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. 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.
Can you be a scientist or technologist and also a devout Sikh without compromising on either? 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 pointing 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. 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. However, none of these are covered in the Guru Granth Sahib, or considered to be an essential part of the belief system of Sikhi. 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)
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. And many of these do turn out to be surprisingly consistent with modern scientific theory.
Gurbani describes God as the creator of countless universes, and speaks of a multitude of suns, earths, and stars. The Guru speaks clearly of the void that preceded the creation of the universe, and he asserts that no one knows the date, day and time when the universe was created, when it will end or under what circumstances.
At the same time, there are many mythical references in the Guru Granth Sahib that are based on existing stories, beliefs or terminology of Hindu or Muslim origin. 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
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). 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 suggest 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.
This essay is part of the presentations in the conference on relevance of SGGS around the world today being held on September 14th 2013.
For an expanded version of this article and a video of the presentation, please visit www.chardikalaa.com after the conference.