I have been married to a Sikh for four years now, and I find that I sometimes I forget how it felt to be new to Sikhism. These days many of the practices have become second nature to me, but there was a time when I was learning it as well. When people ask me questions about Sikhism or what Sikhs do at the Gurdwara, I sometimes make the mistake of skipping over some of the very important reasons behind many of the actions and traditions in Sikhism. Often times when you learn the history and traditions behind a certain action or ritual you see the significance and importance of it. I am not a scholar so I may not get it 100% or have all the information, but I will share my perspective. I very much admire Sikhism and the traditions behind all of the rituals and practices, so I love sharing this with my readers, friends, and family.
The topic I will be discussing today is Langar. Langar is a shared common meal typically eaten in a group setting. This meal is very significant in Sikhism and reinforces some of the most important facets of the Sikh Faith. Sikhism rejects the caste system completely, and every single person regardless of religion, caste, color, creed, age, gender or social status are seen as equals. This was and still is a revolutionary concept in India. Even in the modern age, India is still deeply entrenched in the caste system. For example some Brahmin Hindus ( high caste) would find it revolting to eat with (or to eat food prepared by) a non-Brahmin person or someone of a lower caste. There are even some apartment buildings that require its tenants to prove they are Brahmin in order to live there. The Caste system is a highly discriminatory and bigoted social system in India that separates and defines people based on the caste they were born into. It creates preferential treatment for high castes while segregating and mistreating lower castes. This was especially true in the 16th century when Sikhism was founded. Guru Nanak Dev Ji , the father of the Sikh religion, implemented Langar as a way to break the caste system down and to unite the people. Langar represents the united community of Sikhs, undivided and equal.
Though every Gurdwara and Langar hall are a little bit different there are some important aspects of Langar that must be universal. All food must be free of charge. Everyone must sit on the floor together to eat. Equality here is quite literal. The plates must remain at the same level, and no one should sit above anyone else. Everyone is served the same food. That food is prepared by volunteers in the Gurdwara. Anyone can help prepare the meal and it is seen as an honor to do Seva (service) for the community. All people are served at the same time; no preference is given to anyone. So if a president/queen/ famous actor sat down for lungar, they will sit with everyone, eat the same food, be served in the order they came in. We are all equal under God. As you can see Langar is not just a meal, it is the embodiment of the principles of Sikhism.
Depending on the Gurdwara, the meal times and availability of langar changes. All food that is served is vegetarian. The majority of the food that is served is Punjabi, but there is nothing that says that other types of vegetarian food can’t be served. A typical meal usually consists of lentils (Dal), vegetable curry’s (subjis), and Rotis ( flat bread). At most Gurdwaras people often go to the langar hall after the religious service, that is when it is the busiest. Langar can also be offered to an individual during none traditional langar hours. For example my husband and I have visited a Gurdwara in the middle of the afternoon, not during the service, and someone in the Gurdwara had given us Bananas to eat. So it was like a Langar snack. The Golden Temple in Amritsar India, which is the central holy place of Sikhs , serves Langar all day. The Langar halls in the Golden Temple feed more than 40,000 people each day.
For practical reasons here is a list of important things to remember when participating in Langar.
1. The head is to remain covered in the Lungar hall with a scarf, turban, or bandana. Both men and women cover their head to show respect in the Gurdwara . Lungar is a religious experience and must also be shown respect as well.
2. Everyone sits on the floor . The plates or trays are placed on mats in front of everyone. Every Lungar is slightly different. Sometimes you may stand in a buffet type line and take the food back to where you sit. Sometime you will sit in front of a place setting and food is served from people walking around, this is usually the case during busy times.
3. Whenever you receive food from someone you should always receive it with two hands in an open position. For example, when someone gives you a roti, it is given and then received with a certain sense of reverence and thanks.
4. Never lift your plate off the floor while eating. It is really tempting, especially when you are messy like me. It is something that is not done. It all goes back to the most important principle of equality. Lifting ones plate may show disgust or a feeling of superiority. Equality is quite literal in this case, same level of food, sitting at the same level, and receiving the same food at the same time.
5. When eating Langar you should always finish all of your food on your plate. The food is considered a gift from God and should not be wasted.
6. When you are finished make sure to clean up any mess you have made and make sure that your dishes get cleaned. If it is busy there will most likely be someone cleaning dishes, if not then make sure that you do it. You can volunteer and do seva (service) on anything you see that needs to be done. This can be anything from drying dishes, to cooking, to serving, to cleaning mats, vacuuming. Seva is anything that helps the community.
Langar is one of my favorite aspects of attending the weekend services at the Gurdwara. It’s not just the food, which always tastes amazing! It’s like you can taste the love that was put into it. I feel honored by the sense of tradition and knowing that I am instilling these beautiful values in our three year old daughter. She is growing up knowing the beauty of equality, love, compassion, and community service. Langar nourishes the soul just as much as it nourishes the body. I have shared Langar with non-Sikh family and friends in the past and it was a wonderful experience. I encourage everyone to experience it for yourselves.