In 2013, a group of Sikh elders planted seventy new medicinal plants in the garden of Naulakha Bagh, located in Kiratpur Sahib, Punjab, near the Himalayan foothills. With aged fingers, they carefully dug into the soil, making room for the young saplings. This act revived a centuries-old tradition of planting culturally significant plants at historic Sikh sites. The garden became a sanctuary for these medicinal plants, fostering a connection between nature and Sikh heritage.

Historical Significance 

Five centuries ago, Guru Har Rai Ji, the seventh Guru of the Sikhs, laid the groundwork for a wildlife sanctuary and lush gardens, filled with flowers, herbs, and fruit trees. This effort transformed the area into a serene habitat, drawing birds and animals, and earning Naulakha Bagh a reputation for its rare medicinal plants. Even the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan sought Guru Har Rai Ji's remedies for his son, Dara Shikoh, highlighting the sanctuary's significance in history.

In line with Sikh values of environmental stewardship, Sikhs worldwide will observe 'Sikh Vatavaran Diwas' (Environment Day) during the third week of March, coinciding with the Sikh New Year. This year's celebrations include 1,500 community-led projects spanning six continents, aimed at protecting the planet. Activities range from tree plantings, water conservation, and solar energy installations to organic farming workshops and nature marches, all inspired by Sikh teachings that revere nature as a manifestation of the Divine.

Sacred earth in the sikh tradition

The Sikhs follow the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib. It's a book compiled by the Sikh Gurus from 1469 to 1708. The Guru Granth Sahib talks about the Divine being present everywhere. Sikhs see it as their eternal teacher and guide. According to the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhs believe that the Creator and the Creation are one. They say that the Divine exists in all living things. It's in the wind, water, forests, and fields. Everything in nature reflects the presence of  the Divine. Sikhs believe there's no separation between what makes a flower bloom and the petals we see.

The Sikh Gurus call the earth 'Dharamsaal,' a sacred sanctuary. Guru Nanak, in the Jap Ji, talks about this concept. He says that the earth is where humans find union with the Divine. Nature's cycles, like the changing seasons, air, water, and fire, show the Creator's presence. In this world, humans can realize their divine nature on earth.

The writings of the Sikh Gurus serve as a valuable collection that sheds light on the rich biodiversity of South Asia. In the Guru Granth Sahib, traditional birds such as the peacock, flamingo, hawk, cuckoo, nightingale, crane, swan, owl, and koyal, as well as trees like the banyan, pipal, and sandalwood of Punjab, are employed in metaphors that illustrate the deep connection between a disciple and the Divine. The Gurus use a plethora of other species, emphasizing the diversity of life that affirms the Divine's creative force across land, water, and sky.

This profound understanding of the universe is intricately woven into the Khalsa ideal for Sikhs. The term "Khalsa" not only signifies a sovereign community of Sikhs but also represents a commitment to safeguarding the most marginalized in society. It serves as a compelling call to action for environmental justice, embodying a strong dedication to protecting the interconnected web of life.

Path ahead 

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?

In Punjab, a region which is  home to 25 million Sikhs, the ecological crisis looms large. In the 1960s, Punjab became the testing area for the Green Revolution, aiming to boost food production for the region. However, this led to significant harm to the environment. Punjab used to be a fertile plain with farmlands, grasslands, forests, wetlands, and rivers. But now, it ranks very low in environmental ratings nationwide. The excessive use of resources has caused severe damage to soil and water systems, huge losses in biodiversity, and pollution from factories releasing harmful chemicals into rivers.

From this crisis emerged the EcoSikh movement, rooted in the belief that the teachings of Sikh Gurus hold relevance in modern times, emphasizing a symbiotic relationship between humanity and the planet. This collective effort, encompassing 25 million Sikhs, underscores not only a spiritual imperative to safeguard the environment but also the strength derived from unity. It represents Sikhs worldwide affirming their bond with the Earth, collaborating with scientists, policymakers, and business leaders to uphold nature's intrinsic worth. It embodies the wisdom of Sikh elders who have upheld the Earth's systems for generations and the commitment of youth to honor it. It echoes the teachings of Sikh Gurus, reminding us that spiritual elevation is intertwined with profound care for Creation.

The mainstream environmental conversation gains strength from the voices of spiritual traditions. These traditions don't just represent large populations, but they also encourage a deeper understanding of our environment and motivate us to take action. 'Sikh Vatavaran Diwas', our environment day, goes beyond the events of today. It's a commitment to shaping our future and living responsibly in the present so that future generations can follow suit.

*Based on an article by Bandana Kaur, published in Huffingtonpost on 16th March 2013


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