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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.

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.

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