Sikh View about Euthanasia (assisted dying or mercy killing) and Suicide

Sikh View about Euthanasia (assisted dying or mercy killing) and Suicide

Gurmukh Singh OBE
"This body is the Lord's Temple wherein is revealed the jewel of Divine comprehension"
Guru Amardas, Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS), Ang 1346
"Kabir, difficult to obtain is the human birth.""
Bhagat Kabir SGGS A. 1365
"Kabir, world is passing away to meet ultimate death. However, no one knows how to die. He who dies such a death (in Lord's Will) dies not again.""
Bhagat Kabir SGGS A. 555

This article is in two parts:

  1. First part introduces some related concepts from Sikh ideology
  2. Second part sums up Sikh view in the context of the current debate about legalising mercy killing or assisted dying.

(Important note: The concept of "God" in Sikhi (preferred to "Sikhism") is as described in the Mool Mantar - Source Mystical Description - the first composition of Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS), the Sikh Holy Scripture; and none other, despite many traditional names for the Timeless, Creator Being used in SGGS. The Mool Mantar is repeated more than a hundred times in SGGS and is the basic teaching on which are founded Sikh ideology, institutions and the Sikh way of life referred to as Sikhi. )

Related concepts from Sikh ideology

[In this part, only some of the many references are quoted from SGGS in the footnotes as examples. Opening words are given in Gurmukhi (roman letters) for quick reference. Otherwise, numerous similar references can be quoted from Gurbani (Guru's Word in SGGS) which confirm the same Sikhi concepts.]

The main challenge for a human being in life is from the wandering mind (mann). "A person acts according to the wishes of the mind. The mind feeds on virtues and vices. Intoxicated with the wine of Maya -worldly attractions, contentment never comes."

Mann, the wandering mind, due to all the trials and tribulations of life, is driven to distress and despair, which can lead to death wish. It can only be controlled through study and knowledge. This is the thinking or discerning part of the mind referred to as matt. Sikhs pray for the control of matt over mann.

In Sikhi, the mind is controlled and brought to a stable condition through Gur-matt (the Mind or Word of the Guru) . In that state the mann is God-centred.

The wandering mind is controlled through study and practice of Gurbani (Guru's Word). The study of the lives of the Guru-persons from 1469 to 1708, and the Khalsa history and tradition give numerous teaching examples of challenges in many life situations. These were faced and, ultimately, overcome through the positive mental state of charrdi kalaa (a peculiarly Sikh concept of ascending energy).

For example, old people sometimes start thinking they are a burden on family and society. The Third Guru, Guru Amardas showed by own example how much can be achieved in advanced age. Based on Guru Nanak Sahib's founding ideology, most of the Sikh institutions were set up by Guru Sahib.

The starting point for every Sikh is to know the purpose of human life. The ultimate Sikh goal of human life (manas janam meaning human birth) is to seek union with the Timeless Lord (Akal Purakh), remembered by many names in SGGS.

This is achieved when self or own will is surrendered to God's Will (Bhana or Hukam Rzaee).

Only God's Will remains when the human soul is united with the Supreme Soul (Param-atma). That state of God union and God experience is achievable in this life.

Through such realisation and surrender of self to His Will, my experience of life also becomes His experience through me. My pain or pleasure become His, in His Will.

My birth was in His Will. When the time comes, my death too will be by His Will.

Meanwhile, knowing that He is with me all the time in every situation, through pain and pleasure, suffering and in comfort, I remain in positive spirit through constant God-awareness. That is the concept of "ascending energy", or charrdi kalaa, in Sikhi acquired through constant God awareness (Naam simran) while seeking the good of all.

Human life is an opportunity to harmonise human experience with God experience and remove the apparent duality between the two; so that, ultimately, only God experience remains. So that only God, the Timeless Creator Being, is experiencing Own creation through the human body and mind experience. Only His Name - His qualities described by numerous names - remains and "my name" is no more.

To stress: human experience becomes God's Own experience through the human mind and body. For the human being this is achievement of the state of sehaj avastha or Sehaj anand (state of equipoise, equanimity and ultimate bliss) in all situations and life experiences. Being equanimous in pain and comfort, a Gurmukh (Guru-ward person) remains positive (in charrdee kala) and detached from joy or sorrow.

Human experience is God experience and human suffering is part of that experience.

Experience of both, pain and comfort, or, suffering and happiness (dukh and sukh) are seen as human experiences leading to the same of ultimate surrender of self to the Will of the Creator, Timeless Being (Karta, and Akal Purakh)

If comfort and pleasure leads the human mind away from the goal of human life, then pain can be the cure for that disease (rog).

The Sikh view is that after countless lower life forms (chavraasi lakh joon) which took the soul through the evolutionary process, human life (manas janam) was achieved. Human life is at the top rung of the ladder of evolution.

Human life is a rare opportunity to experience God awareness. Human life, at the top rung of the evolutionary ladder of life, offers the opportunity to evolve further and merge human experience with God experience, so that self-consciousness is no more and the human being attains and remains in a state of God experience, through pain and comfort.

A Sikh attains and remains in a state of charrdi kalaa through constant God remembrance (Naam simran) while living a full life of a householder. Pain and pleasure are not his or her's; but God's in God's Will (Bhana).

In Sikh tradition, Sikh martyrs willingly accepted physical pain inflicted by oppressive regimes while fearlessly resisting injustice and religious bigotry. None is recorded in Sikh history as even contemplating taking own life. They always remained in charrdi kalaa (positive spirit).

When the duality between self awareness and the God experience is removed then self is no more. There is only the One Creator Being, the Timeless Being, experiencing everything through each and every human experience. Any cause for despair and depression is removed by acceptance of Bhana (His Will).

Sikh tradition started during the Guru period, cares for the needy and the sick and provides relief from pain with the use of medicine. There is some evidence that the Guru's not only provided hospitals, but also searched far and wide and kept the most advanced medicines. Sikhi supports medical research. Helping those who are not well and providing relief from pain is part of Sikh tradition.

Current debate about legalising mercy killing or assisted dying.

I quote Lord Indarjit Singh with appreciation,

"Sikhs accept that life is a gift of God to be cherished and preserved wherever possible, but we are also required to bear in mind the important Sikh teaching of compassion, dignity and care for the suffering. These two considerations are not necessarily incompatible."
(See below web link for his full speech in the House of Lords on 12 December 2014)

In addition to obvious physical reasons to do with the discomfort of ageing, physical disability, suffering from some incurable disease or terminal illness, prolonged pain etc, there are often mental and emotional reasons why a person would wish to end own life.

Modern life is full of stress due to the rat-race to do well materially. The peer pressure and the competition to succeed is intense. We have a crowded world and rapid advances in science, technology and information technology. Sometimes, the human mind is unable to cope with all that is going on around us. That leads to mental disorder, depression and suicidal tendencies.

The quality of social life is poor and becoming worse each day. In industrialized wealthy countries, human beings are more like moving parts in large machines. They are not motivated from within to pursue creative activities while remaining close to nature and God, but by the requirements of the suffocating modern business-centred workplace environment.

It may even be argued that the root cause of some world conflicts identified with religious ideologies, is, in fact, an expression of dissatisfaction with modern living. It is a form of mental illness which expresses itself in suicidal terrorism.

Whatever the cause, the trend to legalized assisted dying is a slippery and dangerous slope. As discussed in the first part, Sikh ideology gives very clear pointers to what can be done to educate and motivate aimless lives to understand and serve the purpose of human birth (manas janam).

There are advances in medical science which offer pain relief and cure. Old age is not a burden on anyone. No matter what the physical condition; old age can be a blessing for the family and the Society. By their very presence, elderly parents keep families together and are able to contribute to society though knowledge and experience of a life time. Advances in physical care lessen the burden of physical management of elderly people.

There are too many flaws and even risks in the argument that an individual has the "right to die" promoted by some politicians and organizations like "EXIT".

God gave us human life and only God has the "right" to take it away. No one has the "right" to take it away.

Providing medicinal or surgical relief from pain, psychological treatment, and not prolonging life artificially can be distinguished from the act of ending life assisted or by self.

Otherwise, God"s Will (Bhana) and human surrender to that Will; and acceptance of pain and pleasure as part of life in His Will, is the Sikh way (Sikhi).

The societal dangers of legalizing assisted dying are only too obvious. These have been well expressed by Lord Indarjit Singh and others.

In conclusion, Sikhs would support the line taken by Lord Indarjit Singh which he summarized as follows,

"In summary, while we should always be on our guard against the notion of individual autonomy trivialising life, we need to recognise that, from an individual's perspective, life can become pretty intolerable and there is an argument for helping to end it in strictly controlled circumstances. The danger is that, if we go down this path, it could itself be a slippery slope to trivialising life, altering the very ethos on which medical care is provided."

Not assisted dying, but Guru-guided living, is the Sikh way.

Further Reading -

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