The six-letter noun langar is understood as »an open kitchen in a Gurdwara run by the Sikh community.« That makes it eleven words, and yet they lack the intent that drives the 500-year-old practice of serving free meals to everyone. Let’s try a different translation.
Langar’s linguistic roots are uncertain. Some trace the word to Sanskrit, others to Persian. But for all practical purposes, it is a Punjabi concept that originated in the sixteenth century in the now-irretrievably divided northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent. It was a fractured land back then, too; subject to conquerors’ whims and governed by the self-righteous. Langar was – is – an attempt to undo those redundant distances that continue to separate us from each other.
Langar has a historical context. It is attributed to Guru Nanak Dev, the saint upon whose teachings Sikhism was founded, and his successors who institutionalized it. Sikhism is currently the world’s fifth-largest organized religion, but it’s also the youngest, and it really began as a spiritual movement away from the existing web of social taboos – a simplification of rituals and a shift from sprawling iconography to a more tangible core. Amongst its basic tenets is the practice of contributing ten percent of one’s time or earnings to the community. Langar, in this case, is a manifestation of that return to the collective; it remains as relevant today: a symbolic act of sitting on equal ground to partake of a meal, regardless of one’s religion, caste, class, gender, and ethnicity.
When first established, langar was a revolutionary act that disregarded discrimination in all its forms. An unusual religious tradition that challenged religious exclusivity. Langar, then, can be interpreted as a humanitarian gesture built on the essentials without which no life, however evolved, can survive – food and water.
But langar doesn’t conclude with a lofty definition; it is also a commitment that has acquired the scope of large-scale operations. Every Gurdwara – the place of worship for Sikhs – has a mandatory Langar Hall and kitchen on its premises. What sets it apart from food banks or soup kitchens is the encouragement of dual participation, through reception and service. Anyone interested in contributing to the preparation and serving of such meals is welcomed; the Langar Hall and kitchen are places where selflessness is propagated through a daily virtue known as Seva. On ground, it means organizing meals for thousands within the span of a few hours. An adaptable practice, because if those thousands in need are unable to make it to the dining hall, langar goes out to them.
When extrapolated from the point of view of recent world events, langar translates as a philosophy of solidarity. The Sikh community has been at the forefront. organizing food and shelter for the vulnerable during the darkest hours – feeding refugees in Bangladesh and Syria, flood victims in Kerala, Kashmiri students forced into evacuation, riot victims in the Delhi violence against Muslims, CAA protestors at Shaheen Bagh and Black Lives Matter protestors in New York; reaching out with food to firefighters battling the Australian bushfires and those left homeless in their midst; distributing cooked meals and food rations during the pandemic in the worst-affected corners of the world – to stranded migrant workers, hospital staff, exhausted policemen, and the underprivileged, but also to just about anyone who’s hungry. »Hunger,« for that matter, is also an unusual word. It has no appropriate synonyms and yet every living thing on earth apprehends its physicality.
Langar arouses suspicion on first encounter. Free? For what? A reflection of our state of global mistrust. But it’s simple stuff. Hygienic vegetarian meals funded by donations and served by volunteers. The whole thing operates on mutual trust. No proselytizing, no judgments, no expectations. At the doors of a Langar Hall, you trade your ego and footwear for compassion and humility. Call it »charity« during good times. Or »relief« during natural disasters, and during the harshest of them all, man-made tragedies. The practice of serving and eating cuts across religions; it isn’t what makes Sikhism ontologically unique. What is worth emulating is the way in which langar has managed to embed itself with grace and without much fuss in many political issues as a symbol of hope, without emphasizing the religious aspect.
Given the awkward consequences of individualism in our hands, a vocabulary for a transformative future would have to lean toward practices that address the species as a whole. Words of inclusion that acknowledge our interconnectedness. Is there a way that langar, as a practice of sharing – and daring, especially in these agitated times – can be expanded with its inherent generosity into a more accessible language?
We could articulate it another way. Langar as something elementary. The word has a signature sweetness to it – the taste of cardamom-flavored rice pudding served at the end of the meal. It has a soundscape that extends from the clatter of thousands of steel utensils to the quiet plop of a flatbread, the round roti, into hands unfolded in gratitude. It has a smell, too – that of comfort food cooked in gigantic cauldrons. The largest langar kitchen in the world, located at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, functions round-the-clock and serves up to 150,000 people on a regular day. Here langar is a sight: rows upon rows of strangers, a mix like that of a crossroads, but sitting side by side on the floor. Langar is a noun that hopes to touch and be touched by everyone.
You recall Brecht’s famous maxim? »Grub first, then ethics.« This one’s more like grub-in-the-name-of-ethics. We share food, then we live to share ideas. Simple stuff in a neutral space. Sit. We eat together.