Where Unity Is Strength
Header

Today is the anniversary of one of the most important events in Sikh history; the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, the 5th Guru if the Sikhs. There are two important aspects of this anniversary: the circumstances that led to the martyrdom, and the traditional way it’s commemorated.

Guru Arjan was a renowned poet and scholar who lived at a time of acute religious bigotry- not very different from that in many parts of the world today. The Guru made it his life’s mission to replace suspicion and hatred between faiths with tolerance and respect.

Guru Arjan was the main compiler of the Sikh scriptures known as the Guru Granth Sahib. In it he included some Hindu and Muslim verses to emphasise a fundamental Sikh teaching that no one religion has a monopoly of truth. The Guru took this respect further by asking a Muslim saint to lay the foundation stone of the famous Golden Temple at Amritsar and also placed a door on each of its four sides as a symbol of welcome to all from any spiritual direction.

Such sentiments proved too much for the rulers of the day who taught there was only one true religion and the Guru was slowly tortured and killed in the heat of an Indian June.

In the traditional Sikh commemoration of the martyrdom, there is no show of anger or bitterness, but a simple remembrance of the Guru’s suffering by serving cool sweetened lime water or other soft drink to all who pass by Sikh homes or gurdwaras.

I thought of the Guru’s teachings, his martyrdom and the lack of bitterness while attended a huge political rally in Paris over the weekend as part of a delegation of parliamentarians from different parts of the world. The rally of more than 100,000 was organised by Iranians who had fled persecution in Iran. In an echo of Guru Arjan’s teachings, the leader of the rally, a woman Maryam Rajavi, spoke of the need for open democracy and freedom of belief for all faiths.

Many of the speakers had themselves suffered torture or imprisonment, or the loss of near ones at the hands of the present rulers, but there was no bitterness in their contributions; only a desire to move on. To me this gives us a glimmer of real hope in the otherwise all-pervading gloom of intolerance in our strife-torn world.

A weekend report that the Principal of Cheltenham Ladies College was considering ending homework to help reduce depression in children underlines the seriousness of a problem recognised by many. I’m not sure that the Head’s idea of ending homework will prove a solution but there’s no doubt there is a problem. A recent report found that whereas the peak of depressive illness used to be in the late 20s, it is now in the teens.

With conflicting pressures and distractions of social media, internet chat lines and other peer pressures it’s perhaps harder than ever for young people to distinguish between the trivial and the important in their own attitudes to life. Calls on young people are very real and can at times be overwhelming.

It’s a challenge for all of us; parents too have difficulty juggling with priorities – 2 wage earners in a household can mean less time available – no wage earners brings other stresses. Parents separating, can also have a devastating effect on children.

Similar challenges in deciding underlying priorities for balanced and responsible living existed in the less frenetic times of Guru Nanak some 500 years ago with the need for balance frequently giving way to extremes. Some saw their goal in life as a single-mindedly amassing of wealth, while others would live by begging in a search for spiritual wisdom.

Guru Nanak taught that the key to a balanced life was to live by three golden rules. The first of these is to establish priorities through reflecting on scriptural guidance to help us all distinguish between the meaningful, and trivial obsessions which can dominate our thinking. The second golden rule is earnest effort in all we do. The third and most important rule is the need to look outwards, to the needs of others.

This can take many forms such as the Sikh institution of langar; food for all served at our gurdwaras. Then there’s the importance of giving time to the needs of the vulnerable. Today, coming back to the pressures faced by the young, there is a particular need to give time to our children and, in line with a common teaching of our different religions, provide a stable and supportive family life. It’s now more important than ever to help the young distinguish between false and fleeting priorities, and the genuine challenges and responsibilities that lead to a contented and fulfilling life.

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.


Hit Counter provided by laptop reviews
Skip to toolbar