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Sat Mag

Beyond Realism: From Thucydides to Trincomalee



By Uditha Devapriya


Thucydides does not take sides between the Athenians and the Spartans in his account of the Peloponnesian War. The most famous passage from that book is, of course, his version of the so-called Melian Dialogue, where a group of islanders who had otherwise remained neutral during the war debate whether they should submit to the will of the more powerful Athenians or whether they should try warding them off. The Dialogue is about why Athens acts as it does, and what the Melians should do in response to it.

When the Melians rationalise their opposition to the impending Athenian invasion on moral grounds, the Athenians point out that moral grounds are not good enough. Indeed, far from appealing to moral qualms, the Athenians argue, the Melians should consider who they are, what they possess, and what they do not possess. In terms of security and power, they are nowhere near the Athenians. It is in their interest not to fight, but to submit. On the face of it, this is classic imperial strategy: you tell the country you intend to colonise, or at least the ruling elite of that state, that it’s in their interests to capitulate.

To me the wider implications of the Melian Dialogue are clear. The encounter is not about states moving quickly to pre-empt other states from deploying their capabilities, but about rising powers acting forcefully to subjugate client states in a larger strategy of pre-empting major ones. The classic analogy is the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord: India’s actions towards Sri Lanka had as much to do with the “Tamil issue” as they did with Sri Lanka’s tilt towards the more powerful US axis, symbolised by fears of Trincomalee falling into American hands and the construction of a Voice of America relay station. Indeed, insofar as India’s decision was dictated by considerations of geopolitik and realpolitik, the Tamil issue seemed, as it still does, peripheral to this larger question. That neither excoriates nor exonerates India, but it does bring back memories of the Melian-Athenian encounter, with the flattering caveat that Sri Lanka meant much more to India than Melos ever did to the Athenians.

If the Melian Dialogue is taken as the starting point of the branch of international relations theory we call “Realism” (with a capital “R”), then from the fifth century BC to 1979 much of the debate surrounding Realism and realpolitik have been metaphysical and philosophical. It was Kenneth Waltz who, in his Theory of International Politics, took international relations from the domain of the purely political and applied economic theory to it. Waltz contended that political analysts had been too occupied with states as primary actors to realise that it was relations between states, or “structures”, which governed the international system. He then argued there were two ways in which structures “work their effects” through: by way of socialisation (which moulds state behaviour) and by way of competition (which generates order). Waltz was influenced by classical liberals, especially Adam Smith, and in expounding his theory he made the case for a free market order: “Competitive systems are regulated, so to speak, by the ‘rationality’ of the more successful competitors.”

In my opinion, Waltz was right in bringing the economic to the political, yet he was wrong in applying classical liberalism to international relations. The truth is that there’s a disjuncture between his notion of states pursuing interests and his notion of structures coalescing into a self-governing spontaneous order. It assumes too much of state actors; more than anything else, that they are rational, and that, like firms, they tend to be “maximising units.” Waltz admittedly does make the case for states blundering along the learning curve and learning on their own – what international relations theorists call “self-help” – but even this, in his scheme of things, leads to states learning to balance the immediate imperatives of national interests with the long term imperatives of international order.

The Realists have got it right when they argue that power is the overriding principle as far as nation-states are concerned; they seek to expand power. But no two Realists are the same. There is much debate about how states project power, and why they do so. Kenneth Waltz’s view was that they value security over force: they know that disturbing the international system would only serve to throw it into more chaos, so they desist from, say, declaring war and embarking on costly endeavours. Opposed to this view are the offensive Realists, whose most prominent proponent is John Mearsheimer. Their line of reasoning is that states want to expand, at whatever cost, and that sometimes they have a right to do so. It was on those grounds that Mearsheimer defended Russian actions in Ukraine and Crimea in 2014, while warning the US to contain and counter China’s rise.

Opposed to both these camps are the neoclassical Realists. While taking the Realist view of states pursuing immediate self-interests, these scholars contend that no two states are alike and that inasmuch as every government wants to expand its power, it does so on a case-by-case basis, interpreting the actions of other governments. Thus while they would argue that China definitely wants to transform its economic clout to military power (as the offensivists argue), this process of expansionism cannot be compared to colonialism or imperialism (as conventional Realists often say). How states act depends on what they make of other states. Their actions are constrained by time and space, by conjunctures of external and domestic factors. This is neoclassicalism’s main contribution to international relations.

The biggest strength of the neoclassical camp thus is its flexibility with regard to the actions of rival powers and aspiring superpowers. The major limitation of Watzean defensivism and Mearsheimerean offensivism is that both attribute to the actions of states a universal drive towards power. Yet even the neoclassicalists rely on the Realist axiom of interest defined as power mainly, and power only. In returning to the roots of classical realism, the neoclassical theorists divorced politics from economics, restoring international relations to the domain of the political. Here we have Realism’s major flaw: either it ignores the economic reasons for why states act as they do, or it incorporates a largely classical liberal view of structures which assumes much order from a much disorderly world. Pure politics or free markets: this is Hobson’s choice, and we must steer clear of both.

My main problem with the neoclassical camp, which is the only Realist camp that at least tries to make sense of politics, is that it limits foreign policy decisions to the perceptions of major actors, including ruling elites and foreign policy elites. Little to no emphasis is given to the subalterns, the non-major players, those speaking from below. Yet if foreign policy is to become meaningful, we must account for those unheard as well. And to listen to them, we must formulate a theory of international politics that accounts for disparities, not in military power (what Realists are preoccupied with), but in economic strength.

Here we must admit, and willingly so, that while the Realists have some of the answers they do not possess all of them. Then as now, the issue of economic disparities is best answered not by crude geopolitik or realpolitik, but by Marxist dialectics. This of course is another way of saying that Marxism supplies answers to questions that Realists do not have answers for. But which Marxism exactly? This is stuff for another essay, but to me the debate is mainly, if not essentially, between neo-Gramscianism and world-systems theory.

The neo-Gramscians tend to emphasise the role of hegemony in international politics. In this view of things, world order is governed by ruling elites consenting to a particular hegemon’s hold over it. This fits in neatly with the neo-Gramscian interpretation of the Cold War, which they saw as being dominated by the US on account of how it achieved a consensus of sorts everywhere, even in unfriendly states, regarding the American way of life. Interesting as this interpretation is, it has been criticised, not least by Marxists like Perry Anderson. For me its failure is that it disregards how hegemons resort to military power to enforce consensus and that, like the Realists, it disregards the economic dimension.

World-systems theorists do not factor out the issue of economics, and for good reason. For them the fundamental unit of analysis is not states or structures or hegemony, but modes of production. Eric Wolf (1997) has identified three such modes across time: the tributary, the kin-ordered, and the capitalist. The history of conflict in the world, or at least much of it, has been the history (or histories) of conflict between these modes.

I would like to point out here that much of what nationalists refer to as cultures are actually systems built on particular modes of production. Where there is a clash between two modes or systems, superpowers tend to take on rising and rival hegemons; where such a clash does not exist, the transition from one hegemon to another becomes relatively peaceful. Kenneth Organski has shown us how only one such transition took place peacefully: from Britain to the US, in the 19th century. Figure it out: at the time of the transition both were engaged in roughly the same mode of production at different stages of an industrial revolution, with Britain nearing its end and America entering its peak.

Barry Gills (1999) has shown us how this explains the contrast between Sparta and Athens, that is, how disparities in mode of production pitted the one against the other: Sparta, with its hereditary elites and agrarian economy – something of a backward freak in the region – versus Athens, with its industrialised economy. In other words, we see here a major power established on an archaic mode of production – and accumulation – taking on a rising power established on a far more advanced mode of production. Such analyses are often faulted by political theorists and especially Realists as being too reductionist. But if it is, what are we to make of Realism’s deliberate sidelining of the economic dimension?

Realism obviously can explain why the US fears China and Russia so much. But it cannot give us the whole picture, not least because it focuses on major states and not small ones. It can explain Spartan fears of and aversion to Athens on the basis of relative capabilities. Yet like the neoclassical view of the US-China-Russia encounter, it downplays the economic reasons for these conflicts. Sir Mortimer Wheeler criticised Frederick Taggart for looking “through a shop window” by bringing materialism into discussions on Eurasian history. But as Barry Gills has argued, it is only right to emphasise the role played by production, trade, and exchange in history. In that sense we must think of alternatives to conventional Realism – defensive, offensive, or neoclassical – when understanding politics. Ergo, we must try to make sense of the world using other paradigms, far, far away from the crudities of Realism.

The writer can be reached at



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Sat Mag

John Keats at 200



By Uditha Devapriya

The bicentenary of John Keats fell on Tuesday, February 23.

When I think of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge today, what springs to my mind is how their politics reflected their poetry. Wordsworth was 19 and Coleridge 17 when the French Revolution broke out. It was in their youth, in other words, that France underwent the Fall of the Bastille and the execution of the king and queen. The youthful idealism that greeted the former event – so full of promise in its vision for the future – couldn’t survive the shock of the latter, after which the Revolution became a harsh political actuality that England and Europe had to contend with and combat against.

What happened to Wordsworth and Coleridge was tragic, but inevitable: lost in their youthful ardour over the Revolution, they regressed to jingoism and conservatism in later years. This was to be seen the most in Wordsworth: when in his early poems he could write of his sympathy for the downtrodden, in later years (particularly in the period in which he wrote “England”, “The Excursion” and the sonnets on the English Church) he went back on that sympathy. He was no longer contemplating on poverty and injustice as though they could be “resolved” by the overthrow of tyranny. He wrote of them as inevitable, as capable of resolution through an almost mystical tranquillity (“She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is here”).

Contrast these two against Byron and Shelley (who were born after them), and you will realise how easy it is to categorise their poetry in the face of what happened in France. The latter two weren’t born during the Revolution. They were “children of the Revolution”, which meant that they didn’t take the usual route idealists took before recapitulating. In their hands, the personal was closely intertwined with the political. That led them to become heretics and rebels (“And tyrants and slaves are like shadows of night / In the van of the morning light”).

It’s difficult to compare John Keats with either of these poets, particularly when we consider that he was a contemporary of Byron and Shelley. Keats was the youngest in their generation (Shelley was his senior by three years). And yet, to my mind, Keat’s best poetry shares some affinity with that of Wordsworth, particularly in the latter’s idealisation of nature. Yet he shared none of his beliefs; in that sense he was more at home with Byron. I know that’s a bold claim to make, but make it I will.

I think John Keats’s great achievement as a poet is his intensely poignant vision of the world. That vision was never marred by political rhetoric. There’s no doubt that what comes out in his two poems on Leigh Hunt, for instance, is anger against his jailers. But look closer: far from using Hunt’s imprisonment to vent out frustration against the political order, what Keats achieves is something else:

Minion of grandeur! think you he did wait?

Think you he nought but prison walls did see,

Till, so unwilling, thou unturn’dst the key?

Ah, no! far happier, nobler was his fate!

Keats’s idealisation of Hunt here seems to me to undermine the reality of his imprisonment. A critic can argue this was in line with Hunt’s strength of will even while being punished — Jeremy Bentham found him playing battledore when visiting him in prison — but for me at least, it is not congruent with Keats’s elevation of that punishment as a sign of his maturity as a critic (“In Spenser’s hall he strayed, and bowers fair”). I may be wrong, but that is how I view his Leigh Hunt poems.

Notwithstanding that, however, Keats was without a doubt a nonconformist. He had a fairly liberal education. Nicholas Roe, in “Everyman’s” anthology of his poetry, has written that Enfield School, which the young Keats attended, was important for “transmitting to Keats the dynamic intellectual life of English dissent.” Roe does his best to overturn the popular view of him as an enigmatic romantic, a poet more concerned with beauty than with reality, and to his credit he does make a point when highlighting the allegory in “Hyperion: A Fragment.”

But what is it in “Hyperion” that merits such a point or comparison? To find out for myself I read it, and I came across these lines:

“Shut up your senses, stifle up your ears,

“My voice is not a bellows unto ire.

“Yet listen, ye who will, whilst I bring proof

“How ye, perforce, must be content to stoop:

“And in the proof much comfort will I give,

“If ye will take that comfort in its truth.

“We fall by course of Nature’s law, not force

“Of thunder, or of Jove.

The speaker of these lines is Oceanus, the God of the Sea. “Hyperion” (which Keats never completed) is about the overthrow of one order by another. The Titans are soothing their sorrow in the aftermath of their fall to the Olympians. Some of the Titans want to rebel, but Oceanus is the voice of reason here: not only must the old order pass to the new, but they must accept it as an eventuality. Roe must have seen in this an affirmation of revolution, especially at a time when portraying dethroned monarchs was “regarded in Britain as potentially an incitement to revolution.”

But I read these lines differently. “Nature’s law” presupposes a preconceived (and divinely ordained) history, a passage from the old to the new which maintains the same structure that sustained the old. Call it “parliamentary democracy”, call it a “coup”, to me the overthrow of the Titans was nothing more or less than a violent overthrow of one set of gods by another.

I am of course not suggesting that for Keats the most valid “overthrow of tyranny” was one which sustained the same political base (which by the way is what pretty much goes for democracy today!), but I do believe that Keats’s conception of history as an organic process of change followed by order is not in line with Roe’s reading of the poem. This is what imputes fresh nuances of meaning to Keats, and marks him out as probably the most idiosyncratic, atypical poet among the Romantics.

Not that he was an outsider to them. In his work we see that same Romantic idealisation of beauty and nature, because of which his poetry is often classed as “escapist.” That classification is crass, though. To consider Keats’s high regard for beauty (back when the chief quality of the Romantics was, yes, their high regard for beauty!) as “escapist” is to read his work wrongly. His masterpieces — which for me were his odes to such abstractions as Indolence, Beauty, Melancholy, and Art — are marked out well by the intermingling of substantive reality and aesthetic delight. It is here that his real genius is to be found, and not (as is claimed by critics who clamour to read the political in his poetry) in “Hyperion.”

Consider, for instance, these lines from “Ode to a Nightingale”

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness, the fever, and the fret

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

And leaden-eyed despairs,

Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,

Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.


Here’s the motif that defines the intensity of his poetry: his constant yearning for tranquillity and solace in the face of tragedy (his brother died of tuberculosis, and he himself would succumb to it at the age of 25). This is what critics class as “escapist” in terms of imagery — the juxtaposition of the “weariness” and “fever” of mortal man with the immortal song of the nightingale, as well as the mortality of Beauty in the face of human suffering — but I prefer to see them as the anguish of a heart beset with tragedy, a microcosm of the tragedy of the world.

But to consider this as his strength is to consider Keats’s defining marks — his use of pastoral imagery, metaphor, and personification — as leading to a never-ending search for tranquillity. Wordsworth never faced this problem, because in his later years he could (thanks to his politics) offer an easy way out: a contemplation of the mystical (which Regi Siriwardena called “inertia”). Wordsworth’s volte-face here is what I’d consider as “escapist”, and not Keats’s sustained quest for solace.

Keats weakened a little, in my opinion, when he deviated from his meditations on pain and pleasure. To be more specific, when the experience he brought out was inadequate when compared with the form. I can specifically think of one poem here, the first of his I ever learnt: “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” What we relate to in that poem is the knight and his harrowing ordeal. But the quickness of that ordeal — which critics read as contributing to its shocking appeal — leads to disappointment. We know the woman isn’t who she is when we hear these lines:

And there she lulled me asleep,

And there I dream’d — Ah! woe betide!

The latest dream I ever dream’d

On the cold hill’s side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,

Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;

They cried — “La Belle Dame sans Merci

Hath thee in thrall!”

We’re made to believe that it is this sudden experience that frightens and turns him to despair, when in the next verse we are told that

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

With horrid warning gaped wide,

And I awoke and found me here,

On the cold hill’s side.

But the suddenness of that experience (“And I awoke and found me here”) and the economy with which Keats relates it to the reader deprive the poem of any subtlety. Call me a cynic, but when I read these lines now, I can’t understand why the knight should be disappointed, whether at the woman’s transformation or at the fact that his love for her wasn’t returned. Keats’s use of imagery is sparse, almost austere, and that deprives it of vitality. I rate it personally among his weaker work.

I must confess that at the time I first read Keats I was an incurable romantic, and that is what endeared his poetry to me. 10 years later, I find that position unchanged: regardless of whatever beliefs he may have held on to, Keats is the poet we look to when beset with personal tragedy, not because contemplation affords escapism, but because in it we realise that suffering and mortality are eternal, and that the quest for eternal(ised) abstractions like beauty may never end.


The writer can be reached at

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Sat Mag

There are no happy cows or buffaloes in India



India has the world’s largest number of cattle. They are not being worshipped in temples; they are not ambling through the countryside eating as they move. They are being hit by farmers in whose fields they come to eat; they are being thrown acid on by urban fruit sellers, they are being poisoned and taken away by people who strip their skin for leather, they are being kept tied in filthy small stalls for milk, they are being put onto overcrowded trucks and taken for illegal slaughter, they are being herded into jails called gaushalas, where they stand in their own faeces, till they fall down dead of starvation. They eat plastic, they drink from filthy gutters, they are hit by passing cars.

There are no happy cows or buffaloes in India.

Since 2014, when the BJP government came in with a vow towards stopping the export of meat, India has been the world’s largest exporter of cow meat (“beef”), even surpassing Brazil. Both countries now account for almost 40% of the world’s cow meat production. And we are the largest milk producer in the world across the globe, outranking the E.U., the U.S., and China.

Most cows and buffaloes do not breed naturally any more. As a person who hires hundreds of vets, I am aware that they may know nothing at all about diagnosis and medicine, but all of them know about artificial insemination. This is the primary focus of all veterinary colleges.

To keep the milk and meat going, India has a large national breeding programme. Semen is extracted from bulls and sent across the country to be used by practically all those in the business of milk, to begin with, and meat later. 80% of all dairy cows are impregnated artificially. In natural breeding, one ejaculation produces one or two calves at most.

A study was done on the industry of sperm farming, and frozen semen technology, between 2014 and 2016 (Journal of Human Animal Studies, Yamini Narayanan, 2018).  Apart from studying the documentation and doing hundreds of interviews with people involved in semen production, industry policy, and animal protection, the authors also studied the government owned semen stations in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, seeing firsthand the process of semen extraction, quality assessment, storage, and transportation to dairies. There, the semen would be used to artificially inseminate cows. A single semen extraction can produce hundreds of calves, since it is divided into amounts just sufficient to ensure conception.

So many Indians have stopped drinking milk because they are outraged about the abuse of dairy cows and male calves. But most are unaware of the extreme cruelties involved in sperm extraction.

The study found that bulls are taken at 18 months and tethered by their noses in small groups in barns with little space, or kept singly in isolation in small stalls for years. They become frustrated and agitated, and the ropes in their noses are used to control them, causing wounds and often maggot infestations. Each bull goes to the semen extraction centre twice a day, four days a week. A dummy cow is propped up and the bull has to mount her and ejaculate into an artificial, temperature-controlled vagina. Bulls that won’t, or can’t perform undergo the painful process of electro-ejaculation. This procedure uses a 12-24-volt jolt of electricity applied through a probe in the rectum. It is called “human-assisted extraction of semen” and was started in the late 1960s. (Imagine a man being made to ejaculate by having an electric rod shoved into his anus – twice a day for years). A single ejaculation provides 500 to 600 sperm ‘doses,’ each containing 20 million sperm. This happens to each bull for 5-10 years (depending on his semen output and quality) and then he is sent to slaughter. The semen is deep frozen in liquid nitrogen and then sent round India. This ghastly invasive reproductive technology was the reason for the “success” of the White Revolution, or Operation Flood, in the 1970s, making India a leading milk producer – but exchanging quality for quantity. Milk has never been of that same purity and quality ever again.

Indian animal husbandry departments have more than 60 frozen-semen farms and about 77,000 artificial insemination centres. There are no rules, no animal welfare protection for these bulls. The psychological and physical traumas of bulls are treated as irrelevant to semen extraction.

What is the effect of electro ejaculation on the bull’s body?

The rod or probe in the rectum has ring electrodes, that is, electrodes which surround the barrel of the probe. These electrodes stimulate nerves other than those required for electroejaculation. In particular, the nerves of the muscles in the hind limb are affected, resulting in strong contractions of the muscles of the legs, thighs and back. These contractions are severe enough with, some types of probes, to cause haemorrhage and bruising of affected muscles and stiffness for a few days.

In studies done on the physiological distress changes in the plasma, cortisol level of animals were checked as an indicator of the degree of distress being experienced by animals. Plasma cortisol levels rose sharply in bulls 15 minutes after electroejaculation and remained elevated for 2-4 hours, showing extreme distress (Source: Electroejaculation: a welfare issue? Surveillance vol.22.). The Netherlands and Denmark have banned this practice due to its cruelty.

None of these farms – like most everything in the animal husbandry sector – are run properly. Bulls should be examined for optimum physical health. They should be fed extremely well, exercised and kept happy in order to ensure optimal semen quality. This does not happen in a single centre. Most of the bulls are sick, underfed, never exercised and very rarely checked for disease.

So what has happened ? India has a much lower rate of success than other countries, using artificial insemination, inspite of having the world’s largest artificial bovine reproductive breeding centres. The bulls are kept badly and the semen being sent round is often diseased, causing abortions in the cows. This has a direct bearing on human health, and the spread of tuberculosis has been directly linked to the brucellosis in milk cattle which comes through the semen. There are many more diseases that come through this extracted semen, and I will write about them in the next column.

Put yourself in the place of the bull. As long as you drink milk, this is what will happen to this young virile animal. Do you want to be responsible for this terrible cruelty ?

 ( To join the animal welfare movement contact,

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Sat Mag

Lucidity before death: Brain releasing consciousness?



By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

There is often the burst of a bright flicker shortly before a flame dies down. Can we equate our lives to a flame, and consider lucidity occurring shortly before death something akin to this? Of course, this is not a universal phenomenon but there is an increasing realisation that this happens far more frequently than we imagine. What is perplexing scientists is how lucidity before death occurs in people who are diagnosed to have irreversible brain damage. According to modern scientific thought, mind and consciousness are nothing more than a product of the brain: therefore, this is an impossibility.

Another related phenomenon is the realisation of impending death. It was exactly 35 years ago I had my own personal experience. On learning that my mother had been admitted with ‘altered behaviour’ to a private hospital owned by a relation of ours in Matara, I rushed there to her. More than anything else, I was surprised as my mother was one of the most sane persons I have ever known, maintaining excellent cognitive function in spite of a stroke which was precipitated by the forced premature retirement from her beloved teaching job. She was delighted to see her eldest and did not take much time to tell me, “Upul, when I die please hand over my body to the Medical College”. I was taken aback and told her that I could do so, knowing how casually medical students treated dead bodies. I added that she was not going to die just yet. She retorted, “It is my wish and I do not care what they do to my body as long as they learn something”. I jokingly replied “Amme, you are determined to dictate to us even after death.” I would not have been so flippant had I sensed that her life was in danger.

The following day, her attending physician, my relation, rang. From his voice I sensed something was wrong. He said, “Upul, your mother died suddenly.” After a pause, he added “There is some more bad news for you. After you left yesterday, she spoke to me and got me to promise that I would persuade you to hand over the body to a medical college.” I readily agreed realising that my mother had outsmarted me even in her death! Whilst my father was involved in politics and social services, it was our mother who brought up a ‘full cricket team’. We owe what we are today to that great lady, whose body we handed over to the Galle Medical Faculty, after a brief stop in our ancestral home in Godagama.

Alhough I did not realise at the time, with hindsight it becomes obvious that she knew she was dying. Her altered behaviour may well have been due to this realisation but she exhibited no fear of death and was ensuring that even her lifeless body would serve some purpose instead of being reduced to ashes. It was entirely my idiocy that prevented me from telling her what I feel today; what she meant to us and that we would do whatever she wished. It is one of the greatest regrets of my life.

We assume incorrectly that an unconscious person is not aware of the surroundings and let our tongues loose. When I visited my sister, who was unconscious after a bleed into the brain and said, whilst holding her hand, “Loku Nangi, mey Upul ayya” a tiny tear drop rolled from her eye. She never spoke a word and did not have any lucidity before death.

If the mind and consciousness are products of the brain, obviously, with the death of the brain, mind and consciousness also should die. The corollary to this is that if the brain is irreversibly damaged, there is no possibility of transient reversal to normality of mind. With an ageing population, one of the increasing problems is dementia. Many who develop dementia are institutionalised as they are not able to look after themselves.

There are reports of many staff members in these nursing homes noticing lucidity before death of residents who have not spoken sensibly for ages so much so that scientists have begun investigations. A trial in progress, in New York, where 500 patients with dementia are being followed up with continuous monitoring including video-monitoring should provide answers.

The unexpected return of mental clarity and memory shortly before death in patients suffering from severe psychiatric and neurologic disorders, is often referred to as “terminal lucidity”. In conducting research, as it is inadvisable to use the term terminal, some prefer to call this “paradoxical lucidity”. Almost half of those who develop lucidity die within 24 hours or one week.

There are a number of cases reported where patients who were dying of malignant tumours that destroyed almost the entirety of the brain, confirmed by radiological investigations like CT scans and MRI, waking up and discussing their lives and imminent death, lucidly.

With increasing data, neuroscientists are bound to revise their opinion about the brain. Simply because the brain is associated with the mind and consciousness, it cannot be concluded that these are the products of the brain. In fact, the ‘terminal lucidity’ may well be due to the release of the mind and consciousness from the grasp of the brain as it dies, a point well-argued by many scientists including Dr Bruce Greyson, who succeeded the well-known rebirth researcher, Dr Ian Stevenson of Virginia University.

Dr Greyson in his talk “Is consciousness Produced by the Brain” delivered at “Cosmology and Consciousness Conference – Mind and Matter” (2011), hosted by Upper Tibetan Children’s Village, Dharamsala ( argues this case very well. It also illustrates Dalai Lama’s very successful attempts at integrating Buddhism and modern science. After all, it is only in Buddhism that the concept of a mind independent of the brain has existed, up to now. Dr Greyson makes use of four factors to support the concept of consciousness without the brain:

1. Deathbed recovery of lost consciousness – as happened in these patients who had brains destroyed by disease.

2. Complex consciousness with minimal brain; he describes cases of very high IQ students in High School or University with hardly any brain. Only post-mortem examinations would reveal whether they had functioning brain tissue elsewhere.

3. Near-death experiences where patients watch from outside what is happening to them.

4. Memories of past life as shown by investigations into rebirth.

It would be fascinating to see science proving what the Buddha postulated.


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