Carlos Castaneda's death in 1998 ends a unique tradition of sorcery
and leaves the mystery of don Juan, his shamanic master, unresolved
Carlos Castaneda is dead. Do sorcerers die? Perhaps they do. Even from liver cancer. At the ripe old age of 72. "Nothing that I had ever done, nothing that I had ever imagined, could even compare to the anguish and the loneliness of that moment," wrote Castaneda in his book Tales of Power, describing his feelings when he stood at the edge of an abyss, ready to jump into it and prove his worth as a sorcerer. He faced death then. But death, for the bestselling author, also considered the godfather of America's New Age movement, was as much a part of life as breathing.
Born Carlos Cesar Arana Castaneda, in Sao Paolo, Brazil, the author migrated to the USA in 1951 and studied anthropology at the University of California. It was during one of his research trips to Mexico in 1960 that he came across don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian shaman, who practiced an ancient system of sorcery. "I began to tell him that my interest was plants, especially peyote (a hallucinogen). He kept on staring at me from time to time and that made me very uncomfortable because I didn't know anything about peyote, and he seemed to have seen through me," Castaneda recalled in one of his rare radio interviews after the publication of his first book Teachings of Don Juan: The Yaqui Way of Knowledge in 1968. He began his sorcery apprenticeship in 1961, terminated it in 1965 but returned in 1968 to continue till 1971 when don Juan disappeared into the 'other world'.
According to don Juan, the universe is an infinite agglomeration of thread-like energy fields called the Eagle's emanations, which radiate from a source of inconceivable proportions. Human beings are also composed of the same energy fields, which form a layer of luminosity the size of the person's body. A very small group of the energy fields inside this luminous ball is lit up by a point of intense brilliance called the assemblage point. Perception occurs when the energy fields in this small group extend their light to illuminate identical energy fields outside the ball. The inaccessibility of the supernatural world is due to our energetic conditioning. When the assemblage point shifts, new filaments of the universe pass through it, making it possible to perceive a different reality. This shifting is called dreaming which, according to sorcerers, is the gateway to infinity. The idea is to be conscious of it and direct it.
All this can be attained through what don Juan calls impeccable living. Though what impeccability means is never quite explained. In don Juan's terminology, that is also the warrior's way—which is what a sorcerer is inherently. Castaneda's journey into the realms of sorcery was not easy. From his own descriptions in his first few books, he comes across as a bumbling fool, the typical white man who can't see beyond his limited sphere of rationality. But six books down the line he emerges as the new nagual, don Juan's successor. Says Clifford Geertz, a renowned anthropologist based in the USA: "Castaneda's books have no presence in anthropology." Even author Joyce Carol Oates finds it difficult to accept Castaneda's books as non-fiction: "They seem to me remarkable works of art. The dialogue is faultless. There is a novelistic momentum."