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UK resident rooting for Sri Lankan street dogs

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Continued from yesterday

He explained that the community receives high-quality service free of charge. “There are many people who cannot afford surgeries and vaccines in the areas we work in. Dogstar offers it for free. We educate the community on rabies control and pet ownership. We help to enhance the health of community dogs, giving them a better chance to co-exist with the community.”

Team Blue, Deputy team leader Duminda Liyanage got to know about Dogstar through his brother-in-law who also works for Dogstar. Liyanage has been with Dogstra for five years. “We help to control rabies, one of the most dangerous viruses in the world. We have processes in place, we use technology to ensure sustainability.” He admitted that the skills and knowledge they acquire through international standard training are irreplaceable.

“We also offer to collect the dogs from owners who cannot travel to a clinic and bring them back,” said Liyanage. He believed that animals that are spayed or neutered and vaccinated against rabies are more accepted by the community which allows the dogs to live a happy life. “Conflicts that arise due to unwanted puppies and issues related to stray dogs and rabies are mostly reduced. People tend to care for and adopt community dogs that have already been neutered,” he said. Liyanage believes that the programme had made a huge difference at both personal and community levels. “Personally, I have learned more about animal behaviour and welfare which allows me to help people or owners in need. And job security is very reassuring. Especially during the COVID-19 period.

Project Assistant Anjali de Silva joined Dogstar as a volunteer and became a permanent staff member in 2017. “We are very focused on animal welfare and the priority is to control dogs and cat population humanely. Dogstar constantly adopts new ways that could enhance the quality of the free service we offer to the community. Not to mention constant learning opportunities from the international professionals who are at the top of their game,” said de Silva. She is of the opinion that Dogstar has made a significant difference in the areas it operates. “Stray dog population has been controlled to a great extent, not to mention the improved overall health of the stray dogs.” She pointed out that the community education programmes are focused on promoting responsible pet ownership and animal welfare.

She admitted that the programme has made a huge positive impact on her personal life. “I’m constantly challenged to perform better as both my superiors are perfectionists. We are given tools to learn new things, be it animal-related or management related. We are empowered to make decisions to achieve our targets, our ideas and opinions are always considered. And most importantly the opportunities I’m presented with to learn and grow professionally is massively beneficial.”

The major benefits to the community, are the humane control of dog and cat population and rabies control. “And 90% of our staff are locals. That’s because Samantha always gives priority to recruiting Sri Lankans. So as Dogstar grew over the years it has created many job opportunities for locals.” de Silva pointed out the numerous other ways Dogstar is helping the community; donating dry rations to vulnerable families during the lockdown, sponsoring breakfast at an underprivileged local school called Yawajeewa every day and offering work opportunities to its students once they complete their education.

But Samantha couldn’t have done it without her husband Mark, whose role as the Deputy in Country Director is to support Samantha’s vision and help her make it happen. “What Samantha is doing here is making a change to so many people, it’s making communities safe, and it’s improving the welfare and lives of the dogs,” said Mark, who has no regrets about coming to Sri Lanka.

Samantha hopes one day she would be able to pass the torch on to one of her assistants. Her husband’s role is to support Samantha’s vision and help her make it happen. When asked whether he has any regrets about uprooting his life in the UK to start Dogstar, Mark said he has no regrets. “What Samantha is doing here is making a change to so many people, it’s making communities safe, and it’s improving the welfare and lives of the dogs.”

 

Typical day

What is a typical day in Samantha’s life at Dogstar like? Samantha said it varies and no two days are alike. She spends a lot of time in her office budgeting, financial forecasting and coordinating with government departments such as the Ministry of Health, Rabies eradication programme and PHIs. “People often say that they would love to do what I do for a living, ‘being with dogs all day’. In truth it involves a lot more paperwork than people would think.” She admitted that although she makes every effort to spend time with the dogs, often the only dogs whose company she is in are her own pet dogs. Having said that, Samantha admitted that project management skills of her old job were vital to the success of the programme. “It is much like running a business,” explained Samantha. “Products are our services and shareholders are donors.” Hopefully, without further lockdowns, Samantha and her team are looking to sterilize 11,000 dogs and up to 3,000 cats. The current project is keeping her fully occupied with spreadsheets and Gantt Chart.

Their work involves an initial census and awareness campaign. The owners are then given the option of bringing their animals to the clinic or requesting the team to transport the animal to the clinic. Roaming dogs are netted and brought to the clinic. Surgery is performed and the animals are micro-chipped to keep track of all the information from age to their home range. “This way, after they are released, we are able to follow-up on them.” The process is wrapped up with another census, of the number of dogs sterilized. Some dogs are so clever that they skip town for the duration.

“Our target is to sterilize at least 90 percent of the population.” Samantha vouches that this is far more effective than culling, done in certain western countries. There are other advantages of reduced dog population that the average Sri Lankan is oblivious to, such as less fighting among dogs over resources and territory, lower dog bite incidence and resulting change in attitudes. Samantha pointed out that, as the numbers drop and dogs become healthier, they cease to be a nuisance. The community becomes more sympathetic towards them as they are not overwhelmed by a large number of dogs. Consequently, the balance between people and dogs matter, Samantha reiterated. “We have a static dog population now and most of them are vaccinated.”

 

Challenges

Samantha admits that anyone working in animal welfare is faced with many challenges. The major obstacle she has had to face is the resistance on the part of owners to spay neuter their pets. “Their argument is that they don’t want to subject their pet to surgery and neutering is not natural. But they don’t think twice about dumping unwanted litter on the roadside or temples.” Samantha pointed out that the puppies have little chance of survival on the streets. According to her there are too many dogs and not enough good homes.

“There is this idea that imported dogs are better, which is ridiculous,” said Samantha, who sees this as a major reason Sri Lankans do not want to adopt local dogs. “Sri Lankan dogs are amazing. They are possibly healthier than some of the imported breeds and, because of their body weight and short coats, are better adapted to the local climate and far more resistant to disease.”

Dogstar is in the process of creating awareness about the benefits of spay neutering. According to Samantha, getting the services of vets have also proved difficult with only one university, University of Peradeniya, producing 50 to 60 veterinary graduates a year. “Most of them will go into food security, working for the Department of Animal Production and Health or Ministry of Livestock. Some will want to go abroad or continue studies.” There aren’t that many vets for a country of over 21 million people. “Some of the drugs and equipment that we take for granted in Europe are not available here or are very difficult to procure.” While the Dogstar team awaited shipments of supplies, the situation was compounded by cancelled flights and delays at seaports due to the pandemic.

Raising money to sterilize street dogs may not be the most exciting proposition. Thankfully the spay neuter programme is supported by a number of charities and establishments such as Dogs Trust Worldwide, The University of Edinburgh, Worldwide Veterinary Service, Mission Rabies and Foundation Brigitte Bardot. “We have to raise money for everything else from the public, from the UK, Europe and Australia.” Samantha admitted it is difficult to raise all the money required, locally. But with the pandemic putting most of their UK donors out of work, forced to face considerable financial difficulties themselves, times have been difficult for Dogstar.

The Dogstar motto is Eat, Spay, Love. But how does a predominantly Buddhist society, where sterilization of any kind is thoroughly discouraged, take to neutering. Samantha admitted that some do object to it based on their faith beliefs, but many support the programme because their need to alleviate suffering overrides it. Having worked in both predominantly Buddhist and Catholic areas, Samantha said that many places of worship, both Buddhist and Catholic, had offered their premises to conduct clinics. She admitted that the community was naturally suspicious, but are warming up to the concept. “They actually call us for help now.”

Contrary to popular belief, stray dogs and cats aren’t solely responsible for over population and unwanted litter is dumped at temples or roadsides, in which case what may be required is change of attitudes. To address this need, this year Dogstar is stepping up the programme to raise awareness locally.

“There definitely needs to be a change in attitudes,” said Samantha. “For example, one may complain that their neighbour’s dog is barking all the time. Some may be quick to point out that it’s barking because it’s a dog, but the fact is it’s barking because it’s frustrated, because it’s locked in a kennel or chained for 24 hours a day.” She pointed out that people in the community should be encouraged to tackle issues relevant to themselves, working directly with pet owners. She pointed out that owners should also be more attuned to their own responsibilities towards their pets.

She also emphasised the pressing need for legal backing. She said that the proposed Animal Welfare Bill will go a long way in ensuring animal rights. “Everyone in animal welfare is excited about the possibilities a new act could afford us,” said Samantha, who pointed out that the existing laws are archaic and offers hardly any protection to animals. “In any country there are those who are unfortunately cruel to animals. Legislation is the one way that would ensure that animals are safeguarded from such people.” She pointed out that animal rights were non existent 150 years ago. But with the introduction of legislation, people’s mindset was also changed.

To ensure that the work they do is not duplicated Dogstar coordinates with government counterparts such as Ministry of Health and the Department of Animal Production and Health within the Ministry of Livestock and Rural Community Development. And red tape, typical of local government service is nuisance that the Dogstar team has learned to deal with. “Sri Lankan departments have a lot of paperwork that gets moved back and forth a lot. But in the recent past most departments have come on line and conduct online meetings. Although when it comes to reporting most of it is still physical.”

Their programme churns out a lot of data. When asked what kind of an impact the programme has made in Sri Lanka, according to the stats, Samantha said that they have recorded a 32 percent drop in the dog population of the area. Dogstar has currently sterilised 45,802 dogs and 3,632 cats and carried out 67,284 rabies vaccinations. “Data is important to determine the impact of the spay neuter programme, specially to know where we went wrong, to learn from it and share the findings internationally and locally.” Samantha explained that statistics point the way to a targeted organized programme.

When asked how the Sri Lankan government has reacted to the programme, Samantha informed that the Ministry of Health has shown positive interest in their work. Samantha and her team is more than happy to share their experience and technology pertaining to the spay neuter programme.

The first dog she saved at the temple many years ago eventually made a full recovery and was christened Mango. She is long gone now, true to her name, buried under a mango tree. “If it weren’t for Mango and the monk, I would probably be in London, doing a corporate job.” it begs the question, did she save the dog or vice versa.

Pics courtesy Richard Murgatroyd, Dogs Trust Worldwide

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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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