as ‘learned lumber.’ The Astronomy and Mathematics were not less advanced than those of Tycho Brahe, Cardan and Fermat; the anatomy was equal to that of Vesalius, the Hindu logic and methodology more advanced than that of Ramus, and equal on the whole to Bacon’s; the physico-chemical theories as to combustion, heat, chemical affinity, clearer, more rational, and more original than those of Van Helmont or Stahl; and the Grammar, whether of Sanskrit or Prākrit, the most scientific and comprehensive in the world before Bopp, Rask and Grimm.”

Presidency College:
January 1, 1904.

P. C. RAY.

  1. “Cependant il serait nécessaire d’examiner certains documents qui m’ont été récemment signalés par une lettre de Rây, professeur à Presidency College (Calcutta). D’après ce savant, il existe des traités d’alchimie, écrits en sanscrit, remontant au XIIIe siècle, et qui renferment des préceptes pour préparer les sulfures de mercure noir et rouge et le calomel employés comme médicaments. Ces indications s’accordent avec celles des alchimistes arabes signalées plus haut. Il est à désirer que ces traités soient soumis à une étude approfondie, pour en déterminer l’origine, probablement attribuable à une tradition persane ou nestorienne.”—Journal des Savants, Oct., 1897.
    2. “Matériaux pour un chapitre négligé de l’histoire de la Chimie ou contributions à l’Alchimie indienne (Mémorie manuscrit de 43 pages), par Prafulla Chandra Rây, professeur à Presidency College, Calcutta,”—Vide Journal des Savants, April’ 1898

Vol 1 (1902)
Vol 2 (1909)