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By their works, you shall know them

20 March 2015

Randeep Singh explains the Sikh practice of langar, which puts compassion in the kitchen


The food of love: langar hall run by GNNSJ (Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha)

The food of love: langar hall run by GNNSJ (Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha)

NANAK Dev Ji's father famously entrusted his young son with 20 rupees (a princely sum in the fifteenth century), and instructed him to go to the city and engage in some profitable trade. En route, Nanak met some weary, hungry, and thirsty individuals, and decided to spend the money helping them. Enlisting the help of a friend, he bought food, clothing, and water from the next village. When his father enquired after the profit, Nanak replied that truthful acts gave rise to the best profit, and the trade became known as sacha saud ("truthful trade").

As a young man, Nanak went missing for three days and was presumed dead. When he reappeared, he spoke of having had an encounter with God: "God is neither a Hindu nor a Muslim, so the path which I will follow is God's." Today, he is revered as the founder of the Sikh religion.

Nanak rejected the caste system, and mixed with people of all races and backgrounds (his first companion in his work was a low-caste Muslim). Central to his teaching was the conviction that all human beings are equals, created by the same infinite, incomprehensible, formless Lord, and energised by the same divine "flame" burning within. Given this, we should recognise the "oneness" in all beings regardless of their creed, colour, age, and gender, or belief systems.

HAVING spent many years travelling abroad, setting up missions and preaching God's word, Guru Nanak returned home to what is now the Punjab. He settled down with his wife and sons at Kartarpur, where the first Sikh gurdwara, or temple, was established. Pilgrims flocked to listen to him, and their offerings were distributed to the poor. Any surplus was channelled into langar, the free community kitchen instituted by Guru Nanak, which today is part of every Sikh gurdwara.

The food served through langar is simple, so that it cannot be a vehicle for flaunting wealth, and lacto-vegetarian, so that no one is excluded because of the dietary requirements of their faith. It is cooked by volunteers, and is open to everyone, regardless of background, wealth or creed; all partakers sit side-by-side on the floor, to underline their equal status.

But langar is as much a school of compassion as a soup kitchen. Guru Nanak preached the value of meditation, and the importance of being charitable. To this end, all are given the opportunity to donate towards the langar service; and, during its preparation, volunteers of all beliefs meditate and think positive thoughts, the value of which is absorbed by the food. The message of equality is underlined in that anyone, regardless of gender, creed, colour, social status, or age, can involve themselves in the preparation and serving of langar, as well as its consumption.

Tolerance, and the sacred duty of seva, or service, are expressed through the same acts, and, once the meal has been eaten, humble acts may be practised by anybody from the congregation through clearing away and washing the dishes of others. Remarkably, there is usually a queue of people waiting to engage in any one of these tasks. 

THE langar at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Sikhs' holiest shrine, is the world's largest, feeding an average of 100,000 people daily. It is staffed by 450 people, helped by hundreds of volunteers; on average, 7,000kg of wheat flour, 1,200kg of rice, 1,300kg of lentils, and 500kg of ghee (clarified butter) are used in preparing the meal every day. More than 300,000 plates, spoons, and bowls are washed up by yet more volunteers.

The Southall gurdwara in west London is thought to be the largest outside India, serving 5,000 meals each weekday and twice as many at weekends. Although the tradition of langar was established in the fifteenth century, its definition only reached the Oxford English Dictionary in 2008 when, as a result of the recession, many Sikhs reported an increase in the number of non-Sikhs who were apparently dependent on langar meals.

The charity SWAT (Sikh Welfare and Awareness Team) was formed in the same year to help the increasing number of people with social problems who were living on the streets without the necessary support systems, by taking the service of langar out from the gurdwara to those in need. On Sunday evenings, hundreds of free meals are distributed from the SWAT van parked on the Strand in central London. Because of the emphasis on equality, there is no stigma attached to langar, which may also contribute to a reduction in crime - those who know that food is freely available have no need to steal; and drugs and alcohol are forbidden.

A queue of volunteers of all denominations is always at hand to engage in the langar service, through which SWAT has put into practice the value system established by Guru Nanak Dev Ji: of practising humility, truthful living, compassion, and charity. The driver is not monetary reward but rather a compulsion to love, serve, and share with all, as equals; and the belief that this enables us not only to control our human vices, but also to see the light of the same God in all.

Randeep Singh is the founder of SWAT, and the Homeless Project Lead.

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