What is our Body?
1160, 6th Avenue, Z-Block,
Annanagar, Chennai 600 040, Tamil nadu, India
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 11 (2001), 111-113.
One fine day, it so happened that I looked at my reflection in a mirror and was disappointed with what I saw. I had somehow developed a strange disappointment with my body. To sort it out and make peace, I consulted the religious help of a Hindu priest. I asked him why I felt a strange dissatisfaction with my own body? He immediately offered me the explanation that I was lucky to have been born with a human body which is the result of several rebirths and good deeds. He also said that if I don't behave myself, I stand a chance of being reborn as somebody's mascot. I felt strange after that cryptic answer and so I decided to visit a Buddhist I knew. He promptly sympathized with me and said that there is no pain like the body. He said that it is like an open wound. My visits to other religious priests gave me similar results, all of them saying that my dear planet Earth and my body were arenas of suffering, sin, and all the miseries put together. Now, to regain my confidence, I sought out the help of a philosopher whom I thought would give an optimistic answer. Behold! He said, Your body is "inutilis caroet fluida, receptandis tantumcibis habilis " (The flesh is useless and flaccid, so apt to be hungry and demanding). By now, I was stressed enough to force myself into a heavy exercise routine at the local Gymnasium. Just as I was happily comparing the dimensions of my biceps with those of legends, someone came up and told me, "Hey! You know what, this body of yours is a cultural body which you use for social mobility". Now, I knew I was surely doomed. Surely, there must be some way I could outgrow my disappointment with my own body.
Most of the social theories of the body have been very critical than constructive. Every joy of the human body has been criticized at some point as a sign of weakness. The body is seen as a zone of imperfection and as being inferior to an entity we call the soul. Every child is reared with the constant drumming that his body is to be ignored at all costs because it shall lead to temptations of the flesh. The primary importance has always been one of spiritual development rather than the development of the body wisdom. If there ever was any importance given to our bodies, it was always as a reflection of cultural trends. There is a certain degree of superhuman expectation which makes us strive for the perfect body. Art has glorified the perfect body as something that we cannot achieve by mortal means. A look at Michelangelo's sculptures would make any normal youngster like myself feel inferior. Our cultural and our social systems dictate that we should have the perfect healthy body. If we don't, then the medical system, a sad victim of society would isolate us into the hospitals, away from the culturally accepted bodies. We have refused equal place for the disease stricken and we have chased them away from our lives, forgetting that they were once like us. We have confined them in isolation like the animals, and denied them a place because of their bodies. The weak are always marginalized and exist in the fringes of society. There are always certain "acceptable bodies" which are allowed into the mainstream and there are the "misfits" who should be pushed out or don't belong. This is very much similar to a behavior that we readily observe in animals, from whom we consider ourselves to be superior. What we do not realize is that we have slowly slipped into the deep void of indescribable discrimination. So far, history has seen the discrimination of bodies that are clothed, colored or handicapped. This has led to many painful revolutions, holocausts that have questioned the dignity and decency of the so-called "Lesser Bodies".
There are also others among us who have thought of themselves as the avenging angels who have come to set things right. They wish to create the perfect body, free of the insecurities, disease and vulnerabilities that are not fashionable to their fantasy of the perfect society. They see the body as a zone of imperfection, which we must set right with available technology, no matter what the costs. Medical research has further strengthened feelings of insecurity that we have with our body. Genetics says that we carry so many genes that give us disease and suffering. So, they say that we must constantly tweak our bodies into perfection.
There are some similar people who have feasted on the imperfections and weaknesses of society. They can be found in many of the poor settlements of rural humanity, coming forward as the so-called saviors of mankind. Most of them are in fact manipulators whose real mission is to gain trust and then slowly exploit the bodies of the weak, so that their "superior race" may live and cherish. They place no respect in these bodies who have already been marginilized by society and now hold no more importance than as experimental subjects. It is these bodies that we sometimes see for no longer than five to ten minutes of prime time television. The sad thing is that this is monotonous and we have always tragically learnt to forget their existence.
Perhaps these are the reasons as to why advocates of religion and philosophers have lamented and despised the body as being a prison for the soul. They have been horrified with the manner in which we misuse our bodies for the purposes of domination, discrimination, and submission. So, they must have felt that all the evils spring from the body, and therefore, there must be a purer part that we have since come to know of as the soul. Surely, the underlying soul must have escaped the vagabond ways of the flesh. Death is seen by many as a form of an ultimate punishment for the body and the supreme reward for the soul. Most religious leaders have urged us to yearn for the inevitable as the ultimate reward from the realms of physical suffering. To many others, the sufferings felt with the body is a test, so we must bear the pain and survive. Such views have metamorphised into the modern ethical dilemmas of Euthanasia, Life-support systems, Brain death, Surrogate motherhood, donorship of egg and sperm. They say that we must not interfere with divine will and must suffer, because it is the destiny of our body. Society has also isolated lepers and mentally retarded human beings saying that it is their punishment to suffer and we must also fear the same if we differ from the rigid norms of culture and society. It is a very strange concept to accept a belief, which says that suffering in such a beautiful world is in fact divine, will.
I could still not find an answer to love my normal body until I read the papers one morning. It carried a news about the death of a young South African boy, Nkosi Johnson who was an icon for the millions of people suffer ing the wrath of HIV and AIDS. Having read the tale of this brave young boy, who has survived for so long and with such a noble mission to spread the good word, I was numbed. Here I am, in a comfortable home, typing away on my word processor away from the scorching Indian heat and then there are the millions who do not have even the basic forms of such amenities. I have seen the homeless in India and Tokyo. Yet, as I talked to a Japanese student in the Shinkansen (Bullet Train), she said that there are no poor people in Japan. How very strange and ironic is the fact that we have forgotten the very foundations of our society. We have drawn a curtain between the so-called 'lesser bodies' and ourselves, only to peer through occasionally to offer our temporary sympathy or our proposals of corporate exploitation. Most of the time, they lay forgotten beneath the piles of indifference and huge skyscrapers. For others, it is their misunderstood religious ways that makes them ignore the weak and even sadly makes them condemn the suffering masses as examples of sins. We do not realize that everyone is vulnerable. Anyone who has the Movie "Ben Hur", where he goes to the leper community to visit his family would know what I am referring to. None of us is greater than the other and yet it is difficult for us to accept others as our own. What the 'poor people' really need is not our media coverage or our extravagant offers of philanthropy. They need acceptance. They wish to be brought back into the kingdom of peace, harmony and the prosperity that their sweat and blood has helped create. Acceptance is the key to end all suffering. When we accept, we forget our differences and wish to equalize the distances, however difficult it may seem to be.
I have come to love my own body and I also feel that my body is no different from that of a leper or an AIDS patient. Although my words may seem very idealistic, it was brought into practice by one of the greatest souls we all revere, Mahatma Gandhi. He saw the image of god in the socially neglected communities and called them "Harijans" (the people of god). He lived amongst such people. Now is the time that our differences are becoming greater and our memories for compassion are becoming feebler. Like Osho says, it is not because we have forgotten, it is because we have blinded by the many curtains of deceptions thrown upon us by our social ways. We have to de-learn from these and emerge to regain our innocence. Once we do so, we shall see no differences and even if we do, every one of us will strive to remove it. There must be no more revolts or revolutions, no more secret negotiations behind closed doors. What must happen is the birth of a new consciousness. In the words of Swami Aurobnindo:
"The spirit shall look out through Matter's gaze.
And matter shall reveal the spirit's face.
A divine force shall follow through tissue and cell,
And take charge of breath and speech and act,
And all the thoughts shall be a glow of suns,
And every feeling a celestial thrill.
Nature shall live to manifest secret god,
The spirit shall take up the human play,
This earthly life become the Life divine."
Let us also learn to create Heaven on Earth.
Go back to EJAIB 11 (4)July 2001
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