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Charles Stanley Braine (1874-1944) – the Rajah of Mawatte

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by GEORGE BRAINE

The e-mail, with the question “Are you a Ceylon Braine?”, arrived out of the blue when I lived in Hong Kong. The writer – I’ll call her Susan – had found me on the Internet. She went onto detail some family history, and claimed that, because she and I shared great, great grandparents, we were third cousins. Family, history had been an interest since she was 10 years old. She had inherited a collection of family documents and a photo album, and also found family documents from research in the UK. She mentioned that both my great, great grandfather and great grandfather had been planters in Ceylon.

This came as a huge surprise. Not having delved into family history, I was under the impression that my grandfather was the first Braine to arrive in Ceylon. Instead, from Susan’s information, I realized that my English roots went back at least five generations in Ceylon.

From older relatives – my father and his eight siblings – I had never heard of a great grandfather, let alone a great, great grandfather. My English grandfather, Charles Stanley Braine, had passed away six years before I was born, and his photo hung at my grandmother’s house at Boralessa, in the Lunuwila area. My father and his siblings talked fondly about “daddy”, but never about a “grandpa”.

Family photos and documents were scattered among my uncles and aunts. When most of them emigrated to the UK and Australia starting in 1963, these photos and documents were gone with them. But, over the years, with the help of Susan and a friend in London, and my travels during which I visited far flung relatives, I have collected old photos and documents, and pieced together family history. More historical documents are coming online, and ancestry websites are in business, and that, too, has helped.

Charles Stanley Braine

Charles Stanley was born in Ceylon on 25 December 1874. He was the eldest son of Charles Frederick Braine and Adeline Mary Becher, who had married in London earlier that year.

Like his father, uncles, and grandfather, Charles Stanley took to planting, starting at East Holyrood Estate, Talawakelle, in 1898, at the age of 24. After six years at this tea plantation, he moved to Mawatte Estate, a coconut plantation in the hot and humid north western province, in 1904. The reason for his move from the lush and salubrious hill country to the hot and humid NWP is not known.

After switching to nearby Yakwila Estate for brief periods, he finally returned to Mawatte Estate in 1914, and continued there for 30 more years. Though coconut plantations, Mawatte and Yakwila were owned by Ceylon Tea Plantations Co. Ltd. As on tea and rubber plantations, most workers on these coconut estates were Tamils who had been brought from South India. Hence, Tamil was the lingua franca and Charles Stanley spoke Tamil. The workers called him “Rajah”, which meant king.

About 550 acres in extent, Mawatte Estate also had a fiber mill, a copra kiln, an office, a spacious bungalow for the manager, quarters for staff members and line rooms for the workers, and a network of gravel roads. The estate owned two barges (called “padda boats”) to transport copra to Colombo. The barges were moored on the nearby Hamilton Canal, and double-bullock carts transported the copra from the estate to the barges, which took 10 hours to reach Colombo. On the return journey, they brought groceries for the estate workers.

Perhaps around 1907, Charles Stanley, who was unmarried, began a liaison with a Sinhalese worker at the estate’s fiber mill, named Engracia Nonis. She was a resident of Boralessa village, only a couple of miles from Mawatte Estate. They came from very different backgrounds, he from a line of English planters, who as the colonial rulers of Ceylon had immense power and influence, and she from a poor family. She did not speak English, and he did not speak Sinhala. They spoke to each other in Tamil.

Such liaisons were not uncommon, especially on lonely hill country estates. Because they were taboo and frowned upon by other Europeans, they were carried on surreptitiously, and the women and the resulting children were not always acknowledged. Charles Stanley’s liaison was no secret, because he invited Engracia to reside in his bungalow, and when the children began to arrive, accepted paternity. But, his widowed mother was living in Ceylon, at Nuwara-Eliya, and his siblings were also in Ceylon. We do not know how his family reacted to Charles Stanley’s interracial, common law marriage.

Their eldest child Roselind was born in June 1909, and Charles Stanley’s mother left Ceylon two months later.

Charles Stanley and Engracia had nine children, six girls and three boys. The daughters were Roselind, Lucy, Amy, Alice, Katherine, and Bridget. George, Benjamin, and Theobald (Teddy) were the sons.

Engracia and the children were provided with cars at a time when they were a rarity. The first was a limited edition Galloway, followed by a Morris Isis Six, a 6-cylinder model. They later owned a Hillman Minx, and a smaller Austin 7 (“baby” Austin). Two drivers, Liyander and Marshall, were employed.

Charles Stanley bought a 50-acre property in nearby Dankotuwa, which he named “Greenwood”, for his wife and children. He built a large house, “Stanlodge” at Negombo, the nearest town, so that his children could attend school there. He also bought about 6-acres of land at Boralessa, expanding “The Meet” holding. Most interestingly, he built a pond so that his children and their friends could swim and enjoy themselves. The pond still exists.

By all accounts, Charles Stanley was a loving father, affectionate and generous to his large brood. He built a spacious house at Boralessa, named “The Meet”, where Engracia and the children resided most of the time. Engracia had relatives in the village who helped her to bring up the children and manage the household. During school holidays, she and the children stayed at Mawatte Estate.

For the family, perhaps the most memorable time was Christmas, because it was also Charles Stanley’s birthday. He would order baskets of flowers and fruits from the hill country where his brother, superintendent of Penyland Estate, Dolosbage, lived. M.P. Gomes & Co. of Negombo, the only merchant dealing in foreign groceries in the area, was instructed to give Engracia everything she and the children needed for Christmas. “The Meet” was filled with presents, bon-bons, balloons, and a Christmas tree. After returning from midnight mass, the children would go to Mawatte Estate to wish Charles Stanley a happy birthday.

They also held a Christmas party for the villagers at “The Meet”. Sweets were served, the women played the “rabana” – a large, horizontally placed communal drum – firecrackers were lit, festive games were played, and gifts distributed to the children from a Christmas tree.

My father Teddy, the youngest child, fondly recalled life at Mawatte Estate with “daddy”. The bungalow had a lovely garden with flowers and fruit trees.

Meals were served at a vast dining hall with a long table, the “Appu” (butler) at hand serving. At night, the bungalow was lit by Petromax and kerosene lamps, there being no electricity at the time. There was no radio either, and music was played on the gramophone. On warm days, during meals, the Appu would stand at the end of the dining hall and pull a rope which was connected to a large canvas cloth (“punkah”) hung above the table to cool the diners.

Though an Anglican, Charles Stanley associated with the local Catholic clergy and was a benefactor, mainly because Engracia was a devout Catholic. All the children were baptized Catholics. As the family grew, much pressure was brought upon Charles Stanley by Catholic clergy to formalize their relationship. Perhaps due to the influence of other British planters, and also of his family, he dithered. He eventually relented, and Charles Stanley and Engracia were married at a Catholic church on 24 May 1924. Both attesting witnesses were Catholic nuns, which is telling: Sr. Mary of St. Solange and Sr. Mary of St. Antony. 

Shipping records show that, over the years, Charles Stanley took a number of trips to the UK. He traveled alone.

For his travels around the Mawatte Estate, Charles Stanley used a single-bullock drawn cart called a hackery. These carts were fast on short trips. Going downhill one day, the bull panicked, the carter lost control, and the hackery overturned. Charles Stanley was thrown some distance and suffered serious injury.

After hospitalization, he chose Negombo, a seaside town, for his recuperation. Although he owned a house (“Stanlodge”) close to the beach, he chose to stay with a Mr. Grenier who ran a boardinghouse for the English. “Stanlodge” was already occupied by some of his children. Three of his daughters and a son were married by then.

This was wartime, and British troops were stationed in Negombo, so Charles Stanley had opportunities for interactions with his countrymen. My father Teddy who was schooling at Negombo recalled cycling over to visit his father.

Charles Stanley’s last days were spent in a wheelchair, and he passed away on February 11, 1944. Contemplating his end, he wrote to daughter Alice, saying “I hate the sight of people in black” and asking his family to dress in white at his “simple, no flowers” funeral.

His end was not peaceful (but that’s another story) and he was buried at the Anglican section of Negombo’s general cemetery. Charles Stanley was 70 years old.

Engracia lived on for 32 years. She was sweet and affectionate and often talked about her husband. As a fifth generation Braine, I have a home, “Pondside”, at Boralessa. Grandmother Engracia’s relatives, the Nonises, still live in the village.

Sinnaiah Remembers

A few years ago, I was told about an elderly man who lived at Mawatte Estate, who still remembered Charles Stanley, a full 70 years after the latter had passed away.

Sinnaiah was 90 when we met five years ago. He had grown up on Mawatte Estate, privileged because his father was the head “kangany” (field supervisor). Sinnaiah says Charles Stanley took a liking to him, allowed him to hang around the estate bungalow, and occasionally took him along on short journeys. He has been to “Stanlodge” in Negombo, the “Greenwood” property, and “The Meet” at Boralessa many times. 

Sinnaiah also recalls the morning routine on the estate. The workers would line up outside the office early morning for the roster, when their attendance was recorded and were allocated to various tasks on the estate. The fiber mill had its own workers. Coconuts were husked, split in two before being sun dried and smoked in the copra kiln. The children gorged on “pelapihi”, the snow-white sweet pulp within sprouting coconuts.

Once a week, Charles Stanley took the train to Colombo to bring money to pay the workers. On Saturday, at noon, the workers lined-up at the office. The salaries were paid in gold coins, known as “sovereigns” (worth about Rs. 12/ at that time) and silver coins. The coins were counted and arranged in piles on a table in the office. When their names were called, the workers had to sign a “pay sheet” before collecting their salary. Many workers were illiterate, and placed their thumbmark on the pay sheet instead of a signature.

The bungalow was large, with a wide verandah, and hanging lamps in every room. Charles Stanley loved his bath, so water had to be heated and the bath tub filled manually. He loved dogs, and always had fox terriers. English planters from nearby estates would visit and stay for drinks and dinner, and the sound of laughter could be heard late into the night.

Charles Stanley was a benevolent manager. Sinnaiah says he had a “big heart” and looked into the welfare of his workers. He provided free lunch to all the children on the estate, and when workers were ill, sent them to the Dankotuwa hospital with a note to the doctor.

Sinnaiah remembers the hackery that Charles Stanley rode. It was pulled by a tall white bull, and the carter’s name was Antony. Charles Stanley was badly injured in the accident when the cart overturned, and was carried to the bungalow. When word of the accident spread, the workers rushed to the bungalow and crowded around his bed, wailing “Rajah, Rajah” and beating their breasts.

Charles Stanley was the son and grandson of planters. Planting, and the smooth management of a large work force, ran in his blood. He won the hearts of his workers.

Nearly 80 years after his death, “Stanlodge”, “Greenwood”, and “The Meet” are no more. Mawatte Estate, plundered by employees and politicians, partially divided among the landless, is barely half its original size. The large bungalow has been demolished and replaced by a shabby, smaller one. The fiber mill is gone.

If Charles Stanley Braine was to return today, he would be heartbroken.



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Sat Mag

John Keats at 200

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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 udakdev1@gmail.com

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Sat Mag

There are no happy cows or buffaloes in India

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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 gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)

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Sat Mag

Lucidity before death: Brain releasing consciousness?

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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 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPGZSC8odIU) 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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