RELIGION AND SOCIETY
Author: DR INDARJIT SINGH
Religion and Society
A Sikh Perspective
Dr Indarjit Singh
Lord Janner, Friends
We meet this evening conscious of the terrible suicide bombings in London less than 10 days back, and our sympathies and condolences go out to the friends and families of the innocent victims.
Killing in the name of religion is nothing new. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith was himself a witness to the Mughal invasion of India and the atrocities against the mostly Hindu population. The Guru, reflecting on the bigotry used to justify such killings, put the blame firmly on the divisive packaging of competing faiths, as superior and exclusive paths to God, or, as ‘the final revelation’.
It’s this bigotry of belief with God on our side, applauding all we do in his name, that led to conflict in the past, and today provides a warped rationale to the suicide bomber.
Guru Nanak argued that the one God of all humanity does not have favourites and is not in the least bit interested in our different religious labels but in what we do. He saw different religions as different paths to responsible living, and taught that all such paths should be respected even at the cost of our life.
In pursuit of this teachings Guru Arjan the 5th of Guru Nanak’s nine successor Gurus, asked a Muslim saint Mia Mir to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple to show his respect for Islam, and added verses of Hindu and Muslim saints in the Holy Guru Granth Sahib, to show that no one religion has a monopoly of truth. For this, he was tortured and martyred by the Mughal authorities. In much the same way, Guru Teg Bahadhur, our 9th Guru, gave his life defending the right of Hindus, those of a religion different to his own, to worship in the manner of their choice in the face of Mughal persecution, giving a new and higher concept of tolerance.
Religious bigotry however, is not the only cause of conflict in our troubled world. A couple of years back, I did some work for Amnesty International, looking at genocide and human rights abuse in a number of different countries; abuse which often involved unbelievable depravity. Almost as bad as the abuse, was the realisation that those who we learn to trust are often the perpetrators: police and soldiers, and, even worse, priests and teachers and previously friendly neighbours.
How can we move our wayward human race into what Sikhs would call a Gurmukh or Godly direction. Why has religion lost its sense of direction?
The problem with religious teachings is, that the are extremely easy to state, but difficult to live by. It is hard to put others before self; it is hard to forgive. Lust and greed have their attractions. So, we clever human beings, develop easier substitutes for adherence to demanding ethical teachings, and focus on building beautiful places of worship, fasting and going on pilgrimages.
Guru Nanak, was not too impressed with such short cuts: He taught:
Pilgrimages, austerities and ritual acts of giving or compassion
Are in themselves, not worth a grain of sesame seed
It’s living true to ethical imperatives that count. It’s all too easy to look to the trappings of our different religions, than to their actual teachings. Sikhism being a comparative new religion hasn’t had much time to invent such rituals, but believe me, we are doing our best.
The vacuum created by this failure to follow true religious teachings, was quickly filled by a pursuit of material happiness. Society rightly rejected the so-called religious view that taught spiritual improvement and at the same time countenance poverty, disease and suffering. Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung too far, and mankind is engaged in seeking happiness and contentment through the blind pursuit of material happiness to the neglect of the spiritual side of life.
To me as a Sikh, much of the unhappiness in the world today stems from a basic failure to recognise that life has both spiritual and material dimensions, and if we neglect either of these, it will be to our ultimate regret.
Guru Nanak taught that we should live like the lotus flower, which having its roots in muddy waters, still flowers beautifully above. Similarly Sikhs should live and world for the benefit of society, but should always be above it meanness and pettiness.
Today in our preoccupation with things material, we have forgotten the importance of balance between material and spiritual and, as a result, have previously unheard of prosperity side by side with escalating crime, rising alcoholism and drug dependency, loneliness, the homeless and broken homes and other disturbing evidence of social disintegration.
How can we move to more long- term considerations? How can we make ours a more cohesive and caring society. Voluntary effort and increasingly government and other statutory effort are becoming more alert to social ills. But in focussing on problems, rather than more holistically on causes, we sometimes tend to look through the wrong end of the telescope, and seek to treat spots and sores of social maladies, rather than look further to underlying causes.
If problems resulting from drug abuse take up too much police time, the call is legalise their use and free the police, rather than question why the use of drugs has risen so dramatically. The huge rise in child and teenage pregnancies is met with a call to issue condoms in schools.. Increasing alcohol abuse? Let’s extend or abolish licensing hours to spread the incidence of drunken or loutish and drunken behaviour. Result, a rise in binge drinking. Too many people ending up in prison? Lets curb sentencing powers. Extend this thinking, of looking to the wrong end of a problem, to the behaviour of little junior who greets visitors to the house by kicking them in the shins. Solution: issue said visitors with shin pads as they enter the front door!
Sikhs believe that our different religions should take the lead in addressing the real causes of our social ills – starting with the role of the family. We see marriage, fidelity and the family as central to the health and well being of society. It is easy to allow understanding, compassion and support for those in different situations to blind us to the importance of an ideal. TV comedy in which infidelity is seen as something of a giggle, blinds us to the hurt that transient, adult relationships, can cause to children.
A short true story makes the point better than any words of mine.
Two small boys were fighting, hammer and tongs in the school playground. With great difficulty, a teacher finally managed to prise the two apart demanding to know what it was all about. Looking at the teacher, with eyes swollen with tears, one of the children said it was because the others dad had taken his mum away.
Let me sum up. The 20th century was one of unbelievable scientific achievement and a growing smugness in our ability to almost play God. It was also a century in which man killed more of his fellow beings than in the rest of recorded history. The dominant creed was that individual happiness is all that really matters, and that this could be acquired through material wealth.
Today we are in a more sombre mood. We realise we have done almost irreparable damage to our environment and we live in a dangerously unstable world of gross inequalities of wealth and opportunity, and a continuing denial of basic human rights in much of the world.
In ‘do it yourself’ activity, there is a saying that when all else fails,
look at the instructions. In life, religion provides us instructions for sane,
balanced and responsible living, and having made a mess of our ‘do it
yourself efforts, I feel it is important that we now look at our books of
instructions. Not at religious structures, but at actual teachings.
To move in this direction we need to carry out a drastic spring-cleaning of what passes for religion. Today there is an urgent need to discard the clutter of rituals, superstitions and dated customs and practices that falsely pass for religious teachings.
At the same time, we have to knock down the false barriers of belief and exclusivity between religions. When we do so, we will see, our different religions as they really are: overlapping circles of belief, in which the area of overlap is much greater than the smaller area of difference In that area of overlap, we find common values of tolerance, compassion and concern for social justice: values that can take us from the troubled times of today, to a fairer and more peaceful world.