Barring a few shady Indian gurus – who flit in and out of it at will – most ordinary mortals have no choice except to live with the bodies they are born into, till they die.
And yet, from a casual survey of asking people what they know about it, the body is clearly the biggest blind spot in the entire existence of most human beings.
The fear and loathing surrounding the body and its contents is of course historical, with one of the oldest taboos in the history of medicine being autopsies of the human body. The body was the repository of the human soul, and should not be disturbed, claimed the theologians. And those who disobeyed would be punished by God and His representatives on Earth.
Today the world of science has explored every nook and corner of the human body, down to its genetic and molecular levels. There are still many mysteries to be solved, of course, but none is taboo or considered beyond the reach of human beings. And yet, when it comes to many citizens around the globe, ignorance of the body continues, propelled by a mix of factors, which includes sheer laziness.
Journey into the unknown
Exploring the human body is not a journey for the weak-hearted, surely. The intricate pathways, the secret chambers and crevices, the undulating pipes opening and contracting like a python about to swallow its prey. The bacteria, mucus, blood, pus, and other body fluids that we are culturally trained to dislike so much, are all there. Just the sight of the hot fuming acids that digest everything we eat could be enough to make your stomach churn! Who in his/her right mind would want to enter the human body to find out what it is all about?
In my view, there are even deeper reasons than disgust for the human reluctance to show curiosity about the human body. This has to do with the hierarchy between the mind and body, a master-slave relation that has historically emerged in the course of human evolution itself. When we went from being primates on all fours to becoming bipeds, our hands invented tools and our brains got sharper. That gave us the ability to manipulate the world around us–and, it seems, since then, the very idea of what constitutes ‘intelligence’ has changed.
Mind as Pharaoh
The mind proclaimed itself the monarch and consciousness became a substitute for everything the body represented and of bodily action itself. From Plato to Manu, self-appointed sages in different societies proclaimed the superiority of ideas over action. ‘I think, therefore I am,’ René Descartes famously declared of the ability to think as proof of one’s physical existence. In the process, he inverted the truth that it is the existence of the body that makes the mind possible.
One social consequence of this twisted logic has been the way the so-called ‘civilised societies’ have valued the intellectual more than the one who does, who works, and who invests his/her body in production. In India, this approach had given rise to the caste system with the ‘genius’ priest at the top of the hierarchy. The global version of the caste system today has put the movers of finance, media and other ‘software’ in absolute power while pauperising farmers and workers.
It is also not an accident at all that, in modern times, the discipline of mathematics, arguably the most abstract of all human endeavours, is held in so much awe and respect not just by both those who know and pretend to know it well, but also by those who don’t. The former, of course, rule over the latter using their ‘expert’ knowledge in order to claim superiority and legitimise their strategies of exploitation. Much of financial capitalism rests on the mathematisation of everything around us – the worship of numbers – a trend imitated by all other sectors, including medicine.
Tragically, many of the key problems of health in our times arise from the fact that the mind considers the body its slave, that can be controlled and commanded at will. It is relegated to its routine functions till the day the slave cannot take it anymore, and revolts by packing up. It is this deep-rooted psychology that makes many of us blind to what we eat, drink, inhale, see, hear, or where we stay with our bodies. If it is only a slave that is being abused, why should the mind really care about the the body?
We contain multitudes
However, for one who has overcome the fears, prejudices and other obstacles that prevent one from exploring the human body and seeing it for what it really is, there is simply no end to the amount of joy that can be derived. Apart from its amazing functions, most of which we are barely able to replicate or fathom, the terrain inside the human body is one of immense beauty.
Any of you who has seen scanned electron microscope images of what is inside our bodies will accept that – bizarre as it may sound – there are rivers, mountains, forests, marshlands, rolling meadows and deserts inside us just as they are outside us on the planet. And, why not? For, after all, the human body is a product, in all its fine and intricate details, of Mother Earth itself, along with other species and elements of Nature.
To anyone who is familiar with evolutionary science, the reasons for this deep connection between the composition of the human body with both the living and non-living forms outside, is very obvious. Given the fact that all life has evolved from single-cell organisms over the last 4 billion years, it may be concluded that we still contain within ourselves, the imprints of countless species that shaped us into what we are today.
The bacteria, fish, amphibians, plants, the early primates–and who knows what other species–have all contributed to the making of the human body. Every genetic mutation, every little shift in behaviour that helped survival, has been passed on to us over millions of years. And, all these, along with the so-called ‘inanimate’ elements like fire, soil, water and sky. And, of course, the rest–the iron content in our haemoglobin, the zinc and magnesium in our diet, the oxygen we breathe and the carbon dioxide that chloroplasts turn into food with the help of sunlight.
Body = Earth
What I want to point out is very straightforward. There is no difference really, in modern scientific terms, between what we as human beings are made of and the world outside us. In fact, even the terms inside and outside themselves would not make sense, given the enormously porous nature of the body, whether it be the elements of nature or microbial living organisms.
For example, looking from the scale of the bacteria inside us, there is no such thing as the ‘human body’ at all. For them, the experience of inhabiting our bodies is probably not very different from that of our space travel. At the same time, if we see the world outside us through a decent telescope, we realise that we too are indeed microbes in the larger context of the universe, considering the enormous difference in scale. In other words, we are at once microbes and planets, depending on who is doing the ‘looking’.
What all this points to is the deep connections among humans, the planet and other species – we are manifestations of one another, and our origins and destinies are identical. That is why when we wound the planet grievously by excavating its treasures – the gold, mineral and oil; destroy its ability to breathe by converting forests into urban wastelands; poison its waters with toxic wastes, and exterminate other living organisms, we are, in fact, doing all this to our own bodies.
Microbes of the world unite!
As a species, however, humans unfortunately seem to believe we are the only ones entitled to live – all others are to be enslaved or driven to extinction, if need be, in the interests of human ‘progress’. The exclusive focus of human beings on their own welfare is not just deep ingratitude to the contributions other species have made to our existence and contempt for their right to live, but also foolishness on an apocalyptical scale. If they don’t live, neither will we, as a species – for, we are part of the same web of life where every difference we construct artificially between ‘them’ and ‘us’ adds only one more brick to the tombstone of humankind itself.
It is interesting to reflect on this attitude of arrogance and the inability to see beyond the human being as key factors in the failure of every attempt at bringing about revolutionary changes to our life, in the past.
If Karl Marx had consumed a little more alcohol or chewed on coca leaves, I am very sure he would have acknowledged that the idea of ‘working class’ should include not just humans, but all other species on our planet and Mother Earth itself!
That realisation may indeed still hold the key to revolutions of the future.
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