Wherever there is a Gurdwara anywhere in the World, you can be sure to find Langar – food that has been blessed by the Guru through a kirpan and Ardas, and then served to all who come to experience the Guru. The practice of breaking bread with one another stems from the earliest times in the Sikh way of life, and like most other practices has an ideological basis as well as a practical purpose. Quite erroneously today, langar is increasingly being defined as a free meal – and we should all know there is no such thing as a free meal – but that leaves us with the questions, what is langar and how can it’s place of reverence be restored?
In recent years in the UK, a number of Sikh charities and community groups have begun to provide meals for the homeless, visiting the harsh environments where they spend their nights to offer them nourishment and refreshment when quite often they have gone hours without. In addition, these groups provide fresh clothing, access to treatment and a friendly ear to hear the struggles of a people forgotten and ostracised by society. This work is lauded, rightly so, and is not entirely new; Gurdware have been providing meals to homeless charities on and off, particularly in North America, for a few decades. But it hasn’t been until a new generation of Sikhs born and raised in London, Toronto, and elsewhere, took to the streets to increase the scope of these services that it has been as prolific as it is now. The UK has seen an explosion of these initiatives in part responding to the austere times we find ourselves in.
It is in this context that the move towards depicting langar as a ‘free meal’ has been made. University Sikh societies arguably instigated this charge, when around a decade ago they began to provide langar on campus once a year as a way to engage their fellow students and faculty. It was a novel idea and one that has been incredibly successful resulting in a number of societies being commended by their Student Union for the annual events. Naturally, questions were asked as to why a tasty meal of traditional Punjabi cuisine was being served without charge, and the response equally naturally was that this was a free meal as is traditionally served in the Gurdwara. Fast forward to the present day and a movement titled ‘Langar Week’ has taken this idea to the high streets and national media, when for a whole week, langar is distributed by keen volunteers in various locations to anyone who wants it as a ‘free meal’. It’s the kind of feel-good news story that is an editor’s dream: migrant community, way of life not fully understood, feeds people for free. But here is where it falls down because both in practice and ideologically, that’s not what langar is at all.
A visit to the Guru requires a Sikh to experience two key ideological practices: sangat and pangat. Sangat is to behold the Guru as court is held in the Darbar, sitting on a par with all others who have come for the same purpose whether they are emperors or paupers, young or old, male or female. Pangat is to participate in the community kitchen, bringing some ingredients from one’s own kitchen, helping along with everybody else to prepare the meal, partaking in it collectively and then cleaning up together. That pangat was required before sangat was granted, was immortalised in the phrase ‘pehila pangat picche sangat’ or ‘first partake in the community kitchen before you come to learn from the Guru’. This process of sharing at every step of the community kitchen broke down societal barriers of Guru Nanak’s time and forged Sikh minds to be both humble and empathetic, ripening the individual mind-set before they met the Guru whose revolutionary ideas were then presented to them.
In no way then is langar a free meal. It requires us to bring what little we have to a shared pot; to make bread with our fellow people before we break bread with them; and to clear up before we go on to have an audience with the Guru. In practice very few Sikhs engage in pangat, and practically no institutions have sought to rectify this, with some Gurdware even making it difficult for members to use the kitchen facilities in this way. Commonly, most Gurdware kitchens are populated by females, langar is served as soon as ready, and the food is not brought, but bought by whomever has taken on the responsibility for services that weekend. That this is how we now treat what was a vital part of developing the Sikh psyche was never intended to be permanent; to some extent it was a stop-gap solution for Sikhs in the west but has clearly spiralled out of control.
I have sat on this article for over a year because I know how it will be perceived by most Sikhs. On the face of it, University Sikh societies did what so many of our households do every weekend to celebrate the key moments in our life: they made langar and, evoking the Guru, shared it with their families and friends. But it should trouble us all, even those only learning of pangat for the first time by reading this article, that we have now gone way beyond that and are now reverse engineering langar in a way that is alien to what the Guru established. I do not believe that there are any ill intentions at work here, in fact perhaps quite the opposite; increasing positive public relations and media coverage is one of the reasons the Sikh PA (who have instigated ‘Langar Week’) was founded. But in their zeal for promotion, the spin has taken us down a dangerous road. Are the scarce resources we have as a qaum now going to be directed towards feeding the World and resolving a problem created by the empires that robbed the Sikh nation of its statehood?
It is my proposition that, as with the recent reform sought for the Anand Karaj and to prevent the Sikh Panth from losing grasp of what it means, we must do the same with the concept of langar. It is a gargantuan task to undertake – practically reshaping how every single Sikh visits their Gurdwara – but it is necessary in order to reclaim what it means to be a Sikh; moreover, such reform should be desirable to all of us. There is no such thing as a free meal; let’s not pretend that the langar we all pay for is.