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Sikhism and Environmental Ethics

Surjeet Kaur

I begin with a quotation from Paul Santmire, “The earth is in danger of destruction.” Time has come today when we are all feeling the pinch of the environmental crisis towards which we are heading. This environmental crisis is engulfing us at such a rapid pace that we can no longer neglect it saying that it is an affair of the environmentalists. We all need to address ourselves to this and try to reduce, if not reverse or stop the environmental deterioration. I am sure you must be wondering as to how does this issue crop up in a seminar on religion. Here I would like to quote Lynn White who wrote, “Since the roots of our (environmental) trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious.” Again quoting Harold W Wood, “...in so far as ordinary people are concerned, it is religion which is the greatest factor in determining morality.”

In this paper I shall address myself to the root-causes of our environmental crisis, how we can remedy this problem and what can be the contribution of Sikhism in resolving and reducing the environmental crisis. One could as well think that this burning problem of the ecological crisis is a problem of the ecological sciences or a problem of technology and that religion or morality need not concern itself with this problem. As far as the ecological sciences are concerned, in order that such disciplines are effective as policy programmes of action, they need to be related to a new attitude and a new concern for the well- being of the environment. This new attitude has to be provided by ethics and by religion. My attempt in this paper will be to briefly state what sort of attitudes have caused the present-day crisis and how the West is now turning to the East in search of new attitudes. I shall try to show how Sikhism can provide this new attitude which is needed to reduce, stop, and reverse, the environmental crisis.

The present-day environmental crisis has its roots in a period of more than 2,000 years ago. It has arisen due to our lackadaisical attitude towards nature — the attitude that nature’s resources are unlimited and it is made for man and his use. If we look back into history we can see how ethics have progressed and how the concept of rights and duties has undergone change. To quote Holmes Rolston III, from a 1975 writing, “If we now universalise ‘person’, consider how slowly the circle has enlarged to include aliens, strangers, infants, children, Negroes, Jews, slaves, women, Indians, prisoners, the elderly, the insane, the deformed and even now we ponder the status of foetuses. Ecological ethics query whether we ought to again universalise, recognising the intrinsic value of every ecobiotic component.”

There was a time when women, slaves, blacks, were not given any rights. Even the religious bodies gave sanction to the maltreatment of these classes. Under such circumstances the question of reverence for nature was hardly imaginable. In a male-dominated society, two books that were quite effective in extending ethics, were the work of women. In 1852, Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin where she put forth a simple argument that blacks were not commodities to be exploited but were members of the moral community. In this connection Abraham Lincoln characterised Stowe as the lady who caused the civil war. 110 years later, in 1962, Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, which once again questioned American assumptions. It argued that all life forms, even insects, were not commodities but deserved ethical consideration. Thus we see that there has been a historical extension of ethical concerns as described by Aldo Leopold in his essay The Land Ethics.1 In this essay Aldo Leopold mentions two ethics (1) religion as man-man ethics and (2) democracy as man-to-society ethics. He says that here we have come to a stop, for :

“...there is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseus’ slave girls, is still property. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations. When god-like Odysseus returned from the wars in Troy, he hanged, all on one rope, some dozen slave girls whom he suspected of misbehaviour during his absence. This hanging involved no question of property, much less of justice. The disposal of property was a matter of expediency and not of right and wrong. Criteria of right and wrong were not lacking in Odysseus’ Greece. The ethical structure of that day covered wives, but had not been extended to human chattels.”

Leopold continues that, “...the extension of ethics to this third element in human environment is an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.” The content of the next step in this ethical extension is “...we abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanised man, nor for us to reap from the aesthetic harvest, it is capable under science, of contributing to culture. That land is a community, is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”

Leopold has pointed out that we are still not prepared intellectually for the extension of the social conscience from people to land. “Philosophy and religion have still not heard of including nature in an expanded morality.” Thus we can see that if we wish to avert the environmental crisis we need to change our concept of morality which will take into account man’s relationship with nature.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is a dichotomy between people and nature. Lynn White opines that according to the sacred text humans are above all forms of life; people are masters, not members, of the world and every creature of the earth has been created to serve a human necessity. To justify his position, referring to the creation story in the Bible, Lynn White wrote, “God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule; no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purpose. Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen. White quoted the Old Testament to justify his views, God shaped man, “in his own image” and then God commands his favourite artifact to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living that moves upon the earth.”

It appears that we need the greening of religion if we want to save our planet. We require efforts on every front, science, technology, and more so, religion. I say more so in case of religion because come what may, even if we are becoming agnostics or atheists, in the time of need, distress, there is always such a thing as hope which keeps man going. This hope is embedded in some faith in the supernatural, a hope that something unexpected will happen. In times of comfort man does not remember the Absolute for he feels all is going well due to his own efforts.

Let us have a look at Sikhism and see how far it requires greening. I am of the opinion that Sikhism can serve as a model religion for the environmentalists of the West. Now let us have a deeper look into Sikhism vis-a-vis the various issues that have cropped up. First of all arises the question of the anthropocentrism found in various religions. Man is the centre of the universe, the entire nature is created for man. Man has to perfect nature. In comparison with this, in Sikhism the Guru says that this world is a play created by God and He is sitting and enjoying it. Nowhere is there any mention that the world has to be perfected by man. God has made the universe as He desired and man is merely part of this universe. He is one actor amongst the other actors. He is superior to the other beings because he has the capacity for self-realisation which is lacking in the other beings. But this does not give him the license to spoil or exploit nature. On the contrary Guru Nanak requires of him to become a humble soul and to realise that he is the lowest of the low. Just a speck of dust in this universe. Once man realises this aspect, he becomes humble and has no reason to think of himself as being in charge of the universe.

Thus the view in Christianity that nature was created to serve the purposes of man is rejected by the Sikh Gurus. The Sikh Gurus have emphasised a sacramental understanding of the natural world. God is immanent in nature — nature is sacred.2 Man is enjoined to live in harmony with nature. He has no rights over nature.

The Sikh tradition does not despise or look down upon nature. There are two ways in which one can despise nature. One of these is found in the Christian tradition wherein nature is looked down upon, having no intrinsic worth and value. Its value lies in serving human kind. As has been pointed out by Bacon, “Let the human race recover that right over nature, which belongs to it by divine bequest.” Bacon emphasised, “The empire of man over things, depends wholly on the arts and sciences.” He thought that through science man should know the secrets of nature as this would help him to lift God’s curse on Adam at least partially. Thus what sin had shattered, science could repair. Bacon’s philosophy served as the charter of the Industrial Revolution. Thus we see that the scientific progress that we find in the West has at its roots a certain religious philosophy of nature. “There is nothing created from which we cannot derive some use.” [Descartes].

It is this attitude towards nature which has led to our environmental crisis. Man has been so egocentric in these traditions that he has refused to give rights to other men for e.g. to slaves and blacks, or even to women. Where such egocentrism was prevalent, the question of rights of nature or of animals did not arise at all. Now people in these traditions are realising their folly and are either turning to the East or else reinterpreting their traditions.

The second way in which nature is despised is found in the East. Nature is regarded as a hindrance in the way of spiritual uplift. Thus where nature is being exploited for cash in the West, in the East there was neglect of one’s own body as seen amongst ascetics. Here again there were two trends. On the one hand nature was worshipped, and on the other it was destroyed in havans or animal sacrifices. Such contradictory practices were found. Both these trends are extremes. On the one hand destroying, despising, and neglecting nature to such an extent that even one’s own body is seen as a hindrance for spiritual uplift, and on the other hand we find pantheism, where nature is worshipped. The rift between the soul and the body has reached a climax. In contrast with the above tendencies we have the Sikh Gurus who neither preach contempt for nature nor do they preach worship of nature. Both these extremes are forsaken and they prescribe the middle path. The Sikh Gurus prescribe love and admiration for nature.3

Thus Guru Nanak sees God in nature. Nature is not God, but God is immanent in nature. Therefore, it is to be loved and admired. It has intrinsic worth. Nature has not been created for man. At the same time in this universe every being is dependent on every other. There is interconnectedness in the entire creation.

Sikhism is an ecological religious tradition. The intrinsic worth of the entire nature is recognised. Nature is not a mere means to human ends. To avoid or reduce the ecological crises the world should shift from an anti-ecological to an ecological spiritual orientation. In Sikhism plants and animals also have a right to unfolding. There are levels of consciousness no doubt. But each creature has intrinsic worth. The intrinsic worth of every creature, rather of every aspect of nature, is shown by the fact that the Gurus tell us that the soul migrates through eighty four lakh species. Of these species the soul not only migrates to animal lives but also to plant life and to that level of consciousness which is the lowest, i.e., rocks and mountains too. If the soul of our loved ones is in the stones too, and not only in trees and animals, then all forms of nature have intrinsic worth. After all the Ultimate is in every thing.5

A creature may have intrinsic value and at the same time it could also have instrumental value. Also if an individual organism has intrinsic value, it could have its identity in relation to, rather than independence from, other creatures and the surrounding environment.

A ‘creature’ can be understood as any entity that is created through its relationship with and responses to other entities, including God. A creature may be an energy event within the depths of an atom, an individual molecule, a living cell, or a psycho-physical organism such as a deer or a human being. There is no sharp line between creatures that are sentient and those that are insentient, although sentience or subjectivity need not be ‘conscious’ or ‘reflective’ in ways with which humans and other animals may be familar. God takes delight in His creation. The ultimate value of human life lies in the contribution it makes to the Divine life. Whatever importance we and those we can help or harm have, is without residue measured by and consists in the delight God takes in our existence. Is it possible that God takes delight only in human species and that the 84 lakhs of different forms of life have no value for God ? That all these have only instrumental value for the human species ? Is not such an idea sheer anthropocentrism ?

God’s consciousness regards each creature as having intrinsic worth as a unique creature. The totality of creatures is seen as a whole, as a single ongoing system, in which different creatures and nature are interrelated directly or indirectly. This interrelation and interconnectedness is a very complex and mysterious relation. And we are part of this web of relations.

The whole is ‘a mysterious whole’ within which one lives. The self-realised persons strive for the growth of as many individuals as they can and for the whole. They feel themselves as part of the cosmic adventure greater than themselves though an adventure the destiny of which partially depends on their actions in the present. The more self-realised a person is the more interconnectedness he sees in the universe. There is nothing in the universe outside the Divine life.

Once we realise that God resides in nature too, we will not treat nature and the non-human world as having merely instrumental worth. We will allow things to flourish in their own right and use them only when necessary, i.e., we would curb wanton use of the non-human world.

If one really expands oneself to include other people and species and nature itself, altruism is not required. The larger world becomes part of our own interests. It is seen as a world of potentials to increase our own self-realisation, as we are part of the increase of others.

In every relation we should see a mirror or the macrocosm.6 Thus whatever relation is in the universe the same relation obtains in the microcosm. This indicates that the whole is interrelated. The universe has to be seen as a gestalt so we should not think that more information will make things clearer. We need a re-orientation in thinking so that we may learn from specific simple things by examining, appreciating and recognising their defining relations with other things.

If we see the ecosystem as part of ourselves, if we see ourselves as intricately related to the ecosystem, then we should see the needs of the ecosystem as our own needs : there is thus no conflict of interests. Rather we see the ecosystem as a tool which would further one’s own realisation and fullness of life.

If we progress along these lines then identification with the very notion of environment would be required. This would be a very wide interpretation of the concept of love. In love one loses one’s identity and becomes part of the large whole. This being the aim of a self-realised person, he would hardly ever think on the lines of exploiting nature. We should never use nature as a means. Nature should be valued as being independent of us and of our valuing. Nature can be compared to our friends. If we misuse and maltreat our friends we tend to lose them. Same is true of nature.

The term ‘self-realisation’ indicates a kind of perfection. Self-realisation includes personal and community self-realisation. It is conceived also as referring to an unfolding of reality as totality. Guru Arjun says, “Man should not only himself repeat God’s Name but also make others repeat His Name.”8 By doing so the mysteries of the universe will slowly unfold themselves and man will see more and more interconnectedness in the universe. Self-realisation involves not only one’s own progress but also progress of others, for I am related to others. My progress is linked up with the progress of others because I am interconnected with them. According to Naess there are three types of realisation : self-realisation, ego-realisation and Self-realisation with a capital ‘S’.

The Self of Self-realisation has been referred to as ‘Universal Self’, the ‘Absolute’ or the ‘Atman’ also self-realisation, self-expression and self-interest are various terms used to talk about ego-realisation. In ego-realisation there can be extreme incompatibility of the interests of various individuals, as goes the Norwegian proverb : “One man’s bread is another man’s dead.” Self-realisation requires the unity of social, psychological and ontological hypothesis. We need not repress ourselves; we need to develop our Self. Increasing maturity would relate more of our personality to more of the environment. This would make us act as a whole and, therefore, act more consistently. This would be more meaningful and desirable.

Our ego need not be ignored or suppressed in order to achieve self-realisation. We are not so selfish and egoistic as we think ourselves to be. And our personality is not so narrow as we think it to be. We need to understand ourselves and our potentialities. Our sources of joy can always be cultivated in such a way that we enjoy while relating to others, while broadening our outlook to come in contact with the self.

“The norm ‘Self-realisation’ is a condensed expression of the unity of certain social, psychological, and ontological hypothesis .... We need not repress ourselves; we need to develop our Self. The beautiful acts are natural and by definition not squeezed forth through respect for a moral law foreign to mature human development. Increasing maturity activates more of the personality in relation to more of the milieu. It results in acting more consistently from oneself as a whole. This is experienced as most meaningful and desirable, even if sometimes rather painful.”9

We think that we can cultivate ourselves by acting egoistically but as a matter of fact our personality is not as narrow as we think. Our sources of joy are much deeper. We need not cultivate our ego, and become self-centred in order to realise our potentialities. Rather by being more generous and by identifying with others, human, as well as the ecosphere, will we realise our potentialities and realise the ‘Self’.

The higher the self-realisation attained by any one, broader and deeper is the identification with others. The decrease in egocentricity is inevitably linked to an increase of identification and care for others. Here, what is implied by care for others ? Is it merely other human beings and most animals, or does it imply the ecosphere in general ? In Sikhism the identification has to be with the total ecosphere. As far as human beings are concerned there is hardly any need for further clarification. Almost every religious tradition would accept it. If I want to realise myself, I should take my friends, relatives, and other humans along with me. Furthermore, it also implies that if I want to realise myself, then I have to take the entire humanity with me. I can do this when I have no enemies, I identify with all, and I see the same spirit, the same God in everyone.10 If I want to realise myself, I have to forget my egocentricity, as long as I have my ego I cannot realise my Self. The moment I realise the true nature of my Self I would be seeing God everywhere, in every person and thus would identify with everything. The more Self-realised a person is, the more he will identify with others. There is unity in diversity. That is why one can say that the higher the level of self-realisation attained by any one, the more its further increase depends upon the self-realisation of others. In self-realisation, egocentricity has no role to play.

Next question that arises is that of identification with nature. What is its role in man’s Self-realisation ? Undoubtedly only man is capable of self-realisation. But for this he has to identify also with nature. There is no special effort which man has to put in. When he is following the path of Self-realisation he is wonder-struck at the beauty of the ecosphere. He cannot help praise the Creator of this beauty. He sees the Creater as immanent in nature too. For instance Bhagat Kabir says that the leaf which the gardener’s wife is breaking has life in it.11 Similarly Guru Nanak says, “The entire universe is True. Whatever He has created is True.”12 If the entire Universe is True, Eternal, and created by God and He is immanent in it, then we have no right to tinker with it. Rather I can realise God only when I realise that I have to identify with human kind, as a whole, and with the biosphere as well as the ecosphere. In fact one comes to realise that if God has created diversity and enjoys it after having created it, when I will realise myself and attain Moksha I will also come to enjoy nature, God’s creation and see Him immanent in the ecosphere. Thus I would not only realise the intrinsic worth of the ecosphere besides that of biosphere but also identify with it.

Since the earth is created by God, everything has a right to exist and flourish. We are not within our rights to destroy any species, for neither have we created it, nor do we have a right to make it extinct. We may be permitted to use the natural resources but we must remember that these resources are not merely for the present generations but for the future too. So we have an obligation towards these future generations. We have to not merely love and identify with nature and present generations but also the generations to come, for they too would be created by God and He would be immanent in them.

Thus to conclude, Self-realisation is a process in which the more Self-realised a person is, the less egocentric he will become, and more and more he will identify with others as well as with nature, for he will see the spirit of God immanent in other human beings as well as in the ecosphere.

The universe is a complex web of relations. Each individual human being is inter-linked with others, with animals as well as with the ecosphere. Whatever relation is there in the macrocosm it is there in the microcosm. Thus in order to understand the universe and its complex web of relations we have to look within ourselves, realise our potential and ourselves. The knowledge of the universe will automatically follow.
Once we have knowledge of the complex web of relations, our attitude towards nature will automatically change. We will no longer want to exploit it but will rather make friends with it, we will see God immanent in it and therefore realise its intrinsic worth. Once we see God immanent in His creation, we will identify ourselves with the creation and the result would be respect and concern for nature. We would also realise that we are part of nature, and if we try to bring any changes in it, any changes in its homeostatic balance, it would have severe repercussions on us.

To sum up, if we want to save ourselves we have to save our planet. We cannot afford to be selfish and think only of ourselves any more. We need to have concern for the future generations. These generations too have a right to a livable environment. Whether we look at the problem from the conservationist and anthropocentric point of view or from the preservationist ecocentric point of view, one thing is clear that natural resources are diminishing and that we have to save our plants or else we all will soon be extinct. For all this we need to act right away, to look inwards, to meditate on Naam. With this we will be able to control our desires, thereby reduce wanton exploitation of nature by hoarding more and more. Our attitude will be eat, sleep and consume only as per our minimum requirements and thus reduce exploitation and pollution of nature and thereby help save the planet. Also when a person meditates on Naam he admires God, His creation, and loves and respects it. If we follow the path prescribed by the Sikh Gurus we can become leaders in the environmental protection movement, for our actions will be both socially and religiously motivated.

Notes and References

1. Aldo Leopold, The Land Ethics in A Sand County Almanac, Ballantine Books, New York, (1970)
2. Adi Granth, p. 463. Eh jag sache ki hai kothri sache ka vich vas.
3. Ibid., p. 6. Balihaaree kudrat vasiaa tera ant na jaee lakheaa.
4. Ibid., p. 176. Kaee janam Sail gir karea ... Kaee janam sakh kar upaea.
5. Ibid., p. 13. Sabh meh jot, jot hai soe.
6. Ibid., p. 695. Jo Brahmande soi pinde jo khojai so pavai.
7. Ibid., p. 339. Jab ham hote tab tu nahi ab tuhi main nahi.
8. Ibid., p. 289. Ap japeh avreh nam japaveh.
9. Arne Naess, Ecology Community and Lifestyle, Tr. and ed. David Rothenberg, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989.
10. Adi Granth, p. 1299. Bisar gaee sabh tat paraee, .... Na ko bairi nahi bigana sagal sang ham ko ban aaee.
11. Ibid., p. 479. Pati torai malni pati pati jio.
12. Ibid., p. 463. Sache tere khand sache brahmand. Sache tere lo sache akar. Sache tere karne sarab bichar.



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