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SIR PONNAMBALAM ARUNACHALAM (1853-1924)

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On the 98th Death Anniversary which falls on January 9, 2022 Compiled by Sega Nagendra and Suresh Murugaser, great grandchildren of Sir P. Arunachalam

FAMILY

Ponnambalam Arunachalam was the youngest Son of Gate Mudaliyar A. Ponnambalam.

He was born on September 14, 1853, to a highly respected and a well-educated professional family originally from Manipay, Jaffna.

Gate Mudaliyar Arumuganathapillai Coomaraswamy, his maternal grandfather, was the Tamil representative of the first Legislative Council established in 1834, following the recommendations of the Colebrooke-Cameron report of 1832. Colebrooke, coming from England, which was agitating for reform of the electoral system, was surprised at the autocratic powers exercised by the Governor of Ceylon since 1802. He effected a reduction of those powers by setting up an Executive and Legislative Council.

Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy, who was Arunachalam’s mother’s brother, had been a friend of Lord Houghton, Palmerston and Disraeli, in the London of the 1860’s. Sir Muttu was the first Ceylon Tamil (and probably, the first Asian) to receive a Knighthood, and the first non-Christian Asian to be called to the English Bar.

Sir Muttu’s only son, Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy, world-famous art critic and author, who played a pivotal role in the cultural revival of India and Ceylon (including the proliferation of Buddhism in the latter), died in 1947 in Boston USA where he had worked in the Fine Arts Department for many years.

Both the elder brothers of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam were educated at the Colombo Academy (now Royal College), and then at Presidency College, Madras.

His eldest brother Ponnambalam Coomaraswamy had a distinguished career as a Proctor and was the Nominated Tamil Member of the Ceylon Legislative Counsel from 1893.

The next eldest child of the family, his brother, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, an Advocate, succeeded their uncle, Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy as the Nominated Tamil Representative, serving from 1879-1893, and later on from 1921 to 1924. Ponnambalam Ramanathan was also elected to the Legislature as Member for the Northern Province (Northern Division) seat, and occupied it from 1924 till his death in 1930. In addition to this appointment, Ramanathan was the island’s Solicitor-General from 1893-1906 for a period of 13 years, acted as Attorney-General on several occasions, and retired as a pensionable officer in 1906.

EDUCATION

Like his older brothers, Ponnambalam Arunachalam had his early education at the Colombo Academy, but, having won the English University Scholarship in 1870, he entered Christ College, Cambridge. He took with him a reputation as a student of exceptional merit, recommended by Sir Walter Sendall, Director of Public Instruction. At Cambridge, he proceeded to annex the Foundation Scholarship.

While at Cambridge, Arunachalam distinguished himself in both Classics and Mathematics. In the records of Christ College he is referred to as a “brilliant mathematician and an able classics scholar”.

As a student, Ponnambalam Arunachalam was in a position to watch the changes made by Disraeli to the voting system in Britain, and stored his observations for future reference.

Arunachalam had qualified for the Bar in England and was looking forward to a legal career, but on his return to Ceylon in 1875 his uncle Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy persuaded him to sit for the Civil Service examination. He did so, and his talent and academic excellence ensured that he was the first Ceylonese to enter the prestigious Civil Service through open competition.

GOVERNMENT CAREER

Arunachalam was not appointed to the Government Agent’s office in Colombo and then to a series of judicial posts in various parts of the island. This was a policy unofficially adopted by the British Government of the day, which effectively debarred outstanding Ceylonese from taking high office in Government and instead appointed them to various parts of the Island in different capacities, such as District Judges, Police Magistrates, and Commissioners of Requests.

When he was District Judge of Batticaloa and in the Fourth Class of the Civil Service, Sir Arthur Gordon appointed Arunachalam over the heads of about thirty seniors, among whom was Mr. (later Sir) Alexander Ashmore, to act in the office of the Registrar-General and Fiscal of the Western Province. A protest memorandum was lodged with the Secretary of State. But Sir Arthur Gordon, who obviously recognized merit when he found it, had his way and Arunachalam took office as Registrar-General.

Arunachalam now set himself to reform the Fiscal’s office which had become a den of corruption and inefficiency He reorganised the departments of Land Registration and Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages, for which he was warmly congratulated by the Governor. The Times of Ceylon, reporting at the time Arunachalam entered the departments, on the Administration Reports on Land Registration and Vital Statistics, observed that they were places where chaos and corruption held merry sway. Fraud was rife. Dishonest deals often took precedence over genuine dealings, and everybody’s property and title were endangered.

The measure of the man may be seen in the way he set about reforming the Registrar-General’s Department. Sitting by the side of the various clerks as they performed their tasks, he patiently learned their work before launching the reforms by which he stopped the unconscionable delays and dishonesty prevailing in the registration of deeds, and ended the practice by which official work was being conducted as a form of private practice with fees levied privately for its discharge.

He started a real Record Room, supplied it with a system and an index, and founded a Benevolent Society which saved many a clerk from the grasp of money-lenders as well as from social disgrace and penury, paid many widows and orphans, and made clerical lives lighter and brighter. These activities were noticed by a distinguished American statistician, who informed the Governor of Ceylon that “there is not published in the entire United States a report equally valuable and comprehensive”.

Governor Sir West Ridgeway entrusted the organisation of the 1901 Census of Ceylon to Arunachalam. The report elicited the thanks of both the Governor and Secretary of State. But it was Armand de Souza, Editor of the Ceylon Morning Leader, an influential paper of the day, who wrote:

“The curious reader…. will find the Report which introduces the Census of 1901 perhaps the most luminous dissertation on the ethnological, social and economic conditions of the Island. In Sir P. Arunachalam’s Account of the history and religions of the Island in his Census Report would be found the language of Addison, the eloquence of Macaulay and the historical insight of Mommsen”.

In 1906 Arunachalam was appointed to the Legislative Council. In 1912 Governor Sir Henry McCallum nominated him to the Executive Council, as a personal appointment; and on his retirement from the Public Service in 1913, he was knighted in recognition of his distinguished service to the country.

POST-RETIREMENT

In 1913, a new phase in Arunachalam’s life began. In this year he joined a political movement demanding self-governance for the people of Ceylon. In an historic lecture entitled ‘’Our Political Needs”, given at the insistence of D.R.Wijewardene, Arunachalam crystallised the arguments for self-government.

In 1915 he was elected the first President of the Ceylon Social Service League for the upliftment of the poorer classes in Ceylon.

In 1917 he founded the Ceylon Reform League, and

In 1919 he delivered an address to a Sinhalese conference under the patronage of F.R.Senanayake, for the purpose of organising Peoples’ Associations throughout the Sinhalese districts of the Island for political, social and economic improvement. This movement directly gave birth to the Lanka Maha Jana Sabha.

HIS VISION

Arunachalam’s unstinted commitment to his dream of “Unity is Strength” illustrates the strong unity that existed at that time amongst the people of Ceylon, when Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Burghers were united in their approach to social reform. Unfortunately, the country now marches to a different drum resulting in mass exodus of many talented individuals and their progeny!

NATIONAL ORGANISATIONS

On December 11, 1919, the Ceylon National Congress was inaugurated, with the unanimous election of Arunachalam as its first President. It was he who advised various political organizations such as the Ceylon National Association, the Ceylon Reform League, the Chilaw Association, and the Jaffna Youth Association to unite into one body and lodge a joint appeal for political reform.

The Jaffna league joined the Ceylon National Congress on a condition: namely, that in a reformed Legislative Council there would be a special seat for the Tamils of the Western Province.

LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL

The reformed Legislative Council of 1921 did not have a seat for a Tamil.

The Low Country Association, with 11 voters elected Sir Henry De Mel in 1921, whilst the Town of Colombo with an electorate of 4,325, elected his Brother-in-Law, Sir James Peiris, unopposed. The vast number of people felt this to be the cause of Sir Ponnambalam’s untimely resignation from being the first President of the newly formed Ceylon National Congress (CNC), to form which he had exerted so much effort, persuasion and energy for quite some time. They all expected Sir Ponnambalam to be elected as the member for Colombo Town and Sir James Peiris who was a prominent member of the Low Country Products Association, to be elected by that body.

FATHER OF UNIVERSTY EDUCATION AND “SWABASHA”

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s contribution to the field of education was that of a pioneer. In his notes to the Director of Public Instruction, he stated that the fundamental defect in the system of elementary education in Ceylon was that English was employed as the medium of instruction.

In a real sense, as has been pointed out, he was the father of the concept of ‘Swabasha’. Unfortunately, this idea was worked upon by later politicians who mis-read it, totally rejecting English, which could have been the link language unifying the different ethnic groups of Ceylon. Since at that time the people of Ceylon were still functioning as a united family, the need for a link language did not assert itself. The paths of History are littered with missed opportunities, and sadly, this was one of them.

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam has been rightly called the Father of the Ceylon University Movement as he was responsible for the Ceylon University Association which was formed in January 1906. In his memorandum to the Governor, Sir West Ridgeway, requesting the Government to appoint a Commission to report on educational progress and needs, Arunachalam appealed to the Government to create a “Ceylon University”; or at least to raise Royal College to the status of a University College, which would be of lasting benefit to the people and a fitting monument to His Excellency’s rule in Ceylon. He suggested that Ceylon and Indian History and Geography could replace English History and Geography on the curriculum of such an institution. “His Excellency on 15 October decided to take no action” was the negative response he received from the Governor’s Secretary.

ACHIEVEMENTS IN A NUTSHELL

Looking back on Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s career, we contemplate a life studded with immense contributions in a range of different fields of endeavour. Those contributions by which he will always be remembered include

His membership and Presidency of the Royal Asiatic Society

His role as Founder President of the Ceylon Saiva Paripalana Sabhai (a religious organisation which encourages the practice of Hinduism)

The re-organisation of the Registrar-General’s Department (a Herculean task, magnificently performed)

The formation of the Ceylon National Congress, whose real potential for national unity was destroyed by the petty self-interest of some influential sections of the Sinhalese

His original and outstanding contribution to the establishment of the Ceylon University College.

The steadfast belief in the unity of his country’s various communities in a single sovereign state, which he carried with him throughout his life.

THE FINALE

By then, Sir Ponnambalam was an exhausted and tired genius, perhaps disillusioned, yet one who understood human nature and became more forgiving and gracious. Towards the end of 1923, he undertook a pilgrimage to visit the Sacred Shrines in India. In the midst of his devotions at Madurai in South India, he passed away on January 9, 1924, leaving behind him memories of a noble life well spent in the service of his Country and his people.

THE TRIBUTES

The day after his death, the “Ceylon Daily News” described him in an Editorial as ‘’the most powerful personality in Ceylon’’ and the “Times of London” described him as ‘’Founder of modern Ceylon’’.

When Professor Marrs, the first Principal of the University College, heard of Arunachalam’s death at Madurai on January 9, 1924, while on a pilgrimage worshipping at the Hindu temples in South India, he summoned the students of the University College to the main hall and addressed them in these words:

“Gentlemen, I have asked you to assemble here at this hour as a mark of respect to the memory of one who was in a very real sense the Father of the University project in Ceylon. Little or nothing has been said of that side of his activities which to those who were in close touch with him was the inspiration of his latter days – the side which concerns you and me as members of an institution so dear to his heart, the Ceylon University College Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam presided over the Public Meeting which was called to consider the question of the establishment of a University in Ceylon on January 19, 1906. From that day to the day of his decease Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam has pursued his object to use his own words, “without let or restraint”, undeterred by the doubts of men without vision or the delay to which an untried project must, I suppose, always be subjected by conservers of tradition”.

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam has been honoured by the erection of his statue in Parliament Square in 1930, and by the unveiling of his portraits at Royal College and at the Offices of both the Ceylon National Congress and the Ceylon Social Service League. His name graces Arunachalam Hall, the first Hall of Residence to be opened to students at the University of Peradeniya in 1951, and a commemorative one-rupee postage stamp was issued in his memory on March 10, 1977. His philosophical and religious contributions were collected and published in 1937, with the title “Studies and Translations”.

In his ‘’Message to the Country’’ published by his good friend D.R. Wijewardene (who had returned from Cambridge with a degree in Law and as a Barrister, and persuaded Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam to resume his political activities) in the very first issue of the ‘’Ceylon Daily News’’ of January 3, 1918, he declared :

‘’ In our zeal for political reform we must be on our guard against making it an end. We seek it not to win rights but to fulfil duties to ourselves and our Country. People have a distinct task to perform. Our youth will seek their own well-being. They will work in unity so that all the intellectual forces defused among men may obtain the highest development in thought and action. With our youth inspired by such ideas, I would like to see our Country rise with renewed splendour to be a beacon light to all lands. ‘’

The next substantial reference to him was by the late, great Mr. D.R. Wijewardene himself, who was his great friend and admirer. On the occasion of Ceylon’s independence, he rose from his sick bed, whilst in retirement in 1948, and in ‘’Ceylon Daily News’’ reflecting on events over 32 years earlier, he wrote: – ‘’ In those days, the national consciousness was dormant and there was nothing in the spirit of the times to stir it to life and activity. Later, largely as a result of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s work, the fire of the national soul was quickened. When he delivered his epoch-making address on April 2, 1917 on ‘’Our Political Needs’’ at the Masonic Hall, that leader of imperishable memory set in motion influences that were to change the history of this Country. It was both a starting point and a blue-print for the important Constitutional changes that followed.

The immediate outcome of that meeting was the formation of the Ceylon National Congress. It was then that the national movement which has brought Ceylon to the threshold of Independence received its stimulus. Public opinion began to speak for the first time with a firm tone’’.

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam stands out as an outstanding leader of honesty, integrity and achievement, and is a beacon to us all.

Most of us would have been satisfied by association with one or other of such monumental endeavours. But Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam seems to have been a human dynamo – a true nationalist and patriot of Ceylon.

A short time after Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s death, grateful people honoured his memory by erecting his statute in the grounds of Parliament House. It was unveiled by the Governor, Sir Herbert Stanley on April 3, 1930. It was the first statute to adorn these premises, and stood in solitary splendour till the statute of his brother Ramanathan was erected in 1953. The inscription of the statute reads as follows:

SIR PONNAMBALAM ARUNACHALAM

1853 -1924

Scholar, Statesman, Administrator, Patriot

Erected by a Grateful People in

Testimony of a life nobly spent

In the service of his country and

Signal services as the champion of

A reformed legislature and of

His matchless devotion and

Steadfastness in the cause

Of the Ceylon University



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A Good Guide to the Omicron Variant

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By M.C.M. Iqbal, PhD

Despite the WHO adopting a neutral system to name the variants of the coronavirus that keep emerging (using letters of the Greek alphabet), the Omicron variant is associated with South Africa. The last variant of the virus to emerge was the Delta variant, which surfaced in December 2020, in India. There are two more letters between Delta and Omicron in the Greek alphabet that the WHO decided not to use. These are ‘Nu’ and ‘Xie’, which the WHO thought could be confused with ‘new’ while Xie is a common surname in China.

The Omicron variant is spreading in many countries. With the number of infected persons rising and another wave expected, many countries in Europe have imposed the usual methods to arrest the spread, with immediate lockdowns. However, scientists are still collecting data to find out how bad Omicron is, since the data seems to indicate that in South Africa, the disease is not as bad as the Delta variant. At the same time, in Europe, there is no significant change in the number of persons hospitalized. Of immediate concern to health authorities are, is the Omicron variant spreading faster than the earlier variants, does it cause more or less severe disease, and can it bypass the vaccines available?

Discovery

Scientists in South Africa announced on 25 November the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus. On 26 November, the WHO named it Omicron. Although South Africa has been labeled as the country of origin, the virus was identified in neighbouring Botswana. In addition, there are reports of an earlier detection of this variant in the Netherlands.

PCR tests look for four markers on the virus genome to identify it as the coronavirus. The tests in Botswana showed a reduced sensitivity because one of the four targets was not being detected. These samples were sent to South Africa, where scientists have state-of-the-art facilities to look for changes in the genome of the virus. Changes are found by reading the ‘letters’ of the virus genome (called sequencing) and comparing it to the already available genome of the virus. The new Omicron variant had many more changes than the Delta variant.

Global status

By 14th January, the Omicron variant had spread to 116 countries in all six continents since its discovery on 26 November 2021. The figure below shows the gradual replacement of the presently dominant Delta variant by the Omicron variant; at present global data on the coronavirus, maintained by Nextstrain (https:// nextstrain.org/ncov/open/global) shows a decline of the Delta variant from 88% on 30th October 2021 to 42% on 8th January 2022, while correspondingly the Omicron variant has increased from less than 1% to 56%. Nextstrain is a global database presenting a real-time view of the evolution of the genomes of the coronavirus and other globally important pathogens. The interactive platform provides information to professionals and the public to understand the spread and evolution of pathogens, including information on individual countries.

Distribution of Delta and Omicron variants on 1st January 2022 from Nextstrain. (Please see graph)

What’s unique about Omicron?

Unlike the previous variants of the coronavirus, this variant has over 30 changes (mutations) to its spike (a protein), the characteristic flower-like protrusion on its surface. It was these changes to the spike, one of the four targets of the PCR test that raised alarm bells in Botswana. This spike makes the coronavirus special – it is the key it uses to gain entry into the cells in our throat and lungs. The previous variants, Alpha and Delta also had changes in their spike protein, enabling them to enter cells more efficiently and thus making them more infectious. The vaccines against the virus are based on this spike, and the antibodies produced by our immune system are specific to the spike protein. Thus, any significant changes to the spike means the previous vaccines may not be effective against the newly changed spikes on the Omicron variant.

While the Omicron variant can spread rapidly, it appears to cause milder disease compared to the Alpha and Delta variants. Scientists believe this is because Omicron infects the upper airways or the throat, and not the lungs further down. Based on experiments done on hamsters and mice, scientists found the concentration of the virus was much lower in the lungs than in their throat. The earlier variants of the coronavirus caused severe damage to the lungs of the infected people, with extreme cases needing oxygen. This does not seem to be the case with Omicron. Scientists believe the changes to the spike enables the virus to enter cells in the throat more easily than in the lungs.

It can spread rapidly

The virus is quickly expelled into the air if it infects and multiplies in the throat. Since it causes a milder form of the disease, infected persons may be unaware that they carry the virus. They would be moving about socially and at work, spreading the virus. Thus, the obvious means of slowing or preventing the spread of the virus is to strictly wear the mask at all times, and avoid social gatherings.

Studies have suggested that the period between exposure to the virus and onset of symptoms has also reduced to three days for Omicron. At the pandemic’s beginning, this was more than five days, and for the Delta variant it was four days.

What is of immediate concern?

Of concern to scientists is the better ability of the Omicron to spread rapidly in the population and its suspected ability to bypass our immune system. Our immune system is our internal defense system, using antibodies and an arsenal of chemicals and cells. The available vaccines are designed on the coronavirus variants circulating in the population. Thus, major changes to the coronavirus can reduce the efficiency of the available vaccines. Both these concerns have been observed in the past month: Omicron can spread more rapidly than the presently dominant Delta variant, and observations on vaccinated people show a reduced ability by the vaccines to prevent infections, compared to the Delta variant. This has called for booster doses for people who have already received the two mandatory doses. In Israel, even a fourth vaccination is being administered.

How could the variant have evolved?

Variants of the coronavirus result from changes to the virus’s genome, called mutations. What is troubling about the Omicron variant is that it has many mutations in its spike. Mutations happen spontaneously as the virus multiplies in our bodies and spreads to others. Thus, the virus gradually accumulates small changes to its advantage. These advantages are infecting us more efficiently, spreading to others more easily, and multiplying more rapidly. Scientists believe that one possibility is that the virus circulated in a small isolated group of people (say a village), piling up the mutations over time, and then escaping into a broader population, and then eventually crossing borders.

Another possibility is that it developed in a single individual and spread to others. This happens when a person has low immunity, resulting in a prolonged infection because the immune system cannot eliminate the virus. This leads to the virus developing changes (mutating) to overcome the mild immune response. Answering this question needs scientists to painstakingly reconstruct the history of the virus, using tools from molecular biology. Unfortunately, locating patient zero is difficult since it is impossible to analyze the virus (or sequence its genome) of all the persons infected with the Omicron variant. What is usually possible is to determine a general area or community and the time of origin.

What can we do about it?

Vaccinate! This is the primary tool we have to prevent the spread of the virus and not give it opportunities to multiply. In addition, we should rigorously follow the simple rules we are familiar with – wear the mask when outside, physically distance ourselves, and follow hygienic practices by washing our hands with soap, and avoiding touching our nose and face with possibly contaminated hands.

The good news

The coronavirus has been with us for over two years. Many were infected and have recovered from the virus during this period, providing natural immunity. Others have acquired immunity through vaccinations. When a new variant infects these people, they will manifest a milder form of the disease. This may explain the reduced hospitalisation of Omicron patients.

A booster dose to those already vaccinated or were naturally infected by the coronavirus, appears to provide reasonable protection against the Omicron variant.

And the bad news

The Omicron variant can evade immunity from previous infections. A recent analysis of surveillance data from South Africa, involving over two million persons, indicated suspected reinfections of those previously infected. This is in contrast to Beta and Delta variants, which did not lead to reinfections on such a scale.

The Future

The coronavirus is here for the long haul. Variants will keep emerging, and it seems unlikely it can be eradicated. The media should help counter vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation. As individuals, we need to understand the biology of the virus to avoid spreading the virus and infecting ourselves and others. Science has to be supported in a broad sense to develop strategies by the health authorities and policymakers.

Further reading

S. Wild. How the Omicron variant got so many scary mutations. Scientific American, 3rd December 2021.

Michael Chan Chi-wai.

G. Vogel and K. Kupferschmidt. Early lab studies hint Omicron may be milder. But most scientists reserve judgment. Science, 20th December 2021.

K. Kupferschmidt and G. Vogel. Omicron threats remain fuzzy as cases explode. Science, 7 January 2022.

(The writer is a scientist in Plant and Environmental Sciences, National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Hanthane Road, Kandy. He can be reached at iqbal.mo@nifs.ac.lk)

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Rebirth in Buddhism

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By Dr. Justice Chandradasa Nanayakkara

The question of what happens after death naturally arises in the mind of thoughtful people, as we do not know what lies beyond death, because no one has ever returned to the living to recount his experiences life after death. Almost every religion across the world has a defined belief on what happens when a person dies, yet the question is still widely debated and discussed without any finality being reached on the issue. Most of the religious teachers from the earliest times, have been unanimous in affirming that life continues beyond the grave, but they differ widely on the question of what form and in what manner the survival takes place. Nevertheless, mankind continues to believe in some form of survival after death.

Regarding the question of survival after death, thinkers have generally followed one of two philosophical concepts. That is to say annihilationism and eternalism (in Buddhist, ucchedavada and sassatavada). First view is held by nihilists who claim that there is no life after death. They hold the view with the disintegration of the physical body the personality ceases to exist. This view accords with materialistic philosophy, which refuses to accept knowledge of mental conditionality. Those who hold the second view think that there is an abiding entity which exists forever and individual personality persists after death in a recognizable form as an entity called soul, spirit or self. This belief in some form or another is the basis of all theistic religions.

If you stick to the first view and deny that there is no continuity of life after death there would not be no moral law and vipaka (actions and results) operating in the universe enunciated by Lord Buddha and there would be no object in practicing self-restraint or endeavoring to free ourselves of the craving thanha which brings suffering in its wake. The cardinal teachings of the Buddha such as path to nibbana, Four Noble Truths and the eightfold path would be rendered nugatory and meaningless if death is followed by complete extinction. Similarly, those who believe eternalism which presupposes that individual personality persists after death in the form of soul or self as an enduring personality by means of transmigration is also rejected by Buddhism. This view runs counter to the very essence of Buddhism which denies existence of soul. This is the teaching of anatta doctrine, which distinguishes buddhism from other religions and marks it out from all other religious concepts.

In view of the virtual impossibility of establishing the truth of survival after death through empirical methods, question arises what is the attitude of science to this important and abstruse question which has baffled the minds of many people. Although, it is not possible to posit ‘rebirth’ as a scientific fact many men of science are of the opinion that mental, moral and physical inequalities can be accounted for on no other hypothesis than ‘rebirth’ hypothesis.

The idea of a cycle of birth and ‘rebirth’ is part of the teachings of the Lord Buddha. For many Buddhists death is not seen as an end, but rather as a continuation. Buddhists believe a person goes from life to life and see it another part of their long journey through samsara.

Buddhists do not regard ‘rebirth’ as a mere theory but as fact verifiable by evidence and it forms a fundamental tenet in Buddhism along with the concept of karma. Therefore, two principles-kamma and ‘rebirth’ are fundamental to understanding the teachings of Buddha. Kamma and ‘rebirth’ go in arm in arm. According to Buddhism there is no life after death or life before birth independent of kamma. Kamma is an immutable law of cause and effect, and we cannot avoid its consequences. Where there is kamma there must be ‘rebirth’. Most experiences in our present life are the results of our previous actions. Our actions of body, speech and mind (volitional activities) rebound back to us either in the present life or in some future life. It is the karma that conditions ‘rebirth’, past kamma conditions the present birth, the present kamma in combination with past kamma conditions the future. The present is the offspring of the past, and becomes in turn the parent of the future. For Buddhist death is not complete annihilation of a being though that particular life span ended, the force which hitherto actuated it is not destroyed. After death the life flux of man continues ad infinitum as long as there is ignorance and craving. Man will be able to put an end his repeated series of births by realizing nibbana, the complete annihilation of all forms of craving (Narada Thera).

The Buddhist doctrine of ‘rebirth’ should be differentiated from the theory of reincarnation, which implies transmigration of a soul and its invariable ‘rebirth’, as it is enunciated in Hinduism.

In his book What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula Thera posed the question “if we can understand that in this life we can continue without a permanent, unchanging substance like self or soul, why can’t we understand that those forces themselves can continue without a self or soul behind them after the non-functioning of the body? ‘When this physical body is no more capable of functioning, energies do not die with it, but continue to take some other shape or form, which we call another life… physical and mental energies which constitute the so called being have within themselves the power to take a new form, and grow gradually and gather force to the full: King Milinda questioning venerable Nagasena asked: “Venerable Nagasena, does ‘rebirth’ take place without anything transmigrating? Yes, O king, ‘rebirth’ takes place without anything transmigrating? “Give me illustration, venerable Sir. Suppose, O king, a man were to light a light from light pray, would the one light have passed over to the other light?” “Nay, indeed, Venerable Sir. “In exactly the same way, O king, does ‘rebirth’ take place without anything transmigrating.

In this connection, it should be mentioned the word ‘rebirth’ is not a satisfactory one, as it implies that there is something that after death takes on flesh again. It connotes transmigration of soul or other entity consequent to a death of a person. The Pali Word used in buddhism is arising or Phunabba.

As there is no soul or self in Buddhism, question arises if there is no soul or self what is there to be reborn. This has been most vexed question among many religious scholars. This has been a topic of debate for centuries. According to buddhism there is no enduring, substantial or independently existing entity that transmigrates from life to life instead there is simply an apparent continuity of momentary consciousness from one life time to the next that is imbued with impressions or traces (samskaras)of the actions one has committed in the past. For Buddhists everything is changing and nothing is permanent. So, when a person dies not he but his energies that shape him take a new form. New life is connected to previous life through kamma. There is rapid succession of thoughts throughout the life continuum.

The Buddha is our greatest authority on ‘rebirth. Therefore, for Buddhist no other evidence is necessary is prove ‘rebirth’.

On the very night of His enlightenment during the first watch, enlightenment, Buddhas mind travelled back through all of his unaccountable past lives. This was facilitated by the development of retro cognitive knowledge. Though his mind stretched back to countless eons he never saw a beginning to his past existence. He found no beginning and no end. He also saw all the beings in the universe being born, living dying and being reborn over and over again without end, all trapped in a web spun by their past actions. This process is the round of ‘rebirth’ known as samsara, which means wandering from life to life with no particular direction or purpose.

The Buddha before his enlightenment as bodhisattva was born in different forms of existence. As such Buddhist have a firm belief in many realms of existence, both above and below the human realm. Therefore, we can safely assume we all have lived through countless different lifetimes before being born in the world and our birth here as a human being is the result of predominantly good kamma we have committed in the past life. Those good kamma may have been done in many life times before, or more likely done in the previous life. Therefore, the quality of future births depends on the moral quality of our actions now.

In Dhammachackka Sutta too in his first discourse referring to second noble truth, Buddha declared this very craving is that leads to ‘rebirth’.

In ancient Greece philosophers like Empedocles and Pythagoras too taught the doctrine of ‘rebirth’ and Plato made it an important assumption in his philosophy, as pointed out by Ven Piyadassi Thera.

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A Good Guide to the Omicron Variant

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By M.C.M. Iqbal, PhD

Despite the WHO adopting a neutral system to name the variants of the coronavirus that keep emerging (using letters of the Greek alphabet), the Omicron variant is associated with South Africa. The last variant of the virus to emerge was the Delta variant, which surfaced in December 2020, in India. There are two more letters between Delta and Omicron in the Greek alphabet that the WHO decided not to use. These are ‘Nu’ and ‘Xie’, which the WHO thought could be confused with ‘new’ while Xie is a common surname in China.

The Omicron variant is spreading in many countries. With the number of infected persons rising and another wave expected, many countries in Europe have imposed the usual methods to arrest the spread, with immediate lockdowns. However, scientists are still collecting data to find out how bad Omicron is, since the data seems to indicate that in South Africa, the disease is not as bad as the Delta variant. At the same time, in Europe, there is no significant change in the number of persons hospitalized. Of immediate concern to health authorities are, is the Omicron variant spreading faster than the earlier variants, does it cause more or less severe disease, and can it bypass the vaccines available?

Discovery

Scientists in South Africa announced on 25 November the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus. On 26 November, the WHO named it Omicron. Although South Africa has been labeled as the country of origin, the virus was identified in neighbouring Botswana. In addition, there are reports of an earlier detection of this variant in the Netherlands.

PCR tests look for four markers on the virus genome to identify it as the coronavirus. The tests in Botswana showed a reduced sensitivity because one of the four targets was not being detected. These samples were sent to South Africa, where scientists have state-of-the-art facilities to look for changes in the genome of the virus. Changes are found by reading the ‘letters’ of the virus genome (called sequencing) and comparing it to the already available genome of the virus. The new Omicron variant had many more changes than the Delta variant.

Global status

By 14th January, the Omicron variant had spread to 116 countries in all six continents since its discovery on 26 November 2021. The figure below shows the gradual replacement of the presently dominant Delta variant by the Omicron variant; at present global data on the coronavirus, maintained by Nextstrain (https:// nextstrain.org/ncov/open/global) shows a decline of the Delta variant from 88% on 30th October 2021 to 42% on 8th January 2022, while correspondingly the Omicron variant has increased from less than 1% to 56%. Nextstrain is a global database presenting a real-time view of the evolution of the genomes of the coronavirus and other globally important pathogens. The interactive platform provides information to professionals and the public to understand the spread and evolution of pathogens, including information on individual countries.

Distribution of Delta and Omicron variants on 1st January 2022 from Nextstrain. (Please see graph)

What’s unique about Omicron?

Unlike the previous variants of the coronavirus, this variant has over 30 changes (mutations) to its spike (a protein), the characteristic flower-like protrusion on its surface. It was these changes to the spike, one of the four targets of the PCR test that raised alarm bells in Botswana. This spike makes the coronavirus special – it is the key it uses to gain entry into the cells in our throat and lungs. The previous variants, Alpha and Delta also had changes in their spike protein, enabling them to enter cells more efficiently and thus making them more infectious. The vaccines against the virus are based on this spike, and the antibodies produced by our immune system are specific to the spike protein. Thus, any significant changes to the spike means the previous vaccines may not be effective against the newly changed spikes on the Omicron variant.

While the Omicron variant can spread rapidly, it appears to cause milder disease compared to the Alpha and Delta variants. Scientists believe this is because Omicron infects the upper airways or the throat, and not the lungs further down. Based on experiments done on hamsters and mice, scientists found the concentration of the virus was much lower in the lungs than in their throat. The earlier variants of the coronavirus caused severe damage to the lungs of the infected people, with extreme cases needing oxygen. This does not seem to be the case with Omicron. Scientists believe the changes to the spike enables the virus to enter cells in the throat more easily than in the lungs.

It can spread rapidly

The virus is quickly expelled into the air if it infects and multiplies in the throat. Since it causes a milder form of the disease, infected persons may be unaware that they carry the virus. They would be moving about socially and at work, spreading the virus. Thus, the obvious means of slowing or preventing the spread of the virus is to strictly wear the mask at all times, and avoid social gatherings.

Studies have suggested that the period between exposure to the virus and onset of symptoms has also reduced to three days for Omicron. At the pandemic’s beginning, this was more than five days, and for the Delta variant it was four days.

What is of immediate concern?

Of concern to scientists is the better ability of the Omicron to spread rapidly in the population and its suspected ability to bypass our immune system. Our immune system is our internal defense system, using antibodies and an arsenal of chemicals and cells. The available vaccines are designed on the coronavirus variants circulating in the population. Thus, major changes to the coronavirus can reduce the efficiency of the available vaccines. Both these concerns have been observed in the past month: Omicron can spread more rapidly than the presently dominant Delta variant, and observations on vaccinated people show a reduced ability by the vaccines to prevent infections, compared to the Delta variant. This has called for booster doses for people who have already received the two mandatory doses. In Israel, even a fourth vaccination is being administered.

How could the variant have evolved?

Variants of the coronavirus result from changes to the virus’s genome, called mutations. What is troubling about the Omicron variant is that it has many mutations in its spike. Mutations happen spontaneously as the virus multiplies in our bodies and spreads to others. Thus, the virus gradually accumulates small changes to its advantage. These advantages are infecting us more efficiently, spreading to others more easily, and multiplying more rapidly. Scientists believe that one possibility is that the virus circulated in a small isolated group of people (say a village), piling up the mutations over time, and then escaping into a broader population, and then eventually crossing borders.

Another possibility is that it developed in a single individual and spread to others. This happens when a person has low immunity, resulting in a prolonged infection because the immune system cannot eliminate the virus. This leads to the virus developing changes (mutating) to overcome the mild immune response. Answering this question needs scientists to painstakingly reconstruct the history of the virus, using tools from molecular biology. Unfortunately, locating patient zero is difficult since it is impossible to analyze the virus (or sequence its genome) of all the persons infected with the Omicron variant. What is usually possible is to determine a general area or community and the time of origin.

What can we do about it?

Vaccinate! This is the primary tool we have to prevent the spread of the virus and not give it opportunities to multiply. In addition, we should rigorously follow the simple rules we are familiar with – wear the mask when outside, physically distance ourselves, and follow hygienic practices by washing our hands with soap, and avoiding touching our nose and face with possibly contaminated hands.

The good news

The coronavirus has been with us for over two years. Many were infected and have recovered from the virus during this period, providing natural immunity. Others have acquired immunity through vaccinations. When a new variant infects these people, they will manifest a milder form of the disease. This may explain the reduced hospitalisation of Omicron patients.

A booster dose to those already vaccinated or were naturally infected by the coronavirus, appears to provide reasonable protection against the Omicron variant.

And the bad news

The Omicron variant can evade immunity from previous infections. A recent analysis of surveillance data from South Africa, involving over two million persons, indicated suspected reinfections of those previously infected. This is in contrast to Beta and Delta variants, which did not lead to reinfections on such a scale.

The Future

The coronavirus is here for the long haul. Variants will keep emerging, and it seems unlikely it can be eradicated. The media should help counter vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation. As individuals, we need to understand the biology of the virus to avoid spreading the virus and infecting ourselves and others. Science has to be supported in a broad sense to develop strategies by the health authorities and policymakers.

Further reading

S. Wild. How the Omicron variant got so many scary mutations. Scientific American, 3rd December 2021.

Michael Chan Chi-wai.

G. Vogel and K. Kupferschmidt. Early lab studies hint Omicron may be milder. But most scientists reserve judgment. Science, 20th December 2021.

K. Kupferschmidt and G. Vogel. Omicron threats remain fuzzy as cases explode. Science, 7 January 2022.

(The writer is a scientist in Plant and Environmental Sciences, National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Hanthane Road, Kandy. He can be reached at iqbal.mo@nifs.ac.lk)

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