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BBC Radio 4 Thought For The Day By Lord Singh


Aug 17, 2010
World citizen!
BBC Radio 4 have a daily thought for the day at around 7.50am. More details here

Lord Singh is a frequent contributor and I would like to share the transcripts of his speeches. Comments on his thoughts welcome….

17 January 2013
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.

8 January 2013

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 Guru, Guru Gobind Singh 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.

28 November 2012

I spent yesterday morning helping look after a poorly granddaughter. We watched a TV programme on general knowledge on a variety of subjects taught in schools; the idea being to test the knowledge of an adult against that of a schoolchild. RE was one of the subjects chosen and the question was about the number of arms of a certain Hindu goddess.

The question of course, had nothing to do with the ethical teachings of Hinduism, and, like so much that passes for RE, was about the peripherals of belief found in all religions; about the quaint and exotic; about the form of worship rather than the substance.

Today Sikhs celebrate the birthday of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith who urged the importance of translating rituals of worship, often seen as an end in themselves, to responsible living.

The Guru taught that pilgrimages, penances and ritual acts of giving were, in themselves, not worth a grain of sesame seed in the court of God. He said that such rituals were chains of the mind if they took us away from religious imperatives of leading an honest life in the service of our fellow beings.

Some five and a half centuries ago, the Guru in a major move towards understanding and cooperation between different faiths, taught that the one God of us all was not interested in our different religious labels, but in our attitude and behaviour to those around us. This required accepting the oneness of all humanity, gender equality and social responsibility for the less fortunate. The Guru’s popularity, humanity and compassion was welcomed by people in all communities and when he died he was popularly regarded as a Pir or religious leader of the Muslims, and a guru of the Hindus.

Today Sikhs throughout the world will reflect on Guru Nanak’s teachings couched in clear uplifting language. Such teachings, like those of the founders of other faiths, give meaning and direction to life but are not always easy to practice. It’s much easier to sing or chant religious imperatives than to translate these into responsible living for ourselves and others. But, as Guru Nanak reminded us, unless we live true to such teachings, unless we walk the talk, it all amounts to nothing, reinforcing a growing perception of religion as being irrelevant to the challenges of modern society.

2 October 2012

J K. Rowling in her latest novel, The Casual Vacancy, features a Sikh family in its central plot. At the book launch last Thursday she explained that she had been deeply influenced by Sikhism because of its egalitarian teachings and stress on gender equality. She said that this had prompted her to study the religion in greater depth and was struck by its modernity.

Her generous words were doubly welcome a Sikh community increasingly apprehensive about how it is viewed by others. Sikhs are particularly concerned that in the minds of some, the turban seems to be increasingly associated with extremism, whereas in reality it is worn as a visible reminder of a commitment to live by values such as those mentioned by the author of the Harry Potter series.
Unfortunately for Sikhs, Osama Bin Laden also wore a turban and although he is no longer with us, the image still lingers in the minds of many in the United States and mainland Europe who continue to view any turban with a degree of hostility. Even here, teasing and bullying of turban wearing children in schools and vandalism of gurdwaras seems to be on the increase.

Two months ago a former US army veteran took this irrational dislike of turban wearing people further, when he entered a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and began shooting innocent members of the congregation, killing six worshippers and injuring many others. President Obama, who had lived among Sikhs in his formative years, paid tribute to the contribution of the community to the life of the USA and in a moving gesture, ordered all Union flags to be flown at half mast.

Sikhs have two problems in explaining their religion to others. First, respect for other faiths and other ways of life in Sikh teachings, means that it is wrong for us to indulge in any form of proselytizing or pushing our beliefs on others. The second reason is less excusable, we simply do not do enough to get involved in inter faith groups, religious consultative bodies in schools, and many other areas of life in which we can and should let others know more about us and the values for which we stand. We should’nt expect best selling authors and others to do this for us.

25 September 2012

Aneurin Bevan, founder of the Health Service famously declared that whenever he heard the word ’culture’, he immediately thought of bacteria. He was critical of questionable social practices being given legitimacy as culture.

I was reminded of this by the interview with Professor Ted Cantle on the Sunday Programme. He gave us a timely reminder that self-imposed isolation in some communities can give rise to a siege mentality, further isolation, and fear and prejudice in others. Professor Cantle went on to suggest that giving public funding to cultural groups and to some faith schools can add to this isolation.
In this I believe he is both right and wrong. Some aspects of different cultures such as emphasis on individual, family and civic responsibilities promote and enhance social cohesion, but, by the same token, the word culture can also include negative attitudes towards women and those seen as different. State funding can help tackle disadvantage but its blanket use as social policy can also strengthen negative ideas of difference.

I can also understand concern about some faith schools encouraging isolation and a less than respectful attitude to others. I had similar concerns when I was invited to visit the first Sikh faith school in Hayes some years ago. As I entered the main lobby I was struck by a colourful display about the Jewish festival of Purim. The assembly covered topical festivals in all faiths with genuine respect. Teachings of all faiths were included in the curriculum and the Sikh ethos of respect and easy informality between teachers and pupils of all faiths contributed to high academic standards. The school, now an academy, has excellent links with other schools, charities and commerce.

To my mind faith schools that meet such criteria, can encourages confidence and a sense of self- worth in children of a minority faith, as well as respect for others. Without this understanding and respect for the beliefs of others, there is a very real danger of faith schools creating unhealthy segregation.

Coming back to Nye Bevan’s comment about culture and bacteria, we now know that bacteria can be good or bad. The same is true of culture. In the words of the old song, we need to ensure that we accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

18 September 2012

Yesterday’s announcement of the possibility of replacing damaged embryonic material with that from a third person to prevent inherited genetic disease has caused some alarm with calls for a rigorous ethical debate.

As I understand it, the procedure involves the substitution of a faulty power component of a cell with a healthy replacement. In practical terms however, the parents will continue to be those who nourish and care for the child giving freely of their time and resources to help the boy or girl grow up in a healthy way to be a responsible member of society.

Sikhs attitudes to the use of scientific advance fully support the use of science to promote health and healing. There is no conflict between Sikh teachings and scientific discovery, and science is viewed as a gift of God to be used for the greater wellbeing of all. To Sikhs the ethics of scientific discovery lie in to the use to which such discoveries are put. As Dr Werner Von Braun inventor of the V2 rocket and the father of the American space programme put it, a knife can be used as means of killing, or as a surgeon’s scalpel to combat disease and promote healing.

To some extent we all have foreign genetic material introduced in us whenever we are vaccinated to prevent disease. A person who has a life saving organ transplant introduces genetic material from a third person into his or her body.

Yet we should always bear in mind the possible downsides to genetic manipulation and we already see this in male child obsessed countries like India and China, where embryonic testing for gender, has in some places, led to many unnecessary abortions and an alarming disparity in boy/ girl ratios.

What concerns me is not the inevitable advance in scientific discovery, but our obsession with self and what I want. This blurs our ability to use concepts of right, wrong and responsibility to make rational ethical decisions on the benefits or downside of scientific discovery. It is these imperative, emphasised in Sikhism and other faiths that we must keep to the fore to ensure new discoveries in science and other fields are always used for the greater good.

20 June 2012

London is a frequent host to heads of state and powerful politicians who control the destiny of millions. This week the capital extends a welcome to two quite different people, who far from having power, have suffered anger, hostility, detention and exile from those who rule their countries.

The visitor from Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, is here following her release from detention and house arrest for more than15 years. Her courageous stance and refusal to bend under pressure has earned ‘the lady’ as she is affectionately called, the warmth and admiration of millions both in her own country and all over the world. On a short visit to Britain this week, she will meet members of royalty and address both houses of Parliament.

The other visitor to the capital this week, the Dalai Lama, will be speaking at Westminster Abbey on peace and reconciliation and also meeting members of Parliament Forced to flee Tibet more than half a century ago, he has been the subject of continuing hostility from the Chinese rulers for daring to speak about democracy and human rights in his country and, it seems that this disapproval has extended to those that allow him a voice in other lands.

The teachings of our different faiths remind us of the importance of standing up for the oppressed, and both these distinguished visitors have shown in their own ways remarkable strength and resilience in their steadfast pursuit of democracy and justice for their people.
Guru Nanak reminded us of that it was important to live true to such ideals but warned us that if we chose to tread this path, it could cost us our life. This was the fate suffered by our ninth Guru, Guru Teg Bahadur, who when asked by Hindus to speak up against the oppression and forced conversions being suffered by their community, felt duty bound to do so. It was a principled stand for the rights of others that cost him his life.

The temptation for most of us in our individual lives, and in the political world, is to pursue questionable compromise. This week we have the opportunity to salute two remarkable visitors who, by the example of their own lives, remind us that the high ideals taught by the Gurus and other faiths have even more relevance in the different world of today.

12 June 2012

This week Sikhs are commemorating one of our major festivals; the martyrdom of Guru Arjan the 5th Guru of the Sikhs who gave his whole life to promoting understanding and respect between different religions. The Guru invited a Muslim saint to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple in Amritsar to show his respect for the Muslim faith, and he placed a door on each of its four sides to emphasise a welcome to all people from any geographic or spiritual direction. Guru Arjan was the main compiler of the Sikh holy scriptures the Guru Granth Sahib in which he included verses from Hindu and Muslim saints to show that no one religion has a monopoly of truth.

All this proved too much for the authorities and the Guru was arrested and tortured to death in the searing heat of an Indian June. This week Sikhs will mark the anniversary of that martyrdom in the traditional manner; not by any show of bitterness or anger, but by giving out cool refreshing drinks to those that pass by our homes and gurdwaras. A few years ago on the 400th anniversary of the Gurus’ martyrdom, we decided to do this in London’s Trafalgar Square and were delighted when the Bishop of London and senior representatives of other faiths agreed to join us and participate in handing out cool soft drinks and ice cream to bewildered tourists and others in the Square This year we are extending the commemoration to providing food for the homeless and taking elderly and disabled people to the seaside in line with the Jubilee theme of ‘a year of service’.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Interfaith Network which has done much in promoting understanding between different faiths, and it’s a time for both reflection on the past and for looking to the future. To my mind our different faiths inside and outside the Inter Faith Network now need to build on their work and that of early pioneers like Guru Arjan and look beyond promoting respect and understanding between different faiths, to actively working together for the common good. I believe that the best way of doing this is to embrace a spirit of service and concern for the wellbeing others, not for a day or a year, but as a permanent and major antidote to our tendency to look to self and material gain to the exclusion of wider responsibilities.


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Aug 17, 2010
World citizen!
30 April 2013
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.

24 April 2013
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 Guru insisted on the proper care of enemy soldiers wounded 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.

15 April 2013
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.



Aug 17, 2010
World citizen!
16 July 2013

Last week I attended the first AGM of the newly formed all party parliamentary group on international religious freedom setup to look at ways of protecting basic human rights in the face of mounting bigotry in many parts of the world. To date is has received evidence from persecuted Bahai's in Iran, Muslims in Burma, Christians in North Korea and Saudi Arabia, 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 new group will continue mapping the extent of religious persecution in different areas of the world and lobby the government to take the lead in ensuring international aid is strictly tied to full observance of international freedom of belief as detailed in article 18 of 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 there'll 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 preach 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 the tolerance and respect to 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 easier to turn to and import negative culture onto 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 teachings. The Sikh Gurus observed in some memorable verses how such negative and divisive culture masked and distorted true religious teachings, and urged a 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 the religions today.

31 July 2013

Last week I attended a relaunch of the book by a celebrated author Patwant Singh about the life of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the charismatic first and last Sikh ruler of the Punjab. Ranjit Singh was the 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 Panjab before its partition in 1947 and the state of Kashmir. Ranjit Singh blinded in one eye due to small pox in childhood was completely illiterate. As a child he frequently attended Gurdwara and was moved by the stories of the Sikhs in battle and heavily influenced by the Guru's teaching of respect for the beliefs of all people. As ruler of Punjab he would refer to his loss of sight in one eye by saying it was God's purpose that he look on 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 Hundu temple on the banks of the Ganges and gave lavishly to the upkeep of Mosques in Panjab. 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'd consider their complaint. It was quietly dropped. On another occasion he met a Muslim with a handwritten copy of the Quran 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 Panjab after centuries of invasions and religious conflicts came to an abrupt end with his death in 1839. Times have changed and conflicts have now become more complex with wider implications for a smaller more inter-dependent world but this brief glimpse of Ranjit Singh's respect for difference, underlines the importance for aiming for the wellbeing of all people in resolving conflict and bringing peace and prosperity to many suffering areas of the world today.




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