By Dr Harbans Lal
Recently, I was visiting a Christian family that we’ve been friends with for several years. They were waiting in the hospital, where their teenage son was admitted following an auto accident. He was severely injured. The doctors were not sure if he would survive but they continued to do their best.
I had known the boy for along time, but more closely in recent years, when I began to call him for help with my computer or mobile phone. He was a techie and always obliging.
Besides his extended family, there were many friends in the waiting room anxiously wanting to see him and to touch him. On account of my rank as a professional in the health sciences, the medical staff was particularly courteous to me and gave me a detailed rundown of his condition. That placed me in the role of consoling the family and advising them as to what may lie ahead.
All of us continued praying that the young man would get well.
AN EXPECTED GLOW
There was something else that caught my attention and motivated me to write this rejoinder. A delegation of three ministers from the church of the grieving family walked in. Their role was first to pray for the injured, then to console the family, and finally to provide counselling on an imperative decision that parents must make if things take a turn for the worse, i.e., planning of the final rites.
Unexpectedly to me, the clergy began to counsel the parents to consider organ donation of their only son’s body. All of them politely but realistically counselled that the parents should consider this ultimate charity right away, so that the organs would not fade and diminish their usefulness. The parents consented.
Sadly, the son did not survive.
As the parents were consoled by the ministers, the dead body of their son was hurriedly wheeled to the surgical suite as soon as his brain waves flattened and the young man was certified dead.
I saw an unusual glow on the faces of the parents. They even whispered in my ear and asked me to help them donate their own bodies to the Willed Body program, before they too would lose the ability to make such decision for themselves.
Indeed, one could see a positive glow around what was otherwise an immense tragedy for the family.
TRADITIONAL LAST RITES
As I have grown older, I have had many occasions to be with families when their loved ones were breathing their last. I have also been asked to speak many times at the last service rites of members of our community. Only a few months ago, a friend of mine pulled me aside after a cremation service to make an unexpected request. With a serious face he asked me to speak at his funeral when he dies.
My point is that, during all these years, I never heard of, or even thought about the type of counselling the priests were offering to members of their congregation. I was thankful that they alerted me on a serious gap that exists in our community. We do not think about donating the body of a deceased member.
I am fully aware that there is no official position taken in the Rehat Maryada for body and/or organ donation. Certainly, this is because such opportunities were not there in the countries where most of the Sikhs lived at the time of the Gurdwara Reform Movement of the 1940s and 1950s. That was the time when current Rehat Maryada was formulated by our Elders. Thus no provisions were made to utilize the body or its organs this way after a Sikh was deceased.
It is only very recently that opportunities began to become available to donate a human body to save other lives. Although the Maryada document does not provide a guideline, it certainly did not say anything which would prevent us to consider such an exalted act of altruism.
It is for the same reason that one may not find a direct reference to organ donation in Sri Guru Granth Sahib. However there are several Gurbani verses supporting sacrifice of one’s body, mind and wealth for the causes of compassion under Guru’s guidance. Such opportunities were considered fortunate.
Let me give a couple of illustrations.
ਹਉ ਮਨੁ ਤਨੁ ਹਉ ਮਨੁ ਤਨੁ ਦੇਵਾ ਤਿਸੁ ਕਾਟਿ ਸਰੀਰਾ ਰਾਮ ॥
Sayeth Guru Ram Das, I will dedicate my mind and give my body, including its cut up fragments, to the Creator manifested in all. SGGS, p. 572
ਤਨੁ ਮਨੁ ਧਨੁ ਅਰਪੀ ਸਭੋ ਸਗਲ ਵਾਰੀਐ ਇਹ ਜਿੰਦੁ ॥
Sayeth Guru Arjan Dev, I dedicate my body, mind, wealth and all else to Him. I totally sacrifice my soul to Him. SGGS, p. 47
We all know that Guru Arjun actually did sacrifice himself on the altar so others may live as God loving people. Guru Nanak, once speaking to Jogi Ishar, who had run away from the householder’s life, advised as follows: A householder who commits his/her body to charity and good deeds is as sanctified as the River Ganges that fertilizes all communities around.
I believe that Gurbani is eternal and it is composed in metaphors that are to be interpreted in each time that we live it. Certainly, the Daan doctrine of the Gurmat troika of the Naam Daan Ishnaan will include the ultimate giving away of one’s total body and body organs so that others may live.
Thus, among Sikhs, organ and tissue donation may remain a matter of individual conscience, but it may readily be included in the array of acts of compassion that have been esteemed throughout Sikh history and traditions.
I certainly wish to encourage body donation as an act of Sikh altruism and include it among the Sikhi values that may be operationalized in the West. It is something noble that can arise from loss and tragedy. Our families, at the time of extreme grief, may find comfort and solace by helping others in this specific way.
Pope John Paul II has stated, “The Catholic Church would promote the fact that there is a need for organ donors and that Christians should accept this as a ‘challenge to their generosity and fraternal love’ so long as ethical principles are followed.”
I applaud the late Pope’s urging.
Let me give you some widely known but overlooked statistics to persuade you how valuable an organ or body donation can be. Situations may differ from country to country, but the level of significance will remain about the same as in USA.
- More than 123,000 people in the USA are waiting for human organ transplants. Demand for organs far exceeds the supply.
- Every ten minutes, someone is added to the national transplant waiting list.
- On average, 22 people die each day while waiting for a transplant.
- One organ donor can save eight lives.
(all statistics are for the USA, and from the donatelife.net website. March 2015).
Now, if 30 million Sikhs willed their bodies so others may be saved, we will be recognized in world history as people who saved two hundred forty million persons in the world. That too without any age, gender, color, religious, or any other discrimination.
What a bargain for the nation of Sikhs!
WHERE TO BEGIN
For a Sikh, the organ donation process may begin with his Guru-given spiritual conviction that leads to a decision. I made my decision some years ago. I recognized the opportunity to help others by donating my body with all its parts and organs when I die. As my Guru said, my body is an exceptional gift from my Creator to me. By donating it to benefit God’s creation I respectfully acknowledged that gift.
I mentioned my donation to a few of my friends; all of them followed my lead. Actually, not my lead but my Guru’s inspiration. All of us will enjoy our respective bodies and, at the same time, the satisfaction of donating our most valuable possession when we are still alive. Then, only by willing the body donation, we will permit the rare opportunity whereby others may continue to adore God-given life after we die.
Again, what a bargain!
Please consider enrolling in your state’s or country’s donor registry or a medical institution of your choice. Then share your decision with your family and friends. When your time comes, your organs may be used to save many lives. Below are links to American and British organisations that can provide more information. There are many others, and similar services exist throughout the world.
I also suggest that you alert officials at your gurdwara or other institutions to train the granthis in following the path of clergy in other religions, so that they may begin counselling their congregations in this ultimate act of altruism.
ਅਠਸਠਿ ਤੀਰਥ ਸਗਲ ਪੁੰਨ ਜੀਅ ਦਇਆ ਪਰਵਾਨੁ ॥
Be merciful to others and donate yourself -this is more meritorious than bathing at the sixty-eight sacred shrines of pilgrimage and the giving of charity. SGGS, p. 136
(Modified from Sikhchic, August 8, 2015).
Send all communications to:
Harbans Lal, PhD; D.Litt (hons)
Emeritus Professor and Chairman, Dept of Pharmacology & Neuroscience, University of North Texas Health Science Center.
Emeritus, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India.
President, Academy of Guru Granth Studies.
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