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Concept of Nature in Science and Religion

Hardev Singh

The concept of nature has played a predominant role in science and religion since ancient times. Greek philosophers were aware of the role of nature and wrote about it in their philosophical treatises. In fact, before classification of science into different branches, the study of natural phenomena was called natural science or natural philosophy. What do we mean by nature? To understand it, we have to discuss the philosophy of natural science or, in other words, science of nature. But – What is nature?

According to A N Whitehead1: “Nature is that which we observe in perception through the senses. In this sense perception we are aware of something which is not thought and which is self-contained for thought. This property of being self-contained for thought lies at the base of natural science. It means that nature can be thought of as a closed system whose mutual relations do not require the expression of the fact that they are thought about. Thus in a sense, nature is independent of thought”.

Plato and Aristotle elaborated the Greek thought regarding the fundamental question: What is nature made of? The answer which their genius gave to this question, have determined the unquestioned nature as a process.

Plato asserts that nature is made of fire and earth with air and water as intermediate between them, so that ‘as fire is to air so is air to water, and as air is to water so is water to earth’. This is the origin of so-called four element theory of Greeks. Plato also suggests a molecular hypothesis for these four elements. Later on, ether was added as a fifth element. Earth, water, air, fire and ether are related in direct succession and form the ultimate substrata of nature. Matter, in its modern scientific sense, is a return to the Ionian effort to find in space and time some stuff which composes nature. Thus in Greek philosophy, the search for the ultimate entities and their relationship became the cornerstone for the study of nature. This search is the origin of science.

Greek science or natural philosophy held its sway for over two thousand years before it was superseded by experimental science formulated by Galileo and Newton. Concepts of space, time and matter were re-defined and mathematical relations were established through dynamical equations of motion. Modern era, from the beginning of the seventeenth century, has been dominated by a scientific technical worldview, where man is regarded as the key player. The Newtonian world view gave birth to a materialistic philosophy of nature. Laplace had laid down the foundations of mechanistic cosmology which exterminated God, whom Newton, a devout Christian, needed for correcting planetary motion irregularities to prevent collision between them. The Newtonian view of matter as inert substance struck roots in western thought and culture. Man and nature were considered as cogs of a wheel in a machine-like world. The machine mindedness resulted in complete demoralization and depersonalization of the human being.2

The advent of relativity theory and quantum mechanics has brought revolutionary changes in the Newtonian worldview3. Determinism, the philosophical doctrine that the universe is a vast machine operating on a strictly causal basis, is rejected. Space, Time, Matter and Motion find new meanings in the relativistic worldview. In classical physics, space and time existed separately, in mutual isolation. Relativity theory obliterates this distinction between space and time, mass and energy, inertia and gravitation and leads to the unification of field and particle concepts of nature. Relativity theory and quantum mechanics have redefined our notions of physical reality. The sharp boundaries that existed between space and time, mass and energy, fields and particles, subjects and objects, wave and particles, have disappeared and there appears interconnectedness between all parts of nature as a whole.

Concept of Nature in Gurbani
Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikh religion, was fully aware of the ancient Indian thought and its implications concerning nature. He had firsthand knowledge of both Hindu and Muslim viewpoints about nature. Surprisingly, Guru Nanak opted for Arabic term ‘qudret’ for nature in comparison to Sanskrit term ‘prakriti’ which occurs in Samkhya school of Indian philosophy.

The concept of purusa and parkriti is cornerstone of Indian philosophy. Broadly speaking, Samkhya dualism4 of purusa and prakriti may be compared with Cartesian dualism of subject and object which has dominated the western thought. Samkhya divides all things into two categories: (a) things which possess consciousness (chetan), (b) things which are unconscious (jada) are objects of consciousness. The totality of jada things is called prakriti (nature).

According to the Hindu view, matter is eternal and purusa (creator) has always been independent of God. It is the purusa who rules prakriti and creates the universe. The ultimate constituents of which prakriti is composed are gunas which are three in number; sattva, rajas and tamas. According to Kapur Singh5, Guru Nanak has abandoned the term prakirti while retaining the term purusa in his description of nature, after noting the dualism of Hindu philosophy.

Why Guru Nanak was at pains to borrow a fundamental term (qudret) of Sikh philosophy from a source, non Indo-Sanskrit? It would appear that main reasons were three5:

i. Primarily, Guru Nanak wanted a term of philosophy to which he could impart a connotation and meanings as would fit with the base of the religion that he revealed.

ii. Incidentally, Guru Nanak wanted to break the shell of prejudice enclosing the Hindu mind and attitudes toward modes of human communication other than Indo-Sanskrit. There is a severe injunction in the Bhavishyapurana6: “Even if the consequence is death, a true Hindu should refuse to learn the vulgar speech of the western regions.”

iii. Lastly, the Hindu mind was afflicted with a gross bias for centuries past, symptomatic of dogmatism and mental stagnation. The famous Indologist, Al-Birumi in his Kittabul-Hind, has recorded: “The Hindus think that there is no science, no knowledge which exists or has originated beyond the frontiers of the sacred land of India.”

Guru Nanak aimed at opening the windows of the human mind to all the four quarters of space so that man’s mind may grow freely and his soul remain whole through healthy contact with the insights gained by mankind in all countries, and in all ages. Hence, he preferred to use ‘qudret’ for nature in his compositions.

Recently, a Ph D thesis at Jamia Milia, Delhi, was submitted by Faisal Mustafa on the subject: “The World of Nature: A Quranic View”. Some of the conclusions of this study7 are:

i. The Quranic depiction of nature may serve as one of the most convincing proofs of ‘one and only one creator’, who has powers over all things and who regulates the affairs of the cosmos.

ii. Almighty god controls nature with all its manifestations, and it clearly indicates a well-defined order prevailing in nature.

iii. There is a very sound connectedness, harmony and interrelationship among all the manifestations of nature.

iv. Supreme God governs the forces that are governing the affairs of this huge cosmos and these are willingly doing their specific functions.

v. The whole nature is full of beauty, bounty, and perfection.

By juxtaposition of Quaranic term ‘qudret’ against the Samkhya term ‘prakriti’, we can easily understand and appreciate the choice of the term ‘qudret’ to represent nature in all its manifestations by Guru Nanak. In the opening sloka of Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS), Guru Nanak defines the various attributes of God, the ultimate reality. He calls Him ‘Karta Purkh’, the creator person and not merely a purusa. Hence, in the scheme of things envisaged for his worldview, Guru Nanak employed ‘qudret’ to represent nature.

According to Kapur Singh8, Guru Nanak employed the Arabic term qudret as the second term of the dualism, with Purukh as the first. Qudret means “that under the power and authority of its Master”. In Quran, al-Qadir as one of the attributes of God is distinguishable from another attribute, al-Khaliq, which means the creator. Guru Nanak includes both these attributes of God in his use of the term, qudret for nature.9
He Himself creates and arranges the Nature,

He Himself controls its progression and evolution.
According to Guru Nanak, God first created Himself and then at a second stage of creation shaped qudret (nature) out of his own goodwill to enjoy the creation process10:

The universal self (God) created the individual self,
He Himself created the differentiating names.
Thus Nature hath He created as the ‘other’,
And depositing Himself therein.
He contemplates on Nature.

In Rag Asa11, Guru Nanak has written a long poem eulogizing qudret in its various manifestations as revealed through the creation process. In fact, God not only plays the role of creator but also reveller and sustainer of creation through qudret (nature):
Nature is all that appears and hears,

Nature is the world as seen, felt and appreciated.
Nature is all the spaces, and
Nature is totality of forms.
Nature, like God, is also limitless and beyond comprehension. The abode of God is nature itself12:
Glory to Thee who dwelleth in Nature,
Infinite and Eternal,
Thy limits and frontiers are unknowable.

Guru Nanak rejects the Vedantic concept that the created world and nature in all its manifestations is maya, a mere illusion, and only God is real. According to Sikh viewpoint, both God and qudret (nature) are true as recorded in Guru Granth Sahib13:
O true Lord, Thy created Nature is real.

The study of nature has been given the highest priority in Gurbani. Guru Nanak has identified the manifest reality or God with nature14:

“Nanak, the beneficent Lord alone is true,
He is revealed through His Nature”.

It is also emphasized in Gurbani that God or the Creator can be realized by man in his own body through Nature15:

“He who has created the world in which
He abides as Immanent,
That Lord may be recognized through Nature.
He is not to be regarded as wholly Transcendent;
His voice can be heard in every heart”.

God being the Creator Person( Karta Purkh) is also known as Qadir in Quranic vocabulary16. He is the absolute controller of destiny of Man and Nature:

“All that is your qudret, and
You are its Qadir and Karta, i.e.,
Absolute Controller and Creator”
God is the creator of Nature and He is fully involved and absorbed in Nature17.
“God creates Nature and alone
He contemplates it”.

We may conclude that Guru Nanak’s vision of Nature is far more comprehensive than his predecessors both in the East and the West. It is a holistic vision which can act as a platform for a dialogue between science and religion. Guru Nanak’s mission was to create an ideal society of Gurmukhs (guru-oriented personalities) where man can live in tune with nature. The message of Guru Nanak and his vision of nature need to be broadcast to the modern man in search of ecological balance and craving for inner peace.


1. A N Whitehead, The Concept of Nature: Tarner Lectures Delivered in Trinity College, Cambridge, November 1919.
2. B N Saraswati (Editor), Man in Nature (Vol. 5), Proc of Seminar on Prakriti, Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA), New Delhi, 1995.
3. H S Virk (Editor), History and Philosophy of Science, Proc of First National Seminar, GND University, Amritsar, 1988.
4. Bhai Jodh Singh, Guru Nanak Memorial Lectures, Punjabi University, Patiala, 1966-67; M P Rege, The Nature of Matter (Vol 4), Proc of Seminar on Prakriti, IGNCA, New Delhi, 1995.
5. Kapur Singh, Guru Nanak’s Concept of Nature, SikhSpectrum.com Monthly, Aug 2002.
6. Bhavishyapurana “Na paret yamani bhasha paran karan gaterapi.”
7. F Mustafa, The World of Nature: A Quranic View, Ph D Thesis Abstract, Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi, 2004.
8. Kapur Singh, op. cit., P.3.
9. Guru Granth Sahib, M 1, p 1170.
Awpy kudriq kry swij ]
scu Awip inbyVy rwju rwij ]

10. Guru Granth Sahib, M 1, p 463.
AwpInY Awpu swijE AwpInY ricE nwau ]
duXI kudriq swjIAY kir Awsxu ifTo cwau ]

11. Guru Granth Sahib, M 1, p 464.
kudriq idsY kudriq suxIAY kudriq Bau suK swru ]
kudriq pwqwlI AwkwsI kudriq srb Awkwru ]

12. Guru Granth Sahib, M 1, p 469.
bilhwrI kudriq visAw ]
qyrw AMqu n jweI liKAw ]

13. Guru Granth Sahib, M 1, p 463.
scI qyrI kudriq scy pwiqswh]
14. Guru Granth Sahib, M 1, p 141.
nwnk sc dwqwru isnwKq kudrqI ]
15. Guru Granth Sahib, M 1, p 581.
ijin jgu isrij smwieAw so swihbu kudriq jwxovw ]
scVw dUir n BwlIAY Git Git sbdu pCwxovw ]

16. Guru Granth Sahib, M 1, p 464.
sB qyrI kudriq qMU kwidru krqw pwkI nweI pwku ]
17. Guru Granth Sahib, M 1, p 143.
Awpy kudriq swij kY Awpy kry bIcwru ]


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