Sparrows and Lions

Fauna in Sikh Imagery, Symbolism and Ethics


  • Eleanor Nesbitt University of Warwick (Emerita) Author



animals, ethics, Guru Granth Sahib, Religion and Nature, Sikh art, Sikhism, vegetarianism


Given that the Sikhs’ scriptures – the utterances of their Gurus - are works of poetry, this article majors on the daily presence of insects, birds, fish and mammals in the recitation of the image-rich poesy that makes up the Guru Granth Sahib. Appreciation of this imagery requires understanding of the rural Punjabi context and also of earlier Indic compositions, whether sacred or secular. The introduction of certain birds and animals in Sikh parables and miracles will receive attention, and – inevitably in view of the equation of male Sikhs with Singhs (lions, or is it tigers?) – ‘big cats’ will be centre-stage. A (Quaker) poet’s bidding ‘Do not observe, become…’ will provide a stimulus to understand the more than symbolic animal presence in the Sikh universe. So too will ethical issues, centred on dietary discipline (vegetarian or non-vegetarian) and the legitimacy of hunting (the pursuit of two Gurus). Here consideration of Sikh’s relationship to the older, wider Indic matrix calls for discussion, and highlights the differentiation of groupings within the Panth with regard to meat-eating, cow-slaughter etc. Sikh tradition affords creative resources for reconnecting with the environment in the era of a dawning ecumenical attention to ecological distress, whilst at the same time Sikhs, especially in diaspora, are increasingly distanced, culturally and linguistically, from the Gurus’ imagery and from interaction with non-human animals.

Author Biography

  • Eleanor Nesbitt, University of Warwick (Emerita)

    Eleanor Nesbitt is Professor Emerita at the Institute of Education, University of Warwick. She is a specialist in Sikh studies and is one of the founders of the Punjab Research Group. Her academic interests include the religious socialisation of young people of Christian, Hindu and Sikh background, qualitative research methods and the study of religion. She co-directed the AHRC-funded project ‘Investigating the Religious Identity Formation of Young People in Mixed Faith Families.’ Professor Nesbitt is reviews editor of the Journal of Punjab Studies and is on the editorial board of The British Journal of Religious Education, Fieldwork in Religion and Religions of South Asia. Her books include Sikhism. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2005),


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Second Tantra: Conflict, Ethics, Environment

How to Cite

Nesbitt, E. (2013). Sparrows and Lions: Fauna in Sikh Imagery, Symbolism and Ethics. Religions of South Asia, 7(1-3), 75-92.