An Ethical imperative
Dance of Compassion and Righteousness
by Tarunjit Singh Butalia
A fundamental value underlying nearly every religious tradition is compassion and love for our fellow human beings. Compassion is not just about the role it plays in our traditions but much more about how we live it in our daily lives and what we can do collectively to address the rise of hate and sectarian division.
In August of 2006 I participated in the 8th World Assembly of Religions for Peace held in Kyoto, Japan. The theme of the assembly was Confronting Violence and Advancing Shared Security. Being my first significant international interfaith engagement, I was thrilled to see the meaningful and healing work being carried out by people of faith across the world.
The closing ceremony of this assembly was another matter. As I settled into my seat in the auditorium, the then Chief Rabbi of Israel stepped up to speak at the podium. He spoke eloquently and passionately about the pain and suffering of the Jewish community in Israel/Palestine but forgot to even recognize that there also was pain and suffering on the other side. Then the turn of the Chief Palestinian Judge came. He too spoke at length about the suffering of the Palestinian community but failed to recognize the pain and suffering on the other side.
It was disappointing, self-evident to me that each of the religious representatives who had just spoken chose to ignore the suffering of the “religious other” while uplifting the pain of their own community. There was little or no compassion for the religious other. Sometimes in the midst of the passion of religious conflict, we forget that the misery on the other side is similar to our own – just with different details.
My Sikh faith calls me to not only uphold but also practice khima (forgiveness) and daya (compassion/mercy) every day. The Siri Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhism’s sacred text, says: No one is an enemy, none a stranger, I get along with all. This is only possible through having mercy and compassion for all, irrespective of class, religion, gender, racial, or political divides. Compassion is one of the five virtues in the Sikh faith, the other four being truth, contentment, humility, and love.
Siri Guru Granth Sahib also makes reference to a mythological bull named dhoul which represents religious duty or the path of righteousness. The Earth from a mythological perspective rests on the horns of this bull. The following verse is recited daily by Sikhs across the world every morning:
The dhoul of religious duty is the son of compassion
This is what patiently holds the earth in place
Whosoever understands this becomes pure
What a great load there is on the bull
So many worlds beyond this world – so very many
What power holds them, and supports their weight?
The world is held in balance by religious duty or the path of righteousness, which in turn is a product of compassion. For a Sikh, there can be no righteousness without compassion. It is one of the most fundamental ethical imperatives.
From the Sikh perspective it is important to note that God does not suffer in the sense of pain from evil but may suffer compassion in terms of bearing the pain of others to relieve them of pain and evil. The first Sikh Guru, Siri Guru Nanak Sahib, writes of the brutal invasion by Babur of South Asia in the 1500s (as recorded in Siri Guru Granth Sahib):
Much agony were they put through and much anguish did they suffer
Were you not, O God, moved to pain?
In this verse, the pain of God being referred to is not the pain from evil but the compassion that arises from bearing the pain of others to relieve them of suffering and evil. We as humans are called upon to bear compassion and suffer with others. It means standing up for others, especially those being persecuted, even when it is inconvenient or politically inappropriate. It means standing up for the rights of the least among us.
My faith, like many other religious traditions of the world, calls me to be righteous with a fundamental ethical virtue of compassion for all. The dance of compassion and righteousness is a beautiful one. But without compassion, it can turn into a firestorm of self-righteousness.
Header Photo: Max Pixel