THE BLOG

Sikhism's Ecological Roots: Protecting Mother Earth

03/15/2013 12:45 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2013

Earlier this winter, seventy new medicinal plants were sown in the garden of Naulakha Bagh in Kiratpur Sahib, Punjab, along the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. As aged fingers reached down through the dirt to create space for young saplings, this group of Sikh elders revived a centuries old tradition of planting culturally important plants at historic Sikh sites.

In fact, it was on this ground that five centuries earlier, the seventh Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Har Rai Ji, established a wildlife sanctuary and planted flowers, medicinal herbs, and fruit-bearing trees. According to Sikh tradition these efforts created a salubrious environment, attracting birds and animals to the town and turning it into an idyllic place to live. Naulakha Bagh became famous for wide varieties of rare medicinal herbs, and as memories recount, event the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan sought medicine from Guru Har Rai Ji for curing his son, Dara Shikoh.

To honor the Sikh tradition of preserving 'Mata Dharat' (Mother Earth), Sikhs will host a week of celebrations for 'Sikh Vatavaran Diwas' (Environment Day) the third week of March, which also corresponds to the New Year in the Sikh Nanakshahi calendar. The environmental celebrations this year consist of a total of 1,500 grassroots projects by Sikhs across six continents to protect our planet: from tree plantings to sapling distributions, water conservation projects to solar energy installations, organic farming workshops to nature marches through streets and villages. All these celebrations are inspired by Sikh teachings that recognize the Divine force as Nature.

Sacred Earth in the Sikh Tradition

The Sikh tradition affirms the sanctity of the earth.

The teachings of the Sikhs are contained in the Guru Granth Sahib, a compilation of the writings of the Sikh Gurus (1469-1708) describing the universal presence of the Divine. Sikhs honor Guru Granth Sahib as their timeless Guru and teacher.

As described in the Guru Granth Sahib, the ecological basis of Sikh tradition rests in the understanding that the Creator ('Qadir') and the Creation ('Qudrat') are One. The Divine permeates all life, and is inherent in the manifest creation around us, from the wind that blows across land and skies, to the water that flows through rivers and seas, to the forests and fields that humans rely on for food and shelter, as well as all the creatures of land and sea that depend on the earth for sustenance. The Sikh Gurus teach that there is no duality between that which makes a flower grow and the petals we are able to touch and sense with our fingers.

The Sikh Gurus also refer to the earth as 'Dharamsaal,' a religious sanctuary where union with the Divine is attained. Guru Nanak describes this in the morning recitation for Sikhs known as Jap Ji, that amid the rhythms of Creation, the changing seasons, air, water, and fire, the Creator established the earth as the home for humans to realize their Divinity in this world.

The Sikh Gurus' writings are also a rich compendium on the biodiversity of South Asia. Throughout Guru Granth Sahib, birds and trees especially are used to describe the metaphoric relationship between a disciple and the Divine. Traditional birds like the peacock, flamingo, hawk, cuckoo, nightingale, crane, swan, owl, and the koyal, and trees like the banyan, pipal, and sandalwood of Punjab are used in the Gurus' metaphors, along with many, many other species. This diversity of life affirm's the Divine's creative current through land, water, and sky.

This understanding of the universe is all embedded within the Khalsa ideal for Sikhs, a word that also signifies the 'sovereign' body of Sikhs who make a commitment to protecting the most marginalized among us, a strong call to environmental justice.

The Path Before Us

The challenge that rests before us is tremendous, and weighs a heavy burden on human wellbeing and the survival of our planet. With reports surfacing daily of the severity of the ecological crisis before us, can a spiritual tradition that is centuries old really stand the test of our planetary systems today?

Take the ecological crisis currently facing the region of Punjab as an example, where 25 million of the world's Sikhs reside. Punjab was the testing ground of the Green Revolution, which sought to increase food production for the subcontinent in the 1960s, but not without the serious erosion of the region's ecological base. This once thriving alluvial plain home to croplands interspersed with grasslands, forests, wetlands, and rivers, now has fallen extremely low in national environmental rankings. Due to unchecked demand on resources, the region claims some of the highest damage to soil and water systems, severe biodiversity losses, and pollution from industrial units that spew named carcinogens into waterways.

The EcoSikh movement was born of the vision that the Sikh Gurus' message is indeed relevant for our time, and that a harmonious relationship with our planet a human life. This collective Sikh effort for the environment not only represents the spiritual foundation to protect our environment, but also the power of 25 million working together.

It is the power of Sikhs from all over the world affirming their connection with the planet.

It is the power of Sikhs to work with scientists, policy makers, and business owners and remind us all of the inherent value of Nature.

It is the power of Sikh elders sharing knowledge that sustained earth's systems for generations, and young people in choosing to honor it.

It is the power of the Sikh Gurus that remind us that living a spiritually exalted life means caring deeply about Creation.

In other words, the mainstream environmental dialogue is strengthened by voices of spiritual traditions that not only represent sizable populations but also inspire us to a deeper environmental sensibility and action. This is why 'Sikh Vatavaran Diwas,' our environment day, is not just about what happens today, but it is about our future, and living powerfully in the present so that others may do so one day as well.

It is on this day, the 545th Sikh New Year, that EcoSikh wishes all a happy Sikh Vatavaran Diwas - Environment Day. May all remain spiritually exalted, and always in service of the Universal, Creative force that sustains this earth.

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