Guru Nanak's langar and legacy: Tracing the origin of the practice, what it says about his commitment to inclusion
The practice of langar, whereby Sikh gurdwaras around the world serve free food and the poor and hungry can eat there as often as they want, emerged because of Guru Nanak's failure as a merchant. It is an embodiment of his compassion and rejection of caste
Sikh gurdwaras around the world serve free food and the poor and hungry can eat there as often as they want.
The practice of langar emerged because Guru Nanak failed as a merchant.
Five centuries ago, when caste distinctions were diligently and brutally enforced, the langar was revolutionary.
Anyone who has ever visited a gurdwara knows that the langar or communal kitchen is one of the pillars of Sikh religious life. Eating a delicious meal in the langar, served with a smile, is a memorable experience that stays with everyone who engages with the Sikh faith. The langar, however, is much more than a convivial meal served by a people known for their hospitality. It is a profound embodiment of the philosophy of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism.
There is a very colorful story that appears in ancient accounts of Guru Nanak, known as the Janamsakhis.
When Nanak was a young man, his father Mehta Kalu, who was an important revenue official, was constantly anxious that his son take up a profession successfully. Nanak was a dreamy youth, given to spiritual pursuits, who showed little interest in worldly affairs and preferred to spend his time discoursing with holy men. At one point, the exasperated Mehta Kalu, having resolved to set his son up as a trader, commanded him to go to a nearby town to buy salt, turmeric and other items, which were then to be sold at a profit. Mehta Kalu handed 20 rupees to a servant that he commanded to accompany Nanak on his mission and sternly remonstrated with him to ensure that he struck a good bargain. Determined to carry out his father’s wishes, Nanak set out for the town with his companion. Mehta Kalu, familiar with his son’s ways, accompanied them part of the way, reiterating the high expectations he had of his son ever since his birth and how important it was to him that he be successful, become a credit to the family and increase its renown.
After Nanak and his companion had walked for a bit, they came upon a forest which was home to several holy men. Nanak paused in wonder. Some of the holy men were seated silently and calmly, eyes shut in deep meditation. Some were performing austerities, twisting their bodies in complicated postures or standing upright with their arms stretched to the heavens. Others sat warming their hands around smoking mounds of twigs and leaves and some sat in the lotus position. A solitary man sat naked in a small pool of water. All of them had sacrificed worldly comforts in their quest for the glories of the afterlife. Some had taken a vow of silence. Their leader was seated on a deerskin, spread out under a tree, lost in his reflections on the Divine as one of his followers carefully perused ancient texts by his side.
Nanak whispered to his companion excitedly, 'What better bargain could there possibly be! Let us offer the money to these fine holy men. They will eat and buy clothes and they will be pleased!' His companion, in great alarm, voiced his disagreement, 'Your father Mehta Kalu gave you strict instructions to buy goods for trading with the money and you know his temper! But I am your servant and I shall do as you say.' With this he handed the money to Nanak, who approached the leader of the holy men, saluted him politely and squatted on the ground before him. After questioning him curiously about the ways of mendicants and ascetics, Nanak placed the 20 rupees before the sage. The holy man refused the money but permitted Nanak to go to a nearby village to buy food for his fellow mendicants, which they ate with great relish as Nanak watched with a smile. The holy men blessed Nanak, declaring that they had been hungry for seven whole days and dismissed him. Nanak humbly bowed before the holy men and left.
As they walked back, Nanak’s sense of euphoria began to fade and he turned to his companion. 'What have we done!' As they approached the village of Talwandi, Nanak, fearful of his father’s wrath, did not enter the village and disconsolately sat down under a tree at the outskirts. Mehta Kalu saw that Nanak’s companion had returned without his son and it didn't take long for him to get the truth out of the terrified servant. Roaring with anger, Mehta Kalu stormed out of his house to look for his wayward son. His wife, Tripta, fearful of his anger, sent Nanak’s sister Nanaki in the hope that she might restrain her angry husband. Mehta Kalu found Nanak cowering at the outskirts of the village and asked him to explain his actions, after which he slapped him hard on both cheeks. Just then Nanaki arrived and fell at her father’s feet, begging forgiveness for her brother, pointing to his cheeks, wet with tears, that had purple welts on them.
And thus, so it seemed, ended Nanak’s great bargain!
From the ashes of Nanak’s failure as a merchant rose the institution of the langar which, above all else, epitomised his commitment to social justice. What better use could money be put to, than feeding the hungry? 500 years later, Guru Nanak’s grand act of compassion lives on in the form of The Langar. Sikh gurdwaras around the world serve free food and the poor and hungry can eat there as often as they want, no questions asked.
A second aspect of the institution emerged from the great bargain which is no less significant. It also underscored Guru Nanak’s philosophy and served as a powerful instrument for its practical realisation. Nanak had been a precocious child who was very aware of the inequalities of the social order that he had been born into and was extremely sensitive to caste-based discrimination. Born into a ‘high caste’ Kshatriya family, at the age of nine, at the time of his initiation, he firmly rejected the sacred thread and the perpetuation of caste discrimination that it signified.
Commensality refers to the beliefs, practices, rules and regulations that determine inter-caste relationships regarding eating and drinking. Sociologist Adrian Meyer in his work Caste and Kinship in Central India writes about caste status through commensality:
The commensal hierarchy is based on the theory that each caste has a certain quality of ritual purity which is lessened or polluted by certain commensal contacts with castes having an inferior quality. Commensal contacts include the cooking of food and its consumption. A superior caste will not eat from the cooking vessels nor the hands of a caste which it regards as inferior, nor will its members sit next to the inferior people in the same unbroken line (pangat) when eating.
Anyone who has ever eaten at the langar will immediately understand the significance of what Nanak did 500 years ago! In the langar, everyone sits in an unbroken line known as the pangat and eats together. Today, it may not seem remarkable but five centuries ago, when caste distinctions were diligently and brutally enforced, this was revolutionary. The lad who had insightfully rejected the sacred thread was clearly attempting to subvert an insidious, inhuman, social norm. Once Nanak and his faith became well known, supplicants and devotees from every faith and station would flock to his congregation or sangat, but none would be admitted to the sangat until they had partaken of the humble fare of the pangat, where they would eat with people of all castes and creeds, very publicly rejecting the fastidious rules of commensality.
Guru Nanak’s entire life is a paean to his commitment to equality and social justice. A brilliant creation, the langar is the everlasting embodiment of this commitment.
Sarbpreet Singh is a poet, playwright, and commentator with a career in technology. He is the author of The Camel Merchant of Philadelphia (Tranquebar/Westland Publications).
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