Social Justice, the Environment, and Sikhs

Climate change disproportionately affects marginalized people and those on the periphery of global society. Heat waves, droughts, floods, and wildfires will exacerbate weaknesses in many ecosystems, ultimately leaving those whose livelihoods rely directly on the environment in worse shape than others. Farmers in Punjab, India – the birthplace and homeland for Sikhs – have already seen their livelihoods threatened by extreme droughts. The situation in Punjab, which is known as India’s breadbasket, has become so dire that, according to an EcoSikh article entitled “Indian Prime Minister Modi Raises Concern About Punjab Farmland,” Indian Prime Minister Modi recently committed $9 billion to an agricultural education fund, so that Punjabi farmers can learn and development new methods to adapt to severe water shortages.

A group of men in Kashmir honor Sikh Environment Day with a tree planting.

A group of men in Kashmir honor Sikh Environment Day with a tree planting. Credit: Creative Commons/ EcoSikh

As Sikhs, we are called upon to treat all of humankind as brothers and sisters — no person should be privileged or regarded higher than another. And if we must dedicate our lives to preserve the equality of our brothers and sisters, we must also take action against the gross injustices suffered by our brethren. This means that we must ensure that they do not bear the burden of climate change alone.

The Wisdom of the Guru Granth Sahib and Guru Nanak

Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism and first of the Sikh Gurus, lived in Punjab, “the land of five rivers,” where each morning he would bathe in the Kali Bein (Black River) before his early morning meditation and prayers. One morning, after bathing, Guru Nanak did not resurface; day and night came but there was no sign of the great teacher. Many believed that he had drowned.

But three days later, he emerged from the water, possessing new knowledge from having communicated with the Divine—the wise notion that all souls are equal, and he spoke of the equality of all people and faiths toward the path of God. Guru Nanak went on to devote his life to confronting discrimination in all its forms. He challenged communal ties, and rejected the idea that caste, gender, or religion defined one’s worth.

Many of Guru Nanak’s writings can be found in the Guru Granth Sahib, the central religious book for Sikhs. The Guru Granth Sahib espouses the ideas that all beings are equal and all creation should be respected, and exacts respect for the environment from Sikhs.

“Asmaan jimee darkhat aab paidaa-is khudaa-ay” (The sky, the earth, the trees, and the water — all are the Creation of the Lord).

The Sikh Creed and Climate Change

Sikh teachings tell us to actively participate in the struggle for justice, which is illustrated in the concept of Sant Sipahi, meaning “saint soldier.” This concept was developed by several Sikh Gurus and emerged from Sikhism’s martial history. The concept of Sant Sipahi is often understood as being a rallying cry for Sikhs, since they must always embody the traits of a faithful person and warrior. Sikhs must also not discriminate when demanding justice and encourage the equal treatment of all. This message is especially clear in a passage within the Guru Granth Sahib:

 “First, God produced his sacred creative glow. By his sacred creative power, nature has created all humans equal. From one sacred glow, the entire universe welled up. Hence, no one is good, no one is bad” (1349).

The challenge to Sikhs today lies in mobilizing our people and resources to help ensure the right of all people to live, pray, and grow in safe and healthy environments. We must address who is hurt, what is responsible, and how we can begin to address these injustices. In the spirit of the Sant Sipahi, Sikhs must be at the forefront of combatting injustice, especially for the world’s most vulnerable people.

The challenges for Sikhs are substantial and weigh heavily on all of humanity. The survival of our planet and securing the well being of humans and nature are not small tasks.

Take, for example, the environmental crisis in Punjab, where 80% of Sikhs live today. In the 1960s, the Green Revolution increased agricultural production for the region, but left its ecological foundation severely damaged. Some of the lasting effects include: the depletion and pollution of groundwater, droughts, and wildfires. As a result, farmers cannot grow crops or sustain their livestock and are left without their livelihoods, ultimately leading to increased food prices and insecurity. According to UN report, “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,” this trend is likely to continue.

In his hymn, Japji, Guru Nanak presented the idea of the earth as a dharmsaal (a religious place for performing righteous deeds) established by Waheguru (the eternal spirit). As Sikhs, we live in the dharmsaal, where we must perform virtuous acts and carryout the Sikh tradition of protecting the vulnerable. This is why baptized Sikhs carry swords with them: to be warriors for the Khalsa (collective body of Sikhs), and why centuries ago, we fought for religious freedom and the right of all people to live in safety against tyrants, monarchies, and rebels. Likewise, today, Sikhs must adhere to similar traditions and declare our pledge to rectify climate injustices against the world’s most vulnerable as well as those in our own communities. Today, Sikhs must pick up different tools to exact change. Swords become pens, raids become petitions, and taking charge means appealing to policymakers, educating those around us, and examining how our own actions adversely affect the Earth.

(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Spring 2015 print issue: The Place of Hope in an Age of Climate Disaster. Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)


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