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
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
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