It was in 1569 that Badshah Akbar decided to halt at Goindwal Sahib to meet Guru Amar Das, the third Sikh Guru. Badshah who was en route Lahore from Delhi had a great interest in other religions and wanted to have a conversation with the Guru about the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev. But before the interaction, the Guru made him sit in pangat to have langar where simple vegetarian food was served without distinction of caste, status, religion or sex. It was probably for the first time that Akbar had the experience of sitting down and sharing a meal with ordinary people. He was so impressed with the concept of free langar that he offered to give land to construct a langar bhavan, but was politely refused by the Guru who replied that langar was voluntary- a fruit of sewa and therefore could not be run by a shahi jagir.
I am no historian. Whatever I know about high Sikh traditions is because I am a proud Punjabi and like all Punjabis I have some knowledge of old customs. The reason I am also writing this is because so much is going wrong in our country today, so many unnecessary walls are being erected that I feel we need to look back to our glorious traditions and learn from them. What is equality? What is brotherhood? What is service? What is humility ? And, what exactly is meant by sarv dharam sambhav?
The Sikh tradition of langar teaches all these principles very sincerely. In a langar, vegetarian food- roti, dal, sabzi are served by volunteers to people irrespective of their status, caste or religion. With passage of time and circumstances there have been some changes in the menu of the langar. Also, earlier it was served only in the Gurudwara but now you can partake it anywhere. In some places, instead of everyone sitting on the ground there are table and chairs and napkins to wipe hands but the basic philosophy of sewa has not changed.
Through langars the message of Guru Nanak- of love, sharing and equality is being spread till today. The French Revolution gave the slogan of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity but Guru Nanak preached this message three hundred years earlier. The purpose of the Guru was not only to give food to the needy but by making everyone sit on the ground in one line to partake langar he also wanted to promote equality and teach humility. It is a space where without egos you learn to share and you learn to serve.
This feeling of service to fellow beings has manifested in many ways. We have seen how after the lockdown the Sikh community reached out to the desperate migrants going back home. Whether it is an earthquake in Gujarat or a cyclone in Assam or Bengal or natural disaster in Uttarakhand, the Sikhs are the first ones to respond with whatever is in their capacity. In foreign lands as well many times the Sikh community has come forward to help people in distress. When due to Covid-19, England suddenly shut down its border with France, hundreds of trucks got stuck in south England. It was the Sikh community that reached out to the stranded drivers with hot meals.
Legend has it that when Guru Nanak was only 18- years- old, his father a businessman, sent him with 20 rupees to purchase things from the city so that he could get some business sense. On the way he came across a village filled with hungry and poor people and with the money his father gave, Guru Nanak bought food and medicines for them. Back home when he was reprimanded by his father he replied that in fact he had done real sucha sauda, truthful bargain. The 20 rupees that young Nanak spent that day has in fact been the ‘sacha sauda’ as it laid the foundation of billions of rupees spent through the years on feeding the needy and on their welfare.
It is common knowledge that the doors of the Gurudwara are always open for the poor and the homeless. Every traveller knows that if he ever needs a roof over his head, the Gurudwara is always there. No one goes hungry from the Gurudwara and this tradition is unique to the Sikhs. For sewa in the langar of the ancient Gurudwara at Khadoor Sahib, entire families come forward and take turns. They prepare, they cook and they serve. At the famous Golden Temple at Amritsar, 50,000 people eat langar daily. The number goes up to a lakh a day on holidays or Sundays. All those who serve are volunteers. This is the largest free kitchen in the world.
Christians also do a lot of charity, but there is no such community participation nor equality. Mother Teresa did a lot for the downtrodden. She would pick up people from the gutter and treat them. She has been lauded and rightly so, but she never let it be forgotten that she was doing ‘Jesus’s work’. A religious overtone was always obvious. She said as much that she was no social worker and “my job is to spread the word of Christianity and to bring people to its fold”.
No such zeal to proselytise is seen in the Sikhs, it is pure sewa. Unfortunately, this feeling of community service and welfare is missing in us Hindus. We are too self-centred and increasingly becoming even more so. Our so called religious leaders concentrate on making their empires and are least concerned about setting an example by helping the deprived and the downtrodden. One may criticise Mother Teresa, but none of our religious figures has ever touched a destitute or a leper.
In this time of great strife in our society, we need to look back and get inspiration from the great Sikh traditions. These should be made part of school curriculum so children learn the principles of equality and service from childhood. This same feeling of community service can be seen during the farmer agitation. Langar was served even to the policemen who had earlier tried to stop the farmers. The whole community without any distinction has come together to serve and to sustain the agitation. The powers that be have misread their inner strength.
It’s most unfortunate that due to some miscreants who created ruckus at the Red Fort and elements abroad who want to create problems here, the entire community is being demonised and defamed. The ‘K’ word is loosely and carelessly flung, even some times by people in responsible positions. A section of the media is also being irresponsible, whereas no other state or people have sacrificed so much for the country as Punjab and the Sikhs. Sikh -separatism is a bogey created for political reasons.
It may serve temporary opportunistic purpose but to link the Sikhs with the so called Khalistan movement is not only an injustice to them, but is also an anti-national activity. There is an attempt to create a monster where none exists. Our past and our present tell us that the Sikhs not only saved lives, but also gave lives for the country. It’s time to celebrate high Sikh traditions, not to defame them. And it is time to celebrate our diversity, for that makes India what it is.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
END OF ARTICLE