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Guru Ka Langar: The Sikh Ethos of Sharing Hospitality

September 17, 2019

This article first appeared on The Interfaith Observer on September 12, 2019. The article is reproduced by the Parliament with permission from the author, Dr. Tarunjit Singh Butalia.

Many who have had the opportunity to attend a Langar (a Sikh word for “open kitchen) surely have fond memories of the incredible hospitality they experienced.
The one Langar memory that stays with me from the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto was that there was no single Sikh organization or individual visibly running the show – it was a collaborative Sikh community effort. While inside the Langar venue, it felt like a stream flowing through a meadow – slowly and steadily moving along naturally at its own pace.
The practice of Guru Ka Langar (commonly referred to simply as Langar) was started by the first Sikh Guru, Siri Guru Nanak Sahib, in 15th century Punjab, South Asia. It represents the principle of equality among all people regardless of religion, caste, color, creed, age, gender, or social status. In addition to the ideals of equality, the tradition of Langar expresses the Sikh ethics of sharing, community, inclusiveness, and the oneness of humankind.
Regardless of who provides the funds for the food and its distribution, it is called “Guru Ka Langar.” Sikhs do not believe in charity because it assumes inequality between the giver and the receiver. Instead, the faith encourages sharing fruits of honest labor with others as equals. The Langar institution represents “sharing,” not “charity” and is to be a simple meal, not a feast.
Langar is to be served in the spirit of four principles:
1. self-less service (Nishkam Sewa) to humanity without the need for recognition or honor,
2. compassion (Daya), compliance with truth (Sat), inner contentment (Santokh), humility (Nimrata), and love (Pyar),
3. well-being of all (Sarbat da Bhalla), and
4. treating everyone equally.
Langar emphasizes simplicity rather than exotic tastes. The food served is typically South Asian and includes rice, bread, soup, vegetables, and a desert. Langar almost always is vegetarian food with no meat or eggs. This is to ensure that all people, regardless of their dietary restrictions, can eat as equals, and no one goes hungry. With increasing Sikh migration to the western world, we find some Sikh Gurdwaras occasionally serving cheese pizza, pasta, and other vegetarian items during the community meals. After volunteers prepare the food, the community gathers together for Ardaas (supplication) during which the meal is blessed with a prayer, and then the food is distributed.

On entering the Langar Hall, one is usually asked to remove their shoes, given a scarf to cover their head, and sit cross-legged on the floor for the meal. For those who are unable to sit on the floor due to health reasons, a few tables and chairs are provided. All those who come to share the Langar are treated as equal. To emphasize this, everyone has the same type of seating and the same choice of food that is served.
Emperors and Peasants Sharing Food
During the Langar held during the Salt Lake City Parliament in 2015, I was approached by a staff member who told me a VIP in attendance had requested that Langar be served to her in a room, as she was unable to come due to her famous stature. This reminded me of an incident some 450 years ago.
In 1567, when the Mughal Emperor Akbar visited Siri Guru Amar Daas Sahib in Goindwal, Punjab, he was asked to eat in the Langar Hall before getting an audience with Guru Sahib. The Emperor complied and ate with the peasant sitting in the same line in the Langar Hall. I respectfully conveyed to the Parliament staff that the VIP would have to come to the Langar and eat with others as equals. Backstage next day at one of the evening plenaries, I ran into the VIP. She apologized for her request and shared gratitude for the principle of equality enshrined in the practice of Langar.
And then there is recognition for Langar. Being Guru Ka Langar, no organization or individual, regardless of who provides the funds for the food and its distribution, is to be honored or revered. It is a Sikh community practice of sharing.

At the closing of the 2018 Toronto Parliament, I was asked which key organizations and individuals should be recognized for the Langar – my response was no one. At the closing ceremony all those who helped with Langar – Sikh and non-Sikh alike – were acknowledged for their selfless service.
People open their hearts over food. As we share food with strangers, we share our hearts too with them. What better way to bring down the barriers that divide us, than sharing a simple meal with people of many or no faiths?