By Anupama Bhattacharya
Reverse aging. Erase the genetic suicide code. Link your mind to a computer. Or step out of the human chrysalis and seek the wings of an everlasting life. A life of immortality.
Would you like to die?
Or live on even as time stretches to its ultimate limit. Mortal stars collapse to their nebulous cores. Worlds die and worlds are born. But you live on—immortal, eternal, Godlike. Perhaps a little lonely. Like the Wandering Jew who trudges his way through millennia. Like Ashwatthama, cursed with eternal life.
For most of us, the choice has already been made. Unless we refuse water to a Christ, avenge a father cunningly killed, or take the insidious path of vampirism, we can’t attain that dreaded—and desired—five syllable word: immortality. Or can we?
Theoretically, immortality is possible. After all, if the human species can raise its average life span from 25 years in the medieval times to 64 years today, there is no reason why we cannot extend it indefinitely. Except that then the maximum life span was about 120 years. It is so even now.
The cells of our body are fated for collective suicide. Or so believes science. This internal suicide program is triggered off after a certain age and our system begins to collapse. This, immaterial of whether we have lived an ideal life or existed on junk food, black coffee and cigarettes.
Part of the clue, perhaps, is hidden in our evolutionary scheme. According to Carlos Castaneda, best-selling author and self-proclaimed sorcerer, bearing children creates holes in people’s luminosity (an aura-like layer around the body), which depletes their energy levels. Science validates it—if not exactly in terms of luminosity.
Apparently, on the evolutionary balance sheet, longevity deducts from fecundity. According to a study conducted by Rudi Westendorp of the Netherlands and Thomas Kirkwood of the University of Manchester, women who postpone their pregnancy are likely to live longer. Even those who have fewer children or none at all make better candidates for longevity. If it sounds unbelievable, consider this: the adrenal glands of the Pacific salmon release a massive amount of corticoid hormones into the bloodstream just after they spawn. This ages them immediately: they wither and die. The octopus glands are not even that considerate. The eight-limbed mollusk gets its hormone overdose immediately after mating. But if you restrict their amorous instincts, both species live longer. There is a catch here. If a species wants to procreate and evolve, it has to die faster—to make way for future generations as well as allow faster genetic mutations during natural selection. It also works the other way. In a research conducted at the University of Colorado, scientists modified a specific gene, Age-1, that was responsible for aging a roundworm. The result? The roundworm’s life span increased by a mind-boggling 70 per cent—and its fertility dropped by 80 per cent. Even male fruit flies that mated with more females, had a shorter life span.
Nature’s practical jokes extend further. Why else should almost 20 per cent of humanity be wiped out by what is truly immortal in us?
A human cell can divide and replace itself up to about 50 times (also known as the Hayflick limit). The only exceptions are the cancer cells that have somehow superseded nature’s suicide code. These cells can be kept alive and dividing in the lab till the edge of eternity. In fact, a few cells obtained from Baltimore-based Henrietta Lacks, who died of cancer in 1951, have now gone up to billions and are alive in laboratories around the world, still dividing profusely. A curious kind of immortality! But since none of us would appreciate eternal life as a tumor, the only other way to break the Hayflick limit is to get a dose of telomerase, the wonder drug.
It all started when a group of scientists from the University of Texas found that adding an enzyme called telomerase to normal human cells allowed them to continue dividing 20 times longer—without triggering off tumors. What prompted the experiment was the discovery that portions of telomeres, the end parts of DNA strands, fall out with each cell division. When no telomere is left, the cell ceases to divide. Restoring it artificially could allow the cells to divide beyond the Hayflick limit.
Cheating nature, however, might not be that easy. While telomeres might keep the cells alive for a longer time, there is another clock ticking away in our body. The irony is, if we stop the clock, time may pass us by while we stand rooted to the crossroads of evolution, unable to move on. This time, the culprit is the DNA repair system in our body. The DNA in every cell is constantly being damaged and repaired. But like a faulty plumber, the repair process is far from perfect. ‘Aging is simply a byproduct of the repair deficit,’ says Roy L. Walford, a USA-based gerontologist. But the defect also leaves scope for mutation-and thus evolution. If we perfect the repair system, chances are we would remain as we are—till time itself ceases to be. Are we perfect enough to afford this risk?
IN SEARCH OF LIFE
Maybe not. There lies the trap of hubris. Why else should the human race, even before it was out of its nappy state of evolution, search for that elusive fountain of youth?
Adam and Eve were thrown out of Eden lest they eat of the tree of life. Gilgamesh, the ancient adventurer king, found the fruit of life and lost it. Similar exploits abound in myths, lores and stories, which only go to show how desperate mankind has been to cling on to life. The modern search for immortality is taking one step at a time in its lesser avatar: gerontology.
Though the 19th century neurologist Jean Martin Charcot could be broadly credited for beginning a study of aging, it was Dr I.G. Nascher who coined the term geriatrics in 1914 and is known as the father of geriatrics. The actual experiments, however, go back much further.
From ancient Egyptian recipes for rejuvenation with pastes of semiprecious stones (Smith Papyrus, 2900 B.C.) to medieval alchemic concoctions of gold, withered flesh of mummies, viper meat and children’s blood—the seekers of eternal life tried it all. Such was the desire for life that in ancient Rome, doddering old people would suck the blood of dying gladiators, believing it would prolong their own life.
Indians, in their own mystical way, steered clear of worldly goodies and sought immortality through a mythical herb, soma. Susruta Samhita, the ancient Ayurvedic treatise, gives detailed instructions on how to use soma for kaya kalpa(rejuvenation): ‘Vomiting marks the digestion of the soma juice. After he has vomited blood-streaked, worm infested matter, milk boiled and cooled should be given to him…’ This is followed by a description of how the body cleans itself of impurities. Next comes a falling of hair, nails and skin, giving way to new skin and organs, each fresh and totally rejuvenated.
The Susruta Samhita states: ‘Such a person bears a charmed life against fire, water, poison and weapons, and develops great muscular energy,’ which enable him to ‘witness ten thousand summers on earth in the full enjoyment of a new and youthful body.’ Wow! But there is a catch. The soma plants are ‘invisible to the impious or the ungrateful, as well as to the unbeliever in the curative virtues of medicine…’ The West was more down-to-earth in its approach to immortality.
In the not-so-distant past (1882, to be accurate), 72-year-old Edouard Brown-Sequard, a professor at Harvard, claimed that he had regained his youth and virility after injecting himself with the crushed testicles of a dog. Next came Elie Metchnikoff, a Nobel laureate, who claimed that aging is caused by poisoning from putrefying toxic products in the stomach. His remedy? Drink large amounts of sour milk or yogurt to ameliorate the putrefaction. If that wasn’t enough, some longevity-freaks tried inserting flashlights into their anus. This, they claimed, gave a surge of vitality to the body. No wonder, at one time gerontologists were looked upon as less-than-respect-able, frustrated Fausts—minus the helpful Mephistopheles.
THE AGING FACTOR
Science indicates that we age with every breath we take—literally. ‘It is surprising that oxygen, which is essential for life, can be tremendously damaging in its free radical form,’ says Delhi-based Dr Kalyan Bagchi, president, Society for Gerontological Research.
Free radicals are oxidants that damage tissues and cell membranes. Which is why life on earth contains enzymes that detoxify free radicals—but not totally. Hence we age.
That’s as far as external factors go. But there is also considerable debate on which part of our body activates the suicide code. Though some believe that the clock of aging lurks in the thymus, a yellowish triangle located beneath the breastbone, Dr Caleb Finch of the University of Southern California points his finger at the hypothalamus, a pea-sized area of brain midway behind the ears.
You can, however, check the aging process to a certain extent.
In an experiment conducted at Wisconsin, 12 male volunteers above the age of 60 were injected thrice a week with the human growth hormone (HGH). Though the results weren’t as exciting as the miracle youth booster pool of the film Cocoon, they were promising enough. After six months of treatment, these men lost fat and gained lean tissues. Their bones grew stronger and the skin grew thicker. The researchers concluded that the diminished production of HGH in later years contributes to many symptoms of aging and restoring it artificially to the body could, if not give a longer life, at least make you look and feel younger beyond the prime of life.
Ayurveda offers its own recipe for rejuvenation—though not as fantastic as the kaya kalpa process of soma. ‘Rejuvenation is basically a cleansing of the body,’ says Delhi-based Gita Ramesh, director of Kairali Ayurvedic Center that offers various rejuvenating treatments, including panchakarma. ‘Panchakarma involves a complex series of therapeutic actions including vamana (induced vomiting), virechana (purgation), anuvasana basti (enema with oleos medications), rakta moksha (therapeutic release of toxic blood) and nasya (use of herbal medication through nostrils),’ explains Shahnaz Husain, queen of herbal cosmetics, who also runs a panchakarma clinic in New Delhi.
Not to be left behind is the spiritual potion of long life. The transcendental meditation (TM) of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is said to aid longevity. Maharishi’s organization claims that people practicing TM have a lower biological age. In ancient China, attainment of longevity—and finally immortality—was the chief goal of Taoism. He who attained it became hsien, a self-actualized human or demigod. Taoists believed that each person’s life begins with a fixed amount of vital substances that he must preserve as the first step towards longevity. To do so, you must reduce the breathing rate, swallow the breath on exhalation for nourishment and direct the breath to the brain when inhaling. The Taoists also set great score by preserving sexual forces. Not through abstinence, but through non-ejaculation while copulating and sending the sexual energies upward to vitalize the brain.
Of course, you could simply refuse to die.
Leonard Orr, California-based founder of rebirthing, claims that the correct practice of this system can help a person attain not only longevity but also immortality. ‘The belief that death is inevitable has probably killed more people than all other causes combined,’ he writes in his book Breaking the Death Habit: The Science of Everlasting Life. According to Orr, we die when our death urge becomes stronger than our life urge. And the secret to eternal life is just the desire to live—as simple as that. Perhaps. But, going by Orr’s verdict, if we are haunted by our death urge, then what makes certain tribes or races live longer than the other?
Research indicates that life forms living in colder climates usually have a higher life span. In fact, if certain kinds of fish are transferred to a colder climate, they not only live twice their normal life span, but also grow bigger and stronger. Don’t start packing your bags for Antarctica yet. We humans are once again caught in our evolutionary trap. Our body has its own system of maintaining body temperature that remains constant no matter what the temperature is outside. So, even in subzero temperatures, our body’s heating system would stubbornly remain at 98.6° F—unless we choose to freeze and die. Yet, many of us have come across yogis wandering in freezing mountain regions wearing just a piece of loincloth. In fact, various yogic techniques such as hatha yoga are believed to lower the internal body temperature. It was this basic contradiction of the assumed laws of science that led Walford to visit India. He scientifically tested some yogis near the foothills of the Himalayas. His find? The yogis could easily lower their internal body temperature by 4°-5°. Could there be a possible secret of longevity here?
But when age knocks at your door, it also brings along its dreaded cousin, senility. If we live long, can we evade this menace? ‘Senility is the process of rediscovering the natural divine child within,’ says Orr. Perhaps which is why the aged often seem so childlike. But whether good or not, senility is certainly not a necessary byproduct of aging.
‘There could be many causes of senility,’ says Dr Bagchi who, at the age of 78, is as alert as a 30-year-old. ‘But, to a large extent, you can ward off senility with proper care.’ Which means that though the IQ level begins to decrease after a certain age, it need not be so. Given the right kind of atmosphere and stimulus, you could aspire to be an Einstein beyond the prime of your life. Activity, motivation, social acceptance and good health are some of the factors that maintain sharpness of the brain even at the age of 90.
But a long life demands discipline. The ancient adage against sloth, greed and gluttony apply here as well. ‘You have to eat sensibly when you are old,’ says a no-nonsense Bhagat Mataji, the 88-year-old president of the Arya Mahila Ashram in Delhi, India. Resplendent in her immaculate white clothes, she basks in the soft winter sun while keeping an eagle eye on the activity around.
As I walk around the ashram, I am caught unawares by the ceaseless activity of the elderly. There are 90-year-olds fetching grocery, octogenarians briskly supervising office work—a medley of enthusiasm and independence. When I ask Bhagat Mataji about the secret of so much energy, she smiles mysteriously. ‘What can I say? We follow a simple life, eat simple food, take plenty of exercise and yoga—any of these factors could have helped.’ Lakshmi Dabur, 97, is not so eloquent. ‘What has made me live till so long? How do I know? But I’ve always been an active person,’ says she. Vidya Kapoor, nearing 100, also credits her longevity to her independence: ‘Even now, I do my own cooking. I have no family. So I didn’t have the luxury of a laid-back life. Maybe it is this that has made me live so much longer.’ And immortality? Would she take it if it was offered to her? ‘Why should I want immortality? Aren’t these many years enough? Now I just want to spend the last years of my life in peace.’
LAND OF IMMORTALS
Come to think of it, not many of us would take an infinite serving of life unconditionally. Garnished with health, money and youthfulness—we might think about it. Shouldn’t we then ask if there is a secret death wish in each one of us? A way out when things go wrong? The warmth of vacuous nothingness?
In fact, death has been the focal point of most religions. In both Christianity and Islam, moral and spiritual codes of life revolve around what will be meted out to people when they are resurrected after death. Hinduism also bases its tenets on the theory of reincarnation. So, how do we handle immortality? What happens to religion and morality in a deathless world? Do we evolve to something so idealistic that we negate the need of external laws? Or do we create another set of religions, this time with a pantheon of mortal gods? Also, what happens to the population explosion due to which the earth is already teetering on the verge of collapse? With zero mortality rate, does the reproduction process stop altogether? Or do we reach out across stars to colonies other worlds?
‘If an individual truly lived for centuries, his psyche, his perceptions and even his thinking process would be radically different,’ says Michael Talbot, author of The Delicate Dependency. Long back, I read a sci-fi story about an invasion—this time from a deathless race of human beings from the far-off future. With an eternity in hand, the only experience beyond their means is the experience of death. So they travel back in time, possess the minds of their mortal counterparts (read us), and drive them to commit suicide—intoxicated in the high of death. Of course, immortality need not be so grim. It need not be grim at all. At least not in Shambala.
Haven’t we all heard about the land of immortals, said to be located somewhere in the Himalayan or Tibetan mountains? Call it Shambala, Shangri-La or Gyanganj, it is supposed to be a place of plenty, where only highly evolved spiritual beings can enter and stay, and what—if all goes well—might expand to the entire earth when/if the human race attains immortality. There are also stories of immortal saints such as Mahavatar Babaji, mentioned in Paramahansa Yogananda’s best-selling Autobiography of a Yogi, who is supposed to have visited deserving devotees and spiritual adepts from time to time down the centuries. But immortality and spirituality are not necessarily interlinked—at least not apparently.
Predicting the future, Hans Moravec of the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University in Washington, says that ‘eventual immortality by brain-to-computer interface is what mankind is aiming at’. According to him, soon surgical techniques will replace the nervous system with computers and we could transfer our consciousness onto microchips to live as cyborgs—in immortal bodies made-to-order. Some scientists are also looking for a ‘death hormone’ whose removal might stop the aging clock once and for all-or help us grow old, without aging, or dying, until we evolve into something far beyond our present scope of vision and understanding.
‘What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.’ We should thank Richard Bach for giving a new meaning to metamorphosis. But doesn’t change indicate death—of the old order, the form?
It’s strange how most discussions on immortality revolve around death. We defy it, valiantly fight against it, rise each time we fall—yet succumb to it. Only to live again. Call it reincarnation or resurrection. Or even annihilation—to let our body cells disperse in the air to create new saplings of life. Isn’t there immortality all around us?
But we seek immortality of a different nature. The awareness of living on and on. I am reminded of the Greek myth of Tithonus. The poor chap fell in love with the goddess of dawn who asked Zeus to grant immortality to her lover. But she forgot to ask for eternal youth. So, while the goddess basked in the glory of her beauty each dawn, time caught up with her immortal lover. Tithonus now had an eternity to face in a body shriveled, hunched, sick—yet undying.
Immortality! A curse for some and a boon for few. What else distinguishes a Wandering Jew from a Highlander? Or a cursed Ashwatthama from an immortal Hanuman of the Hindu myths? What makes God banish his beloved creations Adam and Eve from Eden lest they eat the fruit of life, and throw it as a curse to the man who refused water to Jesus on his way to crucifixion? Is there a message here?
‘The body can survive indefinitely,’ said the Indian sage Sri Aurobindo , ‘only if, in the first place, it becomes fully conscious of this immortal self, unites with it, identifies with it to the extent of having the same capacity, the same faculty of constant transformation which would enable it to follow the universal movement.’
Taoism believes that the body is the seeker’s alchemic crucible wherein he changes the physical body into something pure and intransient. Where the ephemeral matter gives way to the spirit and consciousness emerges Godlike, resplendent, with the universe as its playground. The question is, are we ready to step out of our chrysalis and face the immortal within?
Are we ready for eternity?
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2. Eat less and have a healthy diet with minimal fat.
3. Engage your brain in challenging activities such as crosswords, quizzes, intelligent discussions.
4. Avoid too much of sun.
5. Avoid stress-inducing situations.
6. Meditate regularly to relax your mind.
7. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and other such products.
PREDICTED MAXIMUM LIFE SPANS OF HUMANS IF THE THERMOSTAT IN THE BRAIN WHICH CONTROLS BODY TEMPERATURE COULD BE RESET FROM THE PRESENT 98.6º TO LOWER LEVELS
Temperature Maximum Life Span
98.6º F 120 years
95.0º F 160 years
91.4º F 200 years
87.8º F 280 years