Ayurveda says that every substance in the universe has the potential to be a medicine provided it is used judiciously by the physician and patient. In the Charaka Samhita, it is said:
“Anenopadeshen Na Anaushadhibhootam Jagati Kincit dravyam upalabhyate
Taam Taam Yuktimartham Ca Tam Tamaabhipretya”
Which means, “Substances found in the universe are classified based on the source of origin. Substances from animals are called Jangama (milk, meat, urine, blood, serum), substances from plant are known as Audbhida (fruits, leaves, root, sap), and substances from minerals and metals are known as Paarthiwa or Khanija (gold, silver, copper, iron). The area of Ayurveda that deals with mineral origin substances is “Rasa Shastra”. Rasa Shastra literally means “Science of Mercury”. It deals with the study of minerals and metals that don’t limit its uses to alchemy alone but also to therapeutic uses.
Rasa shastra was developed by Sage Naagaarjuna, the Father of Rasa shastra” around the 8th century. He said, “Siddhe Rase Karishyaami Nirdaridryamidam jagat”, which means “I will eliminate poverty from this world by experimenting with mercury.” Although the study of Rasa shastra means study of mercury and the techniques to process it, in the present day, it is the study of all metallic substances and minerals. Rasa-oushadi (medicines from metals and minerals) is a class of drugs prescribed for many diseases by Rasa-vaidyas.
Rasa-oushadi’s are classified into four classes- Rasa, Dhaatu, Visha and Ratna. Rasa deals with the drugs that possess Rasayana effect (adaptogenic effect). Rasayanas increase Ojas, cures diseases and delays ageing. Dhaatu deals with providing strength to the body. Ratna contains the minerals that possess gem quality. Visha as the name suggests are those that are highly poisonous plants.
Bhasmas in Rasa Shastra are the ayurvedic metallic/mineral preparation that are treated with herbs to treat many chronic ailments. They are biologically produced nanoparticles that are prepared by two well-known methods- Putapaka method and the Kupipakwa method.
In the Putapaka method, the metals are subjected to three steps- Shodhana, Bhavana and Marana). Metals are turned into coarse powder and heated to red hot temperatures following which they are quenched in a specific liquid. This comprises of the purification process- Shodhana. The purified metal is mixed with specific drugs that are incinerated and levigated in liquid. This process is known as wet grinding- Bhavana. The levigated mass are turned into small pellets that are placed in earthern crucibles, sealed by mud smeared clothes and heated in an electric muffle furnace (Puta). This process is known as Putapaka. The crucibles are heated for a specific time period, cooled and the incinerated powder is extracted.
In the Kupipakwa method, the metals are subjected to four steps. After Shodhana (as described above), the metals are amalgamated with Mercury and mixed with sulphur. This mixture is triturated until it turns black, lusterless and a smooth powder. This procedure is termed Kajjali. The Kajjali is ground in liquid media for some time and allowed to dry in a glass bottle (Kachkupi). The bottle is wrapped in several layers of mud smeared cloth and heated on a sand bath. The bottle is cooled and broken to extract the Bhasma that stays at the bottom of the bottle. The extracted Bhasma is ground into powder.
What is interesting is the science involved during this entire process of Bhasma-making. This only proves more and more the science in Ayurveda. The repeated heating and cooling processes disrupts the tension in the metals making them brittle and soft. This also results in reduction in particle size. The purified metal is ground in wet state because wet grinding eliminates dust and also finer size is better achieved in this process. Finally, when metals are incinerated, compounds are formed on the metal surface that are more favourable to the body.
After the Bhasma is prepared, it undergoes a series of tests to check if it is properly incinerated or not. These include observing the lustre (Chandrika) (Bhasma must be lustreless- nischandrika), the lightness and fineness, taste and more.
Bhasmas are near to the size of nanoparticles. The size can be reduced during the process of trituration and Bhavana. Bhasma size ranges from 1-2 microns. Bhasmas of different metal cocktails are used for various ailments such as respiratory tract infections, headache, fever, blood pressure, diarrhoea, jaundice, anaemia, cancers, calcium deficiency, swelling in joints, and more.
Bhasmas are easily absorbed into the body, they cleanse the kidney (used as a diuretic), liver (helps in cirrhosis), stronger bones and teeth, maintains a rhythmic heartbeat, protects the body from free radical damage.
Despite the above uses, the rumoured presence of heavy metals didn’t allow its usage. The lack of reproducibility is also hindering its universal acceptance. Dr Kattesh Katti, nanotech scientist at the University of Missouri has developed a “Nano-ayurvedic medicine” that very recently was approved by the US Patents and Trade Marks Office. This development has opened avenues for greener solutions in the biomedical field.
In the field of cancer therapeutics, targeted drug delivery is very important and widely studied. This helps to reduce the frequency of the dosages and there is reduction in the fluctuating drug concentrations in the body. Nanoparticles are also great drug delivery agents and improve drug stability and control the release of the drug into the blood/serum. Additionally, the drug remains stable until it reaches the target organ. According to Dr Katti, phytochemicals from many plants are a reservoir of electrons because of their antioxidant properties and they can be used to manufacture green nanoparticles.
Dr Katti’s team has worked for over two decades to develop universally acceptable ayurvedic formulations with the help of green nanotechnology. They laid focus on gold nanoparticles that can be used in combination with phytochemicals from herbs such as mango, grape, turmeric, cinnamon, clove etc. These plants are electron-rich and the interaction between gold particles with electrons from the above mentioned plant-derived phytochemicals produces well-defined gold nanoparticles. It is interesting to note that these Gold nanoparticles are similar to Swarna Bhasma. Studies have shown that its’ features impede global acceptance.
This Nano-ayurvedic medicine gold nanoparticle drug was tested on in-vitro breast tumour cells and was also administered to metastatic breast cancer patients in a pilot human clinical trial conducted according to the regulations set by the Ministry of AYUSH. The study revealed that the drug demonstrated excellent efficacy in the patients with highly reduced adverse effects as compared to standard chemotherapy. Additionally, there was minimal systemic toxicity.
Rasa shastra is an age old science similar to today’s nanotechnology. When Ayurveda meets modern science and modern medicine, wonders are bound to happen. If the global community is more and more accepting of these wonders, it can give rise to a healthy and happy planet.
About the Author
Ms Varsha Venkataraman
Varsha Venkataraman is a graduate in Applied Microbiology and Cancer Studies. Currently she is the Senior Researcher for the Centre for Soft Power with an avid interest in Ayurveda and wishes to focus on the integrative approach of Ayurveda and modern medicine in the treatment of cancer.