Ecological Concern in Sri Guru Granth Sahib
Dr D P Singh
At present, in the midst of a technological revolution, humanity is facing great challenges for its survival. Ecological crisis is one of the gravest among these. There is a serious concern that the earth may no longer be a sustainable biosystem. Although human beings are seen as the most intelligent life form on earth, yet they are responsible for almost all the ecological damage done to the planet.
According to The Sikh scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS)1, humans create their surroundings as a reflection of their inner state. The current instability of the natural system of the earth is only a reflection of the instability and pain within them. The increasing barrenness of the earth also reflects a spiritual emptiness within humans.2
SGGS, 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 this ideal. The Sikh scripture tells that an attitude of humility, surrender to the Divine Spirit, and maintaining a harmonious relationship with all existence is sine-qua-non for mankind to find a way out of this quagmire.
For the survival and development of an organism or an ecological community, its environment, depends on biotic as well as abiotic factors. Biotic factors include the organisms themselves, their food, and their interactions whereas abiotic factors include sunlight, soil, air, water, climate, and pollution. The ecological crisis has been triggered as both these factors have come under great stress due to unbridled demands of national economic growth and individual needs and desires.
On the abiotic front, a severe environmental crisis is caused by man’s exploitation of Nature (material world and its phenomena). The large-scale depletion of natural resources, destruction of forests, and overuse of land for agriculture and habitation has contributed immensely to this peril. Poisonous smoke from industries, homes and vehicles is contaminating air, land, and water. A smoky haze has enveloped major cities of the world. Industrial waste and consumer trash are choking streams and rivers, ponds and lakes, killing the marine life. Much of the waste is a product of modern technology. It is neither biodegradable nor reusable, and its long-term consequences are unknown. The viability of many animal and plant species, and possibly that of the humankind itself, is at stake.
At the biotic level, humanity is facing a social justice crisis, which is caused by humanity’s confrontation with itself. 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. Thus, the contemporary human society is in the midst of a grave ecological crisis.
In our daily life, we are inclined to perceive things as real and independent of each other. Take for example, a leaf, which we see on the branch in front of us. We may think that this leaf exists independently of all the other leaves, independently of the branch, the trunk, and the root of the tree, independently of the clouds, the water, the earth, and the sky. In truth, this leaf could not be there without the presence of all other things, which we see as different from it. The leaf is one with the other leaves, the branch, the trunk, and the roots of the tree; with the clouds, the river, the earth, the sky and the sunlight. If anyone of these things were not present, the leaf could not be. If we look deeply into the leaf, we can see the presence of all these things. The leaf and these things are present together. This is the principle of interbeing and interpenetration, the principle of one is all and all is one. This principle of interdependent origination tells us that things do not exist outside of each other. Things exist within each other and with each other. So all phenomena in the Universe need to be observed in the light of interdependence.
Sikhs believe that an awareness of the sacred relationship between humans and the environment is necessary for the health of our planet, and for our survival3-5. In Sri Guru Granth Sahib, man and material world are seen no more as external to each other, but being involved in inter-dependent relationship, reciprocally conditioning the life of each other. Guru Nanak proclaims this kind of inter-dependent relationship in his composition ‘Japu’6:
pvxu gurU pwxI ipqw mwqw Driq mhqu ..
idvsu rwiq dueI dweI dwieAw KylY sgl jgqu..
i.e. Air is vital force, Water the progenitor, the vast Earth is the mother of all, Days and Nights are nurses, fondling all creation in their lap.
SGGS articulates that the purpose of human beings is to be in harmony with all creation and that human domination is to be rejected. The Sikh Gurus recognized human responsibility towards the material world. So, the importance of Air, Water and Earth to life are emphasised over and over again in the SGGS. The earth is referred to as the mother and as such requires our respect. Great care needs to be taken to ensure that no damage occurs to it while a Sikh is going about his or her daily life. The pollution of these three elements is against the principles laid down by the Gurus. The Sikh Scriptures enunciate7 the importance of environment as:
paux pwxI DrqI Awkwsu Gr mMdr hir bnI ..
i.e. Air, water, earth and sky are God’s home and temple – (sacred places which need to be protected and looked after.)
The Sikh Gurus showed the world the way to appreciate the interdependence of living beings and their environment. They also evinced the way to nurture this interrelationship8-9. All their constructions adhered to this principle. They built many Gurdwaras surrounded by large pools, which supported marine life, especially fish. This was clearly a sign to live in harmony with environment rather than in conflict with it. 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.
Nature - A Spiritual Guide
Spiritualization is liberation from material compulsions and attractions. It means an awareness of the Cosmic Order and striving towards the execution of Divine Will2. So, the spiritualised human is creative and constructive. Therefore, a Sikh’s life is a life of harmony with other individuals, other beings and other forms. For an enlightened individual the world has only one purpose - to practice spirituality.
Sri Guru Granth Sahib declares that Nature is a great spiritual teacher because it enables the spiritual seeker to be in touch with Ultimate Reality. God is revealed through His All-powerful Creative nature. As pointed out in Gurbani, everything seen is God in action. The Sikh scriptures are replete with examples10-11 about the interrelationship of the Creator (God) and Nature.
nwnk sc dwqwru isnwKqu kudrqI..
i.e. O Nanak, the True One is the Giver of all; He is revealed through His All-powerful Creative Nature.
auqBuj clqu kIAw isir krqY ibsmwdu sbid dyKwiedw ..
i.e. The Supreme Creator created the play of Nature; through His Word, He stages His Wondrous Show.
SGGS places a great deal of spiritual significance on the lessons we can learn directly from the Nature. One can learn true selflessness; real renunciation and sacrifice form it. According to SGGS - Earth teaches us patience and love, Air teaches us mobility, Fire teaches us warmth and courage, Sky teaches us equality and broadmindedness, Water teaches us purity and cleanliness. This emphasis comes out clearly in the following hymns12:
cMdn Agr kpUr lypn iqsu sMgy nhI pRIiq..
ibstw mUqR Koid iqlu iqlu min n mnI ibprIiq..
i.e. Earth neither loves sandalwood, aloe, or camphor-paste nor does it mind if someone digs it up bit by bit, or applies manure and urine to it.
auc nIc ibkwr suikRq sMgln sB suK CqR..
imqR sqR n kCU jfnY srb jIA smq..
i.e. The comforting canopy of the sky stretches evenly over all, without any consideration of their being High or low, good or bad. It does not distinguish between friends and enemies. For it, all beings are alike.
kir pRgwsu pRcMf pRgitE AMDkwr ibnws..
pivqR ApivqRh ikrx lwgy min n BieE ibKwdu..
i.e. Blazing with dazzling light, the sun rises, and dispels darkness. Its rays touch both the pure and the impure, without harbouring any hatred to anyone.
sIq mMd sugMD cilE srb Qwn smwn..
jhw sw ikCu qhw lwigAE iqlu n sMkw mwn..
i.e. The cool and fragrant wind gently blows upon all places alike. It touches all the things wherever these are, without even a bit of hesitation.
suBwie Awie ju inkit AwvY sIqu qw kw jwie..
Awp pr kw kCu n jwxY sdw sihj suBwie..
i.e. Whoever comes close to the fire, his cold is taken away without any consideration of his being Good or Bad. It does not know to differentiate between its own or others. It always has the same nature.
Thus, Nature, a great teacher of ethics and spirituality, provides practical examples of the valuable lessons to be learnt. Following these lessons, human beings can make marvellous achievements, at the worldly as well as spiritual level. Such an action is the need of the hour, as well, for a harmonious relationship with Nature.
Harmony with Nature
Sri Guru Granth Sahib emphasizes the importance of living in harmony with the eternal—God—which implies a life of harmony with all existence or Nature. It declares that Nature is a manifestation of God. Every creature in this world, every plant, every form is a manifestation of the Creator13.
PrIdw Kwlku Klk mih Klk vsY rb mwih..
i.e. (Baba) Fareed tells us that the Creator is in the Creation, and the Creation abides in God (the Creator).
SGGS proclaims that He Himself is the bumble-bee, flower, fruit and the tree. He Himself is the water, desert, ocean and the pond. He Himself is the big fish, tortoise and the Cause of causes. 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 in all existence14-16.
Kwk nUr krdM Awlm dunIAwie ..
Asmwn ijmI drKq Awb pYdwieis Kudwie ..
i.e. The Lord infused His Light into the dust, and created the world, the universe. The sky, the earth, the trees, and the water - all are the Creation of the Lord.
bin iqin prbiq hY pRwrbRhmu..[[[
paux pwxI bYsMqr mwih..[[[
ssIar sUr nKqR mih eyku..
i.e. In the forests, fields and mountains, He is the Supreme Lord God......He permeates the winds and the waters.....In the moon, the sun and the stars, He is the one.
jo AMiqr so bwihr dyKhu Avru n dUjw koie jIAu..
gurmuiK eyk idRsit kr dyKhu Git Git joiq smoeI jIAu..
i.e. He is within as well as outside. See that there is no one, other than Him. By divine prompting look upon all existence as one and undifferentiated; the same light penetrates all existence.
SGGS 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 history of the Gurus is full of stories of their love for animals, birds, trees, vegetation, rivers, mountains and sky. Many Sikhs, though not all, also have a strong tradition of being vegetarian. A simple life free from conspicuous waste is the Sikh ideal – a life that stresses mastery over the self rather than mastery over Nature.
Earth – A Dharamsaal
SGGS emphasises the significance of various aspects of Nature and declares the Earth as Dharamsaal i.e. a place for righteous action.17-18
rwqI ruqI iQqI vwr.. pvx pwxI AgnI pwqwl..
iqsu ivic DrqI rKI Drmswl..
i.e. He has created nights and days, seasons and occasions. He has also created Air, Water, Fire and the Nether Regions. Amidst these He has established the earth, a place for Righteous Action.
Driq aupwie DrI Drmswlw..
i.e. Creating the earth, He established it as the home of Dharma.
By this portrayal of the world (earth) as a place for righteousness and purity, SGGS insists that we relate with others with equality and justice. Sri Guru Granth Sahib reveals 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 abides in all the elements (including water, earth and the woods) and he stops damaging these elements purely to satisfy his material greed19.
sWiq pwvih hovih mn sIql Agin n AMqir DuKI ..
gur nwnk kau pRBU idKwieAw jil Qil iqRBvix ruKI ..
i.e. You shall find peace, and your mind shall be soothed and cooled; the fire of desire shall not burn within you. The Guru has revealed God to Nanak, in the three worlds, in the water, the earth and the woods.
Sikhism enunciates that on the biotic front, ecological concerns must be viewed as part of the broader issue of human development and social justice. Many environmental problems, particularly the exploitation of natural resources in developing nations, are due to the poverty of large parts of the population. Therefore an integrated approach is necessary.
Sikhism proclaims that the main objective for humanity is the harmony with all existence. Striving for a life of harmony also implies a life of supporting individual rights and environmentalism—a life that works against injustice toward anybody and anything.
The tenth Guru in 1699 founded the Order of the Khalsa, whose members practice the spiritual discipline of Sikhism and are committed to ensure the preservation and prevalence of a World Society. Over the last three centuries the members of the Khalsa order have stood up for the rights of the oppressed and the disenfranchised even at the cost of their own lives. The Khalsa vision  of the World Society is:
huix hukmu hoAw imhrvwx dw.. pY koie n iksY rvwxdw..
sB suKwlI vuTIAw ieh hoAw hlymI rwju jIAu..
i.e. Henceforth such is the Will of God: No man shall coerce another; No person shall exploit another. Each individual has the inalienable birthright to seek and pursue happiness and self-fulfillment. Love and persuasion is the only law of social coherence.
The Khalsa have opposed any force that has threatened the freedom and dignity of human beings. In the eighteenth century it was the oppressive rulers of India, and invaders from Afghanistan; in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries they have struggled against oppression by European colonists and Indian governments. For the Khalsa, justice requires the participation and inclusion of all in obtaining and enjoying the fruits of God’s creation. Justice achieved through cooperative effort is desirable. The ideal for the Khalsa is to strive for justice for all, not merely for themselves.
Intoxicants Free Simple Life
SGGS describes the norms for a Sikh to live a life which does not harm their mind, health, others around them, society, or the environment.Therefore, Sikhs are prohibited from consuming tobacco, alcohol or any other intoxicant21-22, and keep a simple diet. Gurmat is against causing cruelty and suffering to animals.
scu imilAw iqn soPIAw rwKx kAu drvwru..
i.e. Those who do not use intoxicants are true; they dwell in the Court of the Lord.
kbIr BWg mwCulI surw pwin jo jo pRwnI Kwih..
qIrQ brq nym kIey qy sBY rswqil jWih ..
i.e. (Bhagat) Kabeer states that those mortals, who consume marijuana, fish and wine - no matter what pilgrimages, fasts and rituals they follow, they will all go to hell.
It is now a known fact that smoking is both a primary and secondary health hazard. In addition to harming the environment, it has seriously deleterious effects on the person who smokes, on the bystander who breathes the second-hand smoke, and on the unborn foetus of the female smoker. Though this has only been scientifically verified in the last half century, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, listed the use of tobacco as one of the four major acts forbidden to initiated adherents of the Sikh religion. Though tobacco was introduced into India only in the mid-1600s, he had the wisdom to specifically interdict it in 1699. From its very beginning, Sikhism had forbidden the use of any intoxicants or mind-altering substances for any purpose except medicinal.
Integrated Approach to Sustainability
In Sikh beliefs, a concern for the ecology 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 endeavour to live in harmony with all of God’s creation. A true Sikh is for individual human rights, the environment and justice for all23.
bRhm igAwnI praupkwr Aumwhw..
i.e. The God Conscius person is animated with an intense desire to do good in this world.
All life is interconnected24-25. A human body consists of many parts; every part has a distinct name, location, and function, and all of these are dependent upon each other. In the same way, all the constituents of the universe and the earth are dependent upon each other. Decisions in one country or continent cannot be ignored by people in other countries or continents. Choices in one place have measurable consequences for the rest of the world. It is part of the same system. SGGS assures that the entire creation is inter-related mutually supporting one another.
AMfj jyrj syqj auqBuj Git Git joiq smwxI ..
i.e. His Light fills all those born of eggs, born from the womb, born of sweat and born of the earth, each and every heart.
eyko pvxu mwtI sB eykw sB eykw joiq sbweIAw ..
i.e. There is only one breath; all are made of the same clay; the light within all is the same.
Any solutions to the problem of the ecology must be sensitive to women’s concerns, and must include women as equals. Piecemeal solutions to ecological problems will merely focus, for example, on limiting population growth through family planning measures, which often end up abusing women’s rights, and should be rejected on those grounds alone. SGGS contains important message on this. Guru Nanak and other Sikh gurus advocated equality for women and took steps to implement this. Community-based sharing of resources (e.g. langar) is another practice prevalent in Sikhism, which can be adopted worldwide to share scarce resources with special emphasis on recycling and avoidance of wastage.
Life, for its very existence and nurturing, depends upon a bounteous nature. A human being needs to derive sustenance from the earth and not deplete, exhaust, pollute, burn, or destroy it. SGGS reveals 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 “ecological 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. Such an integrated approach to current ecological crisis can lead to permanent sustainability of life on mother earth.
1. ‘Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS)’ published by S.G.P.C., Amritsar
2. Rajwant Singh, ‘Sikhism and the Environment’, Proc. ‘The Role of Religious Institutions’ at: http://www.sikhismandtheEnvironment.com
3. N. Muthumohan, ‘Eco-Philosophy of Guru Granth Sahib’, at: www.SikhSpectrum.com
4. S. Lourdunathan, ‘Ecosophical Concerns in the Sikh Tradition’, Proc. “Sikhism & Global Living”, Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai, 1996; Sikh Spectrum, Issue No. 4, Sept. 2002 at: www.SikhSpectrum.com
5. D.P. Singh, Relevance of Guru Granth Sahib in 21st Century, Watan Weekly, Canada, 2006, p 2.
6. SGGS, Japu, Shalok, p 8.
7. SGGS, Tilang Mehlaa 4, Ghar 2, p 273.
8. “What does Sikhism teach about ecology?” Alliance of Religion and Conservation (ARC), at: http://www.arcworld.org/
9. Martin Palmer and Victoria Finlay, “Faith in Conservation”, Pub. by World Bank, 2003.
10. SGGS, Vaar Maajh Kee, Mehlaa 4, Paorhee, p 141.
11. SGGS, Maroo Mahlaa 1, p 1037.
12. SGGS, Maroo Mahlaa 5, p 1017-18.
13. SGGS, Salok Saykh Fareed Kay, Mehlaa 5, p 1381.
14. SGGS, Tilang Mahlaa 5 Ghar 1, p 723
15. SGGS, Gauree Sukhmani Mehlaa 5, Ashtapadee 23, Paorhee 2-3, 294.
16. SGGS, Sorath Mahlaa 1, p 599.
17. SGGS, Japu, Paorhee 34, p 7.
18. SGGS, Maaroo Mahlaa 1, Dakhanee, p 1033.
19. SGGS, Sorath Mahlaa 5, p 617.
20. SGGS, Siree Raag Mahlaa 5, p 74.
21. SGGS, Siree Raag Mahlaa 1, p15.
22. SGGS, Salok Bhagat Kabeer jee-o-kay, p 1377.
23. SGGS, Gauree Sukhmani Mahlaa 5, Ashtapadee 8, Paorhee 4, p 273.
24. SGGS, Tukhaari Chhant, Mahlaa 1, Baarah Maahaa, p 1109.
25. SGGS, Maajh Mahlaa 4, p 96.