Charnel Grounds

The practice of interment and its associated rituals are features of human symbolism and practiced by most cultures. One unique burial ritual prevalent in ancient and medieval South Asia was the sky burial. These burial sites – termed charnel grounds – were typically found near large river banks or on mountain plateaus. At these sites, people without family were left to decompose when they died. It was an above-ground site for the putrefaction – where dead human bodies were left to decay uncovered. It is not too difficult to imagine the assault on the senses in these grounds. Sights of decaying flesh, smells of oxidation, the raspy, hissing sounds of vultures feeding must be salient features of charnel grounds. Amidst this disgust you would have Buddhist monks sitting unwaveringly – meditating. The entire imagined scene – transmitted by our senses and repugnant to our sensibilities – served a symbolic purpose. It was a reminder of any environment where suffering was present. The charnel ground not only symbolized the vicissitudes in life – the misfortunes that led to death and “family-lessness” – but also served as a reminder of the impermanence that is an essential and omnipresent characteristic of our universe.

At many first and cursory glances, this impermanence is not visible. The Earth’s forests oceans, mountains, canyons radiate stability and permanence. They appear as if they have existed forever – unchanged and unchangeable. However, appearances belie the underlying volatility and mutability of times gone by. “What was, is no longer,” but only available in fragments, glimpses, and codes. Via the methodological and technological fruits of science, we have been able to decode many of the messages and made fragments whole into coherent narratives of the past. As Rick Potts describes in Humanity’s Descent: The Consequence of Ecological Instability, volatility was a defining feature of the Pleistocene. Ice ages, interglacials, savannahs, rainforests, species on the precipice of extinction were the hallmark of this epoch. This foundational period of human evolution, the crucible in which humans evolved was a charnel ground. Suffering abounded, uncertainty and volatility were the rule, impermanence was on full display. 

As a general rule, during periods of environmental volatility, migrant species – those who can extend their habitats –  and generalists – those who can consume a range of energy sources – are favored over specialists. Humans emerged from this crucible with a defining feature of our psychological and physical toolkit – flexibility. Mobility, omnivorous diets, range with habitats extending from the equator to the tundra, from the rainforests to the deserts – we have an unparalleled ability to “to adjust and diversify our behavior, physiology, and overall way of life.” [Rick Potts] Uncertainty, suffering, impermanence were foundational to our evolution and flexibility, adaptability, creativity, risk-taking are inbuilt into our disposition. 

In contrast to the Pleistocene, the sliver of earth history that is the last 10,000 years have been a period of relative environmental stability. There have not been rapid and large scale shifts in the climate that was a feature of the Pleistocene. During this period, homo sapiens (especially in the “first” world)  have leveraged that fortune to construct institutions that have buffered us from environmentally triggered suffering.  However, spatiotemporal distance from the suffering and impermanence of symbolic charnel grounds is only illusory and the COVID-19 pandemic has been clear proof of that fact. Existential and economic uncertainty, personal pain and suffering, misfortune of exposure, the gift and the curse of interdependence (future essay) have been in full display in 2020. Personally, this year has served as a reminder of the facts that change, uncertainty, and suffering have been a defining feature of our past, integral to the present, and always lurk on the horizon. Extreme misfortune and calamity notwithstanding, the only protection we have is to extend the lessons from our evolutionary history – flexibility, variation, range – to personal and societal levels.

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