Environmental Issues & Sikhism
Dr. (Captain) Manmeet Kaur Sodhi*
Environment refers to the surroundings of an object or the natural environment, all living and non-living things that occur naturally on earth. Environment may refer to
– Biophysical, the physical and biological factors along with their chemical interactions that affect an organism
– Systems, the surroundings of a physical system that may interact with the system by exchanging mass, energy, or other properties
– Series , a series of LPs, cassettes and CDs depicting natural sounds
– Built environment , constructed surroundings that provide the setting for human activity, ranging from the large-scale civic surroundings to the personal places
– Knowledge environment
– Social environment, the culture that an individual lives in, and the people and institutions with whom they interact determinism, epidemiology, health, movement, policy, psychology, quality, science, the study of the interactions among the physical, chemical and biological components of the environment
Through the evolution of earth, nature was endowed with an environment which was conduct to the production of life and ultimately evolution of human life. Since that time environment consists of two components:
i.) Physical environment–includes chemical and geographical, etc.
ii.) Biological environment – consisting of plants and animals which are known as biosphere. Broadly, environment may be divided into four major elements –
(a) Land (b) Water (c) Air (d) Living organism.
Sikhism is a philosophy that is energetically critical of the dichotomy of Nature and Humans, Body and Soul, Miri and Piri, Sant and Sipahi. All the while, the Gurus call the people to return to their primordial relations of love and inter-relatedness. The synthetic spirit of Sikhism is astonishing. In terms of the devastating ecological and environmental crisis of today, Guru Granth Sahib would expect to reconcile the broken relations between the Hukam and the Haumain, between the cosmic order and the anthropocentrism of the humans. The Gurus believed in the reconciliation and the individual consciousness to turn back to the cosmic order.
In love, through sweet speech comes reunion
Denial of religious scriptures with truthfulness is healed
The deed to the world
By righteousness is tied
These in the world be the means of reconciliation
Should brass, gold or iron be broken
The smith in fire fuses it together. (Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 143)
Sri Guru Granth Sahib assures that the entire creation is inter-related mutually supporting one the other-
All creation on one thread has He strung (Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1108)
The Sikh scripture declares that the purpose of human beings is to achieve a blissful state and to be in harmony with the earth and all of God's creation. It seems, however, that humans have drifted away from that ideal. For the earth is today saturated with problems. It is agonizing over the fate of its inhabitants and their future! It is in peril as never before. Its lakes and rivers are being choked, killing its marine life. Its forests are being denuded. A smoky haze envelops the cities of the world. Human beings are exploiting human beings.
The Sikh Gurus showed the world the way to live in harmony with the environment and all their constructions adhered to this principle. Guru Har Rai, the seventh Sikh Guru developed Kiratpur Sahib as a town of parks and gardens. Located on the banks of tributary of the Sutlej, he planted flowers and fruit bearing trees all over the area. This created a salubrious environment, attracting beautiful birds to the town and turning it into an idyllic place to live in. The Sikh Scripture emphasis the importance of the elements in this Shabad :
“Paun guru pani pita, mata dharat mahat. Dinas rat due dai daia khelai sagal jagat.
Changaia buriaia vache dharam hadur. Karmi apo apni ke nerai ke dur.
Jini nam dhiaia gae maskat ghal. Nanak te mukh ujle hor keti chhuti nal.”
Means Air is the Guru, Water is the Father, and Earth is the Great Mother of all, Day & night are the two nurses, in whose lap all the world is at play. Good deeds and bad deeds-the record is read out in the presence of the Lord of Dharma. According to their own actions, some are drawn closer, and some are driven farther away. Those who have meditated on the Naam, and departed after having worked by the sweat of their brow O Nanak, their faces are radiant in the court of the Lord, and many others are saved along with them!
– Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 146
The importance of Air, Water and Earth to life are emphasised over and over again in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib . The earth is referred to as mother and as such requires our respect. Great care needs to be taken to ensure that no damage occurs to it while the Sikh is going about his or her daily life. The pollution of these three elements is against the principles laid down by the Gurus:
“Paun pani dharti akas ghar mandar har bani.”
Means air, water, earth & sky- the Lord has made these His home and temple.
Air, water earth and sky are God's home and temple - sacred places which need to be protected and looked after. The Sikh Gurus built many Gurudwaras surrounded by large pools which supported marine life, especially fish. This was clearly a sign to live in harmony with nature rather than in conflict with it.
Further, Gurbani refers to various species of trees, eulogising species, which are useful to the world and its various beings and creatures. The Gurus inferred that it is not the girth, size, or beautiful flowers that determine the significance of a tree but its usefulness that makes it important. The trees that have sanctity in Sikhism include Bohr (Ficus bengalensis), Pipli (Ficus religiosa), Jand (Prosopis spicigera), Garna (Capparis horrida), Karir (Capparis aaphylla), Phalahi (Acacia modeta), Reru (Mimasa leucophloea), Luhura (Cordia latifolia), Tahli (Shisham), Imli (Tamarind), Amb (Mangifera indica), Harian velan, Neem (margassa), Ritha (Sapindus mukorosa), Kalp (Mitragina parvifolia) and Ber (Zizyphus jujube). Perhaps no other religion has given importance to vegetation the way Sikhism has. Four of the most sacred trees associated with the Sikh shrines, namely beri of Dukh Bhanjani Beri of Sri Harmandir Sahib, Brei of Baba Budha, Beri of Gurudwara Ber Sahib of Sultanpur Lodhi and Beri of Lachi Ber of Sri Harmandir Sahib highlight the role that trees have played in Sikh history. The world started talking about environment and ecological balance only during the past three to four decades while the Gurus realised their significance more than 500 years ago.
There is a sense of crisis in all parts of the world in various countries and among various peoples. The demands of national economic growth and individual needs and desires are depleting the natural resources of the earth. There is serious concern that the earth may no longer be a sustainable biosystem. The major crises facing the earth—the social justice crisis and the environmental crisis—together are heading the earth towards a disastrous situation. The social justice crisis is caused by humanity’s confrontation with itself and the environmental crisis is caused by humanity’s confrontation with nature.
The social justice crisis is that poverty, hunger, disease, exploitation, and injustice are widespread. There are economic wars over resources and markets. The rights of the poor and the marginal are violated. Women, constituting half the world’s population, have their rights abused. The environmental crisis caused by humanity’s exploitation of nature is leading to the depletion of renewable resources, destruction of forests, and overuse of land for agriculture and habitation. Today pollution is contaminating air, land, and water. Smoke from industries, homes, and vehicles is in the air. Industrial waste and consumer trash is affecting streams and rivers, ponds and lakes. Much of the waste is a product of modern technology; it is not biodegradable and not reusable, and its long-term consequences are unknown. The viability of many animal and plant species, and possibly that of the human species itself, is at stake.
This crisis cries out for an immediate and urgent solution. The crisis requires going back to the basic question of the purpose of human beings in this universe and an understanding of ourselves and God’s creation.
We are called to the vision of Guru Nanak which is a World Society comprising God- conscious human beings who have realized God. To these spiritual beings the earth and the universe are sacred; all life is unity, and their mission is the spiritualization of all. Guru Nanak in his philosophy states that the reality that humans create around themselves is a reflection of their inner state. The current instability of the natural system of the earth—the external environment of human beings—is only a reflection of the instability and pain within humans. The increasing barrenness of the earth’s terrain is a reflection of the emptiness within humans. The chasm between the material and the spiritual is in the minds of humans only. It is a limitation of the human condition that spirit and matter appear as duality, and their unity is not self-evident.
The Sikh Gurus reveal that real peace can only be found when desire and greed are subdued and diminished. This will only happen when the individual realises that God is found in all the elements including water, earth and the woods and he stops damaging these elements purely to satisfy his material greed. In Sikh beliefs, a concern for the environment is part of an integrated approach to life and nature. As all creation has the same origin and end, humans must have consciousness of their place in creation and their relationship with the rest of creation. Humans should conduct themselves through life with love, compassion, and justice. Becoming one and being in harmony with God implies that humans endeavor to live in harmony with all of God’s creation. Care of the environment without social justice is not possible
Environmental concerns may be viewed as part of the broader issue of human development and social justice. Many environmental problems, particularly the exploitation of environmental resources in developing nations, are due to the poverty of large parts of the population. Therefore an integrated approach is necessary. Sikhism opposes the idea that the struggle of the human race is against nature and that human supremacy lies in the notion of “harnessing” nature. The objective is harmony with the eternal—God—which implies a life of harmony with all existence. Striving for a life of harmony, therefore, also implies a life of supporting individual rights and environmentalism—a life that works against injustice toward anybody and anything.
Guru Nanak considered no difference between the created and the creature; the nature and God and saw God in the nature itself. If he would have seen how today's world is polluting the nature, he really would have wondered at the change towards the negative. Rabindra Nath Tagore was so impressed by description of relationship of nature and God given in the hymn "Aarti" that he described it as the best piece of poetry he has read ever-
In the sky's salver, the sun and the moon are lamps and the stars
with their orbs are the studded pearls.
The fragrance of sandalwood makes Your (God's) incense;
wind makes Your fan and all the vegetation Your flowers,
O Luminous Lord!
What a beautiful worship with lamps is being performed?
This is your present adoration: the Remover of the fear!
The celestial strain is the sounding of the temple drums .
Thousands are your eyes, yet you have no eyes;
Thousands are Your forms; yet You have no form;
Thousands are Your feet yet You have no feet;
Thousands are your noses; yet you have no nose.
By your Light, the Light shines within all the souls.
(Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 13)
What a wonderful description of the Creator and His relationship with his Creation! The hymn describes the greatness of the nature of the True Lord which performs prayer-worship to God. He compares the sky to a platter in which sun and moon are the lighting pearls. The sunshine enlightens the entire atmosphere and the air moves to remove any unwanted pollution, the entire natural creation appears as spread out light. This is how the real prayer to God is done.
In Sikh beliefs, a concern for the environment is part of an integrated approach to life and nature. As all creation has the same origin and end, humans must have consciousness of their place in creation and their relationship with the rest of the creation. Humans should conduct themselves through life with love, compassion, and justice. Becoming one and being in harmony with God implies that humans endeavor to live in harmony with all of God's creation.
The ideal for Sikhism is a society based upon mutual respect and cooperation and providing an optimal atmosphere for individuals to grow spiritually. Sikhism regards a cooperative society as the only truly religious society, as the Sikh view of life and society is grounded in the worth of every individual as a microcosm of God. Therefore, an individual must never be imposed upon, coerced, manipulated, or engineered.
The world, like all creation, is a manifestation of God. Every creature in this world, every plant, every form is a manifestation of the Creator. Each is part of God and God is within each element of creation. God is the cause of all and He is the primary connection between all existences.
“The Creator created himself... And created all creation in which He is manifest. You yourself are the bumble-bee, flower, fruit and the tree. You Yourself the water, desert, ocean and the pond. You yourself are the big fish, tortoise and the Cause of causes. Your form cannot be known.” (Sri Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1016)
All life is interconnected. A human body consists of many parts; every one of them has a distinct name, location, and function, and all of them are dependent upon each other. In the same way, all the constituents of this universe and this earth are dependent upon each other. Decisions in one country or continent cannot be ignored by others. Choices in one place have measurable consequences for the rest of the world. It is part of the same system. Life, for its very existence and nurturing, depends upon a bounteous nature. A human being needs to derive sustenance from the earth and not to deplete, exhaust, pollute, burn, or destroy it. Sikhs believe that an awareness of that sacred relationship between humans and the environment is necessary for the health of our planet, and for our survival. A new “environmental ethic” dedicated to conservation and wise use of the resources provided by a bountiful nature can only arise from an honest understanding and dedicated application of our old, tried and true spiritual heritage.
1. Sher Singh, Philosophy of Sikhism, Sterling Publishers, Delhi, 1996
2. Macauliffe, The Sikh Religion, Chand & co., Delhi, 1963, Vol. I
3. Daljeet Singh, The Concept of Haumain in Advanced Studies in Sikhism, Sikh Community of North America, U.S.A., 1988
4. Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, Banton Books, Newyork, 1984
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2012, All