To Ebba, soul and body

Byanjana Thapa | August 7, 2019
Toni Morrison wrote in The Source of Self-Regard, “We move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. And separating one from the other…while respecting each category of intelligence, is generally what serious education is about.” Byanjana Thapa reflects on the knowledge with which we traverse life, and the wisdom of the loved ones who have passed.

 

Nepali poetry

Like a drop of water swirling in a taro leaf, is my soul

Where will it go when it leaves this mortal coil?

My grandmother used to sing these lines. She was full of little rhymes like this – rhymes of metaphysical and quotidian wisdom. She lived to be ninety-six before she passed away in 2018.

When I received news of her passing, I was heading to work on the other side of the planet. The morning commute crowd, like a sea of warm bodies, washed me into the Longwood Medical Area in Boston. All this human presence should have given me some comfort. After all, quietly nested in each of us, are our histories of love and loss. I had just lost the person who taught me how to walk. I could stop one of them and explain, and they would nod in understanding – perhaps they had recently lost their grandmother, too. But they would be thinking of a blue-eyed one, who baked cookies, or someone tall, frail and gentle. “No, no,” I would then say. “I’m talking about the tiny one with thick silver hair like a horse’s tail, a thunderous voice and a vice-like grip. Mahogany skin, spotted like a salamander’s? Rough hands that could make anything, anything grow out of the earth? You don’t understand. I’ve lost Ebba, you see? Can’t you see how much it hurts?” They would shake their heads and move away – after all, loss is an intensely personal experience.

I tried to push through my day silently, but I had to eventually let my boss know what had happened. She expressed her condolences and told me to go home. But I had time-sensitive experiments to attend to. Such is the nature of bereavement in the twenty-first century – it must be blocked into the rest of one’s schedule. It must be meek and non-intrusive. Grief is reserved for after six pm.

This is my memory of that first night: Ebba’s raspy voice came through to me, clear as reason. Her body, bent like a question mark, slowly revolving to her own bhajans, was emblazoned on the inside of my eyelids. As I turned in my bed, my flesh recalled the thick scent of mustard oil on her arms… She had slipped away. Quietly, into an unthinkable darkness. Only by placing her into oblivion could I truly cry. Her toothless smile, the sheepish way she would eat blocks of sugar and spew profanities like there was no tomorrow – these memories felled me. I was buried under all that loss, under the immensity of that life. Only sleep could tranquilize me.

But grief is multi-faceted, dynamic, drawn-out. For the next few weeks I struggled with how to mourn Ebba in such a fast-paced world. As my uncle and male cousins were shaving their heads, I was downing coffee on the fly. As my mother and aunts wrapped white cloths around their bare bodies, I was pulling on business casual. As they clasped each other and wept, I pushed through my day with gritted teeth. By the time I got home and could finally allow myself to feel my loss, I didn’t know where to begin. I scarcely had time to sit alone with my grief before my body had to be present for another day of the grind.

And amidst all this, I struggled with the question of death itself. What was death, in fact? As a scientist I am compelled to respond in biological terms, but as a granddaughter? The fact of the matter is this: at one moment she was there and the next moment she was not. One moment, there was breath, there was life force in her body, and in the next, her body was vacant: she had left it. But who was “she”? Who left, or what, exactly?

The idea of “ātmā” is central to Hindu philosophy – an immutable self or soul that transcends the mortal world, exists intact and independent of the vessel that houses it, the “deha”. That is the metaphor of the water droplet on the taro leaf: the waxy leaf houses the droplet, yet being hydrophobic, cannot absorb or alter it. They are symbiotic, yet separate. Touching, yet untouched. The vessel’s decaying does not compromise the integrity of the soul. It escapes its temporary lodging and, with the karma it has accumulated, either finds a “better” or “worse” physical body in the next life. Or, if it has achieved the extraordinary feat of accumulating no karma, it escapes the vicious cycle of rebirth, and becomes one with “brahman”, the universe. It is this thought that allows us to continue existing even after we cease to exist. Even in dying, we never let go of life.

Science, on the other hand, has a completely different viewpoint on life and death, soul and body. An organism is simply a highly systemized and functional collection of organs, which themselves are a highly organized and specialized cooperation of cells, and so on. Just as vast as the universe around us, is the universe within us. This is our taro leaf, which will disintegrate into organic elements when we die, and be recycled by the earth.

Empirically, there is no evidence of the soul. The closest thing we can come to it – and the Buddha concluded as much without any of the tools of modern science – is the consciousness. The consciousness is projected from nothing more than the biological activity of the brain, the most elusive organ of all. This is our water droplet – just a hologram… Yet that hologram, and not the organic infrastructure projecting it, gives us our recognizable identities. So what do we love, in the end? An amalgam of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and phosphorus? Or a projection, a shadow, a signal that blinks off when its physical progenitor ceases to draw breath?

I ask, but I am not sure I can answer with absolute certainty. So far, neither can science. We still cannot identify precisely from where the whole gamut of a human being’s characteristics arise. Simplistically, our genes are the blueprints to our entire existence. And yet there is a leap between our biological infrastructure and the people we become. It is shaped by many factors, so that ultimately you are actually a spectrum of possibilities fanning out from the tight parameters of your genotype. Even beyond a phenotype – a creature with a distinct personality, an unpredictable life trajectory. I cannot help but draw a parallel to that window of time between past and future, the extended “now” that Einstein is famous for uncovering, in his theory of general relativity. In the milliseconds it takes for our neurons to experience a single sensation, light years away, eons may have passed by. Isn’t that incredible? Not everything can be understood by us. Some things remain, decidedly, mysterious.

So as I grappled with the mystery of death, I thought about Ebba’s rhyme: that taro leaf that so lovingly houses a single drop of pearlescent water without asking anything of it. Quite like the life force that runs through us, without our beseeching it to. Ebba saw life through metaphors and navigated almost a century of existence using just instinct and experience. As was customary for girls in Nepali villages, her family never sent her to school. When she was fourteen she was married off to a landlord who would take three other wives before he died, leaving her widowed at thirty with five children. With an indomitable spirit she hacked through life, and with blazing faith that the worldly suffering she had experienced through this mortal life would ultimately pay off – she was a Krishna Pranami, and believed that her spirit would reach Paramdhām and be united with Krishna, whom she called Shree Raji Shyam. That was her plan after death.

While I cannot understand death, I can attempt to understand life. Everyone is familiar with the basic tenet of existential philosophy: macroscopically, life has no meaning, no grander purpose. But the true existentialist watches the pale blue dot from the moon to discover this and – retreats. Retreats, because the purpose of life is intrinsic, not extrinsic. Life is what we make of it on this plane, in relation to each other. Relationality, not objective reality, is what gives life meaning. We are here for a moment, and in this concentrated dot of “being”, we experience all there is to experience: joy and suffering, rage and bliss. We burn brightly, then taper into nothing. A sharp peak of sound, then silence.

Alone in my room, secularly, I wept. What my grandmother spent her entire life believing in was a myth. The reality is that the body decays and the projection just cuts off. This hurt me immensely, because this belief was the fabric of my grandmother’s very identity. She lived by the principles of this belief and it was the lens through which I understood her. But as I wept, I began to notice the arrogance and condescension behind my pity for her. The sheer arrogance that is prevalent in societies that, in a crude sense of the idea, are more “developed”. The truth is that as we acquire knowledge and make progress in certain areas, we begin to lose touch with other aspects of life. So who should pity whom, in the end?

Who was I, coddled by the privileges of technology and modern medicine, to suddenly invalidate the beliefs she used to navigate ninety-six years of existence? What arrogance to deny her passage into the place, whose prospect prompted her to be kind, practice non-violence, pass down good teachings? And also, how self-denying to censure the reality that shaped her, shaped me.

Me, the hologram. Because after all it is the hologram that loved Ebba and lost Ebba. It is love, which is subjective; loss, which is deeply personal, that compels me to contradict myself as a scientist. For the sake of my Ebba only, I will go against all empirical evidence. No – she did not simply disintegrate into carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorous. No – she was not just an aggregate of form, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness and now, nothing. She was not an automaton, but a prime example of the pandemonium of the human race: she raged, she laughed, she worked the field and reaped its harvest, she envied, coveted and loved.  She loudly declared her existence, and it colored my own.

The scientist rests her case, and the granddaughter comes to this peace: for my Ebba, there is a Paramdhām. The taro leaf may have decayed, but the pearl of water departed to find its place. And she is there now, happy, united with her beloved Shree Raji Shyam.

Byanjana Thapa is a writer trained as a cancer biologist.

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