Sikh beliefs are taken from the Guru Granth Sahib which is the scripture of the Sikhs. It is set according to 31 ragas or musical measures that are intended to shape 31 different moods. The Guru Granth Sahib is, therefore, a hymn book.
The central task laid out for human beings is to be a ‘sachiara’. This is a person who is living the ‘sach’. ‘Sach’ can be translated as real or true. The world is true and real and not a place of illusion or suffering as in some Eastern religions. The purpose of life is not to escape the world, but to link with the reality of life. This reality is the Naam or Numenon.
Sikhism focuses on the numinous or mystic experience of the Real that underlines the reality of the world. The Guru Granth Sahib itself contains the writings of 36 mystics from different religions, both Eastern and Western, and from no religion, who were not Sikhs. The word ‘Sikh’ is ultimately etymologically linked to the verb, ‘to seek’. A Sikh is a seeker for reality.
Since the heart of Sikh thought is the Presence rather than absence of God from the universe, our relationship with God is considered an experience, the most real and certain experience, that from which our more mundane experiences arise. Personal piety is more important than theoretical dogma in this search for experience and relationship. “Without seeing Him, we cannot say anything about Him. How can anyone speak and describe Him, O mother? || 1 || Chorus Line || (Guru Granth Sahib: 1256). There is no need for a priesthood to mediate with the Indwelling God. The Way is inscribed in our being and so all the answers are already within our minds. There is an emphasis then on the use of intellect (aql) to navigate through the ocean of life. Historically, the Sikh Gurus sided with the Qadiriya Sufis who supported the use of the intellect to reform Islamic law (shar’iah) using argument by analogy (ijtihad) against those who regarded the decisions of the jurists in the first three to four centuries of Islam (ijma) as the final word.
The emphasis on an experiential relationship with God, the reality of the world, and the use of the intellect has led Sikhs to consider their religion as ‘scientific’. Certainly, these are building blocks that could support a scientific attitude to the material world by which I mean one based on Popper’s ideals of falsification. There are no final truths, just working hypotheses. These hypotheses are there to be tested for errors and not merely confirmed by empirical evidence.
There is nothing in the Guru Granth Sahib that has been contradicted by science. Contrawise, there are several observations found in the Guru Granth Sahib that are or could be supported by modern science. In Sikh thought the traditional Hindu accounts of the universe have been rejected. “The mythical bull is Dharma, the son of compassion; this is what patiently holds the earth in its place. One who understands this becomes truthful. What a great load there is on the bull! So many worlds beyond this world — so very many! What power holds them, and supports their weight? (Guru Granth Sahib: 3).
The idea that there are limitless worlds is also the basis for the rejection of Muslim cosmology. Guru Nanak (the first Sikh Guru) visited Baghdad in 1520. He entered the capital of an Empire whose future was being decided by a struggle between Naqshbandi and Qadiri sufi groups to influence political leadership. While the Naqshbandis felt that human reason should not challenge revelation, the Qadiris argued that reason was needed to (re-)interpret revelation. Their broader argument had become concentrated around the issue of music. The traditionalist position was that music was haram (forbidden). The Qadiris argued that religious music should be permissible. The Guru agreed and broke the ban on music.
According to some janam sakhis (life stories) he sang the hymn: “There are nether worlds beneath nether worlds, and hundreds of thousands of heavenly worlds above. The Vedas say that you can search and search for them all, until you grow weary. The Semitic scriptures say that there are 18,000 worlds, but in reality, there is only One Universe. If you try to write an account of this, you will surely finish yourself before you finish writing it. O Nanak, call It Great! Only God knows God.” (Guru Granth Sahib: 5).
Some say that he showed the son of one of his hosts, Sheikh Bahlol of the Qadiris, millions of galaxies. The oral tradition of a visit is supported by a tablet with the following inscription that was uncovered in Baghdad in 1916. It reads, “In memory of the Guru, the holy Baba Nanak, King of holy men, this monument has been raised anew with the help of the seven saints.” The date on the tablet 927 Hijri corresponds to A.D. 1520–1521. It is interesting that the foundation stone of the Golden Temple of Amritsar was according to widespread tradition laid by another Qadiri saint, Mian Mir, and that Guru Arjun, the first Sikh martyr, was executed at the behest of a Naqshbandi saint, Sheikh Serhendi.
One might interpret the following verse to suggest a Big Bang: “You created the vast expanse of the Universe with One Word! Hundreds of thousands of rivers began to flow. How can Your Creative Potency be described?” (Guru Granth Sahib:3).
Other examples can also be found. For instance, there is the argument that all life has evolved from water. “O Nanak, this world is all water; everything came from water” (Guru Granth Sahib: 1283). If ones wishes to argue that life derived from carbon found in rocks and/or exists deep inside rocks one could look at, “From rocks and stones He created living beings; He places their nourishment before them” (Guru Granth Sahib: 10).
If one wished to speculate on future scientific discoveries, one could look to superstring theory: “The world is strung upon Your Thread” (Guru Granth Sahib:1386) and also “he has strung the three worlds (heavens, earths and hells) upon His Thread” (Guru Granth Sahib: 92). There is a clear idea that there are limitless worlds and that God can be approached in many different ways. Therefore, there are saints of other worlds — in other worlds, intelligent and indeed religious life on other planets. Speaking of the Court of God, “The devotees of many worlds dwell there. They celebrate; their minds are imbued with the True Lord” (Guru Granth Sahib: 8).
However, I do not believe that the Gurus were simply replacing false religious ideas with their own true religious ideas about the universe and evolution of life. They were also questioning whether knowledge of this kind is possible at all. “What was that time, and what was that moment? What was that day, and what was that date? What was that season, and what was that month, when the Universe was created? The Pandits, the religious scholars, cannot find that time, even if it is written in the Puraanas. That time is not known to the Qazis, who study the Qu’ran. The day and the date are not known to the Yogis, nor is the month or the season. The Creator who created this creation — only It Itself knows” (Guru Granth Sahib: 4).
To conclude, Sikhs would regard their religion as scientific for three reasons. First, there is nothing in the Guru Granth Sahib that has been contradicted by science. Second, there are several observations found in the Guru Granth Sahib that subsequently have been or are likely to be confirmed by science. Most importantly, the philosophy of the religion is congruent with a scientific approach to understanding reality.
Ranvir Singh is a UK-based human rights activist and member of Akaal Purkh Ki Fauj. This article was first published here.
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