The fact that science cannot explain gravitation means that science cannot condemn levitation. So there is nothing unscientific about the occultist’s claim that man can rise into the air through ‘mere intention.’ And that changes the character of our original question. It is no longer can man fly? But does man fly? And the evidence is that he probably does. Occasionally.
Of course, that does not mean just anybody can fly. Your next-door neighbor probably cannot fly. And your boss probably cannot fly, either, although I don’t recommend asking. But that does not mean flying is impossible. As William James said, it takes only one white crow to prove that not all crows are black. And it takes only one levitator to prove that not all men are earthbound. ‘Levitation may be produced consciously or unconsciously,’ writes Madame [Helene P.] Blavatsky in Isis Unveiled .
‘The juggler determines beforehand that he will be levitated, for how long a time, and to what height; he regulates the occult forces accordingly. The fakir produces the same effect by the power of his will, and, except when in the ecstatic state, keeps control over his movements. So does the priest of Siam, when, in the sacred pagoda, he mounts fifty feet up into the air with taper in hand, and flits from idol to idol, lighting up the niches, self supported, and stepping as confidently as though he were upon solid ground. The officers of the Russian squadron, which recently circumnavigated the globe, and was for a time stationed in Japanese waters, saw jugglers walk in midair from treetop to treetop, without support. They also saw the pole and tape—climbing feats, described by Colonel Olcott in People from the Other World. Quotations from Colonel Yule and others place beyond doubt that these effects are produced’ (H. P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled, Vol. 1).
Among primitive peoples, whose minds are unencumbered by the often-unfortunate effects of modern rationalism, levitation is generally accepted. A French missionary told Dr. Imbert-Gourbeyre that the Indians in Oregon often practiced levitation. More than once the missionary had seen with his own eyes the native shamans rise two to three feet from the ground and walk atop the blades of pampas grasses without bending the delicate panicles (Montague Summers, A Popular History of Witchcraft, New York: Causeway Books, 1973).
In ancient Britain, it was universally believed that the Druids could fly, and there is some evidence that the secrets may not have been lost. In the thirteenth century, Friar Bacon is said to have walked in the air between two of the spires at Oxford. In his Letters on Natural Magic, Sir David Brewster writes this off as an ‘optical effect,’ but it is difficult to see how the effect could have been produced. And much the same can be said of the ‘mechanical’ explanation…
In the case of the Tibetan sage Milarepa there is no question of any mechanical device. We read in the Jetsun Kahbüm that Milarepa acquired the flying siddhi [Siddhis are spiritual, paranormal, supernatural, or otherwise magical powers, abilities, and attainments that are the products of spiritual advancement. Wikipedia] after long hours of meditation on the ‘third eye,’ the Ajna Chakra, which is located between the eyebrows. When he learned that he could fly, Milarepa flew over the fields of a childhood neighbor, an old farmer, who was in the field ploughing with his son. The son saw Milarepa first, suspended in the air above them. But when he nudged his father, the old man was unimpressed.
‘What is there to marvel at?’ the old man asked. ‘One Nyang-Tsa-Kargycn had a wicked son named Mila. It is that good for nothing starveling’ (W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Tibet’s Great Yogi Milarepa, London: Oxford University Press, 1969).
In her book, With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet, Mme. Alexandra David-Neel relates a similar story, with a note that such experiences are not uncommon among Tibetan mystics (Alexandra David-Neel, Magic and Mystery in Tibet. New Hyde Park, New York: University Books, 1965).
They are not uncommon among mystics of other nationalities, either, but mystics from outside Tibet do not tend to think well of the siddhis. In The Lives of the Philosophers, Eunapius says of the Greek Neo-Platonist philosopher Iamblichus that he was often seen by his servants to ‘soar aloft from the earth more than ten cubits to all appearance.’ When they told his disciples, the disciples asked the Master for a demonstration, whereupon he burst into laughter. Said he: ‘He who thus deluded was a witty fellow, but the facts are otherwise’ (Eunapius, Lives of the Philosophers, translated by W. C. Wright. London: W. Heinemann, 1922). He did believe in levitation, though, because in his book on Egyptian sorcery, On the Mysteries, he warns against certain psychic manifestations, especially ‘to appear elongated, or thicker, or be borne aloft in the air’ (Iamblichus, On the Mysteries, quoted by H. P. Blavatsky in Isis Unveiled).
This attitude toward siddhis can be found throughout mystical literature. The siddhis exist—no one doubts that—but they must not be cultivated. In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali says that the siddhis are ‘impediments to true perception’ (Patanjali, Yoga Sutras, 3.37). Certain Theosophists speak out against what they consider to be ‘psychism’—the cultivation of psychic powers for their own sake. Ansari of Herat says in one of his writings:
‘Can you walk on water? You have done no better than a straw. Can you fly in the air? You have done no better than a bluebottle (Ansari of Herat, The Invocations of Shekh Abdullah Ansari of Herat, translated by Sardar Sir Jogendra Singh, London, 1939. Quoted by Aldous Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy, London: Harper & Bros. 1945).
In The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley relates a story that appears in one of the Pali Scriptures (he does not say which one), and which has to do with the Buddha and levitation. It seems that the Buddha was lecturing on the sorrow of this world and the way to Nirvana when one of his disciples arrived and performed a ‘prodigious feat’—such are Huxley’s words—of levitation. Everyone waited for the Master to perform an even greater feat, but the Buddha only rebuked his disciple and continued lecturing.
In the Dighanikaya, Buddha explains that he discouraged the siddhis because they could be manifested just as well by non-Buddhists. Why should anyone become a Buddhist to perform levitation, when there were any number of saddhus and yogis around who could do the same thing?…
This comes out very strongly in the case of Iamblichus. We have seen that he was unable or unwilling when challenged to levitate for his disciples and that he tried to handle the situation through humor. But in a letter he wrote to his disciple Porphyry he was not laughing. He mentions people who ‘have been known to be lifted up into the air’ and he scoffs that ‘the more ignorant and mentally imbecile a youth may be, the more freely will the divine power be made manifest’ (Quoted by Andrew Lang, Cock Lane and Common-Sense, London: Long-man Green & Co., 1901).
In one of his books, Bertrand Russell mentions an American religionist who told her followers she could walk on water. Naturally, someone wanted to see it done, and since there was no water at the spot where the challenge was made, she proposed to meet her disciples later at a nearby lake. The hour arrived, the followers were there, and when the lady showed up everyone expected a great show of levitation. Instead, they got a supreme test of their faith. ‘How many of you believe that I can walk on water?’ she asked. When they replied that they all did, she said that there was obviously no need for her to do it, and she walked away.
Levitation is not entirely unknown among mystics, though. According to Olivier Leroy, a Roman Catholic who wrote a long book on Catholic levitations, of the twenty thousand or so saints mentioned in the Acta Sanctorum, sixty or so were seen to levitate during their lifetimes (Olivier Leroy, Levitation, An Examination of the Evidence and Explanations. London: B. Oates & Washbourne, 1928).
The most remarkable feats of levitation, however, were not performed by a Catholic saint but a Protestant sinner—Mr. Daniel Dunglus Home. ‘There are at least a hundred recorded instances of Mr. Home’s rising from the ground,’ wrote Sir William Crookes…
‘On one occasion he went to a clear part of the room, and, after standing quietly for a minute, told us he was rising. I saw him slowly rise up with a continuous gliding movement and remain about six inches off the ground for several seconds, when he slowly descended. On another occasion I was invited to come to him, when he rose eighteen inches off the ground, and I passed my hands under his feet, round him, and over his head when he was in the air’ (Sir William Crookes, The Quarterly Journal of Science, January 1875).
India is the true home of levitation, though, and it is in India that we will find more levitation stories than anywhere else. ‘Levitation, or the rising of the body from the ground and its suspension a few feet up in the air above the seat or couch, is a universally accepted fact in India,’ writes Ernest Wood. ‘I remember one occasion when an old yogi was levitated in a recumbent position about six feet above the ground in an open field, for about half an hour, while the visitors were permitted to pass sticks to and fro in the space between’ (Ernest Wood, Yoga. New York: Penguin Books, 1960).
In the third century, Prince Mahendra, a Buddhist, is said to have levitated to Ceylon with several of his followers, and to have alighted on Mount Missa. But that seems a little fanciful. More believable, and more typical, is what was reported by Apollonius of Tyana and his disciple Damis.
The story comes from The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, which was written by Philostratus and based on Damis’s diary. The pair visited India during the first century, and, according to Damis, ‘saw [the Brahmans of India] levitating themselves two cubits high from the ground.’ Damis did not see anything particularly unusual in this, and neither, apparently, did the Brahmans. They did not perform levitation ‘for the sake of miraculous display,’ according to Philostratus. It was considered merely a simple act of piety to the sun god (Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, translated by F. C. Conybeare. London: W. Heinemann, 1912).
In a passage quoted by Colonel Yule, Friar Ricold mentions: ‘certain men whom the Tartars honor above all in the world, viz. The Baxitae [i.e., Bakhshis], who are a kind of idol-priests. These are men from India, persons of deep wisdom, well conducted, and of the gravest morals. They are usually acquainted with magic arts, and depend on the counsel and aid of demons; they exhibit many illusions, and predict some future events. For instance, one of eminence among them was said to fly; the truth was (as it proved) that he did not fly but did walk close to the surface of the ground without touching it; and would seem to sit down without having substance to support him’ (Quoted by Colonel Yule in The Book of Ser. Marco Polo, New York: Charles Scribner, 1926)…
A more commonly reported version of Indian levitation is the Indian Rope Trick, which combines levitation with other performances that are, if anything, even more amazing.
‘Hundreds of travelers have claimed to see fakirs [levitate] and they were all thought liars or hallucinated,’ wrote Madame Blavatsky in Isis Unveiled. James Webb concurs in The Occult Underground. After detailing several levitation episodes, he writes: ‘There is no reason to doubt that these levitations were seen to take place: but it is also possible that occasions of extreme stress can well produce reports of such phenomena. For example, a French Dominican was seen levitated by one of the survivors of the wreck of the Newfoundland minutes before the ship sank in 1898’ (James Webb, The Occult Underground, La Salle, Illinois: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1974).
If we are going to decide on the basis of historical incidents whether or not levitation is possible, we are going to have to sort those incidents out. There are several ways levitation can be simulated, and there are actual occult experiences that can easily be confused with levitation. I call these the ‘not quite’ categories of levitation stories, because they are not quite what they appear to be. The Indian Rope Trick is one of these. In Beyond Telepathy, Dr. Indrija Puharich tells of a Dr. Rudolph von Urban who not only saw the very same feat described above by Edward Melton, but filmed it. Everyone agreed on the details—the rope was thrown into the air, the assistant’s body was chopped up, etc.—but the film came out a little different. In the film two people walked onto the stage where the trick was performed, threw the rope into the air, and sat down for the remainder of the ‘performance.’ Using certain occult techniques that are known but extremely difficult to master, these fakirs had mesmerized the entire audience (Indrija Puharich, Beyond Telepathy. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1962).
An edited except from the author’s book Levitation, Weiser Books, 2015, San Francisco.