Sikhism & Bioethical Issues

Sikhism & Bioethical Issues

Seeking Gurbani Guidance

Gurmukh Singh OBE

(Partly based on articles by of Dr I J Singh (New York) and Dr. G S Mansukhani)

(Note: Following retirement in June 1996, I worked with The Sikh Missionary Society UK for a few years. Due to rapid advances in science in areas such as genetic engineering and cloning etc Sikh views were sought on such issues by those in interfaith, educational, research and media fields. On 12 June 2001, I wrote to Dr I J Singh, New York, about the need to develop a Sikh view about bioethical issues. The following thoughts were sent to him, and later produced as an article.)

Gurmatt based framework for reaching decisions on bioethical and other 21st Century issues

In discussing religio-social issues, and dilemmas and problems facing today’s society led by the rapid advances in science and technology, two basic rules of Gurbani teachings would seem to be relevant:

  1. Human life is at the apex of life on earth. It is an important phase in the evolution of a human being towards complete God-centred harmony.
  2. Family life and the institution of marriage are central to Sikh teachings which stress man/woman complementary roles in a spirit of equality. Sikhism does not accept monasticism or any type of “opt-out” way of life.

The emphasis of Gurmatt (Guru’s guidance) is not on the laying down of highly precise and rigid rules of how man might utilise his God-given knowledge; the essence of Sikh teachings is to provide man with a healthy, progressive and responsible philosophy for addressing modern issues. It provides a framework and not definitive answers for the future.

General principles:

(Derived mainly from Dr I J Singh’s essays)
  1. Not all actions can be universally condemned in all situations at all times.
  2. Instead of providing fixed unchanging answers to changing problems, Sikhism provides an unchanging process based on moral framework in which one can devise moral and ethical criteria by which an ethical dilemma can be negotiated.
  3. Inherent in Sikh teachings is the principle that all rights come with responsibilities and no actions are free of accountability.
  4. Before committing to an action, a human being must delve into his or her essential being. “Recognise the divine spark within you”, says Sikhism. (“Mann toon Jote Saroop hain apna mool pacchaan.”)
  5. The divine spark is discovered and nurtured by love, by service to the community and by recognition of the same spark in all of us.
  6. In the process of self-realisation, the sangat, a congregation of similarly dedicated people becomes critically important. God and Guru pervade such a congregation.
  7. The discerning intellect that Sikhism asks of its followers is far from perfect, but grows only by use, prayer and grace. In this role the Sikh community, the sangat becomes paramount. Individual lives exist as biosocial contracts within the historical framework of a community.
  8. The decision making process does not occur in isolation and the individual choices are ratified by the sangat (congregation).

From what has been said so far, one may conclude that Gurmatt based decisions regarding bioethical and other issues should be made intelligently (i.e. in the light of all the research and information that is available), ethically and collectively in any given situation. The mental/spiritual mode required is that of complete humility, complete harmonisation with the Will of the Creator, sense of service to all creation and a highly responsible attitude towards human values and the progress of human institutions (e.g. the institution of family life).

The ethical objectivity of knowledge must never be lost. The objective of human progress is to improve the quality of life so that it becomes God-centred and not self-centred. Research in the spiritual and temporal fields, is encouraged by Sikhi. The pre-condition is that it must be guided by Gurmatt as continually interpreted by Gursikh scholars, and applied accordingly. We must not start tinkering with the building blocks of life without taking full responsibility and seeking the Guru’s guidance.

With such a decision making framework in which science and enlightened religious thought work together (convergence of science and religion), one can turn to the specific questions.

Let us take genetic engineering as an example. According to Gurmatt, the main purpose of life is to achieve a harmonious relationship with the Supreme Soul (Param-atma) during this life. Pursuit of worldly power, comfort and pleasure, and attachment can lead one astray from the path of Gurmatt. In fact, pain is prescribed as a “medicine” (“dukh daaroo”) when the human mind loses direction due to single-minded pursuit of worldly achievements. However, in Sikhi physical pain or suffering is not a pre-condition to becoming a God-centred being. Science should be used to provide relief from such pain, although, Sikhi would not recommend the ending of life (euthanasia) as a means to ending physical or mental pain. This is a topic which needs to be developed further in the context of euthanasia.

Use of genetic engineering in non-human life forms may produce “better” vegetation and animals (from the human view point). It may be argued that the main purpose of these life forms is to sustain life itself (“Jian ka ahaar jee khana”) and is not the same as human life. Presumably, the Sikh religious criteria for genetic engineering of non-human and human life forms would be based on different considerations.

One is reminded of the word “mann” in Gurbani which is self awareness in time/space but which is also the light of God in man (“Mann toon jote Saroop hain”). This would seem to be a uniquely human faculty, which distinguishes man from all other life forms. In relation to genetic engineering this theme needs further Gurmatt research. Sikhs are not forbidden from eating meat but would Gurmatt allow the use of animals in scientific experimentation? A very cautious and conditional “yes” may be the response. The same would apply to human volunteers.

A balanced human family life is essential for achieving the human life’s goal. To achieve this objective, the same person needs to play many roles and needs many different skills to develop a full and balanced personality: marriage partner (including the sexual aspect), parent, roles in different relationships, thinker, writer, craftsman, saint, soldier etc. Responsible genetic engineering will need to take account of all these considerations. For example, to produce super unbalanced beings in test tubes would be totally unethical. Generally, Sikhism’s response to human cloning for the purpose of producing “carbon copy” human beings would be in the negative. On the other hand providing cure from disease and enhancing the quality of life would accord with Sikhi.


To conclude with a quotation from Dr I J Singh:

“The discerning intellect that Sikhism asks of its followers is far from perfect, but grows only by use, prayer and grace. In this role the Sikh community, the sangat becomes paramount, the process does not occur in isolation...... individual lives exist as biosocial contracts within the historical framework of a community.”
(“The Sikh Way: A Pilgrim’s Progress” p. 25)

Man needs to be aware of own imperfections and proceed with great caution, and continuous and continual vigilance when applying science and technology to the alteration of own hereditary characteristics evolved over millions of years by nature. He must proceed in humility and prayer and be prepared to take full personal and collective social responsibility for the consequences of genetic engineering and similar advances in science.

© Copyright Gurmukh Singh (U.K.)
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