Langar

Langar literally means refectory of the Guru and is an integral part of every Gurdwara or Sikh temple. It shares food with everbody, regardless of who you are---a CEO, a king, a shoemaker, school teacher, lawyer, tax collector or an unemployed youth. All Sikhs are expected to contribute to the community kitchen either by donating food or by participating in the cooking, serving the food or cleaning the utensils.

Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, set up the first langar at Kartarpur (present-day Pakistan) where people brought corn and firewood and worked together in the preparation and serving of the food. Guru Angad, the second Guru, extended the concept further and personally served the food. The third guru, Guru Armadas, institutionalized the community kitchen and made it mandatory that all visitors who wish to visit him must first eat together. The act of eating a meal together in turn brought a community or ‘sangat’ together. Guru Ramdas, the fourth Guru, made it obligatory that water and meals be served to travelers and squatters.

Akbar the Great, the third Mughal Emperor who came to visit Guru Armadas was not exempt from first sitting with the Guru and sharing simple fare. The historical record tells us Akbar reclined form having bolts of silk spread out for him by his servants when he paid a visit to the Guru. Instead he walked to the langar barefoot.

Akbar was so impressed with the community kitchen that he offered a great amount of land and wealth to maintain it. Guru Amardas refused the gift so Akbar offered the land and wealth as a wedding present to the Guru’s daughter. Story has it that the gift of land presented to the Guru’s daughter was the city of Amritsar, the holy Mecca of the Sikhs.

The idea of a community kitchen was revolutionary at the time. Sikhs and others would sit in the pangat where the food is served, without distinctions of caste or status. Pangat literally means ‘row’ or ‘line’ and when you enter the langar you will often see rows of carpet lay out on the floor.

The langar was for all intents and purposes designed to strip away a rigid Hindu caste system prevalent in India during Guru Nanak’s lifetime. The idea and its practice were designed to uphold equality between all people regardless of religion, caste, colour, gender or social status. Even the food served, strictly vegetarian, ensured that everybody, irrespective of their dietary restrictions, would feel welcome as equals.

Before the food is served a small portion of each of the dishes is put on a plate or in bowls and placed in front of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib and a prayer called the Ardas is performed.

The Sikh holy book may not always be present as I observed while doing seva in the langar at the Khalsa Diwan Sikh Temple in Hong Kong. Every morning just before twelve o’clock noon, the head cook and any of the volunteers working in the langar who helped in the preparation or the food or were ready to serve it, came together to bless it.

It is also common to hear the chanting of Waheguru during the preparation of food or the cooking process to infuse the food with a divine vibration. The prayer for blessing the food is said to pass through the entire sangat through the large iron cauldrons of the langar.

A Sikh blessing amply illustrates the importance of the langar as a focal or anchor that unites humanity performed with selfless love, devotion and humility:

May the iron pots of the langar be ever warm (in service).


Seva, conventionally translated as ‘selfless service’ occupies a central place in Sikhism. The word comes from the Sanskrit root sev,—‘to serve,’ ‘to wait or attend upon,’ ‘honour’ or ‘worship.’

Most if not all of us have experienced doing something from the heart without anything in return. Guru Nanak and many others wanted to integrate seva not as something we do once in a blue moon, but into our daily lives.

Yogi Bhajan did not mince his words when he said:

You are here to serve, here to lift, here to grace, here to give hope and action, here to give the very deep love of your soul to all those who need.

The spirit of seva in the langar, to put it quite simply, is to serve the planet, to cook for humanity. Seva in the langar is not just about preparing the food, washing up or serving it. Seva is saying: 'I'm here to serve,' 'I'm here to help and serve you from my heart.' It could also be just a simple smile or a volunteer in the pangat serving food and asking someone if they would like some more water or a cup of Indian tea. It could also just be the sweetness of your words and much, much more.

The last words uttered by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru, before he passed away were apparently 'keep the langar open.' In the Dasam Granth, the tenth Guru wrote: 'may langar (charity) and the sword (justice) prevail in the world.' As the langar brings together people from all walks of life, it is truly a global community kitchen, a kitchen that serves everyone, free of prejudice and discrimination. One global community kitchen and one God—Ik Onkar—the foundation stone of Sikhi.

References

1. ‘Origins of the Word Langar—Truly is a Great Virtue’
http://ashthefoodie.wordpress.com/2008/07/13/the-origin-of-the-word-langar%E2%80%94truly-is-a-great-virtue/


2. Entry for ‘Langar’ Sikhiwiki Encyclopedia
http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Langar


3. Entry for Seva in Sikhiwiki Encyclopedia
http://www.sikhiwiki.org/index.php/Seva

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