SIKHS SAY “NO” TO OPEN AIR FUNERAL PYRES
UK Sikh organisations condemn misleading statements by the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society linking Sikhs with Brahmanic ritualism.
Sikhs are not “Hindus”!
A query from the Cremation Society of Great Britain about a report in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle has sparked a row between the Anglo-Asian Society and nationwide Sikh organisations.
In his response to the Cremation Society of Great Britain asking for the Sikh view about open air funeral pyres, Gurmukh Singh from the British Sikh Consultative Forum, wrote that the Sikhs have their own religious Code of Conduct & Conventions (The Sikh Reht Maryada). This should be consulted by any organisation claiming to represent the Sikh religion.
The Sikh religious position had been made clear to the media and Mr Davender Ghai, President of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society last year. The question of open air funerals had been extensively discussed in open Sikh forums and the actions of Davender Ghai, condemned.
The BBC were forced to make public apologies for misreporting on this same issue in December 2006.
We have been here before!
Julie Forrest of The Cremation Society of Great Britain drew attention of Sikh organisations to a report in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle of 29th June, 2007. The heading of the report by Sonia Sharma reads, “Religious equivalent of the Pope supports open air funeral campaign. Hindu leader backs pyres bid.” A Swami Divyanand Teerth described as “religious equivalent of the Pope” is quoted by The Newcastle Evening Chronicle reporter as saying, “Cremation in the open air is the birthright of Hindus and Sikhs as well as their unalterable duty.” According to the report, Davendar Ghai of the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society, “who organised the open air funeral of Rajpal Mehat in Newcastle last year, has won legal aid to fight his case in the High Court.” Rajpal Mehat, an illegal immigrant according to the Sikh Federation UK, has been incorrectly described as a Sikh. The report goes on to claim, “Sikh organisations have also approved the charity’s legal team indicating they want to support the judicial review in court.”
The Sikh Fedration’s response to the Cremation Society reads, “We are satisfied with the services offered in UK crematoria….We have publicly condemned Davender Ghai and his illegal actions. Given our contacts with the Gurdwaras (the main Sikh organisations) in the North East we do not think any meaningful Sikh organisation, with any real representational capacity, would have approached the charity’s legal team indicating they want to support the judicial review in court. Davender Ghai should be challenged to specify which Sikh organisations.”
There were two attachments to the Sikh federation’s response to the Cremation Society:
First attachment is a “Daily Telegraph” report of 15 July 2006 with the headline, “Pyre was a mistake, say Sikhs”. The report incorrectly describes a Hindu Rajpal Mehat, who was “burned” on an open as a “Sikh”. A point taken up by Dr Indarjit Singh of the Network of Sikh Organisations with the BBC (see boxed item) for giving the same false impression without proper investigation. To quote from the Daily Telegraph report: “A Sikh organisation has criticised the decision to allow the first open-air funeral in Britain for 72 years. The remains of Rajpal Mehat, a 31-year-old Indian-born Sikh, were burned on a pyre in Stamfordham, Northumberland, on Wednesday.
“The cremation went ahead in accordance with Hindu customs after his family contacted Davender Ghai, the president of the Newcastle-based Anglo-Asian Friendship Society. Northumbria police allowed it to take place but said later that it contravened the Cremation Act 1902.
“Yesterday the Sikh Federation (UK) accused the authorities of making “a major mistake” and claimed Mr Ghai had organised the funeral simply to attract attention to his campaign for funeral pyres to be allowed in Britain. The Sikh view, said the federation, was that a conventional cremation was satisfactory because a dead body had “absolutely no religious significance whatsoever”. It called on the Crown Prosecution Service to take Mr Ghai to court. Mr Ghai said last night: “All I have done is to obey the family’s wishes. It went ahead with the blessing of the police.”
The second attachment is the Federation’s press release with the heading, “Sikhs outraged at open-air funeral pyres.” and relates to the same Daily Telegraph report.
Harmander Singh of Sikhs In England responded to the Cremation Society along similar lines. To quote, “Many thanks for your e-mail to Sikhs In England concerning Mr Ghai’s absurd suggestions which were vehemently challenged by Sikhs nationally at the time he originally made them and Mr Ghai had to accept that he was not in any way able to represent Sikh interests in this or any other matter. The wrongfull assertion in the BBC news clippings also resulted in the BBC having to give on-air and television apology to the Sikh community for taking Mr Ghai’s assertions as valid and for hurting the feelings and damaging the Sikh community’s identity.”
Ashes Scattered In UK’s Ganges
Sikhs In England have challenged a misleading report by http://news. sky.com/skynews/ article/ of 20 July, 2007. Clarification is also being sought from the “leading Sikh” mentioned in the article. The heading reades,”Ashes Scattered In UK’s Ganges” and some relevant quotes are,“A river on Tyneside could become Britain’s answer to the Ganges as the place for people to scatter the ashes of their loved ones.
“Gateshead Council has designated part of the River Derwent for Sikhs and Hindus to carry out the ceremony, believing that by immersing ashes into flowing water they will be sent to heaven.A leading Sikh, Bahal Singh Dindsa, has praised the council for being “forward-thinking”. But many authorities prohibit the scattering of human remains in UK rivers, for fear of contamination…..The Sikh practice of burning the bodies of the dead on funeral pyres before scattering the ashes is also prohibited under UK law.” This is a damaging and misleading statement about Sikh “practice”. (See boxed item “Sikh Reht Maryada”)
Investigative journalism V. spreading misinformation
Sonia Sharma, Reporter, Evening Chronicle has responded to further queries from Sikh organisations through the Cremation Society of Great Britain (trying to clarify the Sikh practice) as follows, “I have spoken to Mr Ghai about the groups that have shown an interest in the campaign for open air funeral pyres. At this stage they are unwilling to disclose the names of the groups. They are following advice from their legal team and say that all will be revealed when the case is heard at the High Court.”
Despite being alerted about strong objections by Sikh organisations, Sonia Sharma did another report on 12 July this year again associating the Sikhs with this Hindu demand.
To the above, we leave the last word to Harmander Singh of Sikhs In England, “…if there is to be a Judicial Review, this is meant to be open (to the public) process and any representation made will be automatically open to scrutiny. Either Mr Ghai is playing his little games again or more worryingly, he is naive to the implications of what he is getting himself involved in. Either way Mr Ghai will not be able to sustain the argument that the Sikh religion supports his own faith’s position in the way he purports or attempts to portray.”
One of the many mails on the Sikh cyber-forums:
Reproduced below are comments by Bhai Autar Singh of Malaysia. Bhai Sahib is the founder of the worldwide Gurmat Learning Zone (GLZ) which has over 6,000 members including Sikh scholars of repute. He wrote, “Among the essential last rites mentioned [in The Times report of 1 February 2006] are:
1. open air cremations
2. disposal of ashes – they are cooled and carefully collected so that there is no possibility of intermingling with other ashes
3. the remains need to be taken to india all these [and more] rituals are deemed essential to the process of reincarnation and any slack in the performance of these would incur “catastrophic consequences for the departed soul”. As far as Sikhi is concerned, the performance or non-performance of any ritual in relation to the disposal of the dead body has no bearing on the fate of the departed soul. Hence whether the body is cremated, buried, immersed in water or eaten by animals, is not the focal issue. The prevailing circumstances dictate the mode of disposal.
Having said that, it is preferred in Sikhi [Sikh way of life] to cremate the dead body as this is considered the best method. when there is a choice of methods of cremation, again the choice should be the best method. IMHO cremation in gas furnaces is superior to open air cremations. Regarding cooling and separating of ashes, the Sikh Reht Maryada forbids us from separating the ashes of the body from those of the clothes, wooden bier or coffin, etc. we are to dispose off all the ashes together. And of course we are to immerse the ashes in flowing water, preferably. otherwise we can bury the ashes. the guiding principle is that we use the best and most convenient method and that we do not end up setting up a tomb where the ashes or the body is buried, immersed or cremated.
The news report focussed on the need to carry out prescribed rituals to assist in reincarnation. I notice that in our Sikh funerals also there has emerged a set of rituals that must be done, in a certain way by certain specified relatives. hence the pyre must be lit [or the furnace button pressed] by the eldest son, etc. I think the most important activity [not a ritual but a spiritual] that must be done on the death of a relative is as follows: The Paath must be done by all the near and dear relatives themselves. Yes, by the family members themselves. Not by friends and acquaintances. Not by hired paathies. but by the spouse, sons, daughters, and other close family members. That I firmly believe is one activity that we must stress upon. The one activity that would certainly help everyone, including the departed soul for he/she would surely be rewarded for ensuring that his/her family is able to read Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji and thus be linked with Gurbani for all times to come, and beyond. If you have not yet taught your children how to read Gurmukhi, and
hence Gurbani, now is the perfect time to start, may Akaal Purkh be with you. And if you want to do that ultimate duty for your departed parent, it is not the lighting of the pyre or the pressing of the button or any of the many others that everyone around will tell you to do. Your ultimate seva and duty would be to participate in the Paath yourself. Are you prepared for the ultimate duty?
Subang Jaya, Malaysia