Kaya Kalpa: Life Extension and Immortality
For many readers who savored Paramahansa Yogananda's iconic tome Autobiography of a Yogi, one of the most intriguing personalities in that collection of astonishing people and events is the master known as Mahavatar Babaji, whom, at the age of 1800 years reportedly still roams the earth in a variety of appellations and forms. His longevity is said to be the result of a yogic practice known as kaya kalpa, or transformation of the body. One of the most elusive subjects to come out of the East, kaya kalpa remains shrouded in mystery and contradiction.
The practice originated among a body of disciplines cognized by the ancient Tamil Siddhas, those perfected yogis of the Shaivite tradition from the Tamil Nadu area in Southern India, whose founding father was said to be the Vedic Rishi Agastya. Among several areas of study attributed to them was native medicine, regarded as the basis of Ayurveda. The siddhas' cognitions and findings on the subject of health and physical rejuvenation were written in poetic Tamil verse on manuscripts made from palm leaves. Those manuscripts have been handed down through the ages and jealously guarded by the Tamil families in whose custody they remain. They include the formulas and practices that were an integral part of life extension.
But an analysis into the history and practice of kaya kalpa reveals much more than descriptions of exotic and complex herbal formulas designed to bring about physical rejuvenation. Because the Tamil Siddhas were, according to all legends, high evolved human beings, their pursuit was not motivated by a desire to drink from the fountain of youth, but by an intense desire to extend life so that they might evolve to complete enlightenment in this lifetime, avoiding the need for reincarnation. Through fabled stories and legends, many of those spiritual seekers, and those who followed in their footsteps, have provided inspiration to future generations to aspire toward enlightenment. And in the process of doing so, some reportedly, (perhaps including Mahavatar Babaji) achieved immortality.
With this in mind, a more accurate translation of the word kalpa is the alchemical term transmutation. In this case it refers to the metamorphosis of the body into that more refined 'stuff' from which beings of light are structured. In a 1960s lecture, the Indian saint and teacher Maharishi Mahesh Yogi described the refinement process of the physical body over numerous lifetimes. He explained that in its coarse and dense state, the human body is primarily kaphic (composed of the elements of water and earth) in nature, and that as we reincarnate our more evolved bodies eventually are made from a substance that is primarily akashic (or etheric) in nature. Because this process requires purification on every level - physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual - it becomes evident that kaya kalpa involves something more than simply ingesting life-extending herbs.
In a March 2009 paper for the California College of Ayurveda, Ione Linker identifies what she believes are the origins of kaya kalpa, citing the closest evidence in one of the eight branches of Ayurvedic medicine: rejuvenation therapy or Rasayana. In the classical texts to which she refers, there are descriptions of Rasayana therapies that appear strikingly similar to some of the panchakarma procedures currently practiced in modern-day Ayurveda. For example, as a pre-requisite to embark upon rejuvenation therapy, one must undergo a series of physical purifications that include oleation and subsequent purging of the alimentary canal (basti) followed by a liquid diet. Additionally, the aspirant must practice and embody what Maharishi Mahesh Yogi called 'behavioral rasayanas': speaking pleasantly, controlling the senses, compassion, truthfulness etc. Only then does the full treatment begin. Clearly, performing tapas - including meditation, pranayam and devotions - was a crucial component in the success of the treatment.
In a now out-of-publication book entitled Maharaj: A Biography of Shriman Tapasviji Maharaj, a Mahatma who Lived for 185 Years by T. S. Anantha Murthy, the writer chronicles Tapasviji's three experiences with the kaya kalpa rejuvenation procedure. In one chapter describing the years prior to his first treatment, Tapasviji recounts a meeting with a 5,000 year old Mahatma who reports that he was born in Ayodhya during the time of Sri Krishna, the deity to whom Tapasviji was devoted. When Tapasviji inquires about the Mahatma's longevity, he is told: "My longevity is easily explained. I drink cow's milk and eat some herbs which I will show you." The Mahatma then retrieves the herbs which include that elusive creeper, much sought after throughout the millennia: somalata. He explains that the soma plant, from which the soma "milk" is extracted, exists in 15 varieties and that one in particular - "15 leaves and red spots" - would allow him to live for 10,000 years. "I spend most of my time performing tapas . . I enjoy my solitude . . that is all of my story," the Mahatma adds.
The soma plant, the process of manufacturing its juice and the drinking of it, are the recurring themes of the 9th Mandala of the Rig Veda. Because of its association with higher consciousness and the inability of spiritual seekers and health researchers to locate its habitat, scholars have speculated that soma is actually everything from a hallucinogen found in a genus of mushroom to a form of water reed or even a type of honey. That is likely because the verses in the 9th Mandala poetically describe it in such as way as to make it appear in many forms. But perhaps this is simply because the Tamil Siddhas often couched their formulas in obscure and poetic language, opening a wide door to interpretation by subsequent translators. Vedic researcher and scholar David Frawley explains his view on the subject: "The Soma plant was not simply one plant - though there may have been one primary Soma plant in certain times and places - but several plants, sometimes a plant mixture . . [soma] more generally refers to the sacred usage of plants." Frawley adds that soma is mentioned as existing in all plants (Rig Veda X.97.7) and many different types of Soma are indicated, some requiring elaborate preparations. "Water itself, particularly that of the Himalayan rivers, is a kind of Soma (Rig Veda VII.49.4). In Vedic thought, for every form of Agni or Fire, there is also a form of Soma. In this regard, there are Somas throughout the universe."
But Frawley also acknowledges what spiritual seekers have known and experienced throughout the history of mankind - that soma is the most refined product of a perfectly functioning nervous system, internally produced as a result of a higher state of consciousness. He adds, ". . we must remember that the real Soma is a secretion in the brain from spiritual practices." Frawley identifies this secretion as an elixir produced from Tarpaka Kapha, that form of the kapha dosha, according to Ayurvedic medicine, that lubricates the nervous system. He adds, "Soma at a yogic level refers to the crown chakra, which is opened by Indra (yogic insight) and releases a flood of bliss throughout the body. This inner Soma is the main subject of the Vedic hymns, though outer Somas were also important."
Tapasviji's saintly friend who showed him the soma plant came from a Vedic time when life was more sattwic. There is indeed the possibility that, as Frawley points out, "there may have been one primary Soma plant in certain times and places." In our current Kaliyuga period, one that elevates science above all else, the physical plant is sought as evidence of its existence. Could it have been, perhaps, that in the time of Sat Yuga when beings of more celestial light roamed the earth, this mysterious soma - in the form of the red-spotted creeper the Mahatma described - was more easily accessible? Or was it possible that those holy men were simply able to instantaneously manifest it materially and imbibe its milk? Is it also possible that those spiritual aspirants who now engage in decades of tapas have prepared themselves sufficiently so that they are able to commune with those ancient sages who still roam the earth and would share their gifts with the devout? If so, that might explain its elusive nature in this less graceful age. So then, what must kaya kalpa for the current age entail? Must it necessarily require more gross procedures? A review of the history and practices provide some insight.
By all accounts, there appear to have been two different types of kaya kalpa: a lengthier program for monks that involved periods of complete isolation, and a briefer period for householders. Those who were able to devote the necessary time, by virtue of their economic status and/or lifestyle (saints and royalty), were sequestered for at least 90 days (during his first treatment, Tapasviji did so for one full year) in a specially-designed womblike hut called a kudi that conformed to specific rules of Sthapatya Ved for direction, physical environment, auspicious time for construction and construction materials. This more rigorous procedure was known as 'kutipraveshika'. Another rasayana treatment, known as 'vata tapika,' did not require as intense seclusion, but was also considered less effective in creating the more dramatic regenerative results, such as the loss and then re-growth of hair, teeth and skin.
For Tapasviji's first kaya kalpa treatment, his saintly Mahatma friend instructed him how to take the pulses to read the physical state and then how to prepare the daily doses of "cow's milk and medicine". Later in the book, Tapasviji returns the favor to some of his devotees, although nowhere are specific herbs mentioned. The fact that Tapasvaji administered kaya kalpa to several of his disciples adds another layer of ambiguity about just which herbs were used since, in several of those instances, the treatment was for ailments (such as cataracts). If he had learned to read the Ayurvedic pulses, this suggests that the herbs were chosen specifically for the individual's state of health, and were not a singular generic formula for the purpose of life-extension. And in fact, that appears to be the case. In a paper entitled A Literary Review of Kayakalpa Plants in Siddha Literature the authors identify two classifications of kaya kalpa herbs: "pothu karpam," used for rejuvenation purposes, and "sirappu karpam," prescribed for specific illnesses.
Adding another layer of ambiguity is the understanding that each of the siddha medicine men had his own proprietary formula, guarded jealously. Nonetheless, from writings and oral traditions, researchers have been able to glean some of the herbs that were commonly used. It appears that many are staples of the modern-day Ayurveda pharmacopoeia that has become so fashionable in Western alternative health, yoga magazines and spas. It also appears that some of the preparations combined minerals with the herbs, which is said to strike a balance between alkalinity (considered the male principle) and acidity (considered female) in the body. Although many Ayurvedic formulas and practices were suppressed and subsequently lost during the British Raj, some common threads appear. One such practice is the use amalaki fruit for a mixture similar to the chyavanaprash formula of which many Ayurveda adherents are familiar. Pippili, an enzyme-like herb also known as "long pepper," is another popular ingredient for the cleansing and elimination phase prior to the kaya kalpa sequestration. Commenting in the appendix of Tapasviji's biography, Dr. Daniel Bouwmeester describes what he believes were herbs that were used for the elimination phase (e.g., comfrey dandelion and uva ursi) and for regeneration (ginseng, dong kwai, wheat grass juice). Other researchers have described plants such as ginger, neem, winter cherry and aloe for rejuvenation, and sacred basil, Indian gooseberry and marking nut for healing. Additionally, the siddha physicians employed a salt called kattuppu, whose manufacture also remains a secret. It reportedly has alchemical properties that allow it to be ingested without any of the harmful side effects associated with common table salt.
In contemporary practice, some vaidyas have developed formulas they claim adhere to those employed by the ancient physicians that also include a variety of metals and gemstones. In a book entitled Scientific Basis for Ayurveda Therapies, researchers explain that heavy metals such as gold, silver and even extremely toxic substances like mercury have been used since the Vedic age to promote longevity as well as to treat a variety of symptoms including anemia, tuberculosis and rheumatoid arthritis. A report from the Thanuology Foundation even describes mercury as a fundamental component to any kaya kalpa formula: "There is no alchemy without Mercury. No Kalpa without mercury. This is a divine art." These metals are ingested in the form of what is called bhasma, the incinerated and crushed remains of those minerals, often treated with juices such as lime and other decoctions. The process of incineration alters and converts the metallic salts into extremely fine emulsified particles so that the body can absorb and process them. Making of the bhasmas requires many repeated sequences of burning and crushing the material. Additionally, often the incinerated remains are buried in clay pots in the ground - sometimes for years.
The purpose of using gemstones in Ayurvedic formulas is analogous their prescribed functions in Jyotish. For example, the bhasma of diamonds (for Sukra), is said to provide beauty, charm and act as an aphrodisiac; rubies (Surya) act as a stimulant and heart tonic and increase vigor; cooling and soothing pearls (Chandra) are considered a tonic for hyper acidity and liver problems.
Although it may seem extreme, the use of heavy metals in medicine is not uncommon in world history. A somewhat parallel system to Ayurveda called the Unani system of originated in Greece around 200 AD and became extremely popular throughout the Middle East as well as India. Some Unani medications include minerals that are known to be highly toxic in their raw form: aluminum, arsenic (also used in medicine in the US in the early 20th century), strontium and lead. In Western medicine even as late as the 20th century, scientists experimented with the use of gold for patients with severe rheumatoid arthritis, albeit sometimes with deleterious effects. In contemporary scientific research literature on Ayurveda, it is also cautioned that combining these minerals with ingredients that may have been contaminated with other ingredients - such as plant materials grown with or containing environmental or agricultural toxins - can lead to harmful and sometimes fatal results. As is often the case, the success of diagnosis and treatment is contingent upon the knowledge, experience and consciousness of the medical practitioner.
Consequently, even under the best of circumstances, ingesting kaya kalpa "medicines" was and remains something not to be undertaken casually. During Tapasviji's first kaya kalpa treatment, he is described by his caretaker as having falling into a coma-like state for several days after beginning the treatment. Perhaps this is because many of the ingredients appear to conform to the homeopathic theory of 'like cures like', i.e., a little dose of a toxin will rally the body's internal defenses. However, considering the power of homeopathic medicine (several vaidyas, including Dr. Sun Mukh S. Yogi in his book entitled Kaya Kalpa: the Science of Rejuvenation, seem to imply these bhasmas are homeopathic), administering doses of extremely powerful formulas into an unprepared human body and nervous system can be dangerous. On the physical level, the purpose of kaya kalpa is to bring the processes of growth and decay into balance through purification and nourishment of the cells at their deepest level. If the procedure errs on the side of purification, the body can lose its balance and drop away. In fact, in a 1969 lecture at his ashram in Rishikesh, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi cautioned that for someone who was not spiritually advanced, these formulas and practice, rather than helping to rejuvenate the body, could actually cause one to leave the body.
It is difficult to discern clearly what remains intact from the ancient Tamil kaya kalpa traditions. It is said that there are fewer than thirty "true" kaya kalpa practitioners in the world today, likely maintaining their traditions in some level of secrecy. The rise to prominence of Ayurveda in general has served to blur the lines between 'true' kaya kalpa and those decoctions and procedures that are commonly employed worldwide in panchakarma clinics today. Just as all manner of commerce has boosted cache (and cash) by attaching the word "green" to product lines, more and more ayurvedic clinics are now advertising "kaya kalpa" on their menu of treatments. At one organization in Singapore, kaya kalpa is described as part of a system of yoga that can be accomplished by simply learning a five-minute procedure to be practiced twice daily! Some questions remain regarding the addition of more modern and Western concepts to the current-day procedure such as psychotherapeutic techniques like forgiveness rituals and primal scream therapy.
Ultimately, kaya kalpa seems to succeed in the same manner that much of medicine, both ancient and contemporary, does: through faith, devotion and grace. Anyone who has had a sudden remission or miracle cure as the result of some form of grace understands this principle. In fact, Tapasviji attributed the success of his kaya kalpa treatments to the several visitations he experienced from Krishna during those long periods of isolation in his kudi hut. (Throughout his years of performing austerities, Tapasviji describes several encounters with the gods Krishna, Shiva and with other ancient saints particularly while undergoing the kaya kalpa procedure.) He credits the extreme bliss and fulfillment he felt from having contact with the deity to whom he was deeply devoted for enabling the kaya kalpa healing to take place. He writes: "The Lord exists here and everywhere. He is the Lord behind the phenomenal universe. He is called Brahman in Upanishads and has infinite powers of manifestation. You must have faith in his existence. There is nothing that the Lord cannot do for you."
We will give the final word here to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who spoke on the subject in a 1959 lecture in Hollywood, California, and offers what just might be a fast track to our own kaya kalpa - something that heals the whole person.
"Anything that pleases the mind heals the mind . . everything in the world has healing power to some degree or the other . . everything charming soothes the mind . . effective healing is greater if the capacity of charming is greater . . meditation has the greatest healing power because it leads to the greatest happiness. It leads to the kingdom of Heaven. It leads to the glory of God. It leads to eternal bliss happiness of the greatest order and permanent nature. Therefore we hold meditation has the greatest healing power. And the greatest healing power will be that which would be able to heal the life as a whole."
(c) copyright 2009 Michael Laughrin
From the June/July 2009 issue of Michael Laughrin's North American Jyotish Newsletter. Click to subscribe to this free Jyotish newsletter.
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