The Srimad Devi Bhagawatam Purana enumerates particular benefits derived from the performance of bhuta shuddhi and although we have, as yet, no scientific evidence to prove its validity, we can draw conclusions from our own personal experience of the practice. Of course, the first and most obvious effect is purification indicated by the word 'shuddhi'. This takes place on both physical and subtle levels of the body-mind complex. Purification occurs through pranic and psychic heat created during the meditation, with the application of bhasma (ashes) and fasting. When practised in combination with a fruitarian diet, physical purification is increased, otherwise the effects are more noticeable on a subtle level.
All tantric practices are essentially designed to expand the consciousness and release potential energy, but the effects and demands of most of them are too powerful for the average practitioner to handle. Bhuta shuddhi, however, is within the capacity of all.
Yogic practices create mild awakening in the pranic and psychic structure over an extended period, whereas bhuta shuddhi concentrates and awakens the prana and psyche, altering basic awareness within a shorter period, because it is based on the tantric meditation of Devi or Shakti. In the Srimad Devi Bhagawatam Devi says, "Meditation with karma (action) will lead to me." In bhuta shuddhi, meditation is on the tattwa yantras of Shakti and then upon the form of Shakti herself, while karma is the application of ashes and fasting. Devi further states that gyana (wisdom) and bhakti (devotion and faith) also lead to her. Anyone who has had some personal spiritual experience will have realised that it is impossible to expand the awareness without faith in and knowledge of a higher reality and force. This higher state exists within our own selves.
Therefore, the first important purification is that of the intellect or buddhi. It is important to ignore any intellectualising because this creates a barrier to spiritual growth. I found that when I practised bhuta shuddhi, I began asking myself, 'What am I doing? What is this practice all about?' But if we can set aside the analytical aspect of our nature, the inherent positive side of our inner personality is revealed. Buddhi is said to be that part of the mind closest to Atman (the Self) and this buddhi reflects that which lies within us. If we are full of worldly ideas and concepts, that is what we will see, but if we can empty ourselves of these, we can attain the higher experiences.
Bhuta shuddhi can be practised any time of the year, but for more effective purification it should be done during Shravan (July-August). During this period, it is advisable to take a fruitarian diet and curd with no condiments, salt or stimulants such as tea or coffee. It is also recommended to prepare a few days beforehand by taking one meal per day and perhaps some fruit in the evening. Otherwise, as I experienced during my practice, there can be a decrease in physical energy for the first few days.
During this month of fasting, we should not expect to become lean and thin. When a change takes place within the consciousness, then the pranic level is heightened, and when we 'let go' of certain preconceived thought structures, the metabolism, catabolism, and anabolism undergo a transformation. I also found that, irrespective of diet, weight can actually be gained if the attitude is correct.
Apart from this, the effects on the physical body may not seem so apparent. There is a tendency towards suppleness and a feeling of lightness ensues. With the application of bhasma, the skin becomes soft and smooth and bodily wounds heal quickly. It is no wonder that the Srimad Devi Bhagavatam says that through this vrata (a vow of austerity and spiritual sadhana over an auspicious period) one will not suffer from leprosy, fistulae or phlegmatic diseases.
The Srimad Devi Bhagavatam specifies that the head should be shaved prior to commencement of the practice. This may not be possible for many householders, but those who can should do so. The reason for this is that the heat produced during meditation rises, and if there is a mass of hair on the head the heat will be retained instead of being released through the proper channel. It must find some other outlet and generally some part of the body system will overheat. In my experience, as long as hair growth is minima], there is no problem with excessive heat.
The immediate influence of this practice is felt on the mental and emotional levels and in the inner awareness. Meditation on the tattwas demands abstract creativity which allows for spontaneous concentration irrespective of the possibility of external or even internal disturbance. It is not a passive meditation in which you have to concentrate for one or two hours on the one symbol. You keep the awareness moving from symbol to symbol, mantra to mantra, in your own time.
The Srimad Devi Bhagawatam states that this practice saves the practitioner from demons and ghosts. What are these demonical entities but the negative forces within ourselves? During meditation, when the subconscious mind comes to the surface, suppressed samskaras disturb the concentration. I have found, however, that the practice of bhuta shuddhi makes the mind completely tranquil and free from these forces. Even afterwards the inner personality is not affected by the oncoming daily problems.
During the practice period you must be on guard against the mind and emotions. It is of utmost importance to control these powerful forces. By averting the mind, you can develop spontaneous, intense and sustained concentration on Devi and Guru. The last Monday in the month is a special day for Shiva worship. Without knowing this, I suddenly had an urge to wear rudraksha and chant the name of Shiva. Such things occur when the mind becomes open to subtle vibrations.
In fact, subtle awareness becomes so strong that even sattvic living seems gross. I found that by the third week my sleep needs decreased to between two and four hours nightly. Plain vegetarian food seemed as gross as meat, and desire to eat that kind of food went completely. My 'appetite remained the same, but by the fourth week the mental appetite decreased. Eating normal food after the end of the practice pulled my awareness back down to earth. The Srimad Devi Bhagawatam claims that through this vrata 'brutal desires' cease and the animal nature is destroyed. Rather, I experienced a refinement in the awareness of mundane reality and an increased awareness of the subtle existence within this physical reality.
Our normal range of experience is limited to sensorial perception but it is not the full extent of our experiential capacity. This physical body is the instrument through which we can develop higher understanding, but as long as we are attuned to the lower frequencies, our experiences also will be of a low quality. In order to attain elevated awareness, every level of our awareness has to undergo a transformation. Therefore bhuta shuddhi is most important because transformation has to begin from the basic elemental structure. We have to become completely empty internally, like an empty vessel in water, then, what is outside is also within. Similarly, by removing the individual elements inside ourselves, our experience will be of the higher cosmic forces of energy and consciousness, prana and chitta, Shiva and Shakti.