I received an email from a dear friend recently about an interfaith event on the climate emergency. It prompted me to reflect on how we Sikhs have really not been true to the teachings of Guru Nanak in this regard. Here are my thoughts. It is not for the faint hearted, so apologies in advance if it hurts anybody’s feelings.
It is pleasing to see that Sikhs are finally beginning to face outwards and addressing issues confronting humanity, just as Guru Nanak taught in the 15th and 16th Century. However, I fear a seminar commemorating the 550th anniversary without concrete action is probably too little too late.
We all know what Gurbani has to say about the planet and the environment; the point is action, i.e. putting Nanak’s ‘powerful ecological message’ into practice. That message was simple; the Earth and its fragile ecosystem is like a living, breathing entity without which none of us could ever survive. Accordingly, for Nanak, the air we breathe is guru the sustainer of life, the water is father, without which organic life cannot exist and the Earth is the mother that supplier the food.
But tragically, we humans have not only done an excellent job at seriously damaging the ecosystem with our obsession with fossil fuels, meat consumption, plastics, consumption and greed, we are collectively engaged in a genocide of the animal kingdom. According to recent research by the World Wildlife Fund (WFF) over the past 50 years directly due to humans, 60% of the animal mammals, birds, fish and reptiles have been wiped out! The report argues that amongst key factors is the vast and growing consumption of food and resources human beings. What took billions of years of evolution is being destroyed in less than 50!
Here is what Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF had to say about this terrible crime: “We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff. If there was a 60% decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done.”
If the genocide of animals is seen as an act of greed, the consequences are far reaching for all life on the Earth. “This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.” See Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970, report finds (The Guardian, 30 Oct 2018).
No doubt the action taken by the ‘extinction rebellion’ movement has provided impetus to the climate emergency issue, but how many turbaned Sikhs participated in their protests? I have reviewed much of the press reporting and the answer is none or very few.
Handing out free food in a world riddled with poverty and destitution is at best a sticking plaster and at worst collusion with States who are very happy to abandon their duty to provide welfare to their citizens and pass this onto charities. Where are the turban wearing Sikhs when it comes to protesting against the global neoliberal capitalist economic system that is antithetical to Nanak’s teachings, which, as he demonstrated at Kartarpur, was to develop co-operative systems?
Sadly the truth is, whilst others have implemented Nanak’s message, we simply sit in Gurdwara’s singing his praises and extolling his virtues accompanied by dholki and shenay. Alternatively, we have Dhadi’s screaming and shouting about historical injustices and medieval wars against tyrants, but have little to say about the present day imperialists and dictators. No wonder young people are becoming more distant from institutional Sikhism and our puja asthaan, we call gurdwara’s. That is not to say that Sikhs should abandon striving to live a pious life full of Kirtan and spirituality. Far from it, the whole point is of Sikhi is to become a sachiara or a person who lives a life of ‘truth/purity/universality. But, following Nanak’s example, society needs pious/truthful people to engage with the world not to withdraw into themselves. It is for this reason that Nanak challenges both the political rules, like Babur for their callous disregard for human rights and Sidh Nath Yogis for abandoning their social responsibilities in their for ‘enlightenment’. For Nanak, superstition and rituals was not the path of a truthful (Sachiara) person, but of the householder who realises the divine reason and devotion to the creator and the creation.
And so I think the best way to commemorate the 550’s anniversary is a call to arms, an appeal for us to ‘escape’ from the gurdwaras and do our fighting on the streets, in the corridors of power and not on the gurdwara stages! Indeed, I believe there is a correlation between a profound sense of alienation amongst Sikhs and the apparent rise in conflict between various Sikh political and religious groups. Because we have lost our sense of focus and direction, like the zombie’s, we are turning on each other.
The good news is that out of this ‘crisis’ of meaning, being and doing, which is well documented in Gurbani, because we have the teachings of Nanak, I am confident we can/will escape from the alienation and false consciousness and once again become a force to be taken seriously.
And so to answer the original question, what would Nanak do today to address the issue of climate emergency. I think he would ask us all to walk (like he did) and ride bicycles. He would demand that we all set personal targets to reduce our consumption dramatically, to restrict the Langar to dal roti or its equivalent, which should be served directly onto hands or biodegradable plates, to abandon all packaged produce other than that which is essential, to ban factory and mass farming of meat products. Nanak would also no doubt be speaking truth to power and seeking to upscale the ecological cooperative system he developed at Kartarpur
I have no doubt the spirit of Nanak shines brightly in the hearts and minds of the idealistic youth of today, such as the 15 year old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Though small in stature, she has the heart of a lion who has single-handedly inspired millions of million across the world to demand action to address the climate emergency. Her intervention has shaken politicians and world leaders as well as a new generation of global citizens. Let the 550th anniversary be a reminder to Sikhs and non- Sikhs that Nanak belongs to no individual, sect, or religion, but humanity and let his teachings and example be a catalyst for action to save the planet. What could be a greater legacy than this?
[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is a Visiting Fellow in Race and Education at University of Arts London and a Visiting Professor of Social Work at University of Chester as well as a presenter at UK-based Akaal channel. This views were shared on his Facebook page]
Promoting peace through social media (Asia Samachar, 8 July 2019)
1984: Etched onto collective Sikh psyche (Asia Samachar, 2 June 2019)