Religions and Science
Dr Gurbakhsh Singh
Scientists search truth independent of the belief held by different faiths regarding physical world. When a new finding by a scientist is confirmed by other scientists, people believe it to be true. These finding are open to every person for critical study; anyone, who is interested to verify their truth or otherwise, is welcome to test it. Further research may revise such ‘true’ statement. This continues for ever.
This does not happen in case of religion; its all statements (correct or not) are forever and meant to be followed by the devotees without questioning them.
Whenever any finding of science did not agree with the beliefs already held and preached by the religious leaders, that finding was denounced by them. All religions (except Sikhism) mention their opinion regarding physical universe, a field of science. In due course of time, science disapproved many such statements (regarding creation, the cosmos, solar and lunar eclipses, etc.) This has lead to the clash of religious beliefs and scientific findings.
In view of scientific discoveries, one is convinced regarding the observations made by Dr Toynbee (foreword – The Sacred Writings of the Sikhs by UNESCO) that the future of religions is obscure. …Gurbani will have something special of value to say to the rest of the world to give light in the future.
Gurbani hymns do not enter the field of science (physical world); therefore, there is no clash (and there will never be) between the findings of the two. Gurbani relates only to the spiritual aspects of the mission of human life, and its statements are preached to be eternal truth. Whereas the science deals with physical matter and it continues to find new facts and may revise its old statements.
The observations made in ancient religious books regarding natural phenomena (sun, moon, stars and other creations) were mostly assumptions or distant observations. Many such statements are mythology; they were needed to satisfy the psychological need of the early man and answer some complex wonders of nature observed by him. The classical example is of believing that sun moves around the earth. Such study of nature is the field of science and not of spirituality.
On the other hand, spiritual aspect of the goal of human life is beyond the pale of science. Science deals only with the physical facts of life which can be studied according to the principles of scientific methodology. Faith deals with soul and the mystic experience of the soul, something that scientist cannot test in their labs. Science cannot be spiritual (study spiritual life) and the religion cannot be scientific (practice scientific method to develop and test its beliefs). When it is stated that Sikhism is a scientific faith, it should be taken to imply that there is nothing unscientific (irrational, illogical) in its teachings and not that it follows the basic principles of science.
People have more faith in scientific statements than religious beliefs. Hence, some Sikh scholars are attempting to prove that Gurbani contains scientific truth and that too told before the scientists came to know of it. The purpose of Gurbani is to teach spirituality only and not to explain scientific principles.
To describe that Sikhism is a scientific faith, reference is often made by some scholars regarding the mention of millions of skies and earths by Guru Nanak in Jap ji, a statement endorsed by science later on. This is a total misinterpretation of a part of the hymn which reads:
pwqwlw pwqwl lK Awgwsw Awgws ]
EVk EVk Bwil Qky vyd khin iek vwq ]
shs ATwrh khin kqybw AsulU iek Dwqu ]
It means that according to the Vedas, (not a revelation by Nanak) there are millions of earths and skies; there count according to the Semitic Books is 18 thousand. (page 5, Pauri 22).
The Guru concludes the stanza by giving his own message:
lyKw hoie qw ilKIAY lyKY hoie ivxwsu ]
nwnk vfw AwKIAY Awpy jwxY Awpu ]
However, Nanak stated that their count is beyond human comprehension; only He knows how much He has created. We can merely wonder at His limitless creation and, therefore, utter, “God! You are great”.
The message of the stanza is that His creation is impossible to be described, we should meditate on His greatness (His Virtues) and benefit from them. The statement is not written to teach us the scientific description of the Cosmos.
Gurbani aims to explain only the mission of human life and the ways to achieve that objective. It also details the pitfalls and bottlenecks which exist on the spiritual path and guides us how to keep away from them or how to get over them. Its purpose is not to tell us facts about the creation.
To explain the principles of Gurmat, a common observation may be chosen from our daily worldly life and may be used as a simile to explain the path to the goal of life. An example may be mentioned here.
ijau mCulI ibnu pwxIAY ikau jIvxu pwvY ]….
iqau sMq jnw hir pRIiq hY dyiK drsu AGwvY]
As a fish loves water and cannot live without it…..similarly devotees love God and are in peace only when they ‘see’ Him, (are in tune with Him). – Guru Granth Sahib, p. 708.
By this the Guru is not teaching us a lesson in biology; everybody then knew that fish cannot live without water. By this reference, a devotee is advised to love the virtues of God as a fish loves water.
There is one more important reference quoted (of course, wrongly) from Gurbani regarding the creation of the world –
swcY qy pvnw BieAw, pvnY qy jlu hoie ]
jl qy iqRBn swijAw, Git Git joiq smoie ]
It means that God created air, which cooled to produce water; from the water all the life in the universe took birth, the spirit of God pervades in all the life.
Guru is mistakenly assigned to be the author of the first part of the statement (water came from air and created the universe; of course, today it is believed by science also). This belief is already mentioned in Rig Veda (10-129). It states that only the creative force (God) was there; there was no day, no night, no moon, no sun, no god,… nothing. This force created the air, which produced water and then the whole life flourished.
For correct interpretation of the couplet, we must know its theme and read the whole text. The theme (Rahao) says:
mn ry, sbid qrhu icq lwie ]
ijin gurmuiK nwmu n bUiJAw mir jnmY AwvY jwie ]
O my mind! Tune your mind to the Sabd, virtues of God (naam) and save yourself, otherwise you will continue in the cycle of birth and death.
The whole hymn is related to the significance of God’s love in the life of man. There is no reference to any aspect of creation anywhere else in it. The message of the hymn is to provide spiritual guidance to devotees and not to teach creation to them. This statement has been made only to stress that His spirit prevails in all the lives created in the world.
In the same context one more quotation regarding creation of life needs to be presented. In pauri 27, sodar, ( Jap ji), it is stated that all the four Khanis (sources of life) sing His virtues but in pauri 35, it is mentioned that there are innumerable Khanis. In pauri 27 the Guru wants to tell people that all living beings sing His virtues. The Guru uses the number four because the people then classified all life into four Khanis. However His own beliefs (not four but many Khanis) is stated in pauri 35.
There are many other hymns which are misinterpreted by ignoring the theme/message of the hymns.
This brief discussion should convince the reader that Gurbani deals only with spiritual education and the mission of human life. It guides a devotee how to tread the spiritual path by quoting similes from our daily lives and old beliefs. As the field of teaching spiritual lessons is beyond the scope of science, hence Gurmat teaching (which relates only to spirituality) will never clash with any scientific discoveries.