The Guru Granth Sahib is a unique religious text that is radically modern. Effacing fearful religious divisions and insecurities, its language of love broadens our mind with a plurality of concepts, ideologies, and literary styles. In fact, the exquisitely artistic transcendent bani, makes us seriously question our modern-day assumptions, and promotes inter-religious understanding in a significant manner. In my paper I will explore the Sikh scriptural perspective on five issues that are at the heart of contemporary debates: 1) theology, 2) language, 3) social values, 4) scientific and ecological sensitivity, and 5) gender.
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THE GURU GRANTH SAHIB: A MAGICAL PLANETARIUM
patala patal lakh agasa agas—worlds beyond worlds
Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh
Crawford Family Professor, Colby College, Waterville, ME, USA
Three hundred years ago Guru Gobind Singh ended personal Guruship, and passed his historical and spiritual legacy on to the Book of sacred poetry for perpetuity. This wondrous Guru eternal offers us an exciting bridge between religious studies and natural sciences, which remain divided in our contemporary society. The text communicates the beauty and vastness of the cosmos in sublime poetry, and reading it is like entering a planetarium. Recurring verses fill us with curiosity about our cosmos and the myriad species: “vismad dharti vismad khani – wonderful earth! Wonderful species!” (GG: 464) The Guru eternal is suffused with the wonder of the infinite, and as a result Waheguru (Wonderful+Guru) has become the most popular Sikh expression. Typically it is scholars in the fields of literature, philosophy, and history who undertake an analysis of Sikh scripture, but if scientists – physicists, astronomers, chemists, geologists, biologists — would also take it up, the value of the text would only be enhanced.
The geometric arc at its very outset (ikk oan kar) urges us to discover more and more. Sequential verses “patala patal lakh agasa agasa — worlds below worlds millions of spheres beyond spheres” (Japji: 22) leave us wide-eyed, and they acquire a real palpability and concreteness if we look at them through an astronomer’s telescope. As we apply the empirical data of our Milky Way galaxy with its hundred billion stars and the scientific observations regarding billions of other galaxies, we really begin to visualize what the founder Guru Nanak meant, and thereby gain a fuller understanding and appreciation of his verse. The scientific adventure, its observations, and factual data, do not clash with Sikh sacred scripture; they reveal its intrinsic vigor, its far-reaching insights, and its contemporary relevance. An interpretation of the Guru Granth Sahib in light of scientific theories of evolution, cosmology, nature of reality, and time would prove to be exciting.
If we look closely, the passionate poetic discourse is very much like the scientific approach in that it fosters curiosity and inquisitiveness. The Guru-poets do not impose any theories on us. They do not preach at us. They do not lay out any fixed systems. There is no authorial figure or doctrine that we must submit ourselves to. To the contrary, they subtly train us to become epistemologically open-minded and discover new tracks. Even if we were to focus just on the inaugural hymn of the Guru Granth, we quickly realize that its style forces us to make minute investigations. For instance, Stanza 21 raises questions about our primordial origins:
What was the time, what was the hour,
What was the date, what was the day,
What was the season, what was the month,
When creation was born?
Guru Nanak’s questions are keen, and their pacing is quick. With such microscopic distinctions regarding time, hour, date, day, month, season, he provokes us to recollect our origins and really investigate our place in the universe. His exciting questions enter contemporary scientific debates about the origins of our universe: What are we? When did it all begin? How did we all evolve? The Guru mentions that even in his time scholars were offering their own answers. But the Guru challenges all presuppositions about the workings of the universe. He accepts no theories nor presumes any knowledge himself, and seems to be quite in tune with our contemporary scenario. Without giving answers, he incites us to examine deeply about creation: “The creator who designed this creation alone knows” (Japji: 21). Devotees and scientists are equally welcome to the exhilarating challenges that lie ahead in our quest. The Guru Granth Sahib leaves no room for tension between scripture and science like the one we encounter between the Biblical account of creation in Genesis and Darwin’s theory of evolution — so volatile in America at the moment.
The interrogative technique is very much at the heart of Sikh scripture, and is extremely valuable in that it instills freedom and creativity in the minds of its readers and hearers. While opening up infinite possibilities for us to think about, it enables us to draw upon new emotional, spiritual, and intellectual reservoirs. The scriptural questions are a wonderful literary device that engages our manifold human talents. The imagination is stirred to envision the glory of our universe. Guru Nanak even asks, “so dar kheha so ghar keha jitu bhai sarab samale – what kind of gate is it, what kind of a house is it, where everyone is harmoniously contained?” (Japji: 27). Clearly the universe exhibits order. But the Guru does not impose any teleological arguments; rather, he poetically inspires us to think about That One. This perfectly designed world has to have a supreme creator! Who is the Architect? The Builder? The Mechanic? The Engineer? Our universe constitutes the magnificent dwelling of that singular One. Science and Religion are not polarized in the Sikh text: the grandeur of secular scientific discoveries reveals the absolute magnificence and power of the sacred. The passage continues on to describe the place resounding with manifold musical melodies and overflowing with visual splendor. Actually this stanza from the Japji (the Sikh morning prayer) also appears in the daily evening hymn Rahiras (rahiras literally meaning “practice”). So not only are the daily hectic schedules prefaced with glimpses into our world, but they are also repeated at the end of the day, exhorting us to assess: did we really think about those wondrous elements surrounding us during the course of the day? The Guru Granth stimulates us to go beyond just the motions of the day and realize that there is immense spiritual beauty, music, and joy in our world that we must tap into — for otherwise we merely drown in our mundane materialism.
While leading us into outer space, the Guru Granth Sahib simultaneously draws our attention to our immediate locus. The five-fold spiritual journey through the realms of Duty, Knowledge, Aesthetics, Action and Truth — Dharm Khand, Gyan Khand, Saram Khand, Karam Khand and Sach Khand (Japji stanzas 34-37) — is essentially an entry into the depths of the unconscious, hidden away from the superficial level of logical knowledge. So we “traverse” into wider and wider planes, into a deeper and deeper intensity. The starting point is the realm of Dharam. It is our present location: our place on earth. Place is important to our identity. How do we know who we are? How do we remember our past? The places we inhabit are significant to our memories and to the construction of our identity. Interestingly, Sikh scripture describes our location from a cosmic perspective, and so wherever we may be – in Nanded or San Jose — we are simultaneously put in close touch with the distant planets and galaxies. We recognize that our identity is much larger than our narrow restricted self.
Daily we participate in the interplay of the various planets. Made up of nights (rati) and seasons (ruti) and dates (thiti) and days (var), the realm of Dharam described by Guru Nanak expands our consciousness of time. Sitting in our homes, we are made aware of both the lunar and solar cycles and the harmonious movements created by them. The Sikh Guru functions like a natural scientist who makes us feel the billions and billions of years behind us and the billions and billions yet to come. Our daily calendars with their narrow standards of measurement acquire a much larger vista, opening us up to the wonderful patterns of our wide wide universe.
Our “home” is made up of the basic elements—air, water, fire, and earth—and all of their compounds. As the Guru describes the physicality of our environment, he incites us to think about the miniscule atoms that make up our cosmos. We begin to get a real feel for the interdependence of all life, and of our own microcosmic and macrocosmic interrelationship. Guru Nanak’s basic principle that we are made up of the same stuff as the rest of our universe prefigures the Big Bang Theory that we have all emerged from the basic matter of the universe. Rather than whisk us away up to the “heavens” far away, Sikh scripture brings us face to face with the concreteness and reality of all chemical, biological, and material shapes and forms around us here and now. Galaxies, stars, planets, and we all, are not careering aimlessly — we belong to an intricate web of relationships. The Sikh poetic text inspires us to take up scientific inquiry so that we learn about the intricacies of the natural elements and our profound relationship with them.
The Guru Granth Sahib recurrently underscores the importance of knowledge. In fact the second stage in the fivefold journey enunciated in the Japji is that of Knowledge (Gyan Khand) where the mind expands exponentially.
gyan khand mahi gyanu parcandu
tithai nad binod kod anandu (Japji: 36)
In the sphere of knowledge, knowledge blazes forth
Mystic melodies, joy, and countless delights reign.
Blazing knowledge gives birth to ineffable joy (anandu). Gaining knowledge therefore is an ecstatic experience, one in which the individual goes beyond his or her finite self by recognizing the vastness of phenomena around. In this passage Guru Nanak acknowledges “innumerable varieties of atmosphere, water, and fire — kete pavana pani vaisantar.” The region is made up of millions of inhabited planets like our mother earth (ketia karam bhumi), countless mountains (mer kete), countless moons (kete cand), suns (sur), and constellations (mandal des). In this ever-widening horizon, terrestrial and celestial worlds are not split asunder and the earth is not put under the skies. The sacred verses urge us to unveil the astonishing links of our cosmos, which have subtle, complex and often mathematical structures.
The destination of the spiritual journey — the ultimate experience in Sikhism — is a sense of infinity:
tithai khand mandal varbhand
je ko kathai ta ant na ant (Japji: 37)
Here are continents, constellations, and universes,
Their counting never ending, never …
In this fifth and final realm, the individual comes face to face with Infinity Itself. Countless here are the continents (khand), constellations (mandal), and universes (varbhand). An entry into Guru Nanak’s Realm of Truth (Sach Khand) reveals diverse and infinite forms. The goal of his spiritual journey is not knowledge of or communication with the figure of a majestic Theos or a God somewhere out there; it is an experience of ultimate infinity and unity here and now.
In its expression of countless inhabited planets and suns and universes…, the Guru Granth stretches our imagination farther and farther. Exhilarating vistas beyond our notion of space and time open up for us. Interestingly, Guru Nanak made these claims when the geocentric model of the universe was still dominant. Since ancient times people believed that the earth was at the centre of the universe, and Aristotle, Ptolemy and most Greek philosophers conceived that the sun, moon, stars and planets circled around the earth. The heliocentric model of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler did not become popular till the early modern age. So it is quite amazing that Guru Nanak in his day and time would shift our attention from a geocentric model to the ultramodern view of “multiverse” (multi as distinct from universe). It is as though he was offering us a sneak preview of the highly sophisticated technological view from the Hubble! Such scriptural verses create a hunger in us to explore the scientific mysteries of our universe. They make us appreciate the investigations of physical phenomena by our modern physicists, astrophysicists, geologists…. We eagerly await the James Webb Telescope (a joint venture between Nasa, Europe, and Canada) to show us galaxies that are billions and billions of light years away!
And the more we know the more we realize the extent of the unknown. Knowledge therefore gets rid of egotistical notion of the self – haumai, the worse form of disease according to the Guru Granth. Just as the heliocentric theory of the universe demolished geocentric theories, and the quantum and relativity revolutions further demolished heliocentric views to usher us into an infinite multiverse, the inbuilt poetic mechanism of Sikh scripture shifts our attention from the narrow insular self to something far larger. Our obsession with our own “self” tenses up our muscles, and releases harmful chemicals that exaggerate body behavior, increase our heartbeat and blood pressure, and irritate our breathing. The wholistic notion of the self that modern science is just beginning to map out is articulated throughout the Sikh sacred text, for mind (man) and body (tan) are intrinsically united. Besides opening us to the magic of infinity, the vast horizons envisioned in the Sikh text have tremendous physiological impact: they free us from negative emotions of anger, jealousy, hatred, and other such poisonous stuff. The Guru Granth thus serves as a treasury for the physicist, geologist, chemist, and biologist alike – and with their own and indeed different expertise, the natural scientists can tap into its inexhaustible wealth.
Overall then, Sikh scriptural portrayal of natural phenomena and infinite horizons is not just to marvel at; knowledge is not just for the sake of academic goals; scientific discoveries are not just for our material welfare. Rather, it places special possibilities and moral responsibilities on each one of us. Planet earth is “the home for righteous action” (Japji: 34). And this is where the Sikh text differs from mainstream scientists. Though in the past we have had great figures like Aryabhata, Ibn Sina, Pascal, Teihard de Chardin, Copernicus who were at once absorbed in scientific discoveries and religious belief, many natural scientists today shy away from the topics of ethics, morality, and the Divine. Though some scientists are openly hostile to religion, others like Dr. John Mather think that science should be neutral on religious matters. A winner of the Physics Nobel Prize, Dr. Mather very delicately remarked,
We don’t know if there was a creator. The scientific evidence doesn’t tell us one way or the other.
The Irish Times, June 20, 2007, p. 15
Sikh scripture however upholds definite moral and spiritual goals. Its scientific mode of inquiry, its sense of adventure, and its amazing data of natural forces are pathways to experiencing the infinite intimately, and a springboard to ethical behavior. By reiterating again and again that we share our cosmos with infinite species — “andaj jeraj, setaj utbhuj, i.e., those born from egg, fetus, sweat, and earth,” the Guru Granth produces a biochemical reaction: we begin to conduct ourselves towards our entire cosmos in ways that are not divisive or endangering for anyone. The knowledge that we all evolved from the same matrix, that we all share the same elements, breaks our sense of anthropocentricism, and inculcates the values of concern, justice, compassion, and love — for all natural phenomena — alike. We can no longer be tiered into hierarchical levels with humans at the summit dominating and distorting the chorus of the planetary system. How could we overload our atmosphere with the heat-trapping gases from our cars, factories, and power plants? How could we destroy our rich rain forests? Pollute our life-giving waters? Sikh scripture makes us sensitive to our larger family, and mandates we work towards forging constructive relationships. The knowledge of infinity destroys all kinds of limitations and prejudices, and creates an all-accepting and welcoming attitude. Reading Sikh scripture is like entering a planetarium: in its mystery and thrill we become oblivious to all “isms” around us — be it anthropomorphism, racism, classism, sexism, or religious fundamentalism.
Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh is the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies and Crawford Family Professor at Colby College. She has published extensively in the field of Sikhism, including books entitled
1. Of Sacred and Secular Desire,
2. Sikhism: An Introduction,
3. Cosmic Symphony
4. The Birth of the Khalsa:
5. The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent 65. .
6. Sikhism (translated into several languages including Japanese)
7. The Name of My Beloved: Verses of the Sikh Gurus
8. Metaphysics and Physics of the Guru Granth Sahib
Her views have also been aired on television and radio in America, Canada, England, India, Australia, and Bangladesh.
Professor Nikky Singh was born in India, and came to attend Stuart Hall, a Girls’ Preparatory School in Virginia. She received her BA in Philosophy and Religion from Wellesley College, her MA from the University of Pennsylvania, and her Ph.D. from Temple University. Over the years she has received many awards including Phi Beta Kappa, Durant Scholar, Best Paper, Daughters of the American Revolution Award, Outstanding Young Women of America Award, and Senior Fellow at Harvard University. She has received many honors from the Sikh community for her distinguished scholarship including the Outstanding Accomplishments Award (presented by Sikh Association of Fresno, California), Sewa Award by the Sikh-Canadian Centennial Foundation for Scholarship on Sikhism (Toronto), and Guru Gobind Singh Foundation Lecture and Award (Chandigarh, India).