Science and religion have often been at loggerheads, as illustrated by the persecution of Galileo for declaring that the earth moved around the sun, or the current controversies over evolution and stem cell research. Surrounded by technology, and information about scientific advances, there is a lot of skepticism about the teachings of religion that ask you to accept things on faith. Younger generations are dropping out of traditional religions in increasing numbers.
Can you be a scientist or technologist and also a devout Sikh without compromising on either? SGGS stresses the importance of deep faith and commitment to the Guru, but at the same time it asks us to use our God given gifts of intelligent discrimination – bibek budhi – in the process, and to avoid irrational rituals and superstitions. It specifically raises questions about many widely held beliefs to point out their irrationality. “The Earth is said to be supported by a bull. What a load the bull must bear? But there are countless earths beyond this one – what supports them all?” (Japji).
The laws of nature are a manifestation of the Divine Hukam, and a source of awe and wonder (vismaad). For a Sikh, any new discovery made by science is a celebration of the marvels of God and his creation, an affirmation of His Glory.
Body of Paper
Science and Sikhi
– Inder Mohan Singh
Can you be a scientist or technologist and also a devout Sikh without compromising in either one? This question is particularly of interest here in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Science and religion have often been at loggerheads. The resistance to the belief that the Earth moved around the Sun, rather than the Earth being the center of the Universe, and the persecution of Galileo by the Church is well known. The ongoing controversies about the theory of evolution and stem cell research illustrate the threat to cherished belief systems posed by the advances of science. The various descriptions of the origin of the world and of mankind in different religious scriptures, for example, have become hard to take literally as scientists extend their knowledge of the earth’s history, and learn more about the structure and origins of the universe through advances in geology, astronomy and cosmology.
Organized religions and traditional priestly structures generally have a vested interest in promoting blind faith in rituals and the myths and dogma associated with their faiths in order to maintain their credibility and authority. As scientific discoveries and technical advances make some of old ideas obsolete, they are in the role of defending the existing beliefs and resisting the new until their positions are no longer tenable.
Surrounded as we are by technology, and information about scientific advances, there is a lot of skepticism about the teachings of religion that ask you to accept things on faith. Many younger members are dropping out of traditional religions because they are required to believe in religious dogmas, which are often at odds with what they learn in science. Brought up on rationalism, they reject blind faith and ritualism. The contradictions between religious dogma and science are harder and harder for today’s youth to swallow.
Sri Guru Granth Sahib stresses the importance of deep faith and commitment to the Guru, but at the same time it asks us to use our God given gifts of intelligent discrimination – bibek budhi – in the process, and to avoid irrational rituals and superstitions. It specifically raises questions about many widely held beliefs to point out their irrationality. “The Earth is said to be supported by a bull. What a load the bull must bear? But there are countless earths beyond this one – what supports them all?” (Japji).
Guru Nanak took a very down-to-earth pragmatic approach to religion, that actually encouraged his audience to question irrational practices and beliefs that they had been following in the name of religion.
A wonderful example of this is the saakhi of his visit to Hardwar. When he saw the pilgrims scooping up water and throwing it to the East as an offering to the Sun God, expecting it to get to their ancestors, he started throwing the water to the West instead, explaining that he was watering his fields in Punjab. When his reply was met with derision, he explained that if the water they were sprinkling could reach the Sun and their ancestors in the afterworld, surely the water could get to his farm which was just a couple of hundred miles away. This was a dramatic way to make them think about what they were doing, instead of blindly following ritual. Even faith has to be exercised with some common sense. There are several other similar stories from his life, and the same message is found in his writings in the Guru Granth Sahib.
Miracles have traditionally played an important role in religion. They are often a key part of the religious dogma and believing in them can be central to the faith of the followers. An example is the resurrection of Christ.
Many of the current “God men”, Babas and “Sants” in India are reputed to perform miracles and this is the basis for the faith that many of their followers have in them.
The Sikh Gurus did not perform any miracles as a part of their mission of parchaar. The message of Gurbani is to live in harmony with Gods Will: hukam rajaai chalnaa.
As with many other prophets and saints, there are several accounts of miraculous happenings around the lives of Guru Nanak and the Gurus following him. The Janam Sakhis are replete with many miraculous happenings. However, none of these are covered in the Guru Granth Sahib, or considered to be an essential part of the belief system of Sikhi. Some Sikhs believe in the truth of many of these sakhis while others are skeptical, and see them as useful stories for teaching certain lessons. It doesn’t really matter – you can be a devout Sikh and believe and practice the teachings of Gurbani in either case.
We are specifically directed to pay attention to the teachings of the Gurus, not to obsess on stories about their lives:
Practice that which the Guru has ordained. Why are you chasing after the Guru’s actions?
O Nanak, it is through following the Guru’s Teachings that you shall merge into the True Lord. || 27 ||(SGGS p. 933)
What is a miracle any way? It is usually something that violates natural laws in an unexpected and perhaps impressive way. Well, nature is full of much more wonderful and miraculous things that do not violate natural laws. The birth of a baby, the amazing process of evolution that results in a plethora of incredibly complex living beings, human emotions like love and faith, consciousness, just the beauty of a sunrise. Waheguru’s creation is full of wondrous miracles that surround us, but we take them for granted.
Many creations of modern technology would be far more miraculous to people a couple of centuries ago than the miracles in religious texts and myths. Take a GPS navigation app on an iPhone that speaks to us and guides us as we drive to our destination. How miraculous would that appear to someone before cars and electricity?
The question is why should we need miracles, which are violations of God’s natural laws, in order to believe in a Higher Power?
The Guru Granth Sahib focuses on spiritual, moral and ethical issues, it does not profess to address scientific topics such as the specific details of the origin of the universe or its end, which are properly the domain of science.
There are references to creation that are mystical and poetical, and generally in the mode of marveling at the splendor and grandeur of it all rather than telling us what we should believe in. However, many of these do turn out to be surprisingly consistent with modern scientific theory. Gurbani speaks clearly of the void that preceded the creation of the universe (arbad narbad dhundukara…), and asserts that no one knows the date, day and time when the universe was created, when it will end or under what circumstances. It speaks of a multitude of suns, earths, and stars, which is much more in keeping with current astronomical knowledge than what was known at the time of the Gurus. The Guru describes God as the creator of countless universes (kot brahman ko Thakur swami). Many physicists now speculate that our universe is one of an infinite number of universes they call the multiverse. There are passages that appear to describe the Big Bang model of the origin of the universe (keeta pasaau ekai kawau…). Water is described in Gurbani as the source of life. NASA, in its search for extraterrestrial life uses the existence of liquid water as the primary criteria for an environment that can support life. Then there is the injunction against tobacco by Guru Gobind Singh hundreds of years before scientists established how devastating tobacco use is to human health.
In spite of all these amazing insights that are consistent with modern science, we should keep in mind that SGGS is about spiritual, moral and social issues, not science. Any scientific references are incidental to the main message. Some Sikh intellectuals go to great lengths to interpret Gurbani in such a way as to show how “scientific” it is by finding correlations to current science. The thing to remember is that scientific knowledge is constantly evolving. As new discoveries are made, it would have to be reinterpreted to correspond to them.
At the same time, there are many more references in the Guru Granth Sahib that are based on the existing stories, beliefs or terminology of Hindu or Muslim origin that were extant at that time, and are not consistent with current scientific understanding. These are all used for their illustrative values, and are not to be taken literally. You are expected to use common sense and judgment, or vichaar, in studying the Guru Granth Sahib, along with a deep faith in the Guru of course. In fact, we cannot embrace the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib without using our critical faculties.
We are repeatedly told, for example, that everything is composed of the five elements – earth, water, air, fire and sky (sometimes interpreted as space or vacuum). These are obviously inconsistent with the current science of chemical elements of which there are over a hundred. The point being made is that everything in nature is composed of the same basic building blocks. We also read many references to the four sources of creation – born of egg, placenta, seed or sweat, and of 8.4 million species. Neither is consistent with current biological knowledge. It basically refers to the variety of life of many classes, and the huge number of different species in nature.
According to Gurbani, the laws of nature are a manifestation of the Divine Hukam, and a source of awe and wonder (vismaad). The sun, moon and stars are said to travel endlessly in His Hukam. Air, water, fire and all of nature is constant song to Waheguru’s magnificence.
For a Sikh, a student of Gurbani, any new discovery made by science is a celebration of the marvels of God and his creation, an affirmation of His Glory. Gurbani refers frequently to the vastness and magnificence of nature, expressing the exaltation of the creator (Kadar) through praising his creation (kudrat). In the words of the Guru we grow in our love of Waheguru through admiring the wonders of His Creative power we see in nature (kartay kudrati mustak). In Kirtan Sohila Guru Nanak Dev Ji sees all of nature constantly doing aarti and glorifying God.
Some of the pictures from the Hubble telescope, for example, are awe inspiring in the visions of the vastness and majesty of the cosmos. We are also learning about the amazing complexity of life at the cellular level, especially the genetic code in the DNA. Recent discoveries of exoplanets suggests the tantalizing possibility of a Universe teeming with life.
The bottom line is that science can serve to reinforce our sense of awe and wonder at Waheguru’s creative power. Not only can one be a scientist or technologist and a devout Sikh at the same time, but scientific study and a rational attitude can be complimentary to one’s spiritual pursuit.
For a Sikh, science and religion are complementary. In the words of Einstein “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
He is the Chairmanof LynuxWorks and was CEO until 2006. He founded Excelan, and served as its chairman, CEO and president.. He was a co-founder of Kalpana, one of Cisco’s early acquisitions. Dr. Singh has served on the boards of several high-tech companies.. He holds Ph.D. and M.Phil. degrees in computer science from Yale University, an MSEE from Polytechnic Institute of New York, and B. Tech (Hons) in Electronics from IIT, Kharagpur.