The holy book of Hindus, the Bhagavad Gita and the Tamil ethics book, Tirukkural, both use the tortoise as an example of self control. Among the vertebrates that live on land, the tortoise is the longest living animal. Records speak of tortoises living for over 250 years. Unconfirmed reports say that they live for up to 350 years. But lower organisms in the sea like sponges and clams live for over 400 years.

Why did Lord Krishna and the Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar (author of Tirukkural) use the tortoise as an example? What is the message they wanted to convey through this example or simile?

Here is the sloka from the Gita:

“When, like the tortoise which withdraws its limbs on all sides, he (a sage) withdraws his senses from the sense-objects, then his wisdom becomes steady”(Chapter 2-58)

Here is the couplet from Tirukkural:

“If a man learns to control his five senses in one birth as the tortoise, that power will stand by him in his seven future births.”(Kural 126)

Neither of these explicitly mentions long life but we may think that they used it to mean the outward shell and the limbs withdrawn in to it. Actually they knew the secret of the tortoise’s long life: its breathing rate. It breathes only three to four times every minute, whereas human beings breathe at least 15 times every minute.

Another Tamil saint Tirumular was very clear in saying that a person can live 1000 years - longer than a tortoise - by yogic practices. (Tirumantira 2264 & 2304).

Manu Smrithi (VII-105) and Vaishnavite Tamil Book Divya Prabandham (2360) also refer to the tortoise in this context. Our forefathers, who were keen observers of nature, knew very well that the tortoise is the longest living vertebrate. Otherwise they wouldn’t talk about seven births or living longer than a tortoise.

Tirumular who sang Tirumantiram was said to have lived for 3000 years. But we did not know whether he lived with his physical body or not.

Man’s life span is 100 years according to the Hindu Vedas. Brahmins recite the Vedas asking for 100 years of healthy life in their daily ritual called Sandhyavandhanam (Pasyema saradas satham, jeevema saradas satham,nandhama aradas satham etc.) When we were born, we were given a certain number of years, which can also be expressed as a certain number of breaths. The quicker we spend our breaths, the sooner we die. But the saints spend very little of their breath and live longer.

If a man breaths 15 times a minute (or 18 times as per the western calculation) he will breathe 900 times in an hour and 21,600 in a day. If you slow down the breathing rate by yoga (Pranayama) techniques, you live longer. It is like our money deposited in a bank. The quicker you spend it, the sooner you become a pauper. Yoga technique teaches you to reduce the breathing rate. To emphasize this point, a Chola king put 21,600 golden tiles in the roof of the famous Chidambaram Nataraja Temple in Tamil Nadu. He used 72,000 nails to fix the golden tiles. Tirumular, the great Siddha, in his Tirumantiram explains this calculation clearly.

Look what Paramahamsa Yogananda (An Autobiography of a Yogi) says about breathing: “The restless monkey breathes at the rate of 32 times a minute, in contrast to man’s average 18 times. The elephant, tortoise, snake and other animals noted for their longevity have a respiratory rate which is less than man’s. The tortoise for instance, who may attain the age of 300 years, breathes only 4 times per minute.”

Dogs breathe 40 to 50 times per minute and live up to 25 years only.

Let us do an interesting sum before we finish:

We believe that we can live for 100 years by breathing 15 times a minute.

If one breathes 18 times a minute one’s age will decrease to 83 1/3 years.

If a person breathes only 2 times every minute one can live for 750 years.

If one breaths only once every minute, one can live for 1500 years.

If one stops breathing, and slows their metabolic activity, one can live longer.

But this is only possible for Yogis. They did it by reciting the Pranava mantra AUM. We read about bears, rabbits and other animals going in to hibernation for six months during winter. In short they temporarily become “Yogis “. Our ancient literature talk about devas and demons doing penance for thousands of years. Though we may think that it was an exaggeration, we knew that ant hills grew around the saints during their meditation implying the passage of time. The famous saint who wrote the Ramayana was ‘Valmiki’ meaning ’ant hill’. There was another poet with the same name in Sangam Tamil literature.

Sex and the breathing

Modern research shows that a man spends 200 calories and breathes 30 times a minute during sex -twice the rate of normal breathing. An average man ejaculates semen 5000 times during his life time. But our Yogis, being celibate, saved energy on that count as well. But Hinduism never prohibited sex for an ordinary man; only Yogis lived that way. Sangam Tamil book Tirumurukatru patai speaks of priests who observed celibacy for 48 years. It is crystal clear that our forefathers knew the secret of longevity.

The tortoise is one of the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu. The Chinese, Mongolians, Koreans, Vietnamese and other South East Asians also respect the tortoise and the turtle for various other reasons.