Though I have taken a lot of interest in metaphysical stuff over the years and dedicated large chunks of this blog to discussions on that, I never took much interest in alchemy perhaps because of my natural lack of inclination towards chemistry. I read Satyajit Ray’s Professor Shanku story “Shankur Suborno Sujog” (Shonku’s Golden Opportunity) very recently but didn’t really look up on alchemy after that. Well, Satyajit Ray based his science fiction stories on a lot of stuff- from time travel to unicorns, from witchcraft to artificial intelligence, so why bother? Also to be honest as much as I respect Satyajit Ray for all the amazing movies he made and the fictional sleuth he created- Feluda, who was a large part of my childhood, I never was a big fan of his Professor Shanku stories. As a kid, I didn’t understand or appreciate them much, and as an adult I felt them to be too childish. Satyajit Ray was an artistic genius and probably had a lot of curiosity about science too, but in my opinion that is not enough to write good science fiction. One actually needs to know a little bit of science so that the story has enough details to appear realistic even though it is fantasy. Satyajit Ray probably lacked the knowledge of science to fill up his stories with sound details. As a result most of the Shanku stories, despite providing a good read, are hardly memorable- Shanku owns a gun which makes any object in front of it vanish when fired, he makes a machine which can translate the language of ants, he makes some object which can float in air to defy gravity. Sure this is science fiction and not science and so I am ready to suspend my disbelief, but provide me with the details of how these things happen for science’s sake!
Okay enough of Satyajit Ray bashing, now back to alchemy! In the story “Shanku’s Suborno Sujog”, Professor Shanku and his two other friends, both scientists like him, try to reproduce the experiment to transform other objects to gold that has been reported in a Spanish diary from medieval Europe, when the study of alchemy had its heyday. They keep putting different objects in a well of some liquid that they prepare as a part of the experiment but to their dismay nothing turns into gold until the villain of the story accidentally jumps into it and his entire body is turned into gold. The scientists realize that the transformation to gold demands life and hence it works only for living objects.
I read this story and pretty much forgot about it until recently when I started watching the massively popular anime- “Full Metal Alchemist”- the 2003 version. I finished all its episodes in the last one month, and also watched the sequel movie- “Conqueror of Shamballa”. The series made me look up on alchemy and understand the basics of the different concepts in alchemy that have been highlighted in the show- transmutation, transmutation circle, law of equivalent exchange, gate of truth, philosopher’s stone etc. Most of the information available on the internet about these concepts is based on the TV series and the manga it is based on, so I am not very sure how many of these concepts are borrowed from actual annals on alchemy written over the ages, and how many have been concocted for the sake of the manga. Nevertheless, I will discuss some of the concepts over here and relate them with other things that have interested me in the past.
The law of equivalent exchange is the fundamental law of alchemy- for everything gained in the world, something of equal value must be lost, though the series never explicitly lays out what parameters determine equal value. Some examples are shown instead- the protagonists, Ed and Al, try to bring their dead mother back to life but Ed loses his arm and leg and Al loses his entire body, the teacher Izumi loses organs inside her belly in the attempt to regain her lost child, umpteen human lives need to be sacrificed to create the philosopher’s stone and so on. The idea is indeed similar to that in Professor Shanku’s story – only living objects can be transmuted to gold, i.e., creation of gold comes at the cost of sacrifice of a life.
In the series, Ed and Al’s understanding of the law of equivalent exchange evolves over time. When they are young and innocent, they take the law as absolute truth. As they grow older and have several life changing experiences in their pursuit of the philosopher’s stone, and particularly after an altercation with the antagonist, Dante, at the climax of the story, their absolute belief in the law seems to erode. Dante passionately argues that the law of equivalent exchange is a theory that has been concocted to delude innocent minds. The world is cruel, random and unfair. Good things happen to some people and bad things to the others for no reason whatsoever. By the end of the series, Al concedes that he no longer considers equivalent exchange an absolute law. He rather interprets it as a promise- a ray of hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that someday he will reunite with his brother Ed.
I find this theory of equivalent exchange very similar to the theory of karma in ancient philosophy. According to the theory of karma, everything in this world happens for a reason. Events that are separated by vast expanses of space and long passages of time are actually connected by strings, invisible to us. Though this idea seemed implausible to me initially, experiences in life have taught me otherwise. As I have mentioned in some of my other posts, there is always a subjective aspect to consciousness which will keep our understanding of the world around us grey forever. Once someone is isolated enough or is deeply in pain due to a heartbreak or is obsessed with metaphysical ideas over a long period of time, their mind works in ways like it does never before. The mind starts making long range connections and relating events with each other, which it always considered uncorrelated before. It is not impossible that an individual, possessed with such a mental state, will be afraid crossing the road because a car can run him over for the way he mistreated his girlfriend six months back.
I do not think we can ever be sure whether our world is so causal, correlated and deterministic as the karma theory considers it to be. This world might as well be completely random and unfair, or it can be somewhere in between – some things happen for a reason and some other things just happen randomly. However what I do believe is that every individual should have the right to choose their own view of the world. And just like Al chooses to believe in equivalent exchange since it instills hope in him, I also choose to believe in karma but not take it as an absolute because that way I take everything I do and everything that happens to me way too seriously. I find it difficult to do simple things in everyday life, which always involve a little risk, if my mind is haunted with the thought that they may have severe consequences as a result of something I did wrong ages ago.
Another interesting concept in the series which I find worth discussing is the concept of the Gate of Truth. In the 2003 TV series “Full Metal Alchemist”, the Gate is presented as a portal between two worlds. One of the worlds is the world we live in, where modern science is dominated by physics and its derivatives and alchemy has no power, and the other world is that of Ed and Al’s- the state of Amestris, where alchemy is considered the most superior science. Majority of the episodes in the series is set in the latter world, with the former appearing in the last few episodes of the series and the sequel movie.
Essentially in our world, practice of alchemy was not that uncommon even a few centuries ago. Attempts were made in different parts of the world, particularly in Europe at the later stage, to transmute different substances to gold, develop panaceas that can cure all diseases and create the philosopher’s stone. However in the post Renaissance era, with the widespread success of physics, attempts were made to rigorously quantify and record the various practices in alchemy, and to separate the procedures performed on various substances as a part of alchemy from the spiritual practices connected to it like the purification of soul and grant of eternal life. Thus refined versions of age old practices in alchemy, with the metaphysical connotations stripped off them, became what we call “chemistry” today, while alchemy got the status of an outdated, occult branch of knowledge. The series Full Metal Alchemist and the manga behind it essentially imagine a world which has a very similar history as ours, just that alchemy does not fall from grace there and physics and chemistry do not take its place. The protagonists Ed and Al and most of the other characters belong to that world. In the series, that world of alchemy is separated from our world by the Gate of Truth- an idea very similar to the central theme of my blog- bridge between the physical world and the abstract world.
A few things about the characters and storyline in the series need to be mentioned before I end the post. The expressiveness on Ed’s face at every close up shot is simply mesmerising. The artists deserve a huge credit for that. That, alongside the innocent conviction in Al’s voice every time he states his intentions or opinions, will stay with me for a long time. I also found the use of comic elements at different points in the show, even in the serious situations, extremely innovative and refreshing. Ed going berserk every time he is called short and Al holding him back screaming “brother” innocently never gets old.