Where Unity Is Strength

The news that Royal Navy vessels are to be sent to the Aegean to curb the activities of people smugglers has much to commend it, but for some, it masks the fact that many of those risking their lives and savings to clamber onto leaky and overcrowded boats are refugees.

Not so long ago the word ‘refugees’ conjured up images of innocent men, women and children fleeing terror. Today, the word refugee is sometimes interpreted as alien hordes, and tear gas and razor wire fences have been used to keep would-be refugees, including young children at a distance.

This morning’s decision on agreed controls goes to the heart of the moral dilemma of deciding whether refugee applies only to those fleeing a war or whether it can also encompass those seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Ongoing violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, abuses in Eritrea, as well as poverty in Kosovo, are also leading people to look for new lives elsewhere, and not just in Europe.

As a Sikh, I applauded the initial welcome given to refugees fleeing from Syria. It was a welcome that resonated with Sikh teachings that, even in the height of conflict, we should never forget that we are all members of the same one human race and our highest religious duty is to look to the needs of others.

The crisis in Syria is linked to the wider turmoil in the Middle East following the second Gulf War.  The pro-democracy demonstrations, cracked down on in 2011, were followed by the emergence of ISIS with its brutalities and beheadings and the horror of bombs raining down on the long-suffering people of Syria, from all directions, including Russia, ISIS, the coalition allies and President Assad himself.  Who would not wish to leave? The inevitable exit of refugees has almost become an unstoppable tide.

The problem, now, in dealing with such large numbers is immense. The current tentative ceasefire in Syria is perhaps the best hope for their future, but there are very real difficulties in translating this to peace and stability.

Sikh teachings are not alone in emphasising our common responsibility to help those fleeing tyranny. I believe it’s important that any agreed system of controls on the grounds of expediency should not reduce our sense of our common humanity, or blind us to the importance of our values and ideals.


Today’s debate about the rights or wrongs of air strikes against ISIS, will be focused on what constitutes a just and proportionate response to ISIS atrocities in Paris and elsewhere. While much has been said and written about criteria that need to be met for a just war, less has been said about imperatives for just and lasting peace.

Syria, like much of the Middle East, is a cauldron of competing rivalries, not only those of Sunni and Shia Muslims but also smaller groups: Allowites, Kurds, Christians and others. While we would all like to see functioning democracies in the region, this is easier said than done. The history of the Middle East, and many other parts of the world shows that majority rule does not always equate to just rule. Majorities insensitive to the rights of minorities, can all too easily morph into tyrannies. What is important is, not so much the process of acquiring power, as the way power is exercised.

I was reminded about this at an event celebrating the birth anniversary of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who lived in the 19th century. He ruled over a vast area of northern India, including present day Pakistan. Although the Maharaja gained power through military might, he reached out to all communities winning both love and loyalty.

Totally illiterate, he spent hours as a child in the gurdwara, listening to Sikh teachings on respect for all communities. He was deeply influenced by the Sikh belief that that token respect for other ways of life is not enough, and that for true respect, we should be prepared to put our own rights and freedom on the line, in support of those of others.

The Maharaja kept this teachings close to his heart. There were more Hindu and Muslim Ministers in his government than Sikhs. He also gave generously for the upkeep and development of places of worship of all communities, bringing peace, stability and prosperity into a region that had been subject to factional rivalry, not unlike that seen in the Middle East today.

Yes, this is history from the 19th century, but it contains fundamental truths that we would be wise to learn from. Reaching out to others in this way is not easy, but is possible, and to my mind, essential for true and lasting peace. We should give our full support to any group working in this direction.


November 30th, 2015 | Posted by Singh in Thought for the day - (0 Comments)

When invited to a radio programme on the theme ‘what does God think of us, my jaundiced contribution was:’ If God had human emotions they would be of utter bewilderment and despair at the antics of the human race, coupled with a determination to keep us well away from any truly intelligent life in the vastness of Creation. Today, in the aftermath of the religion-linked massacres in Paris and Mali, this seems to be a bit of an understatement.

Such killings are nothing new. At the time of Guru Nanak, whose birth anniversary falls today, Catholics and Protestants were at each other’s throats in Europe and, in India, there was religious conflict between Muslims and Hindus. Why do our different religions with much to offer, ignore important commonalities and focus negatively on supposed difference and notions of exclusive access to God’s truth?

It was a concern close to Guru Nanak’s heart. In his very first sermon, he courageously suggested that the one God of us all was not impressed by our different religious labels, but by what we did for our fellow beings. The Guru devoted his life to stressing commonalities and questioning the validity of some supposed differences.

Today in our demographically changed world, while recognising and respecting genuine difference, there is an urgent need to counter the use of difference to justify hatred and violence towards others. The concern over the capacity of those working with ISIS to persuade young Muslims to leave the UK, to join fighters in Syria highlights the need to reach hearts and minds. I can fully understand the revulsion felt by those who say we should bomb ISIS off the face of this earth, but such statements, can be cynically used by extremist as ‘an attack on our religion’.

A letter in yesterday’s Times by nearly 200 Muslim scholars deploring terrorism in the name of Islam gives hope. They point out that there is nothing Islamic about the so-called “Islamic State” and no acts of terrorism, hate and violence can be justified. Distortion and misinterpretation can happen with many historic religious texts and is why, particularly in the context of today’s times, it’s necessary to stress the important commonalities with other faiths. In this, all who speak out in such a way deserve our full support.

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.

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.




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.

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