The Principles of Longevity

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Life is a continuous flow to eternity, but for a particular person it has a particular limit. One may have a long span or a short span of life. One person may live happily for a hundred years or even more. Another person may have a short period of ten years ending accidentally.

It is natural that one should expect longevity. There is nothing modern about it. The vedic rishis were aspiring for it, and many of them attained a long life. Today also, people are enjoying a long life in relation to time and environment.

The Hunza

Some time back, I went to a small district in Pakistan near a desert. There lived a tribe called the Hunza. They are mountain people and many among them live to a hundred years. One person may live through many generations.

I met an old man who was one hundred and thirty-five years old. He was carrying luggage uphill, and mind you, it wasn’t a small hillock, but a high mountain like in Kashmir. Here, a young man of thirty-five uses a lift for going up to the third floor, which is hardly about thirty feet; and there, an old man of one hundred and thirty-five years of age, was carrying luggage uphill, in a rarefied atmosphere. What must be the secret of this longevity and health?

I noticed their food and mode of living. They lived in small but airy and well-ventilated dwellings, and their main item of food was just plain dry bread. They didn’t know about rice, and I never saw them eating any vegetables. Besides dry bread, they had a lot of fruit, dry fruit and nuts – apples, grapes, figs, almonds, pistachio, walnuts and the like. These were available in plenty. They used curds but not milk and were mainly vegetarians, but they would eat meat in such small quantity, as if it were a pickle. They were more like Vaishnavas than Tantrics in their food habits.

Diet and prana

The main reason for senility or a short span of life is the degeneration of the internal organs due to improper food and way of life. It will be a fallacy to expect longevity with organs that have gone old and weak. A person who expects to live long should see that their lifestyle is regular and their food wholesome.

These days, everybody is running mad after proteins and vitamins. They are gulping huge quantities of eggs, meat and fish, thinking that it is wholesome food, essential for health. This is not correct. One does not get the life principle, prana tattwa, only from these sources. Long-lived beings on this earth are vegetarian.

The other important element for longevity is pranayama. Pranayama is a major aspect of yoga, and with its regular practice, one can achieve longevity. An individual breathes about fifteen times a minute. It means that in twenty-four hours there are 21,600 breaths. Everything and every part of the human body has a different capacity. The lungs also have their capacity. One breathes in the oxygen from the atmosphere, and breathes out the carbon dioxide through the lungs. It is obvious that by rapid breathing, one finishes the twenty-four hours’ quota of 21,600 breaths in twelve hours, and one’s life will be halved. Whereas, if one uses the same number of breaths for forty-eight hours, the life-span will be doubled.

A tortoise breathes slowly, so does a serpent. Hence they live long, while a dog pants rapidly and makes his lungs weaker and shortens his life.

In yoga, respiration is graded as slow, rapid and medium. Whenever one is excited or exercising, breathing becomes rapid. In meditation, it is slow and quiet. By reducing the rate or by holding the breath over a length of time as in pranayama, one will be able to change the life expectancy.

Everybody wants to live a hundred years or more. There is a vedic prayer:

Let me live a hundred years,
Let me hear a hundred years,
Let me see a hundred years.

Death

However, the way one spends the added years of life is what matters the most. How is the long life used? What object is there? What fulfillment? It is no use living like an animal, a mad man or a fool. Many people live for the sake of living, and are postponing death. But death is also an essential aspect of life. If this Department of Death were to be closed by the Lord, what havoc there would be on this earth!

Death is like passing from a lower grade to a higher grade in school. If a student says that he likes this grade and doesn’t want to be promoted, and continues sitting in the same class till he gets old, what will happen? Similarly, it will be wrong if one does not proceed ahead in one’s life cycles due to attachment to relatives, friends and possessions.

One should understand the significance of birth and death. Birth means being upgraded and thus entering into a new class. It is a path of progress. What is there to be afraid of in death? It is as if, when a school friend leaves one grade and enters the next, due to progress in his studies, his friends, teachers, parents and relatives cry and grieve at his departure. How funny, a teacher crying because his students are promoted! Hence one should first know the purpose of death, and then think of living a hundred years.

Death is not a calamity or a bad omen. Death is not God’s disgrace. Death has an existence, a purpose and a motive of its own.

The car, the driver and the passenger

The human body is like a motor vehicle, driven by a driver. But a driver can’t drive a car unless there is an engine in it. Both the driver and the engine are required. The passenger sitting in the car is the owner. Who should live a hundred years? The car, the driver or the passenger?

The passenger or the owner of the car is immortal. He never dies. It is said in Bhagavad Gita that (2:23):

Weapons do not hurt him, fire is not able to burn it, neither does he get wet with water, nor does he dry with wind.

It is no use thinking about the death of the passenger. Should the driver live a hundred years? But the driver and the passenger are one and the same person. It is an owner-driven car. It is said in the Ramayana that the individual soul is part of God, the immortal. Adi Shankaracharya said the same that the individual soul is like the cosmic soul; it is not a stranger. If the driver and the passenger are one, and the passenger is immortal, there is no question of the driver’s longevity.

And the car? Should one pray to God to let the same old dilapidated model remain, rather than change the model? Don’t you wish to discard the old model for a new one? Will you go on driving an Ambassador car forever, when there are Fiats, Mercedes and so many new models available? Some are air-conditioned, some have radios. Why don’t you go in for a new and better car?

Change

The vedic prayer quoted above is not from an ordinary person, but from a rishi who was living with a resolve in his mind and a purpose for his life. Great saints have said that the person who does sadhana regularly will change his spiritual status even in this birth. That doesn’t just mean that he changes his intelligence or convictions or has given up non-vegetarian diet, or started telling the truth. These are minor changes. These variations occur in everyday life. The main transference should be in the consciousness, in the individuality and in the ego.

One changes the way of experiencing this world. The entire personality is transformed. Some individuals absolve themselves of the fruit of their actions of three or four previous births in one lifetime. This is a very difficult task, and only few can accomplish it. That is why nature has death. It is the death of the body because nothing else is destroyed. When an earthenware pot breaks, what is broken? The earth the pot was made of remains as such even though no longer in the form of a pot. Earth has gone back to earth. Similarly, the body form that is made up of the elements is destroyed at the time of death, but the elements of which it is made remain in the universe.

Nature has decided upon certain stages for the evolution of the individual to reach his goal and attain the ultimate. One attains a particular state in one birth, another one in the next, a third one during the next and so on. A person wishes to live long because he is afraid of dying, but it is no use aspiring for a long life because of the fear of death.

Therefore, say, “death is beneficent to me. After exhausting the fruit of action of this birth, I shall enter a new body, I shall discard this old model, and I shall get newer experiences in a modern model.”

Fifty plus

If you wish for longevity after all these considerations, only then will it be worthwhile asking for it. When people retire from their job or career, they have nothing left to do. I have asked many retired people, “What are you doing? What are you thinking about?” The usual answer is, “I haven’t given it much thought. I go on remembering only the past. I can see the past-movie, but the future is a blank.”

This is awkward. When a person grows old, he starts looking back. The young are looking into the future, but without looking down so they don’t see what is at their feet. They are getting hurt, yet they still go on looking ahead.

Once old age sets in, one starts retrospection. It is no use living if one does not lead a life of sannyasa after the age of fifty to fifty-five. The correct approach is that after fifty years a person should think in the proper way because attachment to the past won’t do any good.

The way one thinks after fifty years of age becomes difficult to follow. The body does not follow, the heart is becoming weak, respiration fails and the brain loses its shock absorbers. When they become weak one is not able to bear the shock of life, and one is agitated by mental conflicts.

At that age there is more experience, but even a donkey has experience. Just because the hair has turned gray, one should not talk about experience. Experience will only be fruitful if something has been learnt from the past. Therefore, a new mirror, a new vision or a new way to climb, to make the experience worthwhile should be obtained.

There should be a major change in the basic values after about fifty years of life. A human being is a strange animal. Even after losing everything, he doesn’t lose hope. With a trembling body, gray hair and a toothless mouth, walking with the help of a stick, the old person does not lose hope.

As long as one does not let go of expectations, one is bound to suffer injuries and insults. It is impossible that every expectation of a person will be fulfilled. Throughout the course of history, and on the entire surface of this earth, there has not been a single individual who has achieved all his aspirations, hopes and expectations. A wish unachieved is bound to lead to hopelessness and unhappiness.

Peace of mind

If one wishes to live a hundred years, one should decide beforehand how to spend life after the age of fifty. One has got to turn to spirituality as the age advances. One has to liberate oneself from attachments and the bindings of love – son, daughter, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. They are only family bindings, they are not companions for life.

Even if we accept whatever we have been holding as regards worldly attachments and birth and death, maybe we have still failed in one thing. We never thought of teaching yoga to our children and we never gave a thought as to why our rishis have expounded this great knowledge of yoga to the world.

When I went overseas for the first time, I had a strange experience. When I saw New York for the first time, I wondered what kind of show was going on. It was so clean without a speck of dirt. There were illuminations, like a wonderland, as if every object was moving on its own, automatically.

Whether I went to Germany, Japan or England, it was the same. As a sannyasin I am not likely to be influenced by anything, but still I wondered why the people were so heavy-laden with their burdens. Some were drinking, some were smoking, and some were sunk in some vice or other. Even with all the amenities available, people would not stay away from cigarettes or drink. These people were full of mental tensions and not happy. Their minds were not tranquil. Whoever is excited and hasn’t got a stable mind, will be agitated and unhappy.

The mind can be either tranquil or agitated. One felt that these well-clad, nice-looking people, living in this wonderland, in neat and clean houses, were groaning. It was bound to be so. For the flame to be steady, one must put off the fan!

It is written in Ramacharitamanas that when we realize that the cosmic power and our self is one, that we are a part of that Immortal, then we shall attain peace.

One mantra, one thought, one emotion should go on continuously in association with every breath, from one minute to one hour. We are breathing day in and day out – morning, evening and even at night. If we just associate our mantra with the breath, the vibration of the mantra will be felt with each incoming and outgoing breath. Even during meditation. If we meditate on the mantra, the mind will achieve tranquility.

Just an instrument

Another way to achieve tranquility is to think of oneself as an instrument in the hands of God, who is the real doer of all one’s actions. This is a good view of life. If one considers oneself to be the doer, then one will also want to be the beneficiary of the fruit of the actions, whether good or bad. If one accepts oneself as His agent, one considers oneself to be an agent for the actions, their fruit, the happiness and unhappiness.

A farm labourer is ploughing a field, sowing seed, and managing the crop. The crop may be good or bad. There may be a bumper crop or there may be a drought. Who suffers? The doer. Therefore, whoever is the doer suffers the loss or uses the gains.

One does not, however, become the doer by action. It is a strange state of affairs. If one wishes for the fruit of one’s actions, one becomes the doer and suffers the consequences. There is a sense of ego in considering oneself to be the doer. Wherever one may be working – in a bank, an office or factory – neither does one become the doer by doing the job, nor does one become a non-doer by not doing any work. That is the subtlety of it.

How can you be the doer? The Almighty is the doer. Intelligence is not the doer. It is influenced by desires. It is influenced by emotions, which are the fruit of desires and attachment. Intelligence is also influenced by human perceptions. Thus everything is influenced by everything else. Therefore,

Keep the mind uninfluenced,
Keep the senses uninfluenced,
And most important of all,
Keep the emotions uninfluenced.

Then, if you wish to live to be a hundred, you are welcome!

—2 November 1980, Yoga Sammelan, Bariarpur, India