Does religion stop people from donating organs? Know what religious leaders have to say

The number of brain-dead patients has gone up, but unfortunately, families are not willing to donate organs to save lives, say doctors.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Mar 23, 2023 | 9:00 AMUpdated Mar 23, 2023 | 9:00 AM

Does religion stop people from donating organs? Know what religious leaders have to say

The earliest mention of Vajrayudha — the all-powerful weapon of Indra —  is found in Rigveda, one of the four canonical texts of Hinduism. Buddhist and Chinese mythologies, too, refer to the indestructible and irresistibly powerful weapon the Lord of Devas wielded.

The mythical weapon found a reference at a recent seminar —  A Gift Like No Other — on organ donation in Karnataka.

The seminar, jointly organised by the Nephrology Association of Karnataka (NAK) and the State Organ & Tissue Transplant Organisation (SOTTO), was to dispel religious myths surrounding cadaver donation in India.

Indra requests Dadhichi to provide his spinal cord to make Vajrayudha (above) | Indra slays Vritra with the Vajrayudha (below). (Wikimedia Commons)

Indra requests Dadhichi to provide his spinal cord to make Vajrayudha (above) | Indra slays Vritra with the Vajrayudha (below). (Wikimedia Commons)

And the story behind Vajrayudha was narrated to stress the importance of organ donation.

Beli Mutt Seer Shivarudra Mahaswamy drew the attention of the attendees to the Hindu sage Dadhichi (also known as Dadhyanga and Dadhyancha).

When an asura named Vritrasura set out to kill Indra, Lord Vishnu told him that only a weapon made from the thunder-powered ribs of Dadhichi could kill the demon.

The sage, according to mythology, willingly donated his ribs and Indra killed Vritrasura with the Vajrayudha, said the seer.

“There are many such stories we have heard of organ donation from ancient times. These are examples to indicate that the Hindu religion does not prohibit organ donation,” he explained.

Also read: Meet India’s youngest living organ donor

The demand-donation divide

The number of brain-dead people or deaths by accident is on a rise, but the country has not witnessed a corresponding increase in organ donation.

kidney donation

The number of brain-dead people is on a rise, but the country does not witness a corresponding increase in organ donation. (Sourced)

For instance, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) recorded 4,03,116 road accidents causing 1,73,860 deaths (excluding 18,238 deaths on railway tracks and other fatal accidents), and injuries to 3,71,884 persons in 2021.

Reports said only 12,387 organs — kidneys, liver, heart, lungs, and pancreas, among others — were harvested that year, and a mere 1,743 of these were from the brain-dead.

Speaking to South First, Dr Ramachandran Narayana Menon, Multiorgan Transplant Surgeon at Rajagiri Hospital in Kerala’s Kochi, wondered why there was no exact data on brain-dead people, despite 8-10 patients being declared brain-dead daily in the Intensive Care Units (ICUs) of hospitals in major Indian cities.

Meanwhile, doctors who attended the seminar felt that lack of awareness, inadequate counselling, and myths related to religion are widening the gap between demand and donations.

Also read: Lifesaving kidney swap transplant unites 2 Karnataka families

Debunking myths

The seminar, aimed at debunking religious myths that prevent people from donating organs, saw the participation of several renowned doctors — including Narayana Health Founder and Chairman Dr Devi Prasad Shetty and Manipal Hospitals Chairman Dr Sudarshan Ballal — as well as seers, priests, and Christian, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and Islamic scholars.

Pointing out that Karnataka was second in organ donations (Tamil Nadu topped the list in 2018), Shetty urged other states to follow suit.

Ballal lauded the seminar organisers, saying such events would provide a platform for religious leaders to bust the myths that discourage people from donating organs.

Also read: Vizag doctors perform 2 transplants on same person within hours

What is organ donation?

NAK Convenor and Nephrologist Dr Ishthiaque Ahmed explained that a person is said to be brain-dead when they are in a state of irreversible and complete loss of all brain functions. This results in the cessation of vital bodily functions.

“Medical guidelines are followed to declare someone brain-dead. Though the person is brain-dead, their organs can be functional through life-support systems, allowing for successful transplantation, which can save up to eight lives,” he said.

A person can donate healthy, transplantable organs — including eyes, kidneys, lungs, and heart — or even the entire body.

Also read: Scientists restored heart, liver cells of dead pig

What happens to the body after donation?

Dr Manoj Kumar recently lost his father-in-law Nagappa Basappa Hampannanavar when he suffered a stroke and was declared brain-dead.

Kidneys

Dr Sudarshan Ballal said over three lakh people are waiting for organ transplantation in India. Half of them are waiting for kidneys, liver, etc.
(Creative Commons)

“We, as a family, decided to donate his organs. The Aster RV Hospital and the Jeevanasarthakathe team counselled our family members and the entire process was smooth,” Kumar said at the seminar.

Debunking the myth that the body would be disfigured if the organs were donated, he said: “The organs were carefully removed and the body was not disfigured. We didn’t notice any difference. We are proud today and all of us have now pledged to donate organs.”

There is also a misconception that doctors may not provide enough critical care if the family agrees to donate the organs of the patient.

Doctors clarified to South First that the patient should be on ventilator support and pronounced brain dead for their organs to be donated.

Also, the entire process is done free of cost.

Also read: Hyderabad Metro transports heart from Nagole to Jubilee Hills

‘We are one; love all’

“We are all one and we should all work towards increasing the number of donors. We should become a living example,” said the Beli Mutt seer.

Echoing this, St Joseph’s University Vice-Chancellor Father Victor Lobo said the institution has been holding awareness camps on organ donation for its students.

He has signed up to donate his body to a medical college. He said Peter Hans Kolvenbach, a Dutch Jesuit priest and professor and the 29th Superior General of the Society of Jesus, wrote extensively on organ donation.

Subsequently, many Jesuit priests donated organs and their bodies to medical colleges.

Also read: Hyderabad researchers develop first 3D-printed cornea in India

Eminent Jain scholar Devendra Sagar concurred. However, he also urged people to lead a healthy lifestyle to avoid health issues.

“It is a problem when we go against nature. The satvik way of living helps people understand nature well and go hand-in-hand with it,” he said.

“I will donate all organs. The Jain dharma has always spoken of giving and not taking anything. So we have to give,” the scholar added.

Retired DRDO scientist Prof Harjinder Singh Bhatia, who represented the Sikh Community, termed Sikhism an expression of service to humanity.

“For a noble cause like this, we will definitely stand united,” he said, adding that the community has already donated several organs and many have registered for the same.

Bhikku Dhammaratna, principal of the Mahabodhi Monastic Institute, invoked Buddha. “Some have good health, some with several kinds of disabilities. So, the Buddha says being born as a human — that too in perfect shape — is very rare and precious,” he said.

“Hence when we are alive do good for yourself, do good for others. There are so many monks who have donated one kidney to help people,” he pointed out.

He also said more studies and discussions on Buddhist scriptures were necessary to find references to organ donation.

Also read: Almost 20% of Kerala’s population suffers from hypertension, diabetes

Other points of view

Eminent Islamic scholar Shabir Ahmed Naqvi Maulana felt the issue was debatable. He said the Quran did not permit cadaver donation. “The scholars are divided on the issue,” he clarified.

“As far as the Quran is considered, we are the children of Adam. Many of our scholars are of the view that organ donation after death is not permissible. They say we don’t own our bodies. The soul is the owner and the creator, and hence we cannot donate,” he said.

He called for a debate on the issue to help humanity.

South First also spoke to Mohamed Maqsood Imran Rashadi, the Khateeb-o-Imam of the Jamia Masjid in Bengaluru, and also the principal of its Jamia-ul-uloom Arabic College, on whether a Muslim could make a will for the organs of their body or could receive or donate an organ.

He said Islam considers the buying and selling of human organs completely illegal. However, organs can be donated or received for transplant in some following cases.

These, he said, are:

  1. If someone had a life-threatening condition and could die if an organ was not transplanted to them.
  2. If the person who donated an organ would continue to live even after its removal (as happens with kidneys or livers).
  3. An organ transplant can be done in case of compulsion and helplessness — when the patient has no other option.
  4. Meanwhile, if one person has lost his kidney, a relative can donate theirs. This would be considered humanitarianism, and hence permitted.

Islam strictly forbids the exchange of money for an organ.

Also read: Experts want mandatory screening of hearing for newborns

Religion is no barrier — but needs awareness

Dr Sunil Shroff, renowned urologist and  Managing Trustee of a Chennai-based non-profit, Multi Organ Harvesting Aid Network (MOHAN) Foundation, opined that religion is not a barrier to organ donation.

“It is the people’s cultural reservations and myths that stop them from donating. At times we get mixed versions (on organ donation) from religious leaders but if we read any religious scripture, the act of giving is the highest act and organ donation is much beyond that,” he added.

Also read: More youth die of alcohol-related hepatitis, cirrhosis

Major hurdle

Dr NK Venkataramana, founder chairman and director of Brains Super Speciality Hospital in Bengaluru, told South First: “Seventy percent of head injuries are due to road traffic accidents. The injured should be brought to the hospital within the golden hour.”

He added: “Also, in case of severe head injuries and brain deaths, there should be a proper method to know the exact number of brain-dead patients in ICUs.”

Doctors also stressed the importance of formulating national guidelines on brain-death certification, donor optimisation, and tackling the medico-legal cases that constitute the bulk of donations in India.

Also read: Karnataka minister wants seers to set moral science syllabus