Eminent Nueroscientist and Renowned Scholar of Sikhism – Dr. Bhai Harbans Lal


By Dr. Devinder Pal Singh | Interview |

Professor Dr. Harbans Lal is an internationally renowned neuroscientist, a noted pharmacologist, and a profound scholar of Sikhism. He was born in 1931 at Haripur, the North-West Frontier Province (now  Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) in Pakistan. In 1956, after receiving his B.Sc. degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences from Punjab University, Chandigarh, India, he migrated to the USA. Therein, he received his Master’s Degree from the University of Kansas in 1958. He was awarded a Ph.D. degree in Medical Sciences (Pharmacology), by the University of Chicago, in 1962.

Over the years, Dr. Harbans Lal has served as a teacher cum researcher at various reputed institutes, e.g. the University of Kansas, University of Chicago, IIT Research Institute and the University of Rhode Island. During 1980-2000, he served at the University of North Texas Health Science Center as Professor and Chairman, Dept. of Pharmacology and Neurosciences.    

In his long professional career spanning over five decades, he is credited with over 400 research papers, 28 books, numerous research reviews and 56 chapters in edited books on medical sciences. In addition, he has served on many national and international advisory boards, including the National Institute of Health, National Institute of Ageing, National Science Foundation, and US Food and Drug Administration. He has also served as an Editor for a monthly research journal “Drug Development Research” for 14 years. He has been honoured by several research organizations for his outstanding contributions in the field of medical sciences. The Society of Neuroscience bestowed on him the Distinguished Neuroscientist Award. The American College of Neuropsychopharmacology elected him as its member, and The Scientists of Indian Origin in America elected him as its President. In addition, American Psychological Association honoured him with its honorary membership.

In his public life, Dr. Harbans Lal has been instrumental in promoting interfaith and multicultural understanding. He played a vital role in various leadership capacities in several interfaith organizations such as the World Center for Thanksgiving, Interfaith Council of Thanksgiving Square, The Faith Conversation, and Alliance for Religious Freedom. He has also served as an advisor to the American Project on Religion in the News Media. He is the Ambassador of the Parliament of World’s Religions. His musings and writings on various theological issues have been published in the Sikh press and several prestigious periodicals e.g. Dallas Morning News, Tribune, Times of India, Hindustan Times, etc. For his exceptional contributions in the field of interfaith and multicultural understanding, he was conferred with the Ambassador of Peace Award by the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace. Besides, he was also honoured with an International Medal of Honor by the Grace Seminary and the International Ummah Award by the Islamic Association.

Dr. Harbans Lal, a noted exponent of Sikhism, has also been instrumental in providing imperative leadership to several Sikh institutions. He was a founder member of the All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF), and served as the Editor-in-Chief of its monthly magazine “Sikh Students’ Bulletin.” Later on, he served as its President during 1954-56. AISSF bestowed on him the honorific “Bhai.” In 1963, he was conferred the title “Bhai Sahib” by Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), Amritsar.

Bhai Harbans Lal has been the Founding Vice President of the Sarab Hind Sehajdhari Sikh Organization (1949-56). He served as the Founding Vice-President of the Sri Nanakana Sahib Foundation (SNSF) during 1975-2018. SNSF is credited with opening free access to the Sikh historical places in Pakistan and establishing the Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee.

Since 2016, Dr. Lal has regularly contributed to Sikh thoughts via his blog Seeking Wisdom. Through his literary essays, as published in many research journals, magazines, books, and newspapers, he has been able to create an indelible mark of scholarship on the minds of his readers. He has published a book on Guru Nanak’s teachings and several reviews on Sikh themes. Dr. Bhai Harbans Lal has been honoured for his services to the Sikh cause by several Sikh organizations, e.g., SGPC, Amritsar; Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC), New Delhi; The Akal Takht, Takht  Hazur Sahib, Takhat Sri Patna Sahib, Chief Khalsa Diwan, Sikh Dharma International, and the Sikh Social and Educational Society, Canada. Recognizing his contributions to Sikh Studies, he has been awarded, D. Litt. (Honoris causa) degree by Guru Nanak Dev University in 1995. He has also been honoured with the Order of Nishan-e-Khalsa, by Anandpur Sahib Foundation, in 1999, for his impressive accomplishments in Sikh scholarship and promoting Sikhism. Most recently (2019), he was honoured with the Prof. Sahib Singh Memorial Award established by Mian Mir Memorial Trust.

A widely acclaimed neuroscientist and a noted Sikh theologian, Dr. Harbans Lal, is a founder member of the School of Scientific and Logical Interpretation of Gurbani. He is committed to bringing out the truth of Gurbani logically, rationally and scientifically. With his scientific training and devotion to Gurbani, he is eminently qualified to do so. In his works, Dr. Lal portrays intellectually courageous and authentic attempts to interpret Sikh Gurus’ verses logically and scientifically to create an accurate understanding of the Gurbani. His scientific background and professional life as a scientist have undoubtedly influenced his choice of paradigm and perspective.  A votary of Sikh way of life, Dr. Harbans Lal led a life, dedicated to the love of God and selfless service to the society. He is a true Karam yogi, who had devoted his whole life to spread the message of education, Gurmat, and service to all. He asserts that Sikh Gurus’ philosophy, their Sikhi ethics, their compositions, and Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) are the substance that makes for spirituality befitting the 21st century.

His views on various aspects of Gurbani are presented here for the benefit of readers:

Dr Singh: You are a scientist by training and a teacher cum researcher by profession, then how have you become so interested in theology?

Dr. Lal: My mother told me that my parents received me (and my name) as a gift from Guru Nanak and they would raise me to serve the causes of Guru Nanak. So, she with the help of two woman-granthis of the gurdwara in Haripur taught me about Sikh gurus and their teachings. Later on, the same function was taken over by my AISSF family.

What is Sikh Philosophy, and what are its sources?

The Sikh philosophy is imbibed in the verses of Gurus’ hymns, which are enshrined in SGGS. The fundamental questions about human existence, the purpose of creation and human life are well deliberated in these verses. In nutshell, we are in this world as a part of the Divine blueprint for creation. We are here to be fulfilled with the wonders of this creation and live our life accordingly. The Guru provided in the commencing verse of SGGS the divine attributes that he chose for us to emulate. We are expected to exhibit our behaviours as dictated by the guidelines narrated in the three pillars of life: Naam, Daan, and Isnaan.

What makes Sikh Gurus’ philosophy original and unique?

When Siddha asked Guru Nanak what his dharma was, when was it founded and for what environment was it suitable? Guru answered that his dharma was Gur Mat, it was established as soon as humanity came into existence and it was suitable for all times.

What is the relevance of Sachiara (as envisioned by Guru Nanak in his Jap composition) in a modern context?

To become Sachiara, in short, is to awaken the eternal truthfulness within so that human narcissism is replaced, and one seeks divine companionship.   For Sachiara, forms and events (Hukam) reveal the key sources of the truth; the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and the “secular” becomes the “sacred.” Therefore, Sikhs constantly conflate, juxtapose and interpenetrate opposing boundaries – between Hindu pantheism, Islamic monotheism, and Buddhist nothingness.

In October 2019, you have delivered an invited lecture at McGill University, Quebec, Canada, on the topic “The Miracle of Sultanpur Lodhi – the Founder of Interfaith Dialogue Worldwide.” Does Sikh Gurus’ philosophy encourage belief in miracles?

I used the term miracle as a metaphor. Nanak went into a meditative trance, somewhere at the banks of the Bein river in Sultanpur. The place being away from the distracting hustle and bustle, he was left alone to contemplate for 3 days. He emerged as, we may call, Prophet Nanak or Guru Nanak. It is similar to the case of Prince Gautam, who meditated under a banyan tree and came out of his trance as Gautam  Buddha.

Different Sikh scholars emphasize one or the other versions of the Three Pillars of Sikhism, e.g. (i) Kirat Karo, Naam Japo, Vand Chhako (2) Naam, Daan, Isnaan (3) Sat, Santokh, Gyan (4) Deg, Teg, Fateh, etc. Based on Sikh doctrines, what do you think is the aptest version?

Beginning with Guru Nanak, all ten Gurus used the terms Naam (Mindful Awareness of Divine Presence), Daan (Live Out the Culture of Altruism when Seeking Divine Benevolence), Isnaan (Implement Ethics of Good Deeds that Cleanse both Body and Mind). Their contemporary Sikh theologians used the Guru-given terms. Other terms like Kirat Karo, Naam Japo, and Vand Chhako were introduced by Bhai Vir Singh and became fashionable. I dare not outsmart my Guru and use the Guru-given terms, Naam, Daan, Isnaan. Moreover, the other terms do not convey the exact meanings that our Gurus had in mind.

Is Sikh Gurus’ Philosophy in conflict or harmony with science? How can Sikh Gurus’ Philosophy help in the cultivation of scientific temper in society? 

Our Gurus were fully consistent with science. The more we know about creation with scientific advances, the more we realize the truth in Guru’s teachings.

Some scholars emphasize that Sikh philosophy depicts a way of life, not a religion. What is your opinion about it?

Our gurus did not use or accept the term religion or mazhab. Religion is a Judaeo-Christian term and mazhab term is from Abrahamic traditions. Guru used the term dharam, which is entirely distinct from religion. Guru’s term dharma is devoid of ritualism and mythology. It is purely a pathway to connect with the Creator while living a happy and healthy life.

As per Sikh Gurus’ Philosophy, what is the meaning or purpose of our presence in this Universe?

To appreciate the Divine presence through the opportunity available in human life under the guidance of the Guru-given Dharma.

What is the perspective of Sikh Philosophy about the existence of God? Can faith in God be justified?

Under the guidance of the Sikh philosophy, we connect with Ek Ongkar, the icon selected to commence the text of SGGS. The symbol or icon means One virtual reality manifested in all creations. Then, we are to perceive the same manifestation within each one of us so that we may emulate some of the divine virtues within us under Guru’s guidance and benevolence. The rest of the SGGS train us towards that goal.  

Do scientists believe in God?

Depending on which God? They do not believe in the anthropomorphic God that the clergy class (clerics, pujaris) has invented with miracles and rituals. But they do believe in the Ek-Ongkar as manifested it’s the creations with no rituals and mythology associated.

What is the SGGS’s perspective on spirituality?

I do not know what spirituality is, although I do hear about it. It is something the intellectuals follow instead of organized religion. The spiritualists believe in harmonizing with the Universe and Nature, which is being spiritual. They do not get solace by going to places of worship but seek happiness from within. They, rather, align with their “spirit” for eternal bliss. Some spiritualists that I now do have their living guru. One friend told me his belief this way. He wrote, “If you want to know Him, you have to experience Him vividly. You can never find Him by repeating His name mindlessly. The singing of hymns would not enhance you spiritually.” The example he gave me was wondrously convincing. If you are hungry, you will have to eat food…just uttering the names of different dishes or their recipes would not satisfy your hunger!!!

I can not have any qualms with it except I get my spiritual guidance from Gurbani.

What is the perspective of Sikh Philosophy about society?

Guru talks about humanity and Gurmukh panth. I have not studied as to where society fits in. I am not able to explain it in a few words. It needs a chapter.

Do Sikh doctrines drive towards the sustainability of living beings on the earth?

The divine creation will live or die according to Hukam, the blueprint that the Creator has implemented for the creation. The God-given treasure will never run out

Based on Sikh Philosophy, what can be done to stop humans from fighting each other for race, religion, caste, colour or creed?

To stop those fighting among groups, eliminate or discourage the culture of mera and tera, meaning mine and yours, us and them. All of us carry the same jot or the flame of life.

Can rational inquiry and Gurbani convictions co-exist?

Gurbani is all rational. At any one moment, we may not understand the real meaning of a verse and it may seem irrational. In this case, we must continue to pray and seek SABD DEEDAR. It means we must seekguidance in understanding the true meaning and significance of the verse. Most verses are in metaphors and must be realized as such.

What is the perspective of Sri Guru Granth Sahib on life, soul, death, and reincarnation; Karam and nadir?

All of us who are born will die. That is the end. The body will become ashes and merge into the elements. The egoistic mental entities will end forever. When we are living, our mind goes through numerous lives and reincarnations. A Sikh seeks an end to these reincarnations of the human mind that we call M^N.

Do Sikhs believe in an afterlife? Do they believe in Heaven/Hell, salvation?

No. Sikhi does not believe in the heavens, hell, salvation, etc. These terms in Gurbani are used as metaphors to explain the experiences as well as the rewards and punishments in this life.

What are the barriers to the logical and rational interpretation of Gurbani?

Religious information is concocted by ill-trained clerics, pujaris, who are hired or paid otherwise to impart religious education most of the time. Most of them promote barriers to a real understanding of Gurbani. They discourage intellectual contemplation of Gurbani in favour of merely listening to it verbatim in popular tunes.

You have been the founder and President of the Academy of Guru Granth Studies since its inception. Can you elaborate on some of the outstanding contributions of the Academy?

The Academy participated in several projects in collaboration with others over the years.  Presently it is engaged in bringing out the Urdu translation of the Guru Granth to benefit nearly 400 million Urdu-speaking people in the world.  As always, the Urdu translation project too is multidimensional and is supported by many organizations and many individuals in its various dimensions. We urgently need some Urdu scholars of Gurmat to help in the project.

Recently you published a book titled: “Guru Nanak’s Religious Pluralism and Sri Guru Granth Sahib.”  In this book, you have emphasized that the Sikh religion, as envisioned by Guru Nanak, is pluralistic, inclusive, and contemporary. Can you share a few salient features of your thesis?

The message of the nearly 300 pages book is that our Guru’s teachings are universal and are etched in stone in the hymns of the Guru Granth. They form the basis of Guru’s message that is for the whole of humanity irrespective of any linguistic, historical, or cultural differences among societies. No history should be allowed to rule over the Guru’s message. Similarly, no culture should come in the way of Sikhi practices.  The best ways to connect with the Guru’s teachings are illustrated in Gurbani. My book describes how best to connect to the message of Gurbani.

Prof. Hardev Singh Virk, a noted Sikh scholar, during one of his lectures at San Jose Gurudwara, USA, in 2018 argued that “Sikhism fails to impact at the global level.”  Would you like to share your opinion about this statement?

I agree that Sikhism to date has failed to impact any society outside the Punjabi ethnic populations in every continent. I do not know the reason, but my working hypothesis is that it is because our clergy class that manages our religion has evolved rigid rituals in our practices so that our dissemination of Guru’s message is walled within our religious institutions run by Punjabi ethnic groups. As Sardar Kapoor Singh had described, our present language of dissemination is “gibberish” to our youth and people outside of the Punjabi ethnic groups. Our religious practices have been made subservient to our cultural practices that insistently exclude and discourage others.  

Your book “Guru Nanak’s Religious Pluralism and Sri Guru Granth Sahib” points out many of the issues confronting our diverse and pluralistic world, particularly the world that emerged after 9/11. Can you share a few of these issues, specifically impacting the Sikhs?

In the past century, we began to live in various neighbourhoods within a global village. Suddenly we are faced with the responsibility of explaining the Sikhi theology to our new neighbours. We are certainly not prepared for that.  That is the main issue.  

Since 2016, you are writing a blog “Seeking Wisdom.” Can you elaborate on how and why you came up with this idea?

Because of my advancing age, I was advised to undertake a new project that may exercise my brain to slow down its degeneration. After discussing it with my family and my colleagues I initiated writing for the new blog.  I define a Sikh as a person who is a seeker of divine wisdom through Guru’s hymns. So, I named my blog “Seeking Wisdom” and pen down my thoughts in my spare time. Thus, I share with other wisdom seekers what I learn from Gurbani.  

Can you share any of your unique religious/spiritual experiences?

No, I do not have any spiritual experience except that I often see and interact with Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh in my dreams.

Karl Marx, the German philosopher and economist, once said that “Religion is the opium of the people.” Is Sikh Philosophy a new variety of this opium?

As I said before, Sikhism is not a religion as the religion is defined by the Judaeo-Christian traditions. So, it may not have the same ill effects on society as experienced under Abrahamic religions. No, Sikhism it is not the opium of the people.

Is Sikhism universal? If so, why has it not been so accepted yet?

Dr. Lal: Firstly, let me share my understanding of what is universal. Universal is that which applies everywhere, to whole humankind, and in all civil societies regardless of culture, race, gender, religion, nationality, or any other distinguishing feature. Further, universal can be relevant only in the world of diversity.

Let us apply the dynamics of universality to Sikhi to establish that they are universal. To start with, the Sikhi dynamics are universal because the founder of the Sikhi claimed them to be so. When we go deep into Guru’s teachings, we find a dynamic relationship between Sikh identity, the Sikh community, and the grace-awakened values that our Gurus prescribed in our scripture. It is the need of the hour that they are articulated in the language that the new civilizations can grasp. Where their universality is not apparent, we must actively explore ways of universalizing Guru’s message.

Guru Nanak used the metaphor of the ocean waters that through the routes of cloud formations give birth to glaciers, lakes, and rains. They, in turn, go on to form rivers and rivulets. These rivulets then flow through mountains and lands to irrigate vast territories on all continents before they return to the oceans again. This is how the Guru’s message should be disseminated to the whole of mankind for emulation.

Our clergy, exegetists, and even scholars stress loudly and with authority as well as with pride that our Gurus gave us a universal religion. However, our clergy and exegetists never elucidate what they mean from the Sikhi teachings being universal. As a matter of fact, in the name of their universal religion, they religiously promote rituals, definitions, and religiosities which are out and out anything but universal.

Sikhi would never formally align Guru Wisdom with one ethnicity, one society, one culture, one denomination, one political party, or one geographical area. Guru will also not allow someone to use a Sikhi rivulet to ignore the laws of civil societies, of sciences, or colours and diversities within the same community. As far as we know, that was the intent of Guru Nanak.

There is another point to ponder. A rivulet is a minority if you look at it one at a time, but it is the majority if you look at it “connected to the source along with others and its ending into the ocean with all others.” Then you are part of a vast majority. This way the Wisdom Seekers or the Sikhs encounter the coming waves of global uncertainty with confidence and optimism.

Dr. Singh: Thanks, Bhai Sahib! for sparing your time to share your insightful views on Sikh theology and Sikh doctrines.

Dr. D. P. Singh, M.Sc., Ph.D. is Director, Center for Understanding Sikhism, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. He is a physicist by training, a teacher by profession and a writer by choice. He specializes in writing on Science, Religion and Environmental topics. Currently, he is working as Director, CanBridge Learning & Educational Consultant to various educational institutions in Canada. Email: drdpsn@gmail.com


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