The Harmony of Science with Sikh Religion
Dr Bhai Harbans Lal*
Science, religion, and culture are three forces that affect our world most. The future course of human history will depend on the understanding between these disciplines. It is no exaggeration to say that the future course of human destiny will depend upon the choice of our generation to recognize the strength of relations between all three of them. Discussions on these relationships are necessary as new generations and world intellectuals will be attracted to those religions that are genuinely dynamic and progressive. Particularly, they are in peace with science and inject progressive evolution in cultures.
What is true of the world is also true of the Sikh society. Until recently, science and religion co-mingled well in Sikh society. The Sikh clergy completely ignored science, as their educational handicaps did not permit interference as others did. There were some exceptions such as Professor Puran Singh, and Dr. Raghbir Singh Bir. Bir fathered a movement still remembered as Atam Science, the science of the soul. It publishes a monthly from Chandigarh. However, the Sikh scientists mostly remained humble before the Guru Granth and refrained from speaking out. It is only recently, when the age of the internet made its debut that limited conflict began to disrupt our peaceful society. Still it is bare minimum compared to the challenging debates seen in many other societies.
Some highly educated people feel that religion is an outdated institution compared to science. They typically do not observe the kind of dynamism in religion that they see in other areas of life such as science and culture. To many, religion is a history museum that lacks the excitement and vibrancy of constantly experiencing innovation.
Science and Religion are discussed usually under the titles such as Science vs. God, Science vs. Religion, and Can Religion Stand Up to the Progress of Science, and so on. They are drawn mostly from the long-standing debate between Christianity, particularly the Book of Genesis, and scientists like Darwin and his predecessors in century old line of physicists and astronomers. Several books on the subject frequently reach the prestigious rank the bestselling books. So are there many polemicists who attest for the interest in the subject (see Raman, 2009).
Ideally, the objectives of progress in Science and Religion should be complementary. They are so far as the present Sikh society is concerned. From the term complementary, I do not mean that they are different; only the methodology and levels of sophistication may be dissimilar. However, towards understanding of reality they are the same.
When we consider Sikhi or Gurmat (wisdom of the Guru Granth), the phrase, Science versus Religion may be worrisome (For discussion, see Singh 2009). Such phrases are derived from the long-standing debates in Christianity with Science and Religion. They usually take the arguments presented by the Western scholars. From them it seems that there is always a conflict between the two disciplines and their derivatives. According to their tradition, science and religion say different and contradictory things about the same domain. For example, in view of certain conservative Christians, the biblical view of creation differs from scientific theories of cosmology and for whom evolution is both a bad religion and a bad science, while religion is thought to be a good science. Their God is an anthropomorphic being with powers of a super human being. However, when we consider Sikhism there is little conflict on those or similar issues. In fact, science might be the one important asset of the Sikhism. Let me explain.
Soon after partition, I joined Punjab University for the degree program in Pharmaceutical Sciences (1949-52). The school was located in the Glancy Medical College in Amritsar. We started to hold informal and formal study circles where Sikh students and teaching staff of the medical college would gather to talk about issues in Sikhism. I recall one gathering where the late Dr. Harbhajan Singh of Pathology Department suddenly asked me a question.
“Which section of the civil society would be more amenable to appreciate Gurmat”, he asked. I recalled responding; the scientists of course. Scientists are rational in seeking the truth, so is the Guru’s Wisdom, Gurmat, as it is manifested in the Sikh scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib. They will be at home with each other.
I remember this discussion because the next day I saw it reported in the Punjab press. It was unusual for the Punjab press to report a study circle but it must be due to the attractiveness of the topic. Of course, the attendees of the Study Circle asked me for an explanation, which took the rest of the evening that became worth reporting by the press. Indeed this is an important subject today.
Nature and Its Study
Systematic study of nature and its laws is science. The term science comes from the Latin “scientia” meaning knowledge. According to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, the definition of science is “knowledge attained through study or practice,” or “knowledge covering general truths of the operation of general laws, especially as obtained and tested through scientific method…” What does that really mean?
Science refers to a system of acquiring knowledge of nature and its creations. This system uses observations and experimentations to describe and explain natural phenomena. What is the purpose of science? Perhaps the most general purpose of science is to produce constructive and pragmatic models of reality.
In Sikh vocabulary, nature is creation and is the basis of God’s ‘ Hukam’ as it creates and sustains the universe. To see God in the Creation is our epistemological root of the mental pictures we make about nature and its creations. We, Sikhs, practice this as a meditation on daily basis.
In the religion that the Sikh Gurus promoted, the nature and its creations are termed as kudrat, the Creative Power of the Universe. Guru Nanak described the relationship between kudrat and the Creator as:
kudriq kir kY visAw soie ]
God created kudrat, the Creative Power of the Universe, and then chose to dwell within it. (SGGS, M 1, p. 83)
Kabir, another contributor of the Guru Granth, corroborated it this way.
logw Brim n BUlhu BweI ]
Kwilku Klk Klk mih Kwilku pUir rihE sRb TWeI ]
O people, O Siblings of Destiny, do not wander deluded by doubt. The Creation is in the Creator, and the Creator is in the Creation, totally pervading and permeating all places. (SGGS, Kabir, p. 1350).
To Guru Nanak, the Creator and the Creations were the same as the Creator manifested in the Creation. He symbolized this relationship in the commencing symbol inscribed in the Sikh scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS), as < Ek-Onkaar meaning the One virtual Reality manifested as well as expressed in the creation (For detail, read Lal, 2009).
Guru Nanak goes on to say that, the Creator continuously watches over the kudrat, the Creative Power of the Universe, and casts all dices.
vyKih kIqw Awpxw kir kudriq pwsw Fwil jIau ]
The Creator watches over His own Creation, and through His All-powerful Creative Potency casts the dice. (SGGS, M 1, p. 71)
With respect to the realization of God, Guru Nanak extended this observation then to say that God’s presence and identity may be made out best through the reality of kudrat, the Creative Power of the Universe.
nwnk sc dwqwru isnwKqu kudrqI ]
Says Nanak, the Reality and the Giver of the Reality, is revealed through the kudrat, His All-powerful Creative Nature. (SGGS, M 1, p. 141)
The scientists, intellectuals and spiritual people alike pursue the study of nature or in religious terms, kudrat, the Creative Power of the Universe, that results in their becoming ecstatic; they fall in love with it. Guru Arjun expresses this phenomenon in his hymn as follows.
krqy kudrqI musqwku ]
O Creator, through Your kudrat, the Creative Power of the Universe, I am in love with you. (SGGS, M 5, p. 724)
Guru Nanak continues further and claims that the Creator, after manifesting the creation then contemplates the same.
Awpy kudriq swij kY Awpy kry bIcwru ]
He Himself created and adorned the Universe, and He Himself contemplates it.(SGGS, M 1, p. 143)
That is, in a nutshell, the Guru Granth views of the nature and the study of its reality as a religious goal. There is no distinction made between a scientist and a theologian. With required educational training, a scientist may also become a theologian and vice a versa. They both seek reality in their own ways and there is an affinitive relationship between them. This may be the strongest Sikh statement on the relationship between science and religion.
Religion and Religious Practice
Religion is an organized approach to human spirituality. It usually encompasses a set of narratives, symbols, beliefs and practices, often with a supernatural or transcendent quality. They give meaning to the practitioner’s experiences of life through reference to a higher power, God or gods, or ultimate truth. A religion is thus the spiritual or in some cases supernatural; the science is then physical about the natural. This comparison, though attractive, problematic because it proposes a duality towards the reality.
It is more productive to say that religion and science are about the same domain, namely, human experience of the Truth, natural or supernatural. To search for truth by every means is the gist of the religion according to Guru Nanak,
eyko Drmu idRVY scu koeI ]
To grasp the Truth is the only religion or a Dharma. (SGGS, M 1, p. 1188)
The universe is not created to be partitioned into distinct parts; instead, it must be regarded as an indivisible unit in which separate parts appear as valid approximations. Sikhism describes a single Reality (EK) expressed in universal manifestation (Onkaar) that is worshiped as Ek-onkaar or as Infinite Wisdom (Waheguru). The same Reality vitalizes the universe as a whole. In reality, no separate individual things exist on their own. Only such entity may be the self that is the one, which we have thought up; nothing in reality is so patterned.
The trouble of a religion with science begins when religion is packaged in mythical stories and mythical discourses. The language of the religions is, then derived from those stories. They are symbolic discourses about the symbolic world. The reification of religious characters is, then derived from taking these stories literally rather than symbolically or metaphorically.
To take the stories literally leads us into problematical assertions as they render the Creator into an anthropomorphic god. For example, all the biblical narratives, including the Gospels, are anthropomorphic narratives of an invisible god.
In the ancient worlds, before the advent of Guru Nanak, mythic conscious prevailed and supernaturalism was an over powering tradition. Then religion had become only a play to quiet down the child-like mind.
logn rwmu iKlaunw jwnW ]
Some people consider God as a toy (to manipulate). (SGGS, Kabeer, p. 1158)
This is the seedbed of some of the conflicts between religion and science. The Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth, considers it contrary to the true spirit of religion that undermines any genuine human endeavor; especially science.
In contrast, science is not dogmatic and it is constantly revised and updated. It is open and universal. The community of scientists is not bound to a specific mythical idiosyncrasy. Instead, it seeks to escape the idiosyncrasies of local cultures. Sikh vision support s this endeavor.
Interdependent and Complementary
The Sikh teaching, as recorded in the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth, not only recognize a relationship between religion, science, logic and culture, it describes them to be interdependent. It recognizes the fact that interactions among these domains are the strongest forces that influence human history. It makes it further obligatory to recognize that we must distinguish genuine science from pseudoscience, politics of selfish designs from doing good to humanity, and informed religion or spirituality from empty rituals and superstitions. It further concludes that pursuit of learning about the cosmos by science or religion is not confrontational but complementary. Both approaches are valid in their own right and discipline.
ijqu duAwrY aubrY iqqY lYhu aubwir ]
A seeker of Reality will be realize through whichever discipline one seeks. (SGGS, M 3, p. 853)
It is heartening to observe that the Western world is coming around the Sikh viewpoint in his regard. There are many pointers towards this predisposition.
In 1992, Sir John Templeton introduced a new publication, entitled Who’s Who in Theology and Science. He said that he had hoped that his publication would provide a stimulus to communication between individuals and organizations and between scientific and theological communities generally. Most (but not all) of those included see science and theology as related, complementary avenues of truth, and seek in some sense an integration of the ideas and concepts of these two spheres of research, often recognizing that the God of Creation is the source of both the natural and the spiritual.
Templeton seemed to be paraphrasing the thoughts similar to those echoed by Guru Nanak nearly six centuries earlier. We are pleased that the contemporary consensus seems to be moving to this view. Guru Arjun wrote:
srgux inrgux QwpY nwau ] duh imil eykY kIno Twau ]
The learned people call the Creator, with attributes as well as Unseen, without attributes. Both of these features coalesce in the formation of the Cosmos. (SGGS, p 5, 387)
For many scientists and theologians, the two disciplines are beginning to look similar; to others they are at the least complementary. They are talking about the same Truth, some with complementary views, others with different aspects of the same truth which in its full nature cannot be described adequately by either alone.
In October of 1999, a conference was held at the Harvard -Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics by the new Templeton Commission on the Future of Planetary Cosmology. What was new in such a gathering of scientists was “the emphasis on extra-solar astronomy, with an eye to its ultimate significance as a spiritual quest (see Progress in Theology). It is of special interest that leaders of many prestigious science institutions were beginning to open up to the deeper significance of scientific discovery, inviting lectures of “God and Science” at formerly closed institutions and universities. There is now even an Oxford Institute of Science and Spirit, set up to award a certificate in conjunction with the Union Institute (USA).
Upon close perusal, a view is emerging that there are two versions of the complementary opinion, as it relates to the relationship between science and religion. There is a weaker version, according to which non-conflicting cooperation between scientists and religionists may prevail. However, the level of cooperation may not be powerful. The more powerful and stronger version will promote complementary observations, the alteration or absence of one of the observations would necessitate a change in the other, as MacKay proposed (MacKay, 1974). Science and religion are allies that must cooperate at a fundamental level. MacKay used an interesting analogy. To him science and religion are like the front and side projections of the plan of a building. One would need both to reconstruct the building, though the projections are orthogonal, and hence “blind,” to each other.
Acceptance of the complementary relationship permits close observance of the relationship between science and religion to ensure integrity and enhanced productivity. As Sir John Templeton described in one of his essays: “they are talking about the same things, with complementary accounts, presenting different aspects of the same event which in its full nature cannot be described by either alone”.
Sometime when it is said that science and religion do not conflict, it may mean that they are about different domains even though they are not conflicting, the natural and supernatural. The Guru Granth, in contrast, will support the notion that there is but one domain and that it is human experience under the guidance of divine knowledge and spiritual intellect. Science and religion may operate with different methodology or in separate language but this is only to facilitate the search and not to divide the scientists and the theologians.
Religion has been plagued by reification, whereby derivatives have been treated as fundamental. Beings are considered substances and their relations considered accidents, and reality belongs to substances. This may be based on the influence of Aristotle who based his philosophy on the subject-object structure of the Greek idiom. This remains the basis of the modern debate among philosophers about the nature of relations.
As Dr. Virk and his colleagues emphasize, Guru Nanak spoke for the science and religion. To Nanak, science and religion converge on the infinite creation without any conflict (Virk, 2009). Similarly, Bhaumik (2006) described advances in quantum physics to describe the basic units of living creation. Our discussion should be as to how to promote a spirit of understanding among scientists and theologians, as desirable as that may be.
Human Intelligence Created to Seek Reality
Over the millions of years of evolution, humans have acquired unique intelletual abilities to comprehend every other thing on our planet. Out of all of God’s creation, we know of, only human beings are able to do this. That is to ease out and to comprehend all other form of life and, sometime, even to create some.
In this process of human evolution occurred an awesome mystery; the human evolution worked for millions of years towards creating human beings who possess the intellectual ability to think about their own creator even to the extent that they conceived themselves as engineered in the image of God. As far as we know, only humans among all life forms on earth have this ability to imagine that far about God. This was engineered as human superiority over all life forms known. The Guru Granth points to this awesome prospect through the following verses.
Avr join qyrI pinhwrI ] iesu DrqI mih qyrI iskdwrI ]
You are the person in charge on this earth; all other form of life is in your obedience. (SGGS, M 5, p. 374)
Sikh theologian of the Gurus’ time, Bhai Gurdas, echoed the same belief.
lK caurwsIh jon ivc mwns jnm dulµB aupwXw]
Among the hundreds of thousands of births, the human life is special (Bhai Gurdas, Vaar 8, Pauri 6)
lK caurwsIh jUin ivc auqm jUin su mwxs dyhI]
Among the hundreds of thousands of births, the superior birth is that of a human. (Bhai Gurdas, Vaar 15, Pauri 3)
When Homo Sapiens developed the power to seek the Creator, they began to devise approaches to investigate and learn both physical and metaphysical world around them. At the same time spiritual awakening began to take birth. The objective is to reach a significant level of awareness about the Creator and His creation.
Human consciousness combined with intelligence and an extensive capacity of brain for learning and memory provides us with the impetus of knowledge of the unknown. We therefore live in communities of seekers and participate in shared knowledge and activities. This urge is manifested in our prayers.
qumrI ik®pw qy mwnuK dyh pweI hY dyhu drsu hir rwieAw
O God, It is through your Grace that I have attained human life. (Now, it is my prayer that) You bestow Your manifestation in my consciousness. (SGGS, M 5, p. 207)
Sikhs consider it a matter of great privilege for humans to be so wonderfully created to have minds that arise out of human bodies but allow them to sense and participate in the rich reality that surrounds the humanity. To impress this pride, Guru Arjan witnessed this evolutionaty talent of human minds and took this opportunity to alert the human family so they do not neglect this gift of a superior faculty of mind.
kwcy Bwfy swij invwjy AMqir joiq smweI ]
jYsw ilKqu iliKAw Duir krqY hm qYsI ikriq kmweI ]
mnu qnu Qwip kIAw sBu Apnw eyho Awvx jwxw ]
ijin dIAw so iciq n AwvY moih AMDu lptwxw ]
God created and adorned the earthen vessels (human bodies) and infused His Light within them. As are the imprints made by the Creator, so are the deeds we do. The human began to believe that the mind and body were all his own; this became the cause of his births and rebirths. Humans may not think of the One who gave them these boons; they are blind, as they are being entangled in emotional blindness. (SGGS, M 5, p. 882)
Thus as human beings, we are endowed with highly developed mind, spirit, and purpose. We can think, imagine and dream. Through these gifts, we are urged to search for future concepts in a rich expanding diversity of human thought and the creations around it. We may realize that in some ways we are created by infinite wisdom for an accelerating adventure of creativity into the Infinity.
Science, Religion and Truth
The question naturally arises when speaking of complementarily, whether science or religion, or both, or neither, gives us truth. I must agree with Sir John Templeton who cautiously speaks of science and religion as “complementary avenues of truth.” This is a more contemporary assessment of science and religion. This is much more enhancement over the older view that either science or religion speaks truth, but not both. Perhaps we should approach this weighty question by first considering science and religion in series, then together.
Scientists labor in the service of truth as do the religious seekers, all in the interest of a better understanding of the physical and spiritual worlds.
As regards religion and truth, we must avoid the appearance of the superiority of one religion over another. Guru Nanak was a sacrifice to as many identities of God; he then respected all people.
isru nwnk lokw pwv hY ] bilhwrI jwau jyqy qyry nwv hY ]
Nanak places his head at the feet of all people and is a sacrifice to as many identities ascribed to You, O’ God. (SGGS, M 1, p. 1168)
The total relationship of things in the universe may constitute the Truth, because things are insofar as they are in relation to one another. However, this relation is not a private relation between a subject and an object. It is a universal relationship so that it is not for any private individual or group to exhaust any relationship. Truth is relational, thus relational to me. However, it is never private. The highest ideal is reached when scientific understanding and religious truth are found in the same person.
Nature and spirit are not two completely different kinds of reality. The distinction between them results from different ways of looking at the same reality. Anyone who deeply comprehends nature discerns a spiritual unity at its base. Moreover, complete, true spirit is united with nature; only one reality exists in the universe.
Towards, the creator and his creation, evolution need no longer travel taking only its previous slow path. Possibly, it was the creator’s plan that one day his children could serve as useful tools for his creative purposes by endlessly advancing forward.
Awgwhw kU qRwiG ipCw Pyir n muhfVw ]
Keep moving forward; do not turn your face backwards. (SGGS, M 5, p. 1096)
A case is made that science is in harmony with Sikhism. Sikh philosophy is able to articulate and elucidate the relational character of what we might understand, or experience, as “reality” in both religious and scientific contexts. Religion and science are promoted to work together in progressing towards understanding the reality according to such a relational paradigm. Sikhi, the Guru’s path, accepts the implications of a thoroughly relational thinking even when such thinking implies that, in its pursuit, one may never fully interpret reality in human language.
jy hau jwxw AwKw nwhI khxw kQnu n jweI ]
Should I know the Reality, I may not be able to describe it in human language. The Creator not described in words. (SGGS, M 1, p. 2)
Sikhi seeks truth itself; truth grounded in a reality that would stand beyond all interpretation. It is outside all contexts.
Most scientists learn to avoid the stagnation that comes from accepting a fixed perspective. The Sikh scientists that I know are similarly epistemologically open-minded, always seeking to discover new insights and new perspectives. To a Sikh scientist, the expanse and the wonders of the creation brings humility, as well as a challenge for creativity all in the partnership with the Creator as it is often quoted in the Guru Granth hymns.
khu nwnk jau ipqw pqIny ] ipqw pUq eykY rMig lIny ]
My Father, the Creator, has revealed Himself within me. This way Father and son have joined together in partnership of the creativity. (SGGS, M 5, p. 1141)
I once asked my friend, Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany, a scientist of worldwide recognition, to tell me which hymn from Guru Granth Sahib he remembered to hum in the past few days. He right away came up with a hymn of Guru Nanak recorded on page 14 in Sri Guru Granth Sahib:
pMKI hoie kY jy Bvw sY AsmwnI jwau ]
ndrI iksY n AwvaU nw ikCu pIAw n Kwau ]
BI qyrI kImiq nw pvY hau kyvfu AwKw nwau ]
Were I a bird, soaring and flying through hundreds of heavens, or if I could become invisible, reaching a super human state where I could live without eating or drinking anything. Even so, I could not still even guess Your magnanimity. How can I then describe your indescribable identity? (SGGS, M 1, pp. 14-15)
All of us have favorite hymns to hum and we can make comparison; it will reveal our state of mind based upon our life attitudes. A scientists and a theologian will both venture into the magnanimity of the Creation but may describe different versions of the pathways.
Science can both inspire and assist religion to explore a rich future of boundless possibilities. Education in science at the same time when we are learning the Guru Granth can also make us realize that the Sikh religion is much beyond the preservation of ancient traditions that are often stressed by many clergy if they are not well versed in science.
To be an enviable Sikh society, what is true of the scientists had to be true of the religious scholars and Sikh clergy as well. The Guru Granth teaches them all to be humble in front of indescribable expanses of nature and the laws of creation.
In humility, the clergy must accept challenges to older assumptions and let the religious rites and meditations not remain stuck on ritualistic traditions. Instead, they must unveil the Creator through the connectivity with the Creation that our religious practices may offer. To me that is what a meditation on < Ek-Onkaar or Vahaguru (Infinite Wisdom) means and that is what Gurmat Symbol of < (One Reality expressed through the Vast Creations) means. Being a scientist by profession and a Sikh by faith, I can appreciate the relationship very well.
In conclusion, Sikhee supports a positive relationship between science and religion. It considers weakening of this relationship to be damaging to the civil society. It further stresses that the key in accepting a positive cooperation between science and religion is to cultivate a spirit of humility among scientists and theologians, faith practitioners, or cleric in front of the Infinite Wisdom. This may be accomplished simply by accepting that we inculcate openness to the opportunity of our worldly existence to be within the divine reality. The life of a scientist as well as of a theologian then may become a juncture that progressively unfolds scientific as well as spiritual heights at the same time to the fulfillment of human life.
References and Notes
Note: The translations of the Guru Granth hymns are not literal but given as central idea in the context of the discussion.
Bhaumik, Mani, Code Name God: The Spiritual Odyssey of a Man of Science, published by The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 2005; The Cosmic Detective: Exploring The Mysteries Of Our Universe, published by Puffin Books of the Penguin Group, 2008.
SINGH, I.J. Science Versus Religion: Where’s the Beef?
Lal, (Bhai) Harbans. Mool Mantar: Guru Granth’s Opening Verse, Studies in Sikhism and Comparative Religion, 28 (1): 7-23, 2009.
MacKay, D. M. “‘Complementarity’ in Scientific and Religious Thinking,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 9, 229, 1974.
Progress in Theology: The Newsletter of the John Templeton Foundation, Vol 8 (March/April, 2000), p. 1.)
Raman,Varadaraja V., Truth and Tension in Science and Religion, New Hampshire: Beech River Books, 2009.
Virk H. S., Scientific Vision in Sri Guru Granth Sahib & Interfaith Dialogue, Singh Brothers, Amritsar, 2008.