Where Unity Is Strength
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The weekend news of 17 bodies being pulled out of the Mediterranean and the rescue of more than 4000 people in just 3 days, reminds us of the unbelievable suffering in the Middle East. Refugees, from brutal rule in Libya, Syria and Iraq are continuing to take their chance in leaky boats to escape further persecution. Their plight is mirrored by that of the Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, starving and adrift in ships for months on end, because no one will give them sanctuary.

A common feature of such tragedies is the manipulation of religious sentiment to further political power, with selective quotation of religious texts written hundreds of years ago being used to justify brutal behaviour. Paradoxically, similar selective quotation is used to argue that religions teach only peace.

Most religions suffer this problem of selective quotation to justify different views. Sikhism is a comparatively new religion with the founder, Guru Nanak born in 1469. The teachings of the Gurus were couched in lasting ethical principles and were recorded in their lifetime. Sikhs were asked to follow only these recorded teachings. Despite this clarity, we still suffer from selective quotation on emotive issues such as meat eating, and more worryingly, in attempts to introduce new teachings which many Sikhs feel to be of dubious authenticity.

Today, religious leaders now have the additional task of disentangling advice, given to meet the particular social or political climate of several centuries ago, from more lasting and timeless ethical teachings.

As a line from a favourite hymn reminds us:

New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth
They must upward, still and onward who will keep abreast with truth.

It is a line that resonates with the Sikh belief that our religious labels, or membership of different sects count for nothing in the eyes of the one God of us all. It’s what we do to counter poverty and work for peace and justice that really counts.

The challenge is not easy, but it is essential in our need to ensure that religion is what the founders of our different faiths intended it to be, guidance for responsible living, and the cure rather than the cause of conflict.

Yesterday, a Department of Health taskforce published a report recommending sweeping changes in the funding and operation of mental health provision for children and adolescents. The report follows a series of Times articles on a growing epidemic of mental health problems in children and adolescents resulting in a huge rise in children resorting to self-harm and exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression in schools.

Many are seeking treatment for mental health problems in hospitals, or worse ending up in prisons. In one of these articles, the columnist Libby Purves highlights the urgent need for parents, to re-set their priorities and recognise the ground realities of pressures on their children.

Her comments reminded me of a story of Guru Nanak meeting with a group of people in a mountain retreat searching for an understanding of God. They greeted the Guru with the words ‘ how goes the world below’ the Guru was not impressed and told the group that God was not to be found in the wilderness but in the service of family and wider society.

Today there’s not much wilderness left for retreat – selfish or otherwise – but it is all too easy to spend all our time on personal pursuits or lose, ourselves in the virtual wilderness of the internet to the neglect of those around. Worse, in the absence of comfort and support from parents, children may look to friendship, love and support on internet chat lines oblivious to the dangers of grooming, blackmail and the hurt that can be caused by on-line bullying.

While yesterday’s promise of enhanced provision will help, Sikh teachings and those of sister faiths suggest that the real remedy lies in the home.

Reflecting on parental responsibility, Guru Nanak reminded us that the birth of a child comes with an attached responsibility for the child’s care and comfort that continues even if parents split. It is the family rather than on the internet that children should share both triumphs and concerns and receive time consuming but necessary encouragement and support. Today, obsession with personal fulfilment has replaced a search for God. Our different faiths remind us that both personal fulfilment and God can be found in looking beyond ourselves to the care and support of those around us.

At the start of the Millennium, some of us from different faiths met in Lambeth Palace to reflect on the record of the 20th century in which more people were killed as a result of war than in the rest of recorded history. Not knowing the horrors of the conflicts that lay ahead, we resolved that people of all faiths should adhere to common values and we set out to establish what those should be. After a series of meetings we published a grandly titled document ‘Common Values for the New Millennium’. The list included looking to the needs of others, considering responsibilities as well as rights and understanding and respecting diversity.

We thought we had formulated a Holy Grail to lasting peace and social justice. But after a short burst of publicity, the document was soon forgotten. On reflection perhaps we were being simplistic and naive. As Sikh scriptures reminds us, we can’t effect change by simply wishing it.

A few years later, I attended another meeting in the very same room in Lambeth Palace to hear a lecture by a visiting American Preacher on working for lasting peace. He declared ‘what we need are common values’, and now a high powered Commission is engaged on yet another extensive consultation exercise to define British values.

All the values in the Lambeth list are found in Sikh teachings and are also evident in other faiths. The real problem is how to embed these in the fabric of a society that looks to individual fulfilment rather than the needs of society as a whole. How can we walk the talk, or as Sikhs put it, how can we move in a gurmukh or Godly direction. Not easy. A colleague in the Lords reminded me of this when he stated in a debate that religion was out of step with society. To me it was a bit like saying ‘my satnav isn’t following my directions’.

Sikh teachings on the need for cooperation between different faiths suggest that if we synchronise our ethical satnavs, we can begin to make a real difference. Perhaps the first step would be to recognise that despite following different road maps, in reality, we all share common aspirations and concerns, and resolve to work together to make these central to social and political action.

 

 

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY – 17/11/14

November 22nd, 2014 | Posted by Singh in Thought for the day - (0 Comments)

Last week we were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall; a physical structure designed to keep the people of Eastern Europe isolated from the freedom and democratic values of the West.

This week is inter-faith week; a week in which we question equally divisive, barriers of belief between religions. Barriers built on claims of exclusivity and superiority seen in the use of language to denigrate those of other beliefs or ways of life. Today, we are all too aware of the way in which words can be used to promote active hatred and the mindless killing of thousands of innocents, as seen in the Middle East and many other parts of our world.

In the past, talking about distant religions in a disparaging way, though wrong, was fairly harmless and gave us a perverse sense of unity based on the superiority of our way of life over that of others. Today such thinking is food and sustenance for the fanatic. In our smaller and interdependent world, recognising that, that we are all equal members of one human family has now become an imperative.

Sikh teachings remind us that our different religions are different paths to responsible living and must all be respected. Religious teachings are not mutually exclusive and frequently merge in shared truths and a heightened understanding of our own faith

A popular Christian hymn states:

To all life Thou givest; to both great and small

In all life Thou livest the true life of all

The lines have a striking parallel in Sikh scriptures

There is an inner light in all

And that light is God

The Sikh Gurus frequently used parallel teachings in different faiths to emphasise important commonalities and shared values.

Today religion finds itself confined to the margin of society as a cause rather than a cure for hatred and violence. We see this in governments focussing huge resources on programmes to combat religious extremism. And yet…… if religions work together to live common core teachings of right, wrong and responsibility, who knows? Instead of programmes like ‘Prevent’, we might even have government programmes called ‘Enable’ to embed these values in daily living as the founders of our faiths intended. Not easy, but events like inter-faith week are at least a step in the right direction.

Today, Sikhs celebrate the birthday of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith. The Guru was concerned at the way different religions in his day, seemed to be more intent on rubbishing the beliefs of sister faiths than in living the values taught by their own.

In his very first sermon he taught that in God’s eyes there was neither Hindu nor Muslim, and by today’s extension, neither Christian, Sikh nor Jew. That the one God of us all is not interested in our different religious labels, but in how we live and what we do for our fellow beings.

With a Hindu and Muslim companion the Guru travelled the length and breadth of India, and to Sri Lanka, Tibet and to the Middle East preaching the importance of religious tolerance and a recognition of the equality of all human beings.

Guru Nanak was particularly concerned about the plight of women on the subcontinent who, as in much of the world, were treated as inferior beings. He taught that women should be given full equality with men, not simply as the wives or daughters of men, but as individuals in their own right, playing a full part in society.

Unfortunately, as we are daily reminded in the news, deep rooted cultural practices often tend to blur or subvert  the teachings of religion which challenge unthinking attitudes and behaviour. I was vividly reminded of this while working as a young mining engineer in a remote area of Bengal, I had just received news that my wife had given birth to our first child, a daughter. I was over the moon and excitedly rushed to the house next door, that of a Sikh and told him the wonderful news. Contrary to clear Sikh teachings, his culturally conditioned response was ‘never mind, it will be boy next time!’ I was not then the gentle, easy going soul that I like to think I am today, and it took great restraint not to clock him one!

Today, as we celebrate the birthday of Guru Nanak, we should all resolve to do as he did and continually challenge all forms of unjust or oppressive which often masquerades as religion, and instead focus on true religious teachings of respect for and service to all members of our one human family.

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY – 16/09/14

September 20th, 2014 | Posted by Singh in Thought for the day - (0 Comments)

Sikhs are often described as a martial race. Two things wrong with that. First, Sikhism is a religion open to all, and one of its basic teachings is that we all belong to the same, one human race. Nor are we particularly martial, and our Guru’s teaching on responding to personal affront is, (I hope metaphorically), ‘to kiss the feet of those who would do you harm’.

At the same time Sikhs are duty bound to stand up to injustice against the weak and vulnerable and if necessary and as a last resort, by the force of arms. Unfortunately, in a short history of constant persecution, we’ve had plenty of practice.

I was reminded of this last Friday when I attended an impressive function at the Royal Military College Sandhurst to commemorate Saraghari Day. On September 12th, 1897, 21 brave Sikhs holed up in a small brick and mud fort at Saraghari on the North West Frontier of India, held back an army of some 10,000 marauding and pillaging tribesmen, for nearly a day to give valuable time for their colleagues to regroup. Eventually they were all killed, but the thought of surrender never entered their minds. Their courage received a rare standing ovation in the British parliament and their achievement has been recognised by UNESCO as one of eight most inspiring stories of collective bravery in human history.

I saw more modern examples of uplifting courage in a visit to the Invictus Games, the brain child of Prince Harry. In the Games, wounded soldiers show how despite appalling injuries, they can still laugh, joke and compete in athletic activities. The Games, take their name from Henley’s poem Invictus, which reminds us that however difficult or unfair life may appear, we should never give up. It ends with the immortal lines:

It matter not how straight the gate; how charged with punishment the scroll, I am the master of my fate; the captain of my soul.

I saw limbless blade runners, one with severe burns to his face, and others racing in wheelchairs enthusiastically embracing life. They and the brave soldiers of Saragarhi remind us of the importance of courage and commitment. Courage that refuses to accept the bludgeoning’s of chance, and helps put all our petty aches and pains, and grumblings about the unfairness of life, into true perspective.

 

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY – 09/09/14

September 13th, 2014 | Posted by Singh in Thought for the day - (0 Comments)

Media hype over this week’s launch of the latest smart phone and the million ways way it will help us connect to everyone and everything, leaves me a little cold. I’m a bit wary about sophisticated gadgetry telling us what to do with our lives. Admittedly I’m a bit of a Luddite about mobile phones, the social media and the internet. I envy those with the speed and dexterity of Madame Defarge who clicked away on her knitting needles while watching the guillotine in action I can’t cope with lengthy texts demanding instant replies. My granddaughter recently said she would send me an email because ‘you can’t text’. Determined to prove her wrong I slowly and ponderously wrote a text message signed ‘master texter’- and then, inadvertently sent it to her puzzled aunt.

My relationship with the internet lurches between love and hate. I can’t get over the power of the internet that gives near instant access to detailed information on the vaguest of topics—that is, when it works! At the moment we have lost our wi- fi and have only intermittent internet access due to a fault on the line. We’ve all had similar experiences.

My real concern is that it is all too easy to get hooked on such gadgetry in a way that takes us away from due attention to those around us. Guru Nanak too was concerned about the way people often neglected their responsibilities for more selfish pursuits. In his day, some people would leave their families and friend to go to the wilderness in search of God. The Guru once met some of these people on a mountain and they greeted him asking how the world below goes? He replied, the world is suffering and how could it be otherwise when those with knowledge and wisdom, desert it in a selfish way. God cannot be found in the wilderness but in the service of your family and fellow beings.

Today there isn’t much wilderness left, but it is all too easy to drift into a virtual wilderness in pursuit of virtual friendships to the neglect of real people around us. I am reminded of the poet’s words:

‘We flatter those we scarcely know, and rush to please the fleeting guest, but heap many a thoughtless blow on those who love us best. Now there’s a ‘Thought for the Day’ -in less than 140 characters!

Over the last few days Sikhs have been celebrating the festival of Bandi Chhor, lierally the ‘release of captives’. Bandi Chhor coincides with the Hindu festival of Diwali and is linked to an incident in the reign of the Mughal Emperor Janghir who lived in the early 17th century.

By all accounts Janghir was both intolerant and cruel. Even before he became Emperor, he tried to seize the throne from his tolerant and popular father Akbar. Janghir, wary of those who might oppose his rule, arrested the sixth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Hargobind, and a number of others and imprisoned them in Gwalior Fort.

But even the worst of us likes to be liked, and as the festival of Diwali approached he ordered the release of Guru Hargobind. To his surprise, the Guru refused to leave unless all other political prisoners were released at the same time.

Janghir decided to compromise and said that anyone who could hold onto the Gurus clothes could also go with him. He thought that at the most, two or three of his fellow prisoners would be able to go with the Guru through the fort’s narrow passage to freedom. In the event the Guru walked to freedom followed by all the 52 political prisoners holding onto tassels of varying length that had been sewn onto the Guru’s cloak. He reached Amritsar just as people were celebrating Diwali which Sikhs, like Hindus now celebrate with lights and fireworks.

The story reminds Sikhs to put the wellbeing of others before our own; in this case the freedom and human rights of the Guru’s fellow captives. This concern for others is echoed in another story of a Sikh water carrier who was dragged before the 10th Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, accused of supplying water to enemy wounded. The Guru asked him what he had to say for himself, and water carrier replied that he saw neither enemy nor friend but suffering fellow beings. The Guru applauded his reply and gave him ointment and bandages to further his humanitarian work; work that we see today in the activities of many religious and secular humanitarian organisations, who often in great danger to their own lives, work to help others. Bandi Chhor is a useful reminder to the rest of us to make concern for others part of our daily lives.

Last week, I was invited to my old school, Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield to give a talk on the a Sikh view on justice and human rights. In touring the school, I found this concern for human rights reflected in the very ethos of the school. It was very different from the one I knew in the late 40’s and early 50s, when the four Singh brothers were the only ones in the school who looked different.

Today in a very different world, about a third of the pupils are of minority ethnic origin. Respect for different cultures and concern for justice was seen in the many posters on the school walls, including the work of human rights organisations, and moving comments on a visit to Auschwitz. At the founder’s day service at which I spoke, as well as Christian hymns, there was also readings from the Guru Granth Sahib and the Koran. There is much to be proud about in the way we have adjusted to new cultures and different ways of life and I believe that that in this we lead much of the rest of the world.

One thing that has not changed however over the years, is the tendency of children to form their own groups or little gangs which sometimes gain added cohesion by looking down on or excluding others. Sadly religions and cultures all too often behave in the same way, exaggerating difference and emphasising exclusivity

The Sikh Gurus were very concerned about such claims and taught the importance of focussing on commonalities. Guru Nanak taught that the one God of us all was not interested in what we call ourselves but in what we do for our fellow beings. Guru Arjan gave practical utterance to the Sikh belief that no one religion has a monopoly of truth by including Hindu and Muslim verses in our holy scriptures: the Guru Granth Sahib.

Good academic results are important in schools, but due emphasis should also be placed on ensuring that pupils go out to the world with a sense of responsibility and care and compassion for people of all backgrounds and beliefs. It was encouraging to find my old school weaving this wider view of education into all they do.

A couple of days ago I attended a Ministry of Justice meeting looking at ways of ensuring greater equality in the criminal justice system. We were given some impressive looking statistics on hate crime and the negative treatment of minority faiths. Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists were all covered, but when I inquired why there was no mention of Sikhs, I was told that the figures were based on complaints received and Sikhs rarely bothered to complain. At the time I thought this was simply an excuse for a flawed survey, but on reflection there’s some truth in what was said.

The Sikh Gurus taught that we should treat adversity as a new challenge. It’s an attitude of mind that has certainly come in handy over the years but it is not a valid excuse for a failure to highlight negative attitudes to Sikhs, which, from personal experience, have certainly increased since 9/11 with, some people in this country and abroad assuming turbaned Sikhs to be Muslim extremists.

When we went on to look at future policies, it was agreed that the key lay in much greater education, particularly in early schooling. Much has been said in recent days about free faith schools which fail to respect the culture of others. As a Sikh I believe that any school, free or otherwise that fails to teach an understanding of and respect for other ways of life, is a failing school and should be treated as such

Ignorance is a bit like a fog in which, like everyday objects, people from different cultures can appear frightening and menacing. Prejudice thrives on such ignorance and is difficult to remove once it becomes engrained in everyday attitudes and behaviour, making short superficial induction courses less likely to succeed.

But the responsibility for moving us to a fairer society does not just lie simply with government and bodies like the Ministry of Justice;

in the Sikh view, religions too have a real responsibility to work to remove self-created barriers of superiority, difference and exclusivity which add to suspicion and distrust at home and horrendous conflict abroad. As Guru Nanak taught, we all need to work together for greater fairness and true social justice for all members of our human family.

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