The elixir of life, also known as the elixir of immortality and sometimes equated with the name philosopher’s stone, is a potion that supposedly grants the drinker eternal life and/or eternal youth.
The elixir of life was also said to cure all diseases.
Alchemists in various ages and cultures sought the means of formulating the elixir. The concept originated in ancient India or China where the concept preceded that in Europe by millennia.
The elixir of life in China
In ancient China, many emperors sought the fabled elixir with varying results. In the Qin Dynasty, Qin Shi Huang sent Taoist alchemist Xu Fu with 500 young men and 500 young women to the eastern seas to find the elixir, but he never came back (legend has it that he found Japan instead). When Shi Huang Di visited, he brought 3000 young girls and boys, but none of them ever returned.
The ancient Chinese believed that ingesting long-lasting precious substances such as jade, cinnabar or hematite would confer some of that longevity on the person who consumed them. Gold was considered particularly potent, as it was a non-tarnishing precious metal; the idea of potable or drinkable gold is found in China by the end of the third century BC.
The most famous Chinese alchemical book, the Danjing yaojue (Essential Formulas of Alchemical Classics) attributed to Sun Simiao, a famous medical specialist respectfully called “King of Medicine” by later generations, discusses in detail the creation of elixirs for immortality (mercury, sulfur, and the salts of mercury and arsenic are prominent, and most are poisonous) as well as those for curing certain diseases and the fabrication of precious stones.
Many of these substances, far from contributing to longevity, were actively toxic and resulted in Chinese alchemical elixir poisoning. The Jiajing Emperor in the Ming Dynasty died from ingesting a lethal dosage of mercury in the supposed Elixir of Life conjured by alchemists.
The elixir of life in India
Amrita, the elixir of life has been described in the Hindu scriptures (not to be confused with Amrit related to Sikh religion). Anybody who consumes even the tiniest portion of Amrita has been described to gain immortality.
Legend has it that at early times when the inception of the world had just taken place, evil demons (Ashur) had gained strength. This was seen as a threat to the gods (Devas) who feared them. So these gods (including Indra, the god of sky, Vayu, the god of wind, and Agni, the god of fire) went to seek advice and help from the three primary gods according to the Hindus: Vishnu (the preserver), Brahma (the creator), and Shiva (the destroyer).
They suggested that Amrita could only be gained from the Samudra Manthan (or churning of the ocean) for the ocean in its depths hid mysterious and secret objects. Vishnu agreed to take the form of a turtle on whose shell a huge mountain was placed. This mountain was used as a churning pole.
With the help of a Vasuki (mighty and long serpent, king of Nagloka) the churning process began at the surface. From one side the gods pulled the serpent, which had coiled itself around the mountain, and the demons pulled it from the other side.
As the churning process required immense strength, hence the demons were persuaded to do the job—they agreed in return for a portion of Amrit. Finally, with their combined efforts (of the gods and demons), Amrita emerged from the ocean depths. All the gods were offered the drink but the gods managed to trick the demons who did not get the holy drink.
The oldest Indian writings, the Vedas (Hindu sacred scriptures), contain the same hints of alchemy that are found in evidence from ancient China, namely vague references to a connection between gold and long life.
Mercury, which was so vital to alchemy everywhere, is first mentioned in the 4th to 3rd century BC Arthashastra, about the same time it is encountered in China and in the West. Evidence of the idea of transmuting base metals to gold appears in 2nd to 5th century AD Buddhist texts, about the same time as in the West.
It is also possible that the alchemy of medicine and immortality came to China from India, or vice versa; in any case, for both cultures, gold-making appears to have been a minor concern, and medicine the major concern. But the elixir of immortality was of little importance in India. The Indian elixirs were mineral remedies for specific diseases or, at the most, to promote a long life.
In European alchemical tradition, the Elixir of Life is closely related to the creation of the philosopher’s stone. According to legend, certain alchemists have gained a reputation as creators of the elixir. These include Nicolas Flamel and St. Germain.
The elixir of life in Japan
In the eight-century Man’yōshū, ‘waters of rejuvenation’ are said to be in the possession of the moon god Tsukuyomi. Similarities have been noted with a folktale from the Ryukyu Islands, in which the moon god decides to give man the water of life, and serpents the water of death.
However, the person entrusted with carrying the pails down to Earth gets tired and takes a break, and a serpent bathes in the water of life, rendering it unusable. This is said to be why serpents can rejuvenate themselves each year by shedding their skin while men are doomed to die.
The Elixir has had hundreds of names (one scholar of Chinese history reportedly found over 1,000 names for it), among them Amrit Ras or Amrita, Aab-i-Hayat, Maha Ras, Aab-Haiwan, Dancing Water, Chasma-i-Kausar, Mansarover or the Pool of Nectar, Philosopher’s stone, and Soma Ras.
The word elixir was not used until the 7th century A.D. and derives from the Arabic name for miracle substances, “al iksir”. Some view it as a metaphor for the spirit of God (e.g., Jesus’s reference to “the Water of Life” or “the Fountain of Life”).
“But whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)
The Scots and the Irish adopted the name for their “liquid gold“: the Gaelic name for whiskey is uisce beatha or water of life.
Aab-i-Hayat is Persian and means “water of life“. “Chashma-i-Kausar” (not “hasma”) is the “Fountain of Bounty”, which Muslims believe to be located in Paradise.
As for the Indian names, “Amrit Ras” means “immortality juice“, “Maha Ras” means “great juice“, and “Soma Ras” means “juice of Soma“. Later, Soma came to mean the moon. “Ras” later came to mean “sacred mood experienced listening to poetry or music; there are altogether nine of them. Mansarovar, the “mind lake” is the holy lake at the foot of Mt. Kailash in Tibet, close to the source of the Ganges.