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Guru Nanak's Concept of Nature

Discussion in 'Sikh Sikhi Sikhism' started by Aman Singh, Jan 20, 2010.

  1. Aman Singh

    Aman Singh
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    Jun 1, 2004
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    Guru Nanak's Concept of Nature
    by Sirdar Kapur Singh

    Guru Nanak was a prophet of religion and philosophy was not central to his teachings: Numerous dogmas there are and as many more intellectual disciplines. As many are the systems of philosophy. All these, so many of them are the chains that curb the spontanity of the psyche. For a man of religion, the central concern is that of liberation.1

    However, Guru Nanak was not unconcerned with the study of humanities and sciences.

    There are those who are cultured neither in philosophy nor in scripture nor have developed proper taste for music. And, likewise, there are those who are unaquainted with aesthetics and the arts. They have neither a trained character, nor disciplined intellect, and, as such, they are devoid of true learning, so much so that the true significance of accumulated human wisdom is outside their sphere of interest. Such people, says Nanak, are true animals for they strut as human beings without the qualifications of a human being.2


    Intellectual curiousity and scientific knowledge are necessary for removing doubts that beset human understanding.3

    From this the following can be inferred:

    i. intellectual activity is not directly relevant to religious activity.

    ii. that, for a properly developed and integrated person, intellectual and scientific studies are imperative.

    iii. that, although religion is philosophically indeterminate, philosophical enquiries are necessary for preparing the mind suitably towards the acceptance of religious discipline.

    There are two fundamental concepts that run through almost all schools of Indian philosophy: the concept of purusa and prakriti. Broadly speaking, these concepts correspond to the concepts of 'subject' and 'object'. This duality between 'life' and 'nature' and 'mind' and 'matter' is present in the philosophies of both East and West.

    Samkhya doctrines of purusa and prakriti have undergone developments over the centuries. In the Bhagavad-Gita the meanings of these concepts have been extended, whereas Vijnanabhiksu and Aniruddha have developed the classical Samkhya still further.

    Noting the dualism in these philosophies, Guru Nanak has abandoned the term prakriti while retaining the term purusa. It should be noted though that the Guru's definition of purusa is different from that of the Indian philosophy as found in the classical Samkhya or the Samkhya of the Bhagvad-Gita or the Neo-Samkhya of Aniruddha and Vijnanabhikshu. For the other term of dualism Guru Nanak has employed the Arabic word qudret and has relegated prakriti altogether to other contexts.

    The world, manifest or un-manifest, according to Samkhya, is not derived from the purusa ie the Nature, does not have its matrix, in the Mind. The world is comprehended in the term of purusa, but does not originate from it neither is it grounded in it. This purusa is not personal though it is discreet and individual (Karika, 38).4 It is the propinquity of this purusa, to prakriti which gives rise to the world of appearances. In the absence of this nearness, the world is there but it simply remains avyakta, un-manifest. 'The world is that which is perceived or witnessed, lokyanti iti lokah, and thus the world of appearances serves the purpose of the individual purusa, purusartha.(Karika, 63).5

    This discrete and individual purusa is in itself translucent and transparent; it is a witness; it is a fact of consciousness and that is its primary mode of function, witnessing or seeing the world (Karika, 19).6 It is inherent in this primary function of the purusa that by so functioning it appears different from what it is; it appears as if it were a panorama of appearances, and appearances likewise appear as if they were possessed of consciousness. That is how a double obfusciation afflicts the basic human situation, namely concerning its awareness of the world and of himself (Karika, 20).7

    The purusa appears as it is not and the prakriti appears other than itself. This double negation occurs because of the very nature of the purusa which has its function as witness and to reflect or to appear as it is not. In order to be what it is, it must appear as what it is not.

    It is to the implication of this doctrine that Bhai Nand Lal Goya, a contemporary and beloved disciple of the Tenth Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh, refers in his Persian poem:

    We understand not that, from the begining of Time, the human consciousness constitutes the instrumenatlity through which the Maker of appearances builds a mansion for Himself.8

    It follows that between purusa and the process of purusartha "for the sake of purusa" no consciousness, deity or mind functions in the genesis of the manifest world. In its own nature and by itself the world is simply avyakta (un-manifest) as long as it is not in the vicinity of the purusa. The ultimate avyakta, mulaprakriti, is a confection of three gunas, but these gunas do not become creative unless in the presence of the purusa. In the primal state, the avyakta potentially contains everything that is in the un-manifest world, but in, and of, itself it is just an unconditioned, un-manifest, plentitude of being which is completely and utterly unconscious (Karika, 11).9

    The manifest world begins to emerge or unfold when purusa comes into the proximity of this avyakta, the plentitude of the un-manifest being. The gunas, three in number (triguna) in admixture with the mulaprikriti, gives rise to a series of evolutes or emergents from which is created the world of appearances. These gunas extend through the avyakta and vyakta and they are continually modified and transformed in the proximity of the purusa. They constitute the psychophysical make-up of human nature and they likewise constitute the nature of everything non-human and inorganic, and thus, they represent the fundamental structure of both the worlds, the seen and the un-seen. In themselves, however, they are wholly and utterly unconscious and like the mulaprakriti they are absolutely separate from the purusa (Karika, 14).10

    Thus in the Samkhya philosophy, the fundamental categories recognize no consciousness, or absolute or a Creator God. It does not deny the existence of gods, or even a God, the only and the lonely God. The God or the gods, indeed, may exist but they can be no more than the products of interaction of unconscious mulaprakriti and the conscious purusa, and the unconscious gunas.

    This dualism of Samkhya focuses on the distinction of the conscious and the unconscious, that between individual consciousness as one term and the unconsciousness as the other term. It is not the dualism of "mind" and "body" and "thought" and "extension" which are regarded as different dimensions or attributes of the world of appearances and their unity is supported by the doctrine of gunas.

    The purusa, the essence of which is consciousness is not a part of the manifest world which is unconsciousness. The purusa should not be confused with buddhi, the intellect, ahamkara, the I-consciousness, or manas, the mind. The content of this purusa can only be what it is not.

    The Tantrayana or Vajrayana school of Buddhism, founded in fourth century by Arya Asanga, adopted this insight as the base of the doctrine of Sunyata, the basic emptiness that sustains the human situation, the world and man's awareness of it, dridham saramasausiryam achhedya abhedya laksnam adahi avinasi ca sunyata vajra mucayate (Sunyata is designated as vajra, because it is firm, sound, cannot be penetrated, cannot be burnt and cannot be destroyed).

    It is this insight on which is based the poetic imagery of the ancient text of Samkhya-Karika which says: "After showing her face to the purusa the prakriti disappears like a dancer after her enchanting performance on the stage." "This is my considered view that there is nothing more sensitive and shy than prakriti who, once she knows that she has been seen by the purusa, never again unveils her bewitching face to the purusa."11

    The religious system and way of life which Guru Nanak revealed and preached are based on the philosophical doctrines that the One Absolute Purusa, both as self-conscious and unconscious, is the matrix of the world and not simply a term in a confection or admixture. That the world has a Creator, that as created Nature it has no absolute basis or essence independently and apart from this Purusa, and last, that the relation between the Creator and the created nature is not a separate and independent category of existence, but is merely an extension, an emanation of this Purusa.

    The One Absolute Purusa is to be counter-distinguished from the Purusa of the Vedas, repeatedly described in all the four Vedas;12 in Purusasukta, as "a fourth of Him is all beings and the three-fourths is in immortal heavens." This Vedic purusa is not the Creator or Controller of the world but just the neutral stuff of the manifest and the un-manifest, not fundamentally and essentially different from the purusa of the Samkhya.

    The first of these two doctrines stems from the Samkhya dualism of purusa and prakriti, and the third, out of the pivotal problem of the nature of relation. In modern Western philosophy, Hume brought the problem of relation to the forefront, particularly the problem of the causal relation. But his formation of this problem is in a very different context of British Empiricism. His problem is epistemological in nature, whereas that raised in Indian philosophy is metaphysical in nature where the question asked straightway is whether the relations are real.

    Two basic features of our experience are identity and difference and we find them in our experience as subject as well as object. All pairs of categories, "subject" and "object", "substance" and "mind", "universal" and "particular" can be reduced to these two basic aspects of human experience, identity and difference. These two aspects are inevitably related to each other. They are not jumbled together.

    What is the nature of this relation between the two, and if this relation is real, how can both belong to one and the same thing, because both are opposed to each other fundamentally?

    Either the difference and the identity and the relation, all three, are equally real or the relation between the two is false, whereas the two are real, or last, it might be that the relation as well as one of the relata is false. Of course there is a fourth logical possibility that the identity, the difference as well as the relation might be equally false, implicating the ultimate sunyata, just as the Vajrayana Buddhism depicts it.

    The Nyaya-vaisesika and the Mimansa, Jainism and the realist interpretations of Vedanta such as Dvaita, Visistadvaita, Suddhadvaita hold that all the three, the relata as well as the relation are real. Without holding this, it is not possible to uphold a pluralist view of reality, because how can there be an unreal relation between the two reals.

    The doctrine of Samvaya (inherence) of Nyaya-vaisesika and its doctrine of asatkaryavada (the theory that the effect does not pre-exist in its cause) is based on the reality of the relation and the relata. The Buddhist and the Vedantin, accepting the centrality of this problem of relation in the philosophical context of India, attacked the doctrines of reality of relation with much vigor. The Vedantin attacked by pressing the question that, if relation is real like the relata, this gives rise to regressus ad infinitum.

    The Buddhist puts the question: "if the relation is as real as the relata, why is it not seen as a thing as the relata are?" This weakness of the realist view of relation has given rise to the concept of release or moksa, which is central to all systems of Indian thought. Since purusa and prakriti, the one representing the identity and the other representing the difference, are both real (the relation between the two is not ultimately real), the relation can be eliminated or removed by some technique or know-how, by some discipline or sadhana and thus purusa and prakriti can be released from the bondage of each other and the purusa freed from the drudgery of samsara.

    The possibility of this release is logically implicated by the Buddhist dictum, yo viruddha dharmadhyasavan ne asau ekah (that which has opposite attributes cannot be one). There is, however, a flaw in this argument, for, it presupposes that relation merely implies a connection, but it fails to see that it also implies a separation. Through rejection of the relation, therefore, they will not fall apart.

    Anyhow, if the relation between the purusa and prakriti is false, what is there to separate the two. In other words they cannot see that the conception of the two absolutes is self-contradictory.

    Sikhism removes this gross nescience in the Mul-Mantra, which has the arithmetic numeral '1' as its first term.

    But, if the relation is not real, then the two terms, "identity" and "difference", are false. The Buddhist holds the "identity" as false. That is why the Buddhist rejects the unifying categories such as, "substance" or "universal" (samanya) and the Vedantin is in favor of the unifying category of Atma: brahma satyam jaganmitthya jivabrahmaiva naparah. The Vedantins and the Buddhists both accept the falsity of the relation and also its implication that one of the relata must be false, but yet one goes to accept the relata of "difference" and the other relata of 'identity" and Vedantins argue that logically the 'identity" is more fundamental than "difference", abheda purvako bhedah, while the Buddhist argues that reality must be arthakriyakarin, ie efficient, whereas the 'identity" or "permanence" cannot be efficient

    The coup d'grace, in this controversy, has been administered by Madhyamika who rightly detects strains of dogmatism in both the schools which rejects one relata and accepts the other, and thus he argues that the "identity" and "difference" being correlated must disappear together and since atmavada and anatmavada are incompatible with each other, both cannot be accepted, but both can be rejected all right. If the falsity of relation leads to the falsity of one relata, the falsity of one relata likewise implicates the falsity of both the relatas.

    This inexorable logic of the Madhyamika exalts the reality to a pedestal which is outsided the realm of human experience. This would mean that the reality, or tattva, is completely beyond the reach of human experience and thus is logically unrealizable. If that is so, then all quest for the ultimate religious goal, the summum bonum, becomes futile and pointless.

    In order to remove the stigma of contradiction, the reality must be transcended, but in order to be realizable it must also be immanent in experience. It is in this background that we develop an appreciation for Sikh philosophy.

    Guru Nanak, has employed the Arabic term qudret as the second term of the dualism, with Purukh as the first. Qudret means "that under the power and authority of" its Master. Al-Qadir as one of the attributes is distinguishable from another attribute of God, al-Khaliq, i.e. the Creator. Guru Nanak in his term qudret includes both these attributes.

    He Himself creates and arranges the Nature,
    He Himself controls its progression and evolution.13

    He is the transcendent as well as immanent, and
    He is also the appearances.
    He is the Pure Consciousness, and
    He is also the Creator of Nature.

    The Universal Self has created the individual self, and
    He Himself hath created the differentiating names.
    Thus Nature hath He created as the 'other', and
    depositing Himself therein He is in a
    relation of aesthetic contemplation to Nature.15

    Nature is all that appears and Nature is the World
    as seen, felt and appreciate.
    Nature is all the spaces, and
    Nature is the totality of forms.16

    Glory to Thee who dwelleth in Nature.
    Infinite and Eternal, Thy
    limits and frontiers are unknowable.17

    He who has created the world in which
    He abides as Immanent, that Lord
    maybe recognized through Nature.
    He is not to be regarded as wholly Transcendant,
    as His voice can be heard in every heart.18

    O true Lord, Thy created nature is real.19

    All that is your qudret, and
    You are its Qadir and Karta, ie
    Absolute Controller and Creator.20

    God creates Nature and single and alone
    He contemplates it.21

    The question arises but no answer is forthcoming:
    The purpose, the significance, the value of Nature
    are beyond man's comprehension.22

    The Lord contemplates his own creation, Nature.
    he contemplates it and He sustains it. Why?
    He who does, He alone knows.23

    It thus becomes clear that Guru Nanak employs the term qudret to designate Nature and Cosmos, in the sense of the general cosmic order ordained by God in contrast to human derivations from it. Nature here is the complex of created things, in contradistinction to the Creator-Nature Naturans of scholasticism, whereas the created things are Natura Naturata. Guru Nanak gave a precise meaning and philosophical exactitude to the word qudret.

    The forgoing discussion also suggests why Guru Nanak abandoned the term prakriti. Prakriti has a permanent odor of absoluteness, existence in its own right, about it and no amount of reinterpretation of the term through the process which Nietzsche called, "transvaluation of values," could possibly have divested it of this inconveniently unpleasant smell.

    The Nature, according to Guru Nanak, is created by and utterly dependent on the Creator. The status of Nature in the philosophic scheme of Guru Nanak is also encompassed within the time-cycle so that the concept of God as first and last is kept intact.

    This concept of Nature is completely different from the concept of prakriti which forms the warp of the entire fabric of Indian philosophy. It is stangely akin to the concept of Nature held by Meister Eckhart in his Opus Tripartitum.

    It remains to conjecture over the reasons why Guru Nanak was at pains to borrow a fundamental term of Sikh philosophy [qudret] from a source, non Indo-Sanskrit.

    It would appear that main reasons were three: (i) Primarily, Guru Nanak wanted a term of philosophy to which he could impart such connotation and meanings as would fit with the base of the religion that he revealed... (ii) Incidently, Guru Nanak wanted to break the shell of prejudice enclosing the Hindu mind and attitudes toward modes of human communication other than Indo-Sanskrit. There is a severe injunction in the Bhavishyapurana:

    Even if the consequence is death, a true Hindu should refuse to learn the vulgar speech of the Western regions.24

    Guru Nanak's disapproval thus resulted in the broad liberalism of the 10th Nanak to the effect: All languages of whatever people and whatever region of the earth and all the true sciences, they are proper and acceptable.25

    (iii) Lastly, the Hindu mind was afflicted with a gross bias for centuries past, symptomatic of dogmatism and mental-stagnation. The famous Indologist, Al-Biruni (973-1048) in his, Kittabul-Hind, has recorded:

    The Hindus think that there is no science, no knowledge which exists or has originated beyond the frontiers of the sacred land of India.

    On the other hand, Guru Nanak aimed at opening the windows of the human mind to all the four quarters of space so that man's mind may grow freely and his soul remain whole through healthy contact with the insights gained by mankind in all countries, and in all ages, through such education as trains him to employ his,

    critical faculty as the anvil and the accumulated wisdom of mankind as the fashioning tool.26


    1 man hath budhi ketia kete bed bicar, kete bandhan jin ke gurmukh mokh duar (SGGS, I, 4)

    2 ikna nadu na bedu na gia rasu, rasu kasu na jananti,
    ikna sidhi na budhi na agali sar, akhar ka bheo na lahanti,
    Nanak te nar asali khar, ji binu gun garabu karanti (SGGS, I, 1411)

    3 man samjhavan karane kachuak parhai gian (SGGS, I, 340)

    4 tanmatra... vises as tebhyo mrta ... panca pancabhyah

    5 purusartham prati vimocayaty ekarupena

    6 kaivalyam madhyasthyam drastrtvakar trtra bhavas ca

    7 tasmat tatsamyogad acetanam ceta navad iva lingam
    gunakartrtvai ca karteva bhavatity udasinah

    8 nadanistam az ruz-i-azal in naqshi-i-adam ra, ki naqqash az barae budan-i-khud khana misazad

    9 trigunam aviveki visayah samanyam acetanam prasavadhrmi
    vyaktam tatha pradhanam tad vipari tas tatha ca punam

    10 avivekyadih siddhas traigunyat tadviparya ya bhavat

    11rangasya darsayitya nivartati nartaki yatha nrtyat
    purusasya tathatmanam prakasye nivartate prakrith
    prakrteh sukumarataram na kincid astiti me matir bhavati
    ya drasta miti punar na darsanam upaiti purusasya

    12 It is found in Rig (X-20) and consists of 16 verses. It is ascribed to Rishi Narayana. In the Shulkayajur, Vajsaneyi-samhita (XXXI, I.) it has 22 verses. In the Taittiriya-aranyyaka of the Krishnayajur (III.2) it has 18 verses. In the Arnya-samhita of Samaveda (IV.3) and in the Atherva (XIX.3) also it is there.

    13 ape qudrati kare saji, sacu api nibere raju raji (SGGS, I.1170)

    14 ape nerai duri ape hi ape manjhi miano, ape vekhai sune ape hi qudrati kare jahano (SGGS, I.25)

    15 apinai apu sajio apinai racio nau, duyi qudrati sajiai kari asanu ditho cau (SGGS, I.463)

    16 qudrati disai qudrati suniai qudrati bhau sukh saru, qudrati patali akasi qudrati sarab akaru (SGGS, I.464)

    17 balhari qudrati vassia tera antu na jai lakhia (SGGS, I.469)

    18 jini jagu siraji samaia so sahibu qudrati janova, sacra duri na bhaliai ghati ghati sabadu pachanova (SGGS, I.581)

    19 sacci teri qudrati sacce patisah (SGGS, I.463)

    20 sabh teri qudrati tun qadiru karta... (SGGS, I.464)

    21 ape qudrati sajikai ape kare bicaru (SGGS, I.143)

    22kahna hai kichu kahanu na jai, tau qudrati qimati nahi pai (SGGS, I.152)

    23 kita vekhai sahibu apna qudrati kare bicaro, qudrati bicare sharan dhare jini kia so jane (SGGS, I.580)

    24 na paret yamani bhasha paran karan gaterapi.

    25 sabhai lokbhasha sabhai deshbani sabhai shastra bidia samasto pardhani.

    26 ahrani mati vedu hathiaru (SGGS, I.8)
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  3. Taranjeet singh

    Taranjeet singh India
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    Oct 21, 2009
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    Thank you Aman ji for a wonderful article.

    I am interested in knowing as to how the sikhism is placed in regard to duality and as to what is the exact contextual meaning in regard to Bani.

    It is also observed that the translation employed for the above lines is different from that is given by Dr. Sahib Singh ji.According to him
    "He Himself creates the creation and He himself through His Hukum decides the Karmas of the created and does the justice'.
    I might not have translated this exactly and cannot put up the exact wording as I have pdf edition of Dr. Sahib Singh.

    The translation of Sant singh is as follows:"

    "By His Creative Power, God fashioned the creation.The King of kings Himself adminsters true justice." [This to me is more logical, a view only]

    Nonetheless, the point that is stressed is about the control of the progression and evolution.This might not be so even if the macroscopic view is taken. However, on microscopic view the translation needs some checking up by experts.Shall be grateful if you could or some other member can throw some light on these aspects.
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