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THOUGHT FOR THE DAY- 31/07/13

November 30th, 2013 | Posted by Pritpal in Thought for the day - (0 Comments)

Last week I attended the re-launch of a book by the celebrated author Patwant Singh about the life of Maharaja Ranjit Singh the charismatic first, and last, Sikh ruler of the Punjab. Ranjit Singh was an astute leader who managed to unite different Sikh factions behind him to eventually become the ruler of a vast kingdom that included the whole of Punjab before its partition in 1947 and the State of Kashmir.

Ranjit Singh, blinded in one eye through smallpox in infancy, was totally illiterate. As a child he would regularly attend the local gurdwara and was moved by the stories of the bravery of Sikhs in battle and heavily influenced by the Gurus’ teachings of respect for the beliefs of all people, As ruler of Punjab, he would refer to his loss of sight in one eye saying it was God’s purpose that he look on at all faiths with the same eye. His government included members of all communities. It was he who put the gold on the Golden Temple in Amritsar. He also built a beautiful Hindu temple on the banks of the Ganges and gave lavishly to the upkeep of mosques in Punjab.

There is a wonderful story of some Sikh villagers complaining to the Maharaja that the daily Muslim call to prayer was too loud and disturbing. The Maharaja suggested that if the villagers took on the responsibility for reminding individual Muslims when it was time for prayers, he would consider their complaint. It was quietly dropped. On another occasion he met a Muslim with a handwritten copy of the Koran which had taken him years to produce but was proving difficult to sell. The Maharaja appreciated the man’s dedicated effort and paid the astonished vendor handsomely for his work.

Ranjit Singh’s kingdom which brought peace and prosperity to Punjab, after centuries of invasions and religious conflict, came to an abrupt end with his death in 1839. Times have changed and conflicts have now become more complex with wider implications for our smaller and more interdependent world. But this brief glimpse at Ranjit Singh’s respect for difference underlines the importance of aiming at the well-being of all people in resolving conflict and bringing peace and prosperity to many suffering areas of the world today.

The long wait for Kate and William and for millions of well-wishers around the world is finally over with last night’s announcement of the birth of a baby boy and welcome news that both mother and baby are doing well. All babies are special to their proud parents; all bring their own gifts of love and unique personality but this baby, third in line to the throne, will also be special to millions in many other lands. As coincidence has it, I was doing my stint on this slot at the time of the announcement of the engagement of William and Kate, and I’m delighted to offer them, and the rest of the Royal family, my congratulations and those of the British Sikh community at this joyous news.

The Sikh community in the UK and abroad have a great regard for the royal family which, given the egalitarian teachings of Sikhism and our obsession with elections, seems at first sight a little odd. But Sikh admiration for the royal family is linked to the very positive lead it has given in welcoming other communities and cultures to these shores.

In many ways the British monarchy has been years ahead of the rest of society in promoting greater inter faith understanding, with the Queen herself ensuring that annual Commonwealth Day Service in Westminster Abbey for the last 40 years has always been a multi faith event, with readings from the scriptures of all the major world religions. Since then, the royals, particularly the Queen and the Prince of Wales have graced many function of different faiths with genuine interest, charm and respect.

As with many faith communities, Sikh parents take their new baby to their place of worship, the gurdwara, as soon as possible after the birth. Prayers are said for the baby’s health, and happiness, with the proud parents being reminded to bring their child up to be a credit to the community. It’s not an easy task, particularly in today’s fast changing social environment, and it will be even more difficult for Kate and William if they are constantly in the glare of media attention.

While wishing them and their new baby every health and happiness for the future, I’m sure many will also join me in wishing them a measure of privacy to enjoy their proud status as parents. It’s something they need and deserve, and it’s the best present we can all give them.

Last week, I attended the first AGM of the newly formed All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom, set up to look at ways of protecting basic human rights in the face of mounting religious bigotry in many parts of the world, To date it has received evidence from persecuted B’hais in Iran, Muslims in Burma, Christians in North Korea and Saudi Arabia, and Hindus in Pakistan and many others. Little is now left of a once thriving Sikh community in Afghanistan. The list is virtually endless.

As a first step the newly formed Group will continue mapping the extent of religious persecution in different parts of the world, and lobby the government to take the lead in ensuring international aid is strictly tied to full observance of freedom of religion and belief as detailed in Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. It also has the difficult task of trying to ensure that we, and others do not turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in so called ‘friendly’ countries. It was the great human rights activist Andrei Sakharov who observed that there will be no peace in the world until we are even- handed in addressing such abuse.

The question we all have to ask is, why do religions which talk of peace and forgiveness, themselves promote or get actively involved in horrendous violence against those of a different faith? How can we get followers of our different religions to respect the clear teachings of tolerance and respect for others found in our scriptures?

To me as a Sikh, the answer lies in the fact that while the core teachings of religion are easy to understand, living true to them is far more demanding. We find it much easier to turn to and import negative culture into our different religions which often carries with it false and divisive notions of superiority. With the passage of time, these negative cultural attitudes to those that are different often trump underlying ethical teaching.

The Sikh Gurus observed in some memorable verses how such negative and divisive culture masked and distorted true religious teachings in our different faiths and urged drastic spring cleaning of that which passes for belief, to bring uplifting ethical teachings of responsibility and concern for others back to the fore. Much the same task faces all religions today.

The First World War is very much in the news these days. Over the last week the papers have carried stories and comment over how we should commemorate next year’s centenary of a war we hoped would end wars. An article in the Sunday Times reminds us that there is no clear agreement on exactly how it started and what it meant. What we do know is that the war claimed some 16 million lives ,devastating the lives, dreams and aspirations of countless others, and that it ended with something of a controversial peace treaty that provided some with a warped rationale for renewed conflict some 20 years later.

It is right and proper that in the commemoration we remember with gratitude, the courage and sacrifice of British and allied soldiers including volunteers from the Commonwealth and subcontinent. Few know for example, that 83,000 Sikhs lost their lives in the two world wars. However, in the commemoration it’s also important that we look to the lessons of the past in trying to prevent future conflicts.

Looking from the perspective of time, it seems that that the 14-18 war had much to do with strategic interest, with one side seeking to extend theirs and the other to defend the status quo. As a concept, defending one’s strategic interests seems fine. The trouble is that such interests are not mutually exclusive, and often conflicting, at a time when more and more countries are flexing their economic and military muscles.

The famous scientist Albert Einstein was typically blunt in his view of strategic interest or nationalism, calling it ‘an infantile disease, like measles’. We know that he had good reason to fear rampant nationalism, but his blunt words have relevance today as we look at continuing conflicts around us. We have marvellous international bodies like the UN and the Security Council designed to reduce conflict but all too often see so-called ‘strategic interests’ of member states preventing necessary action.

Guru Ramdass the 4th Guru was similarly concerned. He wrote:

All powers men make pacts with

Are subject to death and decay

False are all factions that divide men into warring groups.

The Gurus taught that focussing on social justice and human rights is the best way of ensuring lasting peace. Something we should reflect on in next year’s commemorations.

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.

We’ve just come back from a wonderful holiday exploring glacial valleys and stunning mountain scenery. We also experienced warm and kind hospitality despite our distinctly our foreign appearance. It was in Norway and we left the country on the same day that Anders Breivik launched his murderous assault. Since then, I’ve been asking myself how could such an outrage have taken place in such a wonderful and tolerant country?

There is a well known verse in Sikh scriptures which says
There is a the inner light of God in all and it becomes manifest as we reflect and act on religious and ethical teachings, centred on a belief in the oneness of all humanity..

Unfortunately the opposite is also true and, as we saw in Norway, we can also carry within us, ungodly concerns and suspicions about those who appear different , especially newcomers to our country, despite evidence that immigrants generally bring new skills and vigour into a community. Fear of possible economic or social disadvantage, can all too easily lead to irrational prejudice and hatred, and I believe it’s this is that triggered the recent carnage in Norway, as it has done in countless other hate fuelled outrages throughout history.

Travel can help us develop more enlightened attitudes to others, when we see people in different lands with similar concerns and aspirations, laughing, joking, rejoicing and, grieving at the same sort of things.

But, we don’t really have to go very far to understand this truth ; we can see it in the lives and concerns of those of different cultures who are our near neighbours—if we care to look! I remember the suspicion and stand off a few years ago when Sikhs sought planning permission to extend a gurdwara in Southfields in London. There was no dialogue between Sikhs and local residents and rubbish was sometimes thrown into the existing gurdwara premises. A few of us decided to knock on every door in the immediate neighbourhood and invite the residents to discuss their concerns over refreshments. To our surprise, most came. Few concerns were raised and much of the discussion was about recipes for making chapattis.

We are told that it is good to talk, and dialogue between different cultures helps understanding, but both settled communities and new arrivals need to make an effort to change prejudice and misunderstanding into mutual respect.

As we have learnt this morning, the wanton violence and looting seen in Tottenham and other parts of London over the last few days has now spread to places like Birmingham and Bristol. It has its origins in the police shooting of a member of the public in still confused circumstances. But while the mindless violence has taken the headlines there are legitimate concerns over the balance of the right to life and freedom of individuals and how far the police should go in the course of their duty.

In a different area of the balance of rights and freedoms, the Equality and Human Rights Commission chose last weekend to suggest that the banning of satellite dishes in conservation areas may infringe an individual’s human right to freely practice their religion by denying the right to services beamed from abroad.

Both these examples show the importance of getting a sense of perspective on human rights. When the Human rights Act was first brought in, it was generally seen as an overdue protection of fundamental freedoms, but today many see it, and associated European legislation, as undue interference in the right of our country to its own interpretation of individual rights. I doubt if many will see access to a satellite dish as high on the scale of national priorities.

Over-focussing on comparative minor infringements of religious liberty simply blurs real issues.

For many of us religion is much more than formal worship. For Sikhs and I believe for most faiths the essence of religion is responsible living. This is something far removed from, and perhaps an antidote to, what has been termed ‘the recreational violence’ seen on our streets over the last few days.

Religion takes us away from a narrow obsession with self and my rights, to concern for those around us and respect for our surroundings. It is because of this that I believe that it would make for a more contented society if rights were seen in their true perspective, and the proposed new Bill on Human Rights framed to encompass both rights and responsibilities.

 

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