Occultism and the Alchemy of Life and Death
Material life as we know it is not the only life. Behind embodied life there is a plane of life-consciousness with its own unique energy and properties. The occultists in every tradition of past and present have always been aware of it. There are special techniques to become aware of this life-energy behind our material processes. There are also means by which we can learn to manipulate them. This is exactly what knowledgeable Reiki masters do and some tantrics of yore used to do. By this manipulation of the inner life, one can temporarily, for a short or long period, superimpose the law of a higher plane on a lower plane. This can help in preserving youth, prolonging life, even for very long periods of time. The lamas of Tibet, the Hatha and Raja yogis of India, the Buddhist traditions and the tantrics of Nath Sampradaya have all tried to unleash this hidden force of a greater life-energy and thereby conquer disease and decay for long time. Certain Vaishnava schools have made attempts to dwell in the subtle inner body and also attempted kayasiddhi, specialised procedures for rejuvenating the body. And finally there have been efforts to prolong life in the body by the superimposition of another and higher dynamism of the life energy. But all these efforts as far as we know are not linked to immortality of the physical body. They are efforts at prolonging life in the physical body by adhyaropan, the imposition of another law, and for the moment (as long as the forced superimposition continues) dispense with the physical laws. But all this is not a conquest since the laws of the physical body do not change as such. It is not a natural possession of physical immortality. And obviously physical immortality without a corresponding purification and perfection of inner consciousness and outer nature would mean an immortalisation of man’s imperfection and ignorance. The story of ‘Trishancou’ illustrates this well. An early king of the solar dynasty seeks to reach the home of the immortals in his physical body through the tapa-shakti (the power accumulated through askesis) of Rishi Vishvamitra. The Rishi tries over and over again but fails each time since the king is essentially impure in his physical consciousness and thus is not granted entry into the immortal’s world while still in his physical body. An integral purity and perfection of consciousness is a precondition for physical immortality. But short of this one can have and realise the essential immortality by discovering and living in one’s soul. Is there a possibility of prolonging youth through subtler yogic means? After all we do observe that the species that live longer like the tortoise also take fewer breaths per minute. So also the heavy breathers like dogs and rabbits live relatively shorter lives. In fact a whole science of breath regulation called pranayama has been known since antiquity in India. Among the other effects of pranayama, a well-known and significant effect is prolongation of life and delaying the aging process. And finally we do also see a certain linkage between reproduction and lifespan. Most species, barring man have their lifespan limited by their reproductive capacity. That is to say, they live up to the age they can reproduce and not beyond. Human beings are an exception to this general rule as if Nature has given us a lease of life for purposes other than living only for propagating the species. But as in the case of breathing, there may be a deeper linkage between sexual reproduction and death, a subtler truth that we have yet to discover. Ayurveda does speak about brahmacharya and sexual continence as one of the means of prolonging youthfulness and vital vigour.
Pranayama and Brahmacharya
In ancient India, material existence and physical processes were seen as conterminous with the subtler ones. Thus the physical breath was seen as a means not only of bringing in oxygen but also and simultaneously as a vehicle to draw the vital-force or prana (also called ‘chi’ in Japanese). The heart was not only an organ necessary to pump blood but also a physical means to circulate the prana within the body. It may be noted that prana in this context refers to the fuel or energy used by the body and the mind for their diverse processes. If we compare the body to an engine, then prana is the fuel used for driving it, mind is the technology behind the motion of the wheels and the engine, whereas the driver, the man behind the steering wheel whose decisions can change the course of the engine is the secret soul within us. Thus each part has its right place and function, none can be ignored. If the engine is of a weaker make or poor design it can run only for limited purposes. So also if the fuel is not efficient energy-wise, throwing more smoke than fire and steam, it will be a poor fuel. In the human body also, this fuel or prana is of five types — two of poor quality used for driving the body for lower motives like eating, reproduction, anger, etc. It is the old version of prana, the animal prana, so to say. Then there is the middle prana, which is used for slightly more human motives like attachments, sentiments, etc. Finally we have the two upward currents of prana utilised for mental and higher pursuits. The lower form of prana that looks after the body is supplied largely through material processes whereas the higher forms are subtler. The life of an average man is governed largely by lower motives and therefore utilises the inferior fuel for driving the body. A better type of humanity with a slightly higher orientation naturally draws a better quality. But the best fuel of prana is drawn quite naturally by those who are turned upward in quest of a higher spiritual life. They naturally draw prana in its purest form. Similarly, the technology of the engine or the mind’s movements and finally the experience and expertise of the driver are all important for the smooth functioning of the body. Nevertheless, the regulation of breath through pranayama is a psycho-physical means to increase and regulate the five currents of prana and balance them in the system. The physical means were nature’s devices to which our body forms have got habituated and accustomed. The yogi could however do away with the outer device by learning to draw prana in other subtler ways and circulating it by force of will. At the same time the average human being who could not do this, that is go beyond the limits set by nature could nevertheless use this knowledge for drawing more vital energy within the body by perfecting his breath.
Poverty of breath leads to a diminution of the life-force, its eventual depletion and petrifaction thereby predisposing one to diseases and aging. Pranayama or breath regulation is a means to halt this depletion of life-energy within us. Of course mere pranayama is naturally not enough if one continues to allow depletion through other means especially the lower motives and channels. In fact an excess of unregulated life-energy flowing through the lower channels is precisely the deeper psychological basis for what we call as vices. Pranayama in such situations would only worsen the situation by increasing the quantum of life-force without regulating its flow. It is like overloading a system without enhancing its power to contain and bear more weight and force.
The word pranayama indeed means regulating the flow of life-energy in its movements through the five channels. This fivefold movement of prana as mentioned earlier is divided into two lower currents, one middle and two upper currents. When there is a predominant flow through the lower currents there is very little left for higher purposes of life. Being thrown out downwards soon depletes the pranic reserves. Therefore it has been said by the ancient wisdom that each sexual act is actually a step towards death. The same of course would be true of other lower movements of prana like anger, jealousy, fear, etc. It is here that we have the psychological basis of brahmacharya. This is a means to convert the prana-shakti (life-energy) within us for higher purposes. This is best done through will and changing of life’s motives, by consciously turning the prana-shakti in us for higher and vaster rather than for lower and narrower purposes, through an opening to a higher consciousness beyond mind and as a corollary preventing the flow and loss of life-energy through lower channels of lust, anger, hate, etc. It is much like the transmutation of energy that we talk of in physics and is indeed the subtle basis of sublimation of energy that we recognise in modern psychology. But this too would only lead to a prolongation of youth and not a complete conquest over death.
Sri Aurobindo sheds light upon the rationale of brahmacharya and its process —
“… if the sex-fluid is prevented from being spent away, it turns into tejas and ojas. The whole theory of brahmacarya is based upon that by the yogis. If it were not so, there would be no need of brahmacarya for producing tejas and ojas. It is not a question of vigour and energy per se, but of the physical support — in the physical support the ojas produced by brahmacarya counts greatly. The transformation of the retas into ojas is a transformation of physical substance into a physical (necessarily producing also a vital-physical) energy. The spiritual energy itself can only drive the body, like the vital and mental, but in driving it, it would exhaust it if it has not a physical support. (I speak of course of the ordinary spiritual energy, not of the supramental to be, which has not only to transmute retas into ojas but ojas into something more sublimated.)”
“The contrary opinion of which you speak may be due to the idea that sex is a natural part of the human vital-physical whole, a necessity like food and sleep, and that its total inhibition may lead to unbalancing and to serious disorders. It is a fact that sex suppressed in outward action but indulged in other ways may lead to disorders of the system and brain troubles. That is the root of the medical theory which discourages sexual abstinence. But I have observed that these things happen only when there is either secret indulgence of a perverse kind replacing the normal sexual activity or else an indulgence of it in a kind of subtle vital way by imagination or by an invisible vital interchange of an occult kind, I do not think harm ever occurs when there is a true spiritual effort at mastery and abstinence. It is now held by many medical men in Europe that sexual abstinence, if it is genuine, is beneficial; for the element in the retas which serves the sexual act is then changed into its other element which feeds the energies of the system, mental, vital and physical — and that justifies the Indian idea of brahmacharya, the transformation of retas into ojas and the raising of its energies upward so that they change into a spiritual force.
“As for the method of mastery, it cannot be done by physical abstinence alone — it proceeds by a process of combined detachment and rejection. The consciousness stands back from the sex-impulse, feels it as not its own, as something alien thrown on it by Nature-force to which it refuses assent or identification — each time a certain movement of rejection throws it more and more outward. The mind remains unaffected; after a time the vital being which is the chief support withdraws from it in the same way, finally the physical consciousness no longer supports it. This process continues until even the subconscient can no longer rouse it up in dream and no further movement comes from the outer Nature-force to rekindle this lower fire. This is the course when the sex-propensity sticks obstinately; but there are some who can eliminate it decisively by a swift radical dropping away from the nature. That, however, is more rare.”
Yet as we have seen, we are far from conquering death as a species. And if there is a reason to life and a reason to existence then there must be a good enough reason for death, for the moment at least. The inner methods are also processes and capitalise on manipulating still deeper forces of nature than the physical scientist manipulates. Occultism in this sense is like chemistry learning and playing with the inner combination of forces. Yet it is still the domain of the how, leaving the why untackled and therefore the original cause remains intact. Death though pushed back a little remains unconquered. The reason is that the stuff of the body remains unchanged. It is like using high voltage energy from electricity or the sun to drive an engine which has been designed by nature to be driven mainly by coal or steam. Though electrical and solar processes are submerged within and run as an undercurrent they are not the main means or vehicles for energy transmission and exchange within the body. It is still largely air (steam) or chemicals (coal). The nerves do use electrical transmission in places. An odd gland responds to the solar energy but not the body as a whole. Even if we could draw energy directly through the sun, unless there is a change in the constituting consciousness of the body it will still be subject to decay and age and consequent death. For these are but processes, and not the real inner reason for the existence of death. Even if all the outer causes are mastered, death will find its entry through the door of ignorance within the human body. And the body will change only when the consciousness within changes.