By Christopher Rezel –
We all accept we will die. We cannot change that.
However many of us believe in an afterlife.
There are contesting claims about the nature of this afterlife.
Some say it is a paradise through which we will float in bliss forever.
Others see it as a world presided by an all-powerful god who will grant us the indescribable pleasure of venerating him for eternity.
There are those who claim a “heaven” and a “hell”, the former for those who lived virtuously and the latter for sinners, virtue and sin being decided by a priestly caste who claim to represent an almighty god.
Some say we will be drawn up to be part of “the great spirit”.
Others that we will be successively reborn into the present world.
Yet others that at death we go into nothingness.
On and off in the Sri Lanka media writers expose us to their version of what happens after death.
All the claim and counter claims may derive from our inability to let go of our unique identity – the “I” nurtured and held precious in our lifetime.
We wish it to continue indefinitely as soul or spirit in another realm?
Belief in an afterlife paradise is a persuasive option. It comforts those who have lost a loved one.
The question of gods and an afterlife may have arisen after man first learned to think, going by ancient burial rituals.
Sometime during our 200,000 history, we are known to have venerated spirits of nature and ancestors.
It was a primitive approach to understanding the universe, a lack of knowledge that science is gradually filling in, and in doing so, telling us that our atoms were all forged in the stars.
As humans advanced into modern times, more complex gods took form, together with elaborate cults, creeds and rituals.
We believed gods controlled the elements essential to crops, food, illness and death. They could be benevolent or malicious; a bad-tempered god could bring about calamities through flood, earthquake, famine and disease.
Appeasing the gods assured a peaceful life and forestalled their anger and destructive natures.
It also assured us a favoured place in an afterlife following death.
Some gods were placated only by human sacrifice.
Gods of the South American Aztecs were not alone in such demands.
Fortunately those religions passed into history, along with their concepts of afterlife.
Demise of these religions, and often a good many of their worshippers, was usually the result of foreign invasions and the imposition of new gods.
Today in lieu of human blood, some gods are placated with animal blood. Others get money or agricultural produce, such as coconuts.
To the list that went into oblivion were the ancient pantheons of Egyptian, Greek, Nordic, Celtic, and numerous Asian and African gods, many of whom were vested with various attributes.
The mood of a god depended on how believers interceded and propitiated them.
Because of this, powerful priestly castes arose, claiming nearness to god and influence in all supernatural matters.
They set down rules and rituals, often secret or in an obscure language. The more cryptic a religion, the more people were beguiled into accepting it, believing they lacked the intellect to understand.
People were kept in thrall and fear so they wouldn’t neglect upkeep of both gods and priests, a burden turned into their sacred responsibility.
This has resulted in many religions becoming the richest institutions globally.
Fear of death may have played a major role in our search for god because a definite end to life has always been unacceptable.
Consequently, yet more doctrines were created, according to time and place. In some the dead would rise up to a blissful paradise, or descend into a fiery hell. Some had an alternate place where the dead would linger before attaining paradise.
Most religions placed the afterlife in the “heavens above”. But ancient Romans believed a person’s spirit went to the “underworld” after crossing the River Styx. Therefore it was necessary for the dead person’s family to leave a coin on the body for payment to Charon, the ferryman.
Ancient Egyptians viewed death as a temporary interruption. So in order to ensure identity was retained in an “afterlife”, they mummified the corpse and entombed it with items to ensure a comfortable existence. Also buried were gifts the dead would need to appease gods of the spiritual world.
One’s wealth and social status determined extravagance in such matter. Naturally pharos received the most lavish burials.
In the Abrahamic traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the dead go to an afterlife, the result of “god’s” reward or punishment for conduct in this life.
Hindus believe in reincarnation.
It is however an accident of birth that places us in a particular race, religion or sect.
Following birth and nurture, and once we have absorbed culture, tradition and creed – even skin tone – we may evolve into passive or active recipients, sometimes, unfortunately, the latter attitude developing into a superiority which can manifest in forceful belligerence.
Most people go from birth to death accepting without question beliefs passed on at birth. They will automatically trust myths that everyone around them hold.
Others find belief in such myths convenient, freeing them from reasoning.
Still others stop from reflection because of the threat of hellfire as some religions prescribe.
This writer was born into the form of Christianity called Catholicism and six decades ago, attended a prominent boys’ college next to the Wellawatta Canal. There, besides other subjects, he learned to pray and sing in Latin, a language he never understood. He was also taught the concept of three gods in one and required to perform a leap of faith that god the father, god the son, and god the holy ghost were but one and the same. Questioning was to commit sin.
Over-zealous college priests were eager to get their pupils to heaven and used strong arms and stout canes to impart the 10 commandments and principles of ethics and worship. But the threats and force only succeeded in driving out all gods and devils from this writer, making secular humanism an attractive option.
The priests would have been up for serious physical abuse had it been present times.
The Enlightened One
Gautama Buddha departed from commonly held beliefs of his time and shunning an all-powerful god, preached anattā, the doctrine of “non-self”. This meant living beings have no unchanging, permanent self, soul, or essence.
He said at death humans would pass on into Nirvana, or nothingness.
But that’s been unsatisfactory for some Buddhists who have borrowed the concept of reincarnation from Hinduism.
In this view, individuals may be reborn into the prevailing world numerous times, but without memory of past lives, until the individual gains entry into an undefined spiritual realm.
Others hold that the numerous lives may finally culminate in Nirvana.
In the system of reincarnation, the nature of the rebirth, or the continued existence on earth, is determined by the individual’s actions in the recently ended life.
Characteristics of the rebirthed self is not dependent on the actions of a superior being or god.
Science meanwhile has unwittingly entered the “afterlife” discussion by indicating that a brain detached from the body wouldn’t be able to retain a concept of self.
That must also apply to a “soul” or “spirit”. Cut out from the constant feedback loop of a physical body, it would be unable to perceive a sense of self.
All this recently became apparent following the Yale University experiment that reanimated the brains of slaughtered pigs, prompting speculation that human trials could be next.
In the experiments, led by neuroscientist Nenad Sestan, the brains did not regain consciousness but Sestan acknowledged that restoring awareness is a possibility and that the technique could work on humans, keeping the brain alive indefinitely.
Scientists have been quick to point out that without a constant “feedback loop” between brain and body, ordinary experiences and thought are not possible.
The Yale experiment has raised discussions on immortality, besides ethical concerns.
Writing in The Conversation, Nottingham Trent University ethics researcher Benjamin Curtis says the brain is highly integrated with the rest of the body in both humans and animals. It is constantly receiving and sending signals from and to it.
He says even if disembodied brains did function more or less as they do now, they will still be receiving no input from the outside world whatsoever. “There would be no sights, smells, sounds, or tactile feelings at all.”
He says even the promise of eternal life is not worth the risk of subjecting a disembodied conscious human brain to “an existence of hellish tedium, or to the mental torture of inescapable madness”.
In such a “heavenly” world of eternal tedium, it is probable we may even welcome the diversionary labours of Sisyphus, the king of Greek mythology, who was punished for pride and cunning to eternally roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again from the top.
The punishment will be due us for conceit in creating gods and heavens in order to live on forever.
Further complicating the afterlife discussion is the Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero who is determined to carry out the world’s first human head transplant having conducted such an operation between two corpses at the end of 2017.
A 30-year-old Russian man who suffers from Werdnig-Hoffmann disease has put himself forward as volunteer.
Were the transplant to go ahead, the surgeon would foist on an unsuspecting “spirit” a split personality, or in more clinical terms, a dissociative identity disorder.
No dead have ever re-emerged to tell us of eternity except in our delusions. And myth is increasingly being seen for what it is. In addition, priestly castes have been shown up as eager for earthly pleasures, other than mere services to god and religion.
Consequently attendance is now fast falling at houses of worship.
In all such confusion we may still find peace. We can accept death and the natural cycle and the return to earth of all that we took to sustain us in life. And our reincarnation will be visible in the stunning wonders of nature’s seasonal resurrection.