Sikh Ethics: Towards A Tried and Tested Paradigm for Reclaiming the Moral and Spiritual Roots of Economics and Capitalism
- Bhai Sahib Bhai Mohinder Singh
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Bhai Sahib Bhai Mohinder Singh
Chairman, Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha (GNNSJ), Birmingham, UK
Religion is an amazing phenomenon that plays contradictory roles in peoples lives. It can destroy or revitalize, put to sleep or awaken, enslave or emancipate, teach docility or teach revolt.- Ali Sharyati
The advent of the global financial crisis, now euphemistically known as the GFC, has abundantly exposed the culture of greed and cannibalization that underpins the global economic system. The bursting of the housing bubble in the United States and the bailout of financial institutions as well as the continuing instability on stock markets illustrates the precariousness of the contemporary global economy. The fall out of the GFC continues with the instability of the Euro zone highlighted by the recent Greek crisis but aggravated by continuing economic instability in Spain, Portugal and Ireland. This instability is of course underpinned by other global economic factors such as the economic slowing down of China and India with consequent reverberations around the world.
This general sense of instability, destabilization and precariousness is exacerbated by the continuing war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the general war on terror, North Korea, the Arab Spring with Syria the latest country ensconced in a bitter civil war, Israel and Palestine and the perceived fear of nuclear weapons in Iran. This is by no means an exhaustive list with many more localized zones of instability in virtually every part of the world. Many of these wars are seen to have religious origins. Furthermore, these wars and instabilities are deeply rooted in machinations aimed at achieving economic advantage.
Taken together, the GFC and the global instability have in recent times exposed the immorality and unsustainability of the current economic strategies pursued by the leading economies of the world. The Global Financial Crises and its aftermath highlight the immorality of the system and the manner in which ordinary citizens are affected by the decisions of corporate institutions as well as governments. The current economic crises necessitate the need for a reassessment of current practices. Whilst this crisis has major implications for developed economies, the ramifications for much of the postcolonial world are particularly damaging.
The Sacred and the Secular
The instabilities of the GFC and the various wars need to be examined within the context of strong arguments about the importance of secularization. At least since the Enlightenment, there has been a strong argument that it is reason that has been progressively freed from the bonds of religion. It is this development that has allowed humanity to not only be liberated from the shackles of religion but to make considerable progress. It should not be surprising that secularism, with its strong affinity to reason, is currently being proclaimed by both the left and the right as the single most powerful tool that can combat the fundamentalisms that dominate the political landscape. No doubt, amongst these political Islam is singled out as principal culprit. In such a configuration, religion is necessarily seen “as a regressive force in the world, one that in its dogmatism is not amenable to change, dialogue or nonviolent conflict resolution” (Jakobsen and Pellegrini 2008: 2). For my purposes, where these two contemporary crises, the GFC and the violence that is so pervasive in our world, coalesce are precisely in the point that Max Weber made in his classic book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Although Weber’s argument is complex the key point is his observation that secularism’s freedom from religion was also freedom for the market.
It is this unfettered commitment to growth at any expense that led the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Jigmi Y Thinley at the opening of the April 2012 United Nations High Level Meeting on Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining A New Economic Paradigm to note that “the GDP-led development model that compels boundless growth on a planet with limited resources no longer makes economic sense. Within its framework, there lies no solution to the economic, ecological, social and security crises that plague the world today and threaten to consume humanity” (Thinley 2012). This observation gives us cause to pause and consider how religions and faith can contribute to a new economic paradigm that can be effective and ethical. In order to do this, it is important to recognise how the sacred and secular are inextricably linked. I would like to propose that these two realms of existence are interconnected and that there is an “inseparability of spiritual philosophy from the practice of everyday life (Mani 2009: 1).
It is important to recognize that we have entered a post-secular age where the power of religion is well and truly part of the public sphere (Butler, Habermas, Taylor and West, 2011). In addition, there is an increasing recognition that faith communities constitute a vital part of our vibrant communities and that there is no singular secularism in our global world.
There are many different interpretations of secularism based upon the particular tradition from which one emanates. Nevertheless, we can posit some of the key ways in which it has been interpreted. First, it essentially refers to the separation of the church and the state (although its original meaning was more complicated). Second, in recent constitutions such as in India, it is meant to denote an equality of religions and a commitment that there is no state sponsored religion. Third, religious knowledge should make way for a more scientific rationality that is superior. Finally, secularism is also seen to be an expression of the fact that religion is a personal endeavor and has no place in the public realm (Mani 2009: 2-3). These interpretations clearly take us away from the rather singular conceptualization that is so closely linked to the Enlightenment tradition and the centrality of reason. Hence, it is imperative that the veil of ignorance, the culture of fear and suspicion that marks our present age and the disdain in which secularists hold religion and faith be lifted and confronted.
As a faith practitioner, I am deeply aware that the greed, ego, attachment, rage and fury can alter our very perception and that the very essence of social transformation cannot happen without transforming the mind of the individual which is where all good and evil are born. The practice of everyday life inspired by faith necessitates rethinking conventional solutions and calls for different levels of responsibility, action and accountability. This is necessarily so, because one sees the interconnectedness of all creation in the universe and, with that emerges a generosity of spirit and recognition that we all have a right to a decent living. Moreover, it is this connectedness to the Divine that reminds us that every single life form has significance and that its integrity and dignity are paramount. As Lata Mani has put it:
Spiritual truth has been disfigured by many false beliefs. Likewise, much of what has been proven by science is true. However, neither religion nor modern science is free from the distortions of space and time. Both are social constructs and must be evaluated as such (Mani 2009: 12).
It should be abundantly clear then that from a faith point of view this interconnectedness is not simply restricted to humans but to the entire ecological systems of our world. It is not possible to function in isolation, we are all part of an intricate web of relationships whose impact and reverberations are felt well beyond that we can imagine. Indeed from “a spiritual standpoint every particle in the phenomenal world is of inherent value. Not only that, every particle is as sacred as every other” (Mani 2009: 116). What is particularly frustrating is that, for people of faith, there is no clear demarcation between the religious and the secular and yet there is no current debate where this thesis can be advanced.
Millennium Development Goals
Nowhere is the inextricable link between the secular and the sacred more evident than in the quest to eradicate poverty and improve the health of our most vulnerable populations as extolled in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). As a faith practitioner, not only do I strongly advocate these but see them as an essential part of my own responsibility and accountability.
At the beginning of this millennium the momentous global commitment collectively made by 189 of the 223 of the world’s Governments, to work towards the eradication of abject poverty and the promotion of social and economic development, culminated in the Millennium Declaration that identified eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Although some progress has been made, the targets of the MDGs remain elusive. It is within such a context that I want to suggest the importance of the spiritual development of the individual as a ninth MDG that has the potential to revolutionize and energize the much-needed MDGs. This spiritual development is not merely restricted to developing economies but has a universal applicability. Spiritual development infuses a form of ethics that promotes accountability and ensures that one is cognizant of the implications of one’s actions. The promotion of a new system of spiritual ethics has great potential to counter the culture of unfettered growth that simply cannibalizes all in its wake for the simple sake of profit making.
The recent assessment for achieving these daunting goals by 2015 calls for deeper evaluation for a coherent strategy. Needless to say, global issues demand a shared responsibility on the part of all humans. The essential MDGs identified twelve years ago have been hampered severely, as we have noted already, by an ever-increasing rise in ‘extremism’ coupled with retaliatory violence. In addition, the outbreak of war, violence and conflict as well as the continuing proliferation of armaments exacerbates the envisaged achievement of these goals. Furthermore, the recognition of the environmental degradation and unsustainability of the planet, in light of the current levels of exploitation, necessitates urgent intervention.
The Sikh tradition points out that within the overall global development chain albeit secular or spiritual, it is the individual human being that is the weakest or the strongest link. Consequently, the need for empowering and exalting the individual through guidance and direction is essential. The bedrock of such empowerment is prayer, contemplation and service of the Creator and all creation.
It is incumbent upon nation-states, civil society, multi-lateral organisations, religious communities, indeed all of humanity, to share this responsibility. In particular, the family of faiths who are the backbone of civil society must seriously reflect on their own traditions and collaborate with others to jointly harness spirituality and empower the mortal individual to achieve success in attaining these vital goals.
In attempting to deliver these goals, it is pertinent to ensure that our responses are vigorous, passionate and unencumbered by the apathy and selfishness which have so far maintained the gridlock of injustice and suffering in our world. How can we mobilise the enormous power of commitment and altruism demanded by these goals? Of course, ultimately, it is human individuals regardless of where they are located within both the secular and spiritual fields, who are the necessary agents for delivering the MDGs. It is my conviction that the key to meeting these challenges requires the transformation of human consciousness in the 21st century. It entails harnessing our tremendous capacity to uphold an individual’s dignity and honour. Selflessness, humility, care, compassion and an abundance of love can ignite the nucleus of Divine power that is latent within each of us. Indeed, this could be identified as the missing ‘ninth’ millennium development goal.
According to the early morning daily Sikh prayer, the planet earth is a dharamsal, a sacred place that has been entrusted to us. The care and love necessary for its sustainability is analogous to another ‘home’ – the human body, mind and spirit – a dwelling place for the universal light to be nurtured and kindled. Sikh teachings emphasize the importance of recognizing the light of the One Creator latent in all creation.
We have a secular and spiritual self that is fused like two streams of water, flowing concurrently in the river of one’s life’s journey. When we are confronted with a test or challenge that seems insurmountable, much like a dam that obstructs a river’s flow we have the choice to open either of the two floodgates – the secular or the spiritual. Usually, we resort to opening the secular floodgate, as we try to resolve problems solely on the physical and material plane. The secular self is, more often than not, in turmoil and susceptible to insatiable greed, selfishness, anger, lust, exploitation and arrogance, rendering it incapable of bringing lasting tranquility. It is much rarer for us to unlock the floodgates of our spiritual self, which is the manifestation of the Divine within us. Once activated, the spiritual self begins to prompt, direct, guide and control the secular self, allowing the floodgates of altruism and other spiritual attributes to be instinctively opened. Together, the secular and the spiritual are powerful infinite forces that have the potential to overcome problems in ways that lead to more enduring fulfillment, freedom and peace. This is the necessary prerequisite that will empower the individual to selflessly strive for the achievement of the MDGs.
Connecting the spiritual and secular self is the human mind that has the capacity to be either one’s best friend or worst enemy. The two selves, secularity and spirituality, are inextricably linked, providing the hope and means for the creation of a better world for all. Secularity is relatively finite whilst spirituality/Divinity is limitless and infinite. Consequently, the spiritual dimension within any human endeavour in any context and, or field, is necessary to mobilize the infinite power of Divinity. In order to exalt our consciousness, we must educate the mind to mobilize its potential to do infinite good. We must ensure that individuals are provided with the right spiritual and secular educational exposure of values.
In order to educate the mind, we have a phenomenal reservoir and repository of timeless wisdom and values vested within the world’s spiritual traditions. In the 21st century, there is a renaissance of faith – not the misuse or misrepresentation of religion, but rather the recognition of its value in our development as humans, both individually and collectively. As a Sikh, I have a self-acknowledged duty towards the Creator and creation. It arises from both an inner compulsion to do good as well as my tradition’s spiritual heritage that provides a framework of teachings and practices that allow this impulse to flourish. It is the nourishment of this collective spirit that will ensure that we are prepared to work towards the MDGs in order to fulfill the responsibility that arises out of the recognition that the planet is a dharamsal.
The Sikh tradition informs my belief that the foundation of any faith is daya, which can be translated as compassion. Our very existence on the planet is supported by daya, the bedrock of faith. Daya is not simply an obligation but an inherent quality of being. It is a powerful force that unfolds when we see the universal light of God in all creation. As humans, we walk upon the same earth, breathe the same air; share the same basic hopes and joys, whilst enduring the same suffering and pain. This acknowledgement demands a responsibility to share. We are facing a crisis of selfishness and spiritual poverty in the collective human psyche. Our secular efforts to achieve the MDGs will remain impoverished unless and until we harness the spiritual power that remains latent within us. Together, the spiritual and the secular are the beacons that will ensure that we can serve the Creator and creation, making this a better world for all.
At the recent United Nations High Level Meeting on Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradgim, Prime Minister Thinley of Bhutan argued:
We desperately need an economy that serves and nurtures the wellbeing of all sentient beings on earth and human happiness that comes from living life in harmony with the natural world, with our communities and with our inner selves. We need an economy that will serve humanity, not enslave it (Thinley 2011)
This high level consultation is a welcome contribution. However, in order to achieve such a vision, it is clear that older forms of thinking and the idea of the separation between the secular and the sacred must be urgently revisited not only for us but also for our future generations. A new paradigm will only eventuate when our multi-faith ethical resources are deployed to confront the dark-side of the current forces of globalization with their narrowing and dehumanizing aspects that celebrate the culture of cannibalization and unfettered growth at the expense of all else. By examining the MDGs, I have suggested how vital it is for the sacred and secular to come together to make a real difference. A new ethics as I have suggested, forces us to accept our role and place within the phenomenal world where the principles of oneness, interconnectedness and love for all matter is paramount. This new ethical position has to be deeply located in our world and has to be cognizant of the importance of our thoughts, words and actions. If we do not do this, there is a real danger that we will continue to persist in the belief that we are somehow separate and disparate from the rest of humanity and all Creation. We take such a stand at our own peril and at the risk of bequeathing our succeeding generations a future that is fraught with danger.
Butler, Judith, Habermas, Jorgen, Taylor, Charles, West, Cornel (2011). The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, (New York: Columbia University Press).
Jakobesen, Janet and Pellegrini, Ann, (eds.) (2008). Secularisms, (Durham: Duke University Press).
Mani, Lata (2009). SacredSecular: Contemplative Cultural Critique, (London: Routledge).
Royal Government of Bhutan (2012). The Report of the High-Level Meeting on Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm. New York: The Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Bhutan to the United Nations. Thimphu: Office of the Prime Minister.
Weber, Max (1958). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Trans. Talcott Parsons, (New York: Scribners).