Faith & Reason: Controversy over ritual slaughter diverts us from the real problem

Religions must learn to separate traditions and customs from the core essentials of faith if they are to find a common currency of ethical values
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This weekend Sikhs will be commemorating the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Guru of the Sikhs, who devoted his life to increasing tolerance and respect between the different religions of his day. To emphasise this respect for other religions, Guru Arjan invited a Muslim saint, Mia Mir, to lay the foundation stone of the famous Golden Temple in Amritsar. The Guru's growing popularity with both Hindus and Muslims proved too much for the bigoted Mughal Emperor Jahanghir. The Guru was arrested and cruelly tortured to death by having heated sand poured over him in the searing heat of an Indian June.

Fortunately, the world has moved on since those barbaric times. Or has it? A bulky report sits on the corner of my desk detailing more than 2,000 illegal cremations by the forces of law and order to combat the "insurgency" in the Punjab following the Indian government attack on the Golden Temple in 1984. The killing of "suspects" and their reduction to ashes is bad enough, but the picture becomes more chilling when a study of details given, shows that many of the victims were police officers who had refused to be a party to illegal killings.

We are all too aware that such atrocities are common in many parts of the world. The reality is that humans have always been a pretty brutal lot, with only the thinnest veneer of civilisation covering innate barbarity. The great world religions were all aware of this, and sought in their different ways to move us away from our baser instincts. Threats of dire punishments in the after-life, particularly in the Abrahamic family of religions, helped curb moral and ethical excesses in more superstitious times, but even then, religious authorities encouraged a belief that God would ignore or turn a benevolent eye to excesses committed in his name.

Today we live in less superstitious times. For a fairer world we must now look beyond superstition to core religious guidance on social responsibility and ethical imperatives. The problem is, and has always been, that the essence of true religion, like that found in the Sermon on the Mount, is easy to state but difficult to live by. So, being weak humans, we skip the essentials and place undue emphasis on social customs that become surrogates for true religion.

I believe an important task in moving towards a more tolerant and caring society is to separate this core guidance of religious teaching, from these less important, and sometimes dated, social practices. Not easy. For example, the Sikh community which has so much to offer the world in terms of tolerance, equality and balanced living, spends much of its time debating, in heated terms, less exacting issues, such as whether langar, the meal at the end of a Sikh service, traditionally eaten seated on a carpeted floor, can be eaten buffet-style or on tables and chairs, or, whether it is less holy to use English instead of Punjabi to teach our children the fundamentals of the Sikh faith.

The current arguments over halal and kosher slaughtering of animals raise a similar issue. The Sikh Gurus taught that there was life even in vegetation and it was up to the individual to decide whether or not to eat meat. They added that any animal used for food should be dispatched speedily. Painless slaughter however is a contradiction in terms. Even so issues of religious slaughter have less to do with core religious teaching than with social custom. If religion is to play any real part in taking us away from our murderous past, we need to look beyond these often divisive social practices, and focus on the commonalities at the core of our different faiths.

With remarkable foresight, Guru Arjan took a major leap in this direction when he deliberately included core writings of Hindu and Muslim saints in the Sikh holy book the Guru Granth Sahib.

At a time when people talked of their God and exclusive, and therefore divisive relationships, the Guru continued this unifying approach. He wrote: "I am neither Hindu nor Muslim / Though I belong body and soul / To the one God / Who is both Allah and Ram." The thrust of the Guru's teachings was to show how similar core values of compassion, concern and responsibility are emphasised in each of our different faiths, and the true way to a better society is through co-operation and tolerance.

In this way the Guru was a pioneer of inter-faith dialogue. His aim, to use the language of our current economic debate, was to move us to a common currency of ethical values. Today in our smaller more fractious world, we still have much to do to achieve "convergence", and a little humility from the West will do more to move us in this direction than jarring boasts of moral superiority, and a vengeful war on elusive terrorism.

Guru Arjan taught that anger and revenge are of no help in moving us towards more civilised behaviour. On the anniversary of his martyrdom, Sikhs honour the Guru's memory, not with any show of sadness or bitterness, but by giving cool refreshing drinks to those that pass by their homes and gurdwaras. The same generosity of spirit is found in core teachings of all our great faiths if we only care to look beyond the superficial trappings.