THE SPIRITUAL ASPECTS OF ORGAN DONATION
“Please don’t take your organs to Heaven – for Heaven knows, we need them down here!” This is the tag-line for many organisations involved in encouraging and educating people about organ donation. Organ donation maybe live or cadaver. In live organ donation, a family member or a close friend donates an organ to their loved one who has a failed organ. In cadaver organ donation, the immediate family members of a deceased individual donate their loved one’s organs to the Government which in turn allocates the organs to patients with organ failure as per their priority listing. Up to 25 different organs and tissues can be donated for transplantation. Transplantable organs include the heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas, and small intestines. Transplantable tissues include blood, blood vessels, bones, bone marrow, cartilage, connective tissues, eyes, heart valves, and skin.
AJ, an auto driver met with an accident and suffered brain death leaving behind his pregnant wife. After counselling, his wife volunteered to donate his organs and through her selfless act, AJ could save four lives. Though he is dead, his wife believes he lives on in four other people!
In the early days of cadaver organ donation, there were a lot of apprehensions regarding the position and views of various religions on the propriety of donation. Even though the basic tenet of any religion is to perform deeds that benefit fellow human beings; there were a lot of queries about the inevitable mutilation of the body and whether it was permitted by the existing religious beliefs.
Happily, these controversies have been set to rest today. All major religions in the world view organ donation as an act of charity or make it clear that it is a decision to be left up to the individual or the family:
Hinduism: Hinduism is the predominant religion in India with over a billion followers globally. Hindus believe in transmigration of the soul and reincarnation, whereby the deeds of an individual in this life will eventually determine his fate in the next. Another important aspect of Hinduism is to help those who are suffering and Daan, or selfless giving, ranks third among its Niyamas (virtuous acts). According to the Bhagavad Gita, the physical integrity of the dead body is not seen as crucial to reincarnation of the soul: “As a person puts on new garments, giving up the old ones. The soul similarly accepts new material bodies giving up the old and useless ones”. Interestingly, reports about the use of body parts to benefit others are also deeply embedded in Hindi mythology. In fact, the earliest example of organ transplantation is the case of Lord Ganesha, who has an elephant head. Various Hindu scholars have endorsed organ donation publicly. Hasmukh Velji Shah of the World Council of Hindus stated that “The important issue for a Hindu is that which sustains life should be accepted and promoted as Dharma (righteous living). Organ donation is an integral part of our living.
Actually, our country was one of the first countries in the world to promote organ donation and the following advertisement was often used as a template in the Western media:
Advertisement from the 2003 campaign by the Indian Human Organ Procurement and Education Trust (HOPE). Note the text in the bottom left corner, saying ‘Donated organs don’t see race, religion, age or sex.’
Islam: Violating the human body, whether living or dead, is forbidden in Islam. However, helping a fellow being with no thought of reward is also an important principle of Islam, and saving a life is placed very highly. Here, the principle that reconciles the two is ‘necessity overrides prohibition’. In a formal decision in 1996, the UK Muslim Law Council issued an Ijtihad (religious ruling) that organ transplantation is entirely in keeping with Islam and internationally most Islamic scholars endorse organ donation. In case of any controversy, Muslims may seek the advice of their local imam, and ultimately, the decision/advice of this scholar is respected.
Christianity: The Christian faith appears to generally endorse transplantation. Most Anglican, Catholic and Protestant scholars agree that organ donation is an act of selflessness and endorse transplantation. One act of support has gained particular publicity, namely the fact that the previous Pope, Benedict XVI has publicly announced that he carries an organ donor card at all times.
Sikhism: The word ‘Sikh’ means learner and Sikhs believe religion should be practised by living in the world and coping with life’s everyday problems. Sikhism also stresses the importance of doing good actions. Sikhs believe in life after death, and a continuous cycle of rebirth. In Sikhism, the physical body is not crucial to the cycle of rebirth, as the soul of a person is eternal while the body is simply flesh. Accordingly, a survey within a Sikh community in the UK demonstrated a generally positive attitude towards organ donation.
Buddhism: Buddhism is a common religion in Asia. Crucial to Buddhism is the idea that all of life is suffering (dukkha), which can be overcome by an 8-fold path of virtues. Buddhism also sees everything on earth as transitory and believes in rebirth. According to Tibetan Buddhism, the spiritual ‘consciousness’ may remain in the body for days after the breath has stopped. Only its departure is seen as the actual moment of death, and the body must remain undisturbed until then. Any disturbance of this process may adversely affect the person’s next rebirth. These considerations are in conflict with generosity (dāna) or selfless giving as another central principle of Buddhism. In this dilemma, Buddhist scholars come to different conclusions. Some are more or less opposed to cadaver organ donation entirely, while others leave it to individual decision. Again, local scholars representing the individual patient’s school of Buddhism may be helpful in providing guidance.
Judaism: The Jewish faith has traditionally taken a sceptical view regarding transplantation and cadaver donation in particular. The Jewish faith places great importance on avoiding any unnecessary interference with the body after death, and the requirement for burial of the complete body. These considerations have led some Jewish scholars to disagree with cadaver donation. However, many Jewish scholars feel that these concerns are overridden by the urge to save lives (pikuach nefesh). Saving a life is a fundamental value in Judaism. In fact, Jewish law demands that one should violate almost all other commandments to save a life (except for the prohibitions of murder, idolatry and illicit sexual relations). This guidance has been used to solicit live donation, but some have also used it in the context of cadaver donation.
After death, everything gets burnt or buried. One can be useful even after death….live your life even after your life!!!
Dr. V. Ravi Andrews,
Apollo Health City , Hyderabad