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Gur Panth Parkash

Gur Panth Parkash
by Rattan Singh Bhangoo
Translated by
Prof Kulwant Singh



Sikh Perspective of Environmental Ethics

Prabhjot Kaur

Environmental ethics concerns itself with ascribing moral value to all non human environments, natural as well as built, and simulate ethical responses to ensure the preservation and restoration of those values.1  

The term ‘Environmental Ethics’ first came into focus in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’, which depicted a picture of California in the spring season devoid of the warbling of the birds and the buzzing of the bees. Excessive use of pesticides like DDT and Aldrin had made many of the species disappear. The book proved to be a clarion call for the nature lovers who were jolted into action after the realization of the extent of the damage already done to the ecology of the planet because of the greed of man.  Denuding of the mountain cover, large scale deforestation, water, air and noise pollution, loss of biodiversity and global warming were only some of the problems resulting from this attitude. They felt compelled to do something to reverse the situation. They took up these environmental issues at par with the other social movements of the time, like the civil rights movement and women movement that envisaged justice irrespective of caste, color or gender. The movement to save the environment took the matter of justice further, extending it to all life forms, living organism and species.

What Rachel Carson had seen with her third eye, was actually witnessed in California in 1969. An industrial accident causing the spilling of the oils dispersed by the waves and tides in Santa Barbara had killed innumerable fish, sea birds, seals and dolphins. This man made catastrophe gave birth to a politically conscious environmental movement. Shocked by the ravages caused by the accident, Gaylord Nelson, then Senator from Wisconsin started a movement for environmental protection. President Nixon has been recorded to have said, “It is sad that it was necessary that Santa Barbara should be the example that had to bring it to the attention of the American people….The Santa Barbara incident has frankly touched the conscience of the American people.”2  

To make the spring reverberate once again with the chirping of the birds, the sound of the blowing wind and clear running waters; and to make the oceans roar, a consciousness raising campaign was started in 1970, by observing ‘Earth Day’ on April 22,  which was later designated as ‘Earth Day’ to be observed all over the world every year. Subsequently, in 1972, a conference on Human Environment was organized by United Nations in Stockholm. Taking the action further, United Nations established World Commission on Environment and Development in 1983 stressing the need for ethics. One of the three mandates given by the Commission was to re-examine and correlate the environmental and developmental issues.3   It was decided to observe Decade of Education for Sustainable Development from the year 2005-2014. Respecting the earth and its life in all diversity was made one of the important aims for sustainable development. Environment education was made a part of the curriculum.

Environmental degradation did not happen all of a sudden. Man has been tempering with the environment, since the time fire technology came to be known to him. But till the middle ages, he used the environment only for the purpose of sustenance. The problem arose when the scientific revolution made him feel like he was bigger than an ordinary mortal and that he could master the elements.

The problem turned grave after Industrial Revolution in 18th century, when the work was relocated from homes to the factories. This broke up the age old joint family system where resources were pooled to share the privileges and the duties together. Living in nuclear families with independent incomes of their own, and nothing to share with others, made people too individualistic and self centered. Formation of United Nations after the devastation caused by the use of nuclear weapons in World War II and the declaration of universal human rights further stressed the importance of the rights of the individual.

Emphasis on the rights of the individual proved to be a two edged sword.  While this ensured fundamental human rights to the individual, too much emphasis on personal rights without any thought for one’s duties, led to a situation where pre-occupation with the self became a way of life. This tore apart the fabric of the social structure which is based on mutual understanding and cooperation. A culture where everyone is for himself or herself ultimately leads to a chaotic situation. Environmental degradation is just one of the symptoms of the chaos prevailing at all levels in society. This has put a question mark on all the development made on the economic front and in the field of science and technology. The very survival of many animal and plant species, and perhaps that of the humans itself, is at stake. This compelled the world leaders to think of the possible ways for the development that should sustain not only the present generation but the future generations also.

It is being increasingly felt that only by taking care of the spiritual component of human life, which attempts to create harmony between the inner self of man and the outer world, can any permanent impact be made in the outer environment. Only by recognizing the vital link integrating the microcosm and macrocosm, can there be cosmocentric attitude where a man can connect with the elements. “Macrocosm spoke to microcosm, microcosm reflected macrocosm. The two were in living dialogue. Understanding the universe was a matter of listening, having ears to hear the music of the spheres, the voice of the Earth. Wisdom meant connecting.”4  Wisdom lies in creating a living dialogue between the inner and outer world. Jungian Psychologists too believe that  “there is a correspondence  between the outer wilderness of nature and the inner wilderness of the unconscious mind….in this view, the heavy handed manipulation of natural environment by western society parallels the conscious ego’s repressive attitude towards the unconscious, non-rational and intuitive parts of our own psyches. When we manipulate the outer environment without understanding and respecting physical and ecological functions, these functions return to us in the negative form of pollution and global climate change. Similarly when instinctive psychological functions are ignored or manipulated by rational egos, these functions come back to us in the form of neurotic symptoms.”5  

Too much of rationalism as a result of scientific revolution and Enlightenment, without any regard for the intuitive aspect of human personality, created a dichotomy within, causing a split in man’s personality. This, combined with too much stress on the rights of the individual without any regard for the duties, has been at the root of most of the personal and environmental problems the humanity is facing today. To reverse the situation, we will have to look towards the spiritual traditions where ethics require that duties take precedence over the rights without compromising on the dignity of the living beings, and the split caused by the inner dichotomy is taken care of. This paper makes an attempt to study how the ethics of Sikh Religion, a faith born in the Northern part of India in the 16th century can help handle the environmental challenges of 21st century by awakening the intuitive self of man.

To study the ethics of a religious community, we need to study the scriptural basis of that community. Guru Granth Sahib, starts with (Ik Onkar) which literally means that one God pervades the whole cosmos, and that He is present in every particle of the cosmos, every species, plant as well as animal. A line in the scripture admonishes a flower girl plucking the flowers and leaves from a plant to offer these to the deity:
You tear off the leaves, O lady gardener, but in each and every leaf, there is life.6 

It further says:

The lady gardener is ignorant; the people too are ignorant who pluck leaves and flowers from the plants. But I have been saved from this ignorance by the Grace of the Guru.7 

Thus the scripture negates the idea of damaging the environment which is a living organism, even if it is for as sacred a purpose as performing worship to the deity.

The first stanza of ‘Japu’, the first composition in Guru Granth Sahib, stresses the importance of living life in tune with ‘Hukum’- the cosmic order that maintains the elements, all cosmos and its processes:

By Divine Ordinance all forms are created.8 
By Divine Ordinance are the beings created.9 
All by the Divine Ordinance are governed, none exempt.10 

The operating system in the whole cosmos has been spoken of as Hukum - the Divine Order. The order here is not the arbitrary order of a King who perforce makes others submit to his will; it is the cosmic principle that governs the whole creation with Love and compassion. And, Nature is the milieu in which the cosmic order operates:

He created himself and then created the ‘Nam’
And then he created the Nature.
Seated within the Nature, He delights in watching all.11 
Lord, the True Provider has made the Nature his seat.12 

Nature as per Sikh thought is not something inanimate and passive. Since He Himself abides in Nature, it is active and living, full of variety and dynamism, which moves as per the cosmic principle:

       In the Fear of God, the wind and breezes ever blow.
       In the Fear of God, thousands of rivers flow.
       In the Fear of God, fire is forced to labor.
       In the Fear of God, the earth is crushed under its burden…..
       In the Fear of God, the sun shines, and in the Fear of God, the moon reflects.13 

However, there is one, the only One, the True One who is not operating under any kind of fear.14 

But the fear, under which the whole cosmos is operating, is not a negative force. It is the sacred fear that produces a feeling of awe; of wonder that transports one to a spiritual plane where the realization of ‘Hukum’, the cosmic order, dawns and a feeling of inter-relatedness with the environment, makes one learn to live in accordance with the Hukum:

How wonderful to behold the Lord, ever-present here.
Beholding His wonders, I am wonder-struck.15 

Wonderful nature evokes a feeling of wonder and awe inspiring reverence in the heart of the nature lover which draws him towards the relationship with the Transcendent.16 This feeling of wonder transports him to a spiritual state where all duality ends and one finds Him everywhere; in water, air, fire, land and in all elements:
By His Power wind, water and fire exist;
By His Power earth and dust exist. Everything is in Your Power,
You are the all-powerful Creator. Your Name is the Holiest of the Holy.17 
It is He who has created all the species:
By His Power come the species of all kinds and colors;                                           
By His Power the living beings of the world exist.18 

This feeling of God pervading the whole creation, in all species and elements, breaks the pall of duality which is the cause of all environmental degradation. There is total integration with the creation. The feeling of individualism, the root cause of the problems, including the problem of ecological imbalance, is demolished and one works in cooperation with the Divine Ordinance and not against it.

Preoccupation with the self, anthropocentricism at the collective level, is called ‘Haumain’ in Sikh parlance.  Man made in individuation is the crown of all creation because of his most sensitive and developed consciousness, which makes him see the Creator in everything; but taken to the other extreme, this individuation becomes individualism and takes the form of egotism, which separates him from the cosmic order. A spiritual vacuum occurs and he starts working against it. Jungian philosophy suggests that “modern people are experiencing a spiritual famine and that the addictive behavior is a futile attempt to fill the spiritual emptiness with an inadequate physical substitute. Conversely, it can be argued that the crisis we have created in the outer world of Nature can only be resolved by healing the divisions and conflicts within our own psyches. Reconciliation of both inner and outer world seems essential if our civilization is to survive.”19    The Sikh Gurus too warn against this state of spiritual emptiness, as it leads to conflict, strife and terrible punishment:

       Through egotism, the world is caught in conflict and strife, and it dies.20 
       He acts out in ego, and suffers terrible punishment.21 

When man is unable to think of anything but his selfish motive and his own profit because of egoism, he tends to exploit everything. Too much preoccupied with the idea of his own individual rights, man did not exempt even Nature, on which his sustenance depended and thus put his own survival at stake. The consequences of the environmental degradation are too well known and need not be recounted here once again. We urgently need to think of the ways to save the humanity from the consequences of man acting in too greedy and egoistic a manner.

The mission of Guru Nanak and his nine spiritual descendents was to work for the creation of a world order where people were not egoistical and self-oriented. They cultivated sublime virtues and lived in a state of God consciousness so that all living beings could live in perfect harmony with each other and there was no conflict or strife:

Hence this is the will of the Lord. Nobody will coerce others
And all will live in peace and joy.22 

S. Kapur Singh, a Sikh scholar states the vision of the Sikh gurus in the following words:

The ultimate aim of man was not a vision of God which culminates in the re-absorption of the individual into the Absolute Reality but the emergence of a race of God conscious men who remain earth aware and thus operate in this mundane world of phenomena, with the object of transforming and spiritualizing it into a higher and more abundant plane of existence. They thought in terms of utilizing the God consciousness for transforming and spiritualizing the life on earth and humanity.23 

The Sikh Gurus’ aim of spiritualizing life on earth did not end with their working on humans alone. No living thing was out of the range of their benevolent love. Guru Nanak envisaged a system where no one was exploited including the elements of nature. He would rather be friends with the elements:

They who are attuned to God remain in friendship with the rivers
and are ever immersed in God’s name.24 

Even the initiation of Guru Nanak took place in the river Bein into which he disappeared for three days when he appeared in the presence of God and was blessed with a cup of nectar. The Guru expresses a desire to live in water like a fish:

I am the fish, you are the water. How can I live without you?25 

Many anecdotes relating to Guru Nanak’s childhood depict him as a person who was always enjoying the company of nature.

I’ve seen innumerable trees and plants.
Also the animals created by You.
So many serpents visited my hut.
And many a bird I shooed away.26 

For him Nature did not have only instrumental value for humans who could use it for their material benefits, it has intrinsic value of its own which was spiritual in character and has the capacity to transport a person to a higher plane. The chirping of the sparrows in the ambrosial early hours could exhilarate a person’s mood to a state of bliss:

The sparrows are chirping, and dawn has come; the wind stirs
up the waves. What a wondrous scene the Saints have created,
O Nanak, those who are in the Love of the Beautiful. 27 

Guru Nanak goes into divine ecstasy at the beauty of the starlit night. It lifts him to the higher realms of spirituality:

The night is wet with dew, and the stars twinkle in the heavens.
       The Saints, the Beloveds of my Lord ever remain wakeful (to be able to enjoy the blissful beauty). 28 

The rainy season stirs the peacocks and sparrow hawks that burst into ecstatic joy while singing the praises to the Lord. For the Guru, the deer, the fish and the birds all sing nothing else but the songs of the love of the Lord:

The sparrow-hawks and the peacocks sing day and night,
hearing the thunder in the clouds. 
Whatever the deer, the fish and the birds sing,
They only chant to the Lord, not to anyone else. 29 

A rain bird singing in the rainy season and a koel in the mango tree appear to him to be reciting the name of the Lord.

Babiha, the rain bird sings a sublime song when
he says ‘piu piu’ and the nightingale too sings the Divine Word.30 

He joins the cosmic dance along with the peacocks when he finds them dancing in the rain. He shares the joy with his spiritual sisters:

O sister, the peacocks are singing sweetly, the rainy season
of Savan has come.31 

From the bumble bee, he learns to sacrifice himself on the altar of Love. Crystal clear running waters, mountains, forests and trees all have lessons in deep spirituality for Guru Nanak. He could also share the sky with the bird and the water with the fish:
I take a flight and soar in the sky
I do it with the blessing of my mighty Lord.
I behold the sea and the land,
Mountains and riverbanks.
In every nook and corner I find my Master.32  

The spring season with all its greenery and radiance, when trees are laden with blossoms and the nature is full of gusto for life, Guru Nanak’s heart too blossoms forth in the company of the True One.

The season of spring has come, the plants have blossomed forth.
This mind blossoms forth, in association with the True Guru.33 

As he sees the beauty of nature, he goes into ecstasy and is immersed in the exuberance of the Love of the Creator who created such beautiful scenes.

To Guru Nanak, even a Persian wheel appears to be in the rhythm of life when it rhythmically sings the song of the Lord saying ‘tu tu’.34 

Bara Maha, a composition by Guru Nanak in the rag Tukhari, is a beautiful depiction of the scenes of nature, signifying the Guru’s deep love for Nature. The moods of the rain bird, koel, peacock and deer etc. who dance out of delight when the rain pours, correspond with his own mood and he identifies himself with them. Guru Nanak finds his own self being expressed in the songs of the birds, the humming of the bumble bee and the spring in the feet of the deer. The composition expresses his deep yearning for the Lord, the parallel of which he could find only in the animal world. The moods of Nature in the twelve months of the year also express his inner feelings in the world of trees and forests. The scorching heat of the month of Jeth and Harh pierces him with the arrows of the love of the Beloved as much as the greenery of the trees in the month of Vaisakh and the downpour of rain in the month of Savan. His moods corresponding with the moods of Nature only heighten the intensity of the Supreme Love. It shows not only him but the beings of diverse species born out of eggs, fetus, sweat and earth, fully participating in the cosmic feast. Only as sensitive a mind as that of Guru Nanak, could feel the humble and inarticulate creatures of the natural world attune themselves to God.

All these images from the nonhuman world, used by Guru Nanak to express his deep yearning for the Lord, show different species living as authentic beings with a right to live their own life and not as appendages to something else. It is the humans who need them for their aesthetic and spiritual needs. It is unfortunate that instead of making them their partners on the spiritual journey, humans have started exploiting them, which has proved to be detrimental to their own physical and mental health and the health of future generations, of the planet itself.

Humans need to understand that these species are their co-travellers in their journey on this planet. They all are, along with the humans, the pearls that had been lying scattered here and there, to be threaded in a string, and are lying in place all supported by the Love of the Lord that make this cosmos.35  Minus the Love, everything falls apart, there is strife and discord and consequential ecological imbalance.

God made this earth to be a place in the cosmos where righteousness could be practiced. It is a religious duty of humans to use this place for the purpose it was created. Using it for selfish motive of material profit will be utterly unethical.

Nights, days, weeks and seasons; wind, water,
       fire and the nether regions.
       In the midst of these, He established the earth as a home for Dharma.
       Upon it, He placed the various species of beings.
Their names are uncounted and endless. 36 

The True God, whose Court is also True, cannot but do justice. Mankind will be judged by its deeds and actions. So it is our duty to be just in our actions towards all species by not depriving them of their fundamental right to life.

The Sikh Gurus during their journey on this earth, set an example as to how life is to be lived in the ‘dharmsal’ that earth is. Love for nature was intrinsic to their poetry which was but an expression of their spiritual self. Ecological wisdom is ingrained in Guru Granth Sahib and is a suitable response to the environmental crisis. 

Apart from their love for natural environment, the Sikh gurus also built environment by establishing cities, like Amritsar, Tarn Taran and Anandpur etc. A discussion on their architectural skills in the built environment is a subject of a separate paper.

The seventh Master Guru Har Rai ji maintained expansive gardens in the city of Kiratpur established by him. He also developed a herbal garden where rare herbs were grown. History records that when Dara Shikoh, the son of Emperor Shahjehan fell seriously ill, a rare herb needed for his treatment could be procured only in the herbal garden maintained by the Guru. Sikh chronicles record an incident when the Guru accidently broke the branch of a flowering plant. The sight of the blooming flower fallen on the ground saddened his heart. He shared the painful experience with his father who advised him to walk carefully in future. The incident shows Guru’s love and sensitivity towards Nature.  The anniversary of his ascending the spiritual throne is observed by Sikhs as the Sikh Environment Day. On this day the Sikhs all over the world plant trees and take pledge to protect the environment. Ecosikh, an organization working for the environment, as part of the United Nations Development Programme and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, is a response of the Sikh community to the prevalent environmental crisis.

On 26thJuly 2009, the Jathedar of Akal Takhat, the highest religio-temporal seat of the Sikhs, while speaking at Sultanpur, advised the Sikhs to focus on cleaning up natural resources, rather than on building gurudwaras. The Prasad of saplings is distributed among the devotees on special occasions to impress upon them the importance of saving the planet.

Bhagat Puran Singh of Pingalwara, Amritsar, a Padma Shri awardee for service to humanity, made it a mission of his life to create awareness about environmental issues as early as in fifties, by distributing literature about impending environmental crisis, printed on the back side of used papers, thus giving the message of saving trees.

Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal, a saintly Sikh personality took upon himself to clear the river ‘Bein’ of all the pollutants, without any help from the Government. The President of India Dr. Pratibha Patil honored him for doing a commendable service to the Environment.

The very form maintained by a Sikh, speaks of environmental concerns as it gives a call to go back to nature. By not cutting his hair, a Sikh reduces the chances of environmental hazards caused by cut hair.

With this tradition and the theological background, no true follower of the Guru should think of exploiting Nature for his personal ends. Sikh ethics don’t permit such a selfish attitude. Nature as the seat of the Lord can only be celebrated not plundered.

This cosmocentric and integrationist view of the environment born out of love37  for nature is compatible with modern technological advances, if these are kept subservient to the higher wisdom of man. A line in Guru Granth Sahib impresses upon man the importance of being a good human being even if he can fly in the sky at the speed of lightening with the help of nuclear energy.38  All the technological advances put together cannot absolve man of his moral responsibility towards his environment and humankind. The most evolved consciousness of man makes it incumbent on him to ensure that the development he boasts of making does not bring him to the edge of disaster because of his own intelligence gone haywire owing to his greed and selfishness.

Today when so many beautiful and rare species are on the verge of extinction, causing threat to ecological balance, we need to go back to Guru Nanak who gave us a song of the Universe which he composed in Jagannath Puri, when he rejected the prayer being performed with flowers and scented lamps kept in a big platter. He advised that one should join the cosmic prayer being said all the time with Sky as a big platter, sun and moon as lamps, the stars as shining jewels, sandalwood trees as the incense, the wind as the flywhisk and all the forests as flowers. What a wondrous Aarti it would be! This is your aarti O the destroyer of all fear.39 

Let us endorse Rabindranath Tagore in saying that this cosmic song be declared the cosmic anthem to be sung at all the conferences on environment.

This certainly will go a long way in conserving our environment and have a sustainable development for all the times to come.


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