I’ve been reflecting over the past week on the relatively new phenomenon that is #langarweek. I understand the need to spread Sikhi, and all efforts to achieve the same must be commended, unless of course there appears to be a distortion of Gurmat brought about from an inaccurate depiction of either Gursedant (Guru’s principles) or Guritihaas (Guru’s history). In any such instance we must be allowed to provide a critique of the attempts made by fellow Sikhs, which in turn should be greeted openly to allow further discourse on the topic. After all, we’re in this together.
Whilst the need to educate the world about Guru Nanak’s revolutionary path is needed, we can’t jeopardise the core philosophy by leaving out the teachings and actions of the Guru that set us apart, and more importantly define the very essence of the Sikh Panth. We can’t cherry pick those aspects which seem to appease an audience moulded on modernity and the current Eurocentric school of thought. We can’t reduce the creation of a Republic, which is essentially what the Khalsa Panth was, to a placatory movement that works within the constraints of a system inherently designed to promote the capitalist lifestyle that is at the root of social inequality. There needs to be a more rounded attempt to spread the Guru’s wisdom.
Guru Nanak the social activist
The model of social justice can be traced back to ancient philosophies such as those advocated by Socrates and Spinoza. In modern times the term ‘social justice’ has been accredited to have been first coined by Luigi Taparelli, and was later used by American scholars, but it was not until 1919 that the concept was embedded into international law, starting with the Treaty of Versailles. However, we should be educating others that in fact Guru Nanak’s social activism predates any “modern” post-colonial value system. He challenged the ritualistic and highly superstitious ways of Brahmanism and condemned the intolerance and immoral exertions of the Mughal leaders, both of which when combined placed immense social as well as economic and political subjugation on the people. It was over 3 centuries later that the rest of the world caught up with Guru Nanak’s model.
Having discovered the hypocrisy and falsehood that was flowing throughout the world, Guru Nanak set about starting the true path. He established a base at Kartarpur from where he was able to hold Sangat, which was the gathering of people, paying no regard to caste or class. Sangat went hand in hand with Pangat, both of which were shining examples of how the Guru demolished social barriers prevalent between different sets of communities. Pangat provided people with the opportunity to connect with one another and take part in langar. It was a statement from the Guru to bring about social change. The underlying message of langar was to break bread with a fellow human, irrespective of their social, political or economic status in a totally autonomous and self-regulating environment.
Langar – a social revolution
Langar was so revolutionary that it took the rest of the world 500 years to implement one aspect of it. The world’s first food bank is believed to have been established in the US in 1967, and since then many thousands have been set up all over the world. In Europe, the numbers grew rapidly after the global inflation of the price of food which began in late 2006. Food banks surfaced due to the economic pressures being placed on people. The difference being that the Guru’s langar was a social phenomenon because the Guru taught community adhesion for the most basic of needs. He brought the people justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. Todays campaigns market langar as “free food”, however it is anything but free. It was in fact an act of resistance to the powers that sought to control people and their food supply. The Guru showed how a self-dependent community could feed themselves when working together to grow their own sustenance and share amongst the community.
Imagine if we stopped buying food from money hungry corporations and instead worked together in small communities to grow, prepare, cook and share a meal together. Well that’s Guru ka langar, established on principles of compassion, equality and humility; all driven by the love for humanity, without any interference from a third party. Let us remember we are not merely a community here to clean up the mess left by governments that have failed the people. We are a Nation here to establish Degh Tegh Fateh. The Guru’s Niyara Panth requires that wherever there is Degh there must also be efforts to establish Tegh. It would seem all of our efforts today focus on spreading Degh, and even that is a diluted version. No one wants to talk about the root cause because that requires us to raise the Tegh.
If one feels compelled to fix the shambolic state of affairs created by a government hell bent on austerity, where the poor and vulnerable suffer yet banks are bailed out and super rich given tax havens, at the very least we should be telling the people what langar actually is. We should be honest enough to state it was a social remedy of the Guru’s rule, and then be honest about the need for political freedom where Sikhs can implement such institutions for everyone, without interference from corporate and private entities. That is what Guru Nanak established at Kartarpur for subsequent Guru’s to then grow and develop into physical institutions where his unique philosophy could flourish.
Guru Angad initiated langar not to primarily feed the poor or less fortunate. This was a part of the bigger overriding socio-economic objective. It was introduced by the Guru to create a collective uprising against those seeking to control people and their food supply just as much as it was against those seeking to divide people along lines of religion, caste, colour and creed. The Guru put the power amongst the people to congregate as one; to cook, serve, eat, clean and then contemplate on the Guru’s Shabad together in the form of Sangat. Then rise together to go out and tear down the status quo! That’s what made oppressive empires tremble. The Guru empowered the people to take control of the society around them and then export the revolution!
Langar isn’t a standalone system, it exists as part of Pangat. It’s very much a part of Guru Nanak’s socio-economic framework for his Sikhs to implement. Yet some have taken one aspect and repackaged it into “free meals”, even taking it out of the Gurdwara? There is no difference between this type of service and any other food bank, or any other charitable organisation handing out free meals. As mentioned it’s very commendable, but that’s not langar. Working hard and acts of altruism are traits of any good person, but they alone do not define a Sikh. In the House of Guru Nanak there is a clearly defined code of conduct, which allows one to personify the very essence of Sikh ideology and philosophy as laid down by the Gurus themselves.
Langar in the 21st century
The wealthy “banksters” and corrupt politicians that run this country continue exploiting, manipulating and controlling vulnerable members of society, whilst we provide a short-term fix to clean up their mess like good obedient citizens, without even educating the masses about the reason for this mess. Would Guru Nanak simply offer a free meal? Or would he lift the people to stand up against those social inequalities that give rise to the economic hardships?
One option offers a short-term temporary fix and is as easy as filling out some paperwork at the charities commission and then handing out free meals. The other is out and out revolution. This is why charitable organisations, especially amongst the Sikh community keep growing, one after the other. If the solution were that simple, we ought to have addressed it with just one charity by now. Is the aim to eradicate the problem at the root? Or is to appease the masses and receive some credit as a minority community for our efforts?
In reality we could have 100 charities giving out free meals every day. Every Gurdwara in the world could take to the streets, but the problem still wouldn’t go away. For one it’s not sustainable and two, we don’t have any control over the policies implemented at the top by government. Without political rule, we can’t implement righteous policies and as we know without the righteous policies the world is at the mercy of money hungry ego maniacs. Educating the people with knowledge on why they are in the economic hardship and then championing for an alternative option would be a long-term, sustainable solution. That is exactly what the Guru did at Kartarpur and it changed everything.