There has been a bit of a spat over the last few days over a new government proposal for nurses to work for a year as health care assistants to teach them care and compassion. The government’s suggestion is a reaction to the poor standards of care found at the Staffordshire hospital – though critics say there are real issues to address around cuts in resources and training. It seems we have moved a long way from the cosy picture of the NHS seen at the opening of the Olympics last summer.
The reality to this growing sense of crisis in a health service, once the envy of the world, is the escalating cost of looking after a rapidly growing elderly population, the high cost of expensive new drugs and procedures, as well as growing expectations. To me, those with a stake in a satisfactory resolution of these real concerns are not only the government and health care providers, but also the rest of us. We too have a part to play in ensuring all sections of the community enjoy good reliable, care services.
Looking beyond ourselves to the wellbeing of others is a central part of Sikh teachings. Gur Har Rai the seventh Guru started a free dispensary for the poor and needy and expanded on the concept of langar or free food for all who come to a gurdwara. His son Gur Harkishan died while administering aid to victims of a smallpox epidemic in Delhi and Guru Gobind Singh the 10th on the proper care of enemy soldiers in battle. Today many of our larger gurdwaras fund medical care in India and other countries.
All our different faiths remind us that a duty of care and compassion should not have to be taught in hospitals, but should be an essential part of how we live move and have our being. Guru Nanak declared that looking to the wellbeing of others through giving -in particular the giving of time – as the most important of the three pillars of Sikhism. Today, we can all do much more to make care in the community a reality rather than a euphemism for an absence of care, and, as Sikh teachings remind us, in so doing, get a more lasting sense of wellbeing ourselves than we do from our sometimes more selfish, questionable and costly lifestyles.
This week Sikhs are celebrating the spring festival of Vaisakhi; a day on which the 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh tested the readiness of the infant Sikh community to stand on its own without further Gurus.
We recall how, as crowds were celebrating the gathering of the winter harvest, the Guru came out of a tent and asked for volunteers who were prepared to put their life on the line defending the principles of Sikh teachings. Sikhs readily came forward and, discarding any previous allegiance to caste, took Amrit or baptism as the first members of the Khalsa or community of equals. The Guru then asked them to give him Amrit. Master and disciple were one, and the line of living Gurus ended. Sikhs were told that in future they should follow the teachings of Sikh scriptures as they would a living Guru. The teachings or principles that the Guru considered so important can, in essence, be summed up in two words: responsibility and equality.
Responsibility means earning by honest effort and helping the less fortunate. It implies a duty to stand up to the bully, whether in the school playground, the office or workplace It also includes a requirement for Sikhs to speak up, as the Gurus did, against social injustice and political oppression. Opposing injustice requires courage and commitment and two of the Sikh Gurus lost their lives in pursuit of this ideal.
The other requirement emphasised in Sikh teachings, is belief in the equality of all members of our human family, including the dignity and complete equality of women. On that historic Vaisakhi day, the Guru took gender equality a step further by giving women the title ‘Kaur’ or ‘princess’, emphasising not only their dignity and worth, but also that they were individuals in their own right and did not have to take their husband’s name.
Today, these concepts are widely accepted and we rightly have legislation against discriminatory behaviour. But I believe there is a danger of legislation sometimes being used to enforce sameness and undue conformity, when the one fact of life is that we are all different. The message of Vaisakhi today is, that while working for equality of respect and opportunity for all, it is important that we also respect the rights of those who question, or choose to differ from, transient social or political norms.
A favourite poem I used to read to my children begins:
Six wise men from Hindustan to learning much inclined
Went to see an elephant, though all of them were blind
Each touches a different part of elephant like the trunk, tusk or tail and comes to the instant conclusion that an elephant is like a serpent, spear or rope. The poem reminds us of the dangers of looking at an issue from too narrow a perspective.
I was reminded about this by two reports this week on the widespread use of drugs. One by a group of parliamentarians says current criminal sanctions do not combat drug addiction and only marginalise users. They want possession and personal use of all illegal drugs decriminalised and the least harmful sold in licensed shops, with labels detailing the risks The second report from the BMA also says that there is too much focussing on criminality and goes on to suggest that drug taking is like an illness and those with serious problems shouldn’t be inhibited from seeking urgent treatment.
Both these reports look at different facets of a common problem, but they don’t give us an understanding of why drug use has become a major problem in recent years. The reports focus on symptoms rather than addressing underlying causes. People start taking and become hooked on drugs for sometimes complex reasons, but I believe a key issue that is often overlooked in the debate is that of lifestyles that move us away from responsibility to and support from those around us, to a more selfish and isolated pursuit of personal happiness. It’s a bit like chasing a mirage; we never quite get there, and drink and drugs are sometimes seen not only as a remedy for disappointment, but as an end in themselves.
Sikh teachings and those of other religions remind us that life has both ups and downs, and of the importance of developing equanimity and a sense of resilience in balanced and responsible living. In a memorable verse Guru Nanak taught that the lasting sense of contentment in looking outwards to actively helping those around us and working for a fairer society far exceeds the short term buzz from drinks and drugs.
The parliamentary and BMA reports on drug abuse are useful contributions as far as they go, but the underlying problems lie in lifestyle and expectations. These are far harder to change, but we do need to look at and reflect on the wider picture.
Later this morning I’ll be going to a conference organised by a local gurdwara and the police to alert young Sikhs to the dangers of sex grooming and trafficking. While the plight of vulnerable white girls has made the headlines, few outside the community are aware that Sikh girls, particularly those entering college and university, have also been targeted
Crimes against women and their unequal treatment have long existed in all societies throughout the world. We were reminded of this by the horrific rape and murder of a young medical student in India; a country with a long history of less than equal treatment of women. Crimes of this nature are said by some to be related to the affection lavished on male children whilst girls are treated as lesser members of the family.
Guru Nanak the founder of the Sikh faith was appalled by the lowly position of women in Indian society. In a memorable verse he wrote women give us birth, nurture us in our infancy and give men companionship; it is women that give birth to kings and rulers. Both he and successor Gurus took concrete steps to ensure the full and equal treatment of women in religious worship, education and other walks of life.
Last Saturday Sikhs celebrated the birthday of the 10th who took the work of earlier Gurus further by giving Sikh women the name Kaur, literally ‘princess’ to emphasise their dignity and complete equality. The Guru had to fight many battles for the survival of the infant Sikh community, and insisted that even in the heightened passions of battle; Sikh soldiers treat women as sister, daughter or mother,
Sadly, despite such teachings, the sub continent culture of male superiority still affects some Sikh households and gives a ready excuse to rebellion prone teenagers to seek attention and affection elsewhere. I have no doubt that today’s conference will remind those attending of the dangers of internet chat lines and predatory behaviour in pubs and clubs But I believe the best safeguard is for parents to live true to teachings of equality and responsibility and give their children a sense of self esteem and self worth to help them distinguish between genuine friendship and false and dangerous relationships.
London: (23nd of Nov 2013) In a debate in the House of Lords earlier this week, Lord Singh, the Director of The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) talked of the importance in acknowledging and condemning all human rights violations, including those involving foreign friendly states. In his speech, Lord Singh said he hoped Her Majesty’s Government ‘will take the lead in working for a world in which principle always transcends the interests of trade and power-bloc politics.’ Please see full text of speech:
‘My Lords, I am grateful to my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this important debate. Manipulation of religious sentiment to persecute those of other faiths is a sad feature of human rights abuse in much of the world. I would like to take this opportunity to give a Sikh perspective on possible ways to a fairer and more tolerant society.
When we talk of human rights abuse, we immediately think of countries such as Syria, North Korea and Iran. We rightly condemn their abuses of human rights, but we look more benignly at countries with which we have close political alliances or trade links—as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, perceptively observed. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby reminded us, we should look to the mote in our own eye. If we were consistent, the UN report of a government massacre of some 40,000 men, women and children from Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority and evidence of continuing human rights abuses would have led to that country’s immediate suspension from the Commonwealth pending an investigation.
I will give another example of this less than even-handed approach to human rights. Next year sees the 30th anniversary of the Indian army attack on the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar and the subsequent massacre of tens of thousands of Sikhs throughout India. An independent inquiry headed by a former Chief Justice of India found overwhelming evidence of top Congress Party involvement. Yet our Government’s response to this attack on a minority faith was total silence. When I raised the matter with a then Cabinet Minister, I received the reply, “Indarjit, we know exactly what’s going on, but we are walking on a tightrope. We have already lost one important contract”. He was referring to the Westland helicopter contract.
We rightly condemn the use of sarin gas in Syria but were silent over America’s use of Agent Orange in Vietnam—which, even today, is causing horrendous birth defects half a century after its use. The same country’s use of drones to fly over sovereign territory to kill and maim those it does not like and, in the process, kill many innocent civilians sets a dangerous precedent.
I have spoken about our country’s selective approach to human rights only as an example. Other world powers, including India, China, the USA and Russia, behave in exactly the same way, making any co-ordinated approach on human rights virtually impossible. It was the great human rights activist Andrei Sakharov who said that there will be little progress in our universal yearning for peace and justice unless we are even-handed in our approach to human rights.
My hope is that Her Majesty’s Government will take the lead in working for a world in which principle always transcends the interests of trade and power-bloc politics. I firmly believe that our country is best placed to give a lead in this wider view of human rights.’
Notes to Editors.
1. The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) is a registered charity that links more than 100 Gurdwaras and other UK Sikh organisations in active cooperation to enhance the image and understanding of Sikhism in the UK.
London: (16th of November 2013) Members of the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) are proud to announce the launch of their new website http://nsouk.co.uk/ to coincide with the Gurpurb of Guru Nanak Dev Ji.
The newly revamped site includes many new features including video uploads, a media section and an opportunity for people to download the latest edition of the NSO’s quarterly magazine, the Sikh Messenger.
Lord Singh, the NSO’s founder and Director said “Guru Nanak’s uplifting teachings of responsible living and respect for people of all beliefs are positive guidance for the world today. We hope the updated website will provide a useful resource for studying the teachings of Guru Nanak and other Sikh Gurus. It is also intended as a focal point for discussions on current concerns affecting the Sikh community.”
Our gurdwaras and other Sikh organisations exist to promote an understanding and commitment to Sikh teachings on the oneness of God, the timeless Creator of all that exists. The ethos of Sikh organisations is centred on recognition of the complete equality of all human beings, including the fully equality of women, and a total commitment to a life of service to God through service to His Creation.
We hope you can all please make your family and friends aware of a very important campaign to promote Organ Donation amongst the Punjabi, Asian and Sikh communities.
More than 10,000 people in the UK currently need an organ transplant. 1,000 people die each year (three people a day) because there are not enough organs available.
Organ transplants are much more likely to be successful if the organ donor and the person needing the organ are matched.
Nearly 20% of people requiring an organ transplant are from the Asian community but only around 1% of organ donors each year are Asian.
Sangat TV are showing a series of special Sangat Health shows on this topic every tuesday evening at 8.30pm. These were filmed in conjunction with City hospital in Birmingham and NHS Blood and Transplant
We urge you all to please sign up as an organ donor and very importantly, please let your family know of your wishes.
Further information can be found on the sangat tv website, the sangat health facebook page or the organ donation website.
The sangat health tv shows have started and we hope you will urge your family and friends to watch and register as a donor
Here is a brochure for you to download, share and distribute
Below is a keynote address by Lord Singh
TO TRANSPLANT ALLIANCE FORUM 30-9-13
Lord Singh of Wimbledon CBE, Director Network of Sikh Organisations UK
I would like to thank Kirat Modi and Professor Gurch Randhawa, and others who have worked hard to organise this conference, for inviting me to join you to give some personal reflections on challenges and opportunities resulting from rapid advances in medicine. I served for a while on the BMA medical ethics committee and was fascinated by the many new discoveries and the complex ethical challenges that now face us.
Today we are all living longer and bits and pieces of our body breakdown through age or disease but there is hope for repair and renewal through such techniques as organ donation. When we die our organs can be used to help others have a better quality-of-life or even save life. Organ donation and other advances in medical techniques often raise huge ethical questions. Ethical dilemmas in specific areas of medicine themselves change with the quickening pace of new research.
We all know that stem cells taken from embryos can help to grow new body tissue, but there has always been some unease over destroying potential life to help those already living. New developments however show the possibility that a person’s own skin or other tissue might be used by transforming cells into pluripotent stem cells which can be cultivated to form different body organs. To a layman like myself, the pace of change, to borrow a word from my grandchildren, is truly ‘awesome’. I’m not quite sure how it was done but many of you like me would have been fascinated by a picture in our newspapers last week of a man in China who was made to grow a nose on his forehead which would be eventually transplanted to replace his existing damaged nose.
Coming back to organ transplants, many religions and cultures have reservations about the ethics of removing organs from a dead person to use for transplant purposes. It has to be noted that there are fewer reservations in the same religions and cultures about receiving organs to enhance or save lives. Some religions express concern about such techniques as a xenotransplantation, the removal of an organ of a different life form to repair damaged tissue. The fear, more cultural than religious, that an animal part, like a valve taken from a pig to repair heart damage leaves the person less whole. But most people take a wider view. Very few people for example, would object to vaccination against diseases such as smallpox. Here vaccines have their origin and base in animals, such as puss from cows being used at an early stage to cultivate the smallpox vaccine.
Another reason for a reluctance to donate organs after death is the fear that if a seriously ill person has given consent for organs to be removed after death, doctors might be less concerned in making strenuous efforts to save the life of the potential donor. There are many procedural safeguards against such a possibility and we all have much work to do in making these known to the wider public.
Linked to this is the fear that a loved one might not be really dead when clinically considered so. We sometimes read stories of people suddenly waking up at or on their way to a mortuary. The concern is that doctors may not always be right and we have to address such fears rational or irrational to increase donation.
Religion has a very powerful influence on people with some genuinely believing that the body must be left intact before burial or cremation. I believe that the essence of all religion is that it is better to give than to receive. Unfortunately when it comes to the donation or receipt of organs many take the opposite view and are much happier to receive organs rather than pledge to donate. Black minorities in this country and people here from the subcontinent have a donation rate which is something like a half of that of wider white population, yet perversely the need for organs in these same communities due to genetic, lifestyle and dietary factors is almost twice as great. An article in this week’s British Medical Journal draws attention to these statistics. It also makes an interesting suggestion that priority for the receipt of a donor organ be given to those who have been on the donor register for three years. It is a suggestion that I strongly endorse.
Sikhs have no religious excuse for not being willing donors. Our 5th Guru Guru wrote’ False is the body which does not do any good to others (p.269) ’. And if we are required to use our whole being to do good to others while we are alive, and we believe that our soul leaves the body on death, there is little excuse for us not donating body parts after we die.
Religious texts in all our different faith were written long before medical advances made it possible for us to help others. But the principle of responsible living contained in Sikh scriptures make our responsibilities very clear.
Let me mention a few more of these in the words of Guru Nanak:
The dead sustain their bonds with the living through virtuous deeds
And again, the true servants of God are those who serve him through helping others.
Despite such clear teachings, there is still a measure of reluctance among some in the community. As with all communities there is what someone described as a yuk factor: a degree of squeamishness at the thought of donating our organs when we can no longer use them.
As with all religious communities there is a degree of ignorance in the Sikh community about the essentials of a background faith in which they were born. It is often taken as a sort of background culture.
Many Sikhs don’t have clear views on the merits of organ donation, but generally the principal of giving and helping others is understood and applauded.
For the record, I have put my own name on the organ donation register so, when God, Scotty or whoever, beams me up, anyone is welcome to my less than perfect bits and pieces. I wish them well. The Network of Sikh Organisations which I head, is doing what it can to promote a wider understanding of the need more donors coming forward from the community and we are getting positive support from the Sikh Doctor’s Association.
Before I go onto to suggest what more Sikhs and others in what is called the Black Asian and Minority Ethnic Communities (I don’t like the term) should or can do, I want to get a personal grumble off my chest. Every day we hear on the Today Programme of exciting new potential cures to all our ailments. It would be helpful if those doing the research would place a measure of the limits of confidence in the eventual success of such developments. Earlier this year we were told that mitochondrial replacement of the damaged battery part of cells would cure many hereditary diseases. More recent research seems to suggest the possibility of the procedure adding its own risk of genetic damage.
Let me end on a positive note of what our different communities can do. Our different gurdwaras, churches and mosques are strategically dotted around the country. They are ideally placed to be centres of action. But sadly there is tremendous inertial and a lack of education in our communities. Central umbrella organisations like the NSO should be sending people to different gurdwaras to inform and enthuse. But we have no resources; no government funding which is made freely available to pie in the sky projects like combatting extremism, or cosmetic ‘be good for a week’ type projects like national interfaith week. To me, true community cohesion and respect between different communities can only come through working together to help alleviate suffering through organ donation, and similar initiatives in other fields. It is through working together in worthwhile projects that benefit society that we begin to realise that that the differences between different faiths are far smaller than that which we have in common. Cohesion based on common respect and responsibility to others is the true way to social cohesion.