Guru Nanak’s Life and Works: A Scientific Perspective

Guru Nanak’s life was a continuous process of scientific experimentation and statement, says Dr Devinder Pal Singh. He makes his case

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By Dr. Devinder Pal Singh Opinion |

A scientific perspective is a particular way of regarding something using a scientific method. Scientific methodology is defined as a mode of research in which a problem is identified, relevant data gathered, a hypothesis formulated and then empirically tested. Viewed in this light, Guru Nanak’s life was a continuous process of scientific experimentation and statement. Guru Nanak’s life and writings are rich in several such examples wherein his scientific approach to resolving several real-life situations with logic and rationality is evident.

ADVOCATING – UNIVERSAL EGALITARIANISM

The division of people by means of caste and religion, and the social hierarchy that it involves, is one of the ugliest realities of a static socio-cultural system. Science and technology have helped eradicate these social evils to a great extent. The life of Guru Nanak was full of struggle against such social evils. He preached universal brotherhood and amity among communities and nations. He advocated the abolition of all distinctions based on caste and creed. He proclaimed: “Call everyone high, none is low; the only potter (One Lord) had fashioned all alike. And his light pervades all creation. (SGGS, p. 62).“ ਸਭੁ ਕੋ ਊਚਾ ਆਖੀਐ ਨੀਚੁ ਨ ਦੀਸੈ ਕੋਇ ॥ ਇਕਨੈ ਭਾਂਡੇ ਸਾਜਿਐ ਇਕੁ ਚਾਨਣੁ ਤਿਹੁ ਲੋਇ ॥

Guru Nanak strongly condemned the caste system and proclaimed that all castes were equal. To give a practical shape to his teachings in this regard, at Kartarpur, he introduced the system of langar (community kitchen) and pangat (persons sitting together in rows to eat). Here he himself dined with people of all castes and classes, high and low. In the langar all dined together, sitting on the ground without any distinction of caste, creed, religion or social status. Everyone, from a prince to a pauper, was given the same treatment and was served the same food prepared in the same kitchen. A spirit of sacrifice, service and brotherhood was developed, and the langar became a symbol of equality, fraternity and brotherhood. These activities of Guru Nanak represent the hallmark of his scientific spirit.

EXPOSING – TABOOS & SHAMS

A true scientific spirit has no place for superstitions and sentimental beliefs. A custom introduced for whatever reason may, over a long period, become a superstition or a mere ritual. The life of Guru Nanak was a powerful protest against superstition and narrowness of all kinds. This is seen in his actions at Kurukshetra and Hardwar.

During his first udasi (journey), Guru Nanak and Mardana attended the fair in connection with the solar eclipse at Kurukshetra, made holy because of its association with the Mahabharata. On that day, Kurukshetra would attract many pilgrims, and Nanak did not want to miss the opportunity of exposing the taboos and shams introduced by ‘the priests to increase the revenues to fill their coffers.

On reaching Kurukshetra, Guru Nanak immediately made himself conspicuous by choosing to argue ‘the holy’(Brahmins) on a point which was sure to agitate them very much. Macauliffe says that Nanak actually cooked a deer, which a disciple had presented to him. When the Brahmans objected to cooking during the solar eclipse, that too to the cooking of flesh, Guru Nanak invited all the Brahmins for discussion on the Brahmans’ horror at the use of flesh by asserting:

It was the custom of gods to kill the rhinoceros, roast them and feast upon them. They who forswear flesh and hold their noses when sitting near it devour men at night. (M. 1, SGGS, p 1289).“

ਗੈਂਡਾ ਮਾਰਿ ਹੋਮ ਜਗ ਕੀਏ ਦੇਵਤਿਆ ਕੀ ਬਾਣੇ ॥ ਮਾਸੁ ਛੋਡਿ ਬੈਸਿ ਨਕੁ ਪਕੜਹਿ ਰਾਤੀ ਮਾਣਸ ਖਾਣੇ ॥

He further elaborated as; “Flesh is allowed in the Puranas, Flesh is allowed in the books of the Mussalmans; flesh hath been used in the four ages. Flesh adorneth sacrifice and marriage functions; flesh hath always been associated with them. (SGGS, p 1290).“

ਮਾਸੁ ਪੁਰਾਣੀ ਮਾਸੁ ਕਤੇਬੀ ਚਹੁ ਜੁਗਿ ਮਾਸੁ ਕਮਾਣਾ ॥ ਜਜਿ ਕਾਜਿ ਵੀਆਹਿ ਸੁਹਾਵੈ ਓਥੈ ਮਾਸੁ ਸਮਾਣਾ ॥

He explained that the earth, the sun, the moon and the stars were all suspended in space, ever moving and running on their natural course. The eclipses were nothing but natural shadows on the face of the sun and the moon. He emphasized that the custom of making offerings on occasion was nothing beyond a selfish invention of the priests to increase their own revenues. To point out the futility of wasting one’s energy in foolish squabbles, Nanak proclaimed;

Fools wrangle about flesh, but they know nothing about meditation and spiritual wisdom. They know not what is flesh, or what is vegetable or in what sin consisteth. (SGGS, p 1289)“.

ਮਾਸੁ ਮਾਸੁ ਕਰਿ ਮੂਰਖੁ ਝਗੜੇ ਗਿਆਨੁ ਧਿਆਨੁ ਨਹੀ ਜਾਣੈ ॥ ਕਉਣੁ ਮਾਸੁ ਕਉਣੁ ਸਾਗੁ ਕਹਾਵੈ ਕਿਸੁ ਮਹਿ ਪਾਪ ਸਮਾਣੇ ॥

Explaining the origin of flesh, Guru Nanak elaborated, “You do not understand yourself, yet you instruct others; O religious scholar (Pandit)!  What a learned person you are!  O Pandit, you do not know from what flesh came forth. Corn, sugar cane, and cotton are produced from water, and from water, the three worlds are deemed to have sprung. Water saith, “I am good in many ways,” Many are the modifications of water. If you abandon the relish of such things, you shall be a superman, saith Nanak. (SGGS, p 1290)”.

ਆਪਿ ਨ ਬੂਝੈ ਲੋਕ ਬੁਝਾਏ ਪਾਂਡੇ ਖਰਾ ਸਿਆਣਾ ॥ ਪਾਂਡੇ ਤੂ ਜਾਣੈ ਹੀ ਨਾਹੀ ਕਿਥਹੁ ਮਾਸੁ ਉਪੰਨਾ ॥ ਤੋਇਅਹੁ ਅੰਨੁ ਕਮਾਦੁ ਕਪਾਹਾਂ ਤੋਇਅਹੁ ਤ੍ਰਿਭਵਣੁ ਗੰਨਾ ॥ ਤੋਆ ਆਖੈ ਹਉ ਬਹੁ ਬਿਧਿ ਹਛਾ ਤੋਐ ਬਹੁਤੁ ਬਿਕਾਰਾ ॥ ਏਤੇ ਰਸ ਛੋਡਿ ਹੋਵੈ ਸੰਨਿਆਸੀ ਨਾਨਕੁ ਕਹੈ ਵਿਚਾਰਾ ॥੨॥

DEBUNKING – FUTILE RITUALS 

From Kurukshetra, Guru Nanak left for Hardwar. Here also, Nanak drew the attention of a great number of people gathered at the place, with seemingly an innocent act, but which really amounted to a challenge of the age-old practices.

He quietly walked into the waters of the Ganges and, instead of throwing water towards the east, as others were doing, put his hands together to form a cup and began to throw water towards the west. Almost all those who saw him doing that gathered around him to enquire about the reason for his unusual behaviour.

He replied that he was trying to send water to his fields at Talwandi so that they might remain green and not dry up. With such a remark, he pointed out the futility of the practice of trying to propitiate the Sun god by throwing water toward the East for the salvation of one’s ancestors. Thus he forcefully remonstrated against the hollowness of the religious ritual and practice.

CONFRONTING – VAIN PRACTICES

As is in the ethos of science, a person of scientific vision has the capacity to challenge established customs/practices if they happen to conflict with the facts of life. During his stay at Puri, Guru Nanak spoke against the efficacy of the Padamasna (a cross-legged sitting posture in which the feet are placed on the opposing thighs) to win over the Lord. He exposed the claim of the Brahman ‘who kept his eyes and nose closed’ and claimed that ‘in that state, he with his mental eyes saw the secrets of the world. Guru Nanak hid the Brahman’s lota (a round water pot, typically of polished brass) while he was in the asna (a particular sitting posture). When the Brahman, on opening his eyes, could not find the lota, Guru Nanak witted him on ‘his fancy of omniscience’ as;

You close off your nostrils with your fingers and claim to see the three worlds. But you cannot even see what is behind you. It is a thing of wonder. (SGGS, p. 662-63)”.

ਆਂਟ ਸੇਤੀ ਨਾਕੁ ਪਕੜਹਿ ਸੂਝਤੇ ਤਿਨਿ ਲੋਅ ॥ ਮਗਰ ਪਾਛੈ ਕਛੁ ਨ ਸੂਝੈ ਏਹੁ ਪਦਮੁ ਅਲੋਅ ॥੨॥

DENOUNCING – STEREOTYPES

A stereotype is essentially a myth that gains creditability due to its acceptance on a socio-cultural level. Stereotyping is a common malaise in all-social systems. During medieval times, several stereotypes, eg., ‘A woman is a living picture of lust and sexual gratification,’ ‘The common sense of a woman lies in her heels,’ ‘Animals, beasts, rustic (vulgar), Shudhras and women need constant censor,’ and ‘Women may never be allowed in religious deliberations’ were prevalent. Guru Nanak vehemently defended women against those who insisted on relegating them to an inferior position merely on the basis of their gender. He gave back the woman her personal share in the domain of religion. Guru Nanak’s path of salvation was open to women. In this sense, she was certainly placed at par with man, just as the Shudhra was placed at par with the Brahmin. In Asa di Var, he proclaims:

It is by woman, the condemned one, that we are conceived, and from her that we are born; it is with her that we are betrothed and married. It is a woman we befriend, and she keeps the race going. When one woman dies, another is sought; and it is with her that we get established in society. Why should we call her evil from whom great men are born? It is also from the woman that women are born; there is nobody who is not born of a woman. Nanak, only the one true God, is independent of woman’ (SGGS, p. 473).

ਭੰਡਿ ਜੰਮੀਐ ਭੰਡਿ ਨਿੰਮੀਐ ਭੰਡਿ ਮੰਗਣੁ ਵੀਆਹੁ ॥ ਭੰਡਹੁ ਹੋਵੈ ਦੋਸਤੀ ਭੰਡਹੁ ਚਲੈ ਰਾਹੁ ॥ ਭੰਡੁ ਮੁਆ ਭੰਡੁ ਭਾਲੀਐ ਭੰਡਿ ਹੋਵੈ ਬੰਧਾਨੁ ॥ ਸੋ ਕਿਉ ਮੰਦਾ ਆਖੀਐ ਜਿਤੁ ਜੰਮਹਿ ਰਾਜਾਨ ॥ ਭੰਡਹੁ ਹੀ ਭੰਡੁ ਊਪਜੈ ਭੰਡੈ ਬਾਝੁ ਨ ਕੋਇ ॥ ਨਾਨਕ ਭੰਡੈ ਬਾਹਰਾ ਏਕੋ ਸਚਾ ਸੋਇ ॥

Thus Guru Nanak played a vital role in opposing and weakening many rigidly held stereotypes of medieval society. The pragmatic response of Guru Nanak to the prevalent stereotypes confirms his scientific bent of mind. An eminent philosopher Eric Ashby had said, “The greatest single contribution which scientific thinking has made is to set Man free from the despotic authority in intellectual matters.” Guru Nanak’s life is full of such examples, which confirm his critical thought, intellectual attitude and revolt against despotic authority. Thus Guru Nanak exhibited a scientific spirit in his spiritual life as well as in his dealings with the world.

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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