Printed: 2019-03-24

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Rejuvenation in Religion (Part 1)

Franco Cortese

Terasem Journals

September 13, 2015

“Our hope of immortality does not come from any religions, but nearly all religions come from that hope.” ~ Robert Green Ingersoll’s Views on Politics and Religion. Chicago Times, 1879

Is religion at odds with the life extension movement? A resounding yes and no. Religion constitutes at once perhaps the best historical validation of the widespread, longstanding and deep-rooted desirability of indefinite longevity, as well as a non-negligible detriment to the contemporary progress in the field of biomedical gerontology. Insofar as religion was created to appeal to humanity’s longing for indefinite longevity, or more precisely for the absence of involuntary and irreversible death, then religion is at odds with itself.

The widespread belief in some form of an afterlife (wherein personal continuity with the self is maintained past physical death) found in the large majority of both contemporary and ancient religions exemplifies the uniquely and nearly-ubiquitously human desire for an indefinite lifespan and the complete absence of involuntary death.

At the same time, the belief that one’s self does survive physical death also removes perhaps the foremost motivator for hastening progress in the field of life extension: namely, the belief that physical death entails the complete and utter end of the self. If a person believes that they will survive physical death to live in an afterlife, then what real need is there to prolong one’s physical lifetime, if physical death isn’t really death, in the sense of the complete and irreversible discontinuation of the self, at all? Belief in personal continuity through and past physical death directly undermines the central impetus fueling progress in the field of biomedical gerontology.

On the other hand, religion may have been the largest medium of positive, humanitarian social change aimed towards the betterment of society in the whole of recorded history prior to the Enlightenment (excepting the major wars and acts of cruelty and genocide waged in its name). The contemporary life extension movement can be characterized as a humanitarian movement aimed at reducing involuntary suffering in the world.

Indeed, due to the number of lives claimed per day by age-correlated causes of functional decline (on the order of 100,000 per day, which scales to 3 million per month and 36.5 million per year), the life extension movement may become the most effective way to eliminate contemporary suffering in the world. Thus religion and the contemporary life extension movement have some significant motivational overlap and continuity-of-impetus, in that they are both aimed at the reduction of involuntary suffering in the world.

Furthermore, Abrahamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Chinese religious texts alike abound with instances describing very long-lived people, suggesting that most religions are not axiomatically at odds with life extension in the physical world. This suggests that life spans significantly greater than the current maximum lifespan attainable in humans is not in contradiction with the beliefs or central values of the Abrahamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Chinese religious traditions.

In ancient Chinese religion and philosophy for example, we find not only a recurrent desire for personal immortality, but instances where specific methodological means were applied in an attempt to prolong one’s physical, earthly life:

“Another driving force behind Qin encouragement of religious activities [circa. 200 B.C.E] was the first Emperor’s personal quest for immortality. We are told that in this quest he sent groups of young people across the China Sea to look for such islands of the immortals as Penglai…

...An explicit concern for long life (shou) had already appeared on early Zhou bronzes and in poems in the Scripture of Odes. Beginning in the eighth century B.C.E. we find terms expressing a hope for immortality, such as ‘no death,’ ‘transcending the world,’ and ‘becoming an immortal.’ By the fourth century B.C.E. there is evidence of an active quest for immortality through a variety of means, including exercises imitating the movements of long-lived animals, diets enforcing abstinence from grains, the use of food vessels inscribed with characters indicating longevity, the ingestion of herbs and chemicals, and petitions for the aid of immortals residing in mountains or distant paradises. It was in this context that Chinese alchemy began. The alchemical quest became the most dramatic form of the quest to transcend death, growing in popularity during the Qin (221- 207 B.C.E.) and Western Han (202 B.C.E.-9 C.E.) dynasties…

...There was no doctrine of an eternal, immaterial soul to fall back on as in India or the Hellenistic world, so the only alternative was physical immortality. In China this tradition continued to develop through the Eastern (Latter) Han dynasty (25-220 C.E.) and produced texts of its own full of recipes, techniques, and moral exhortations. As such, it became one of the major sources of the Daoist religion that emerged in the second century C.E… ”

We see both practical attempts at increasing one’s lifespan in the physical world, as in the examples outlined above, as well as attempts to achieve a type of immortality more similar to the conception of passage to an afterlife-as-such found in western religions:

... Although in some passages of the Zhuangzi an enlightened perspective leads to acceptance of death, a few others provide poetic visions of immortals, those who have transcended death by merging with the Dao. One of the terms Zhuangzi uses for these individuals is zhenren, ‘perfected people,’ a term that later became important in the fully developed Daoist religion that took shape after the second century C.E. These indications of immortality in the earliest Daoist texts provided the chief point of contact between the classical tradition and those who sought immortality by more direct means, including later practitioners of Daoist religion…

One can also find belief in extremely long-lived people in later Chinese philosophy and religion as well, such as in “The Complete Works of the Two Che’engs” (c. 1033-110):

“Question: About the theory of immortals – are there such beings?
Answer: ... if you mean people living in the mountain forests to preserve their physical form and to imbibe energy to prolong life, then there are.”

This suggests, firstly, that life extension was actively practiced and sought as an end in itself by at least some ancient Chinese religious sects and philosophies (not to mention by the first Emperor of the Qin Dynasty himself) and secondly, that physical indefinite longevity, as opposed to metaphysical immortality in an afterlife, is compatible with the views and beliefs of those ancient Chinese religious sects and philosophies known to have practiced forms of practical life extension in the physical world.

We find even starker instances of extremely long-lived people in Buddhist religious texts. In the Anguttara Nikaya, for instance, which is the fourth nikaya in the Sutta Pitaka (one of the “three baskets” making up the Pali Tipitaka in Theravada Buddhism), there are several types of “heaven” described, all of which are located in the physical universe. The inhabitants, “deva” or “denizens” of these “heavens” have varying life spans. Devas of Parinirmita-vaśavartin live 9,216,000,000 years; devas of Nimmānarati live 2,284,000,000 years; devas of Tāvatimsa live 36,000,000 years; devas of Tusita live 576,000,000 years; and the devas of Yāma live 1,444,000,000 years.

The Hindu religious tradition also abounds with not only instances of very long-lived people but also, like the Chinese religious tradition, specific attempts to practice methodological means of life extension. Ilia Stambler explicates the convergences between longevity and the Indian religious, philosophical and cultural tradition adeptly in “Longevity and the Indian Tradition” :
“Book 9 of The Rigveda (c. 1700-1100 BCE) is dedicated to praises of the immortality-giving ‘Soma’ plant. (The plant is called ‘Haoma’ in ancient Iranian (Aryan) religious sources, such as Avesta, (c. 1200-200 BCE.). In India, the immortal Rishis, Arhats, and the Ciranjivas (the ‘extremely long-lived persons’) are revered to the present. Their extreme longevity is often attributed to ‘Amrit’ – अमृत – or the ‘nectar of immortality’ – a revered and desired substance. The 
traditional Indian medicine of Ayurveda, or ‘the science of (long) life,’ includes a special field of Rasayana, mainly dedicated to rejuvenation.

Stambler observes here that specific parts of the Indian religious tradition appear to have fueled, or at least supported, some of the earliest historical embodiments (i.e. originating c. 100- 300 BCE) of a rejuvenation science. This would suggest that, in the case of the Indian religious tradition, religion supported and even helped facilitate the aims of the life extension movement and discipline.

According to the Sushruta Samhita [c. 300-400 BCE], human life can be normally prolonged to 100 years. Yet, with the use of certain Rasayana remedies (such as Brahmi Rasayana and Vidanga-Kalpa), life can be prolonged to 500 or 800 years. And the use of the “Soma plant, the lord of all medicinal herbs [24 candidate plants are named], is followed by rejuvenation of the system of its user and enables him to witness ten thousand summers on earth in the full enjoyment of a new (youthful) body.”

Moreover, one of the plants cited as being able to prolong life “up to 500 or 800 years”, namely the Brahmi Rasayana, has been shown in contemporary scientific studies to possess some anti-aging benefits, suggesting that the teachings described in the Sushtuta Samhita and the Charaka Samhita constituted the beginnings of a veritable life extension science, or at least that they were more than simply hype.

“Also according to another foundational text of Ayurveda, The Charaka Samhita (Charaka’s Compilation of Knowledge, c. 300-100 BCE), the normal human life- span is 100 years. Yet, the users of an Amalaka Rasayana could live many hundreds of years and the users of the Amalakayasa Brahma Rasayana could reach the life span of 1000 years. The great sages, who grasped perfectly the knowledge of Ayurveda, ‘attained the highest well-being and nonperishable life- span.’”

Stambler also notes the concept and practice of life extension in the Buddhist religious tradition as well:

“The Great Buddha who grants Longevity is Amitābha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, also known as Amitāyus, the Buddha of Infinite Life. Those who invoke him will reach longevity in this realm, and will be reborn in Amitabha’s PureLand (Sukhāvatī or Dewachen in Tibetan Buddhism) where they will enjoy virtually unlimited longevity. This pure and egalitarian land of longevity was created by Amitabha’s avowed devotion and perseverance. One of the mantras in Amitabha’s praise is “Om amrita teje hara hum” (Om save us in the glory of the Deathless One hum). Many Buddhist mantras for longevity are recited, dedicated to the great healers of old, so that a portal to their wisdom may be opened and through their compassion, suffering will be abolished and health and longevity reached in this world.”

Part 2 is HERE
Notes can be found in the Terasem Journal publication HERE

Franco Cortese is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, and won our #1 Editor’s Choice Award in 2013. His other positions include Research Scientist at ELPIs Foundation for Indefinite Lifespans, Assistant Editor at Ria University Press, Fellow at Brighter Brains Institute, Ambassador at The Seasteading Institute, and an Advisor for Lifeboat Foundation, occupying positions on their Life Extension Scientific Advisory Board and Futurists Advisory Board.


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