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Selfhood: Varieties and Experience—Afterword by Dolonchampa Chakraborty

Editor's Note:Varieties of Experience is a remarkable collection of poems and essays involved in the discussion of the meaning of Selfhood. This anthology will be released in America by Transcendent Zero Press and in India by Hawakal Publishers. An introduction by Lyn Coffin, whose poetry and prose has appeared in Time Magazine and Prairie Schooner among other publications, questions the similarities and differences in Eastern and Western conceptions of Self. Lyn Coffin is also the recipient of the Republic of Georgia's Saba Prize in 2016. The engaging questions of identity, one's relationship with the world, and the influence of culture on the human mind are addressed lucidly and openly. Poets both highly respected and emerging are included. The anthology will be available on Amazon for $8.00 by the end of October. 



Afterword: Selfhood Anthology

          As I started my journey through the Selfhood anthology, the word “self” formed a little misperception. The word “Selfhood” in its general sense had provided me a notion of a personal consciousness, an emotional state and an insight about vivid experiences in life. However, as I kept delving further, it became palpable that this book is not restricted to the strict and prevalent idea of the self’s day-to-day existence. I realized that my delusion about the word “self” was rather deep-rooted in the passive practice of my Hinduism, while the use of “self” probing through the book has a far wider spectrum of meaning.

         “Self” in a more ancient Eastern term means atta (Pali) and atman (Sanskrit). The Atma Upanishad thus establishes the idea of atma (Soul or Self) dividing it into three categories known as Bahyatman—the physical person; Antaratman—the inner person who sees, thinks, distinguishes and Paramatman—the supreme source or reality.

         In contrast to these teachings of Hinduism, the main doctrines of Buddhism abide by the concept of anatma (no-soul or no-self). It clearly rejects the Vedic notion of the soul or self and states that there is no soul inside a living human body and hence it cannot be a connection between the mortal self and the higher immortal self. The Buddhist viewpoint, however, is in stark contrast to materialistic annihilationism, e.g. Charvaka; according to it, there is no soul, no self, no karma, no rebirth, and no afterlife. Tathagata advised against this practice known as Natthikavada. However, there seems to be a twilight point where Buddhism strongly insists the human body has a soul or self but does not acknowledge that the self does not exist either; because in order to accept it, first the existence of soul will have to be accepted.

         Anatta (anatman) doesn’t mean that there is no afterlife, no rebirth and no karma, Buddhism does not recognize the ideas of Hinduism which particularly upholds the theory of eternalism and says that every living human body is an adhaar (container) of a soul; and that this soul is a part of a greater reality, immortality and a hypothetical existence—hence, each and every human being is also part of a greater immortal being (Paramatman). This concept known as Atthikavada is also judged in Buddhism. The Theraveda Buddhism destroys the “I,” and “I am” by an inflexible practice of the Anatta doctrine as it defies that particular effort to become one with the apparently unknown and the Supreme One by destroying the active and the innermost ego of a person:


सब्बे धम्मा अनात्ता

(sabbe dhamma anatta—all things are not-self)

एतं ममम एसो ‘हम अस्मि, एसो में अत्ता ती’

(etang mamam eso ‘ham asmi, eso me atta ti’— this is mine, this I am, this is myself)


         Thus, when a mind is trained enough to detach itself from all forms of obsession, demand, expectation, revenge, pride, love, fear, loss, it comprehends the Shunyata (vacuum or emptiness) by realizing that everything in this world is devoid of a “self” or ego and attains Nirvana (salvation). This supreme attainment ends the cycle of suffering, death and rebirth.

         The central focus of the Nirvana Sutra is the Buddhadhatu—the nature of Buddha, an ultimate blissful form of “self” is present in every man. It is said to remain when all—every form of non-self is perished.

         Mark Blum writes: “He [the Buddha] makes it clear that while he will disappear from their sight, he is not going to die, because in fact he was never born in the first place. In other words, Buddhas are not created phenomena and therefore have no beginning and no end.”

         While Hinduism says that the Atma (self, soul) is the ultimate reality of human life—an unbound, free, uncreated, unlimited, immortal and liberated divinity because it existed even before the Universe took shape (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad); hence it is the same as the Brahmana—the omnipresent, unbounded, genderless, and eternal reality which has not changed since time immemorial and so, he is one with the Atma, which is indestructible.  According to The Vedas, the Atma (Self, Soul, Brahmin) is the cosmic principle as it was there, will be there. Similarly the concept of the ultimate attainable vacuum or Shunyata as advised in Buddhism and as the Buddhadhatu in every human being and the ultimate feature of Tathagata— the one and only true bliss and truth, it is free from all earthly cycles of suffering and at the same time it is the cause of everything which was never there, never born, hence never dead.

         In my opinion, the poets in this anthology have touched upon fascinating contrasts and similarities of these most practiced faiths in their extremely intelligent poems and essays, and by a habit of keen observation and listening to others’ stories.  

        I did not try to decipher the poems, rather searched for some connection with the parallel worlds of art and mythology that have filled them with an eternal fountain of bliss, even when their expression is of despair, grief, hollow—certain memories which date back centuries as they do not belong to a single entity but connect the whole universe, instead of expressing torn and broken pieces of a particular nation. They make every individual as one of the many children of Gaea—the Supreme Mother.

         In the very beginning there is the mention of the “door-keeper” and the “human-headed bird” which apart from their biblical referents, strike me with a humble yet bold appearance of the soul/self:


Open to me, the door-keeper.

My human-headed bird

steps from the niched recess

in your night chapel—

(“Ancient Spell” by Elina Petrova)


         Ba (a human-headed bird, especially a Falcon) is the classic Mediterranean example of the spiritual manifestation of soul through the concept of rebirth; while it is a part of a complex polytheistic interpretation practised in ancient Egypt; the mention of a human-bird is found in many other texts (Japan, Tibet. Garuda, the mythical bird-man creature mentioned in the Hindu epic Ramayana and other folk-tales, actually represents anonymous entities or powers and the ultimate survival of a “being.” It is being called upon by the door-keeper whose desire to become a bird is a symbol of liberty and movement  which is even more established by the rivers rapidly advancing through unchosen, random valleys, to keep the cycle of life alive and vibrant.


I roamed in an indigo sari

through jungles and villages

of my chain dreams:

(“Ancient Spell” by Elina Petrova)


         Roaming in a dream and draping oneself in a colourful saree denotes a very special social life that starts with settling down in a marriage or being involved in a spiritual quest. As for the color psychology here, Indigo means a communication with the intensified spirituality of oneself as well as celestial guidance. In terms of the emotional spectrum, Indigo suggests the compassion part of the rainbow—as if the person is developing an intuition towards serving the humanity guided by the inner wisdom (antaratma).

         The dreams are vivid in terms of color and objects—the Indigo saree, the turmeric splash of sun, Indigo scarabs—all point to a curious and empathetic mind—and also perhaps suggest an essentially sensitive mind, as all these point towards the possibility of traveling a tranquil path toward attainment. The dreams create a mysticism, though seeing scarabs emphasize rebirth, cleansing of the soul and protection from evil, while listening to music always fills the dreamer with a positive, harmonious feeling.

         The piece [“Finding the Courage to Always Be True to Ourselves” by Elizabeth Esguerra Castillo, page 21] on the theme of Paolo Coelho’s The Witch of Portobello is an interesting one.  While we should have the courage to be true to ourselves, that seldom happens and the truth lies buried somewhere inside our eyes. The part where Roscoe Snowden is quoted: “There are at least two kinds of cowards. One kind always lives with himself, afraid to face the world. The other kind lives with the world, afraid to face himself”—reminds me of Korean director Ki-duk Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring—a film released in 2009.

         Had it been a western film, the same operational structure that tells the story of a child and the Buddhist monk residing in a small cottage in the middle of a vast lake—even within the basic Buddhist platform would not fit. Because it is the difference of the Western ‘I’ and the Eastern ‘I’ that makes the treatments discrete. Basically, what we face is the changing time and the changes time makes in our lives. Hence, it is possible to disagree with what Snowden said in the context that everything is ever-changing and nobody can either keep oneself from facing the world or the self.

         On another note, “bedlamite” talks about an ethereal connection between everything said and unsaid, written and unwritten, accumulated and un-accumulated, done and undone:


all the unsaid bliss, compressed & hardened

to hieroglyph, to silence, to belated indifference

unable to share the stories fast asleep inside you & me.

Unlike accumulation,

there is something evanescent that no one sees,

that shapes us, drives us, binds us

within the optimistic brilliance of hope—”

[“bedlamite” by henry 7. reneau, jr.]


         Every person has a story—whether it will be told or not, it is a part of the great cosmic vacuum; because the eternal, ethereal Om [ॐ] is out there, has always been there since even before the creation of the universe. First ever mentioned in the Vedic text, Upanishads, the Om is also known as the mystic syllable which refers to the Atman or the self and the Brahmin—the ultimate divine and supreme entirety. The factual statement, “a broken self cannot mend other broken selves – he must heal himself first” refers back to this mysticism of the Om.  He must connect to his own self, cleanse it of all ill-feelings and learn to accept life’s vastness as it is.

         “A Special Sort Of Box” by Anya Ezhevskaya reminded me a very old saying: It is the giver who is blessed and should be grateful to the receiver for accepting a contribution with benevolence. The lines of a very popular poem by Rabindranath Tagore are along the same lines:


What I gave you was yours in reality / you’ve brought me in your debt by accepting it.”


         In an effort to achieve attainment, it is essential to forget the ego-consciousness, to cleanse the self or no-self off greed, hatred and ignorance.


 “But we are leaving us, we are leaving us… We are within me, the distant residence of that forlorn spring. Miles after miles sunflowers are blooming, where we kissed death.”             [“Words” by Niladri Mahajan]


         The language of this poem is uniquely associated with the theme of the book. We’re leaving us—the ego, the self and moving towards a non-self, thus gradually achieving a completeness in its entirety. But I feel that there can be another angle to it—a rather mundane and non-philosophical angle that hits our restricted entities every day. In my experience I’ve seen that the language of companionship is same all over the world, irrespective of the philosophy and politics of the geographical influence. The reminiscence of such a bond remains alive even after centuries have passed. That keen sense of togetherness expressed in a field bright with sunflower colours reminds me of Les Alyscamps—a pair of paintings done by Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin in 1888. From companionship comes a sense of belonging which in turn becomes an obstacle to Nirvana.

         The first few lines of “A Bankrupt Strategy” by Lucy Wilson are harsh and so is the whole poem named “Witch Hunt” by Jennifer Lagier, but these are realities especially in the developing as well as the war-torn nations even in the 2nd decade of the new millennium. Anger, frustration, helplessness are piling up to avenge the agony caused by the influential half and leading to the production of such lines with utmost mockery. “Conversation with a Dream” by Sasha Kamini Parmasad discusses the ancient account of the Vedic text:


“Wish I could wish

to show you Allah

as I promised

but in this life

I have lost my wisdom


and can only point

to your own image.”


         Pointing towards one’s own image stimulates the energy of awareness which is mainly controlled by Agni (fire)—supposedly, one of the main ingredients of human body. Incidentally, children are supposed to be the image / mirror image of their creators—this book started acknowledging the Supreme Mother, Gaea, who had apparently removed the void, chaos and confusion—to give birth what mortal life is today.

         The book perseveringly tests the efforts to break the idea of “self”—as practised in the West in its quest for the unseen and unidentified entity and consequences:


“You have thrown the spear

through the eye

of my I.”                  

[“Conversation with a Dream” by Sasha Kamini Parmasad]


         “I” is not only the uncleansed self, it is also the ego—aham that collides with the super-ego, which is omnipresent in every life and simultaneously nowhere to be found.

         In “Not My Own” by Susan Summers, the mother sees her unborn child which is supposed to fill the would be mother’s life with magnificent goodness as two different minds, unknown to each other, connecting with each other’s consciousness. An eternal question is posed in this poem about the very existence of humans.

         The last poem of the book is named “Krishna” (by Kiriti Sengupta, one of the editors of Selfhood anthology). In this poem, Krishna delivers the message of The Gita. He is not only the offspring of the body (Devaki) and the life-force (Vasudeva), he is also considered the God of eternal love. While the concept of the soul is ambiguous, love can seldom be eternal. It is also a form of Maya. Hence, these lines are strikingly truthful from the days of ancient epic war to our contemporary age of false living:                                      


No matter if someone indulges in an unfair deed, the gods would suffer through us, and thus, we would remain unaffected.


         The peacock feather on Krishna’s head denotes freedom—a detachment from all earthly ties which keep humans from moving towards the salvation.

         Lyn writes in the introduction: “The anthology Selfhood encourages us to regard familiar intellectual territory in different contexts and varying lights.” As a reader of Eastern and Western treatment of practices I would say that this book deals with many and tangled theories of simple faith—faith that talks about happiness, peace and bliss in today’s untrue times and makes the reader communicate with one’s innermost fear, truth, and liberty.


Dolonchampa Chakraborty

Nagpur, India


A translator and transcriptionist by profession for last twelve years, Dolonchampa Chakraborty has authored two collections of Bengali poetry. She is currently the executive editor of a Bengali Webzine, www.bookpocket.net and is also the Chief Editor of The Nilgiri Wagon (www.nilgiriwagon.org), a webzine dedicated to Indian, Spanish and Greek literature and art.


Reader Comments (4)

Very nice experience to read this beautiful review.

October 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKaushik Acharya

This review is clear evidence that Dolonchampa Chakraborty is an accomplished writer and critic. Her insights into Eastern concepts of selfhood are very helpful. I am honored to have a poem in this anthology. Congratulations to the editors.

October 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLucy Wilson

Thank you very much, Ms Wilson and Mr. Acharya for your kind comments. I am honored to be a part of this intricate reading experience.

October 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDolonchampa Chakraborty

Incisive and profound. Wonderful review.

October 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterShamik Ghosh

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