American Turban

The feet of the devout

Sikh women wash their feet before entering Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, India. (source: http://hzimm.wordpress.com)

Sikh women wash their feet before entering Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, India. (source: http://hzimm.wordpress.com)

Erasmus, the religion blog for The Economist, looks at the religious practices around shoes and feet among the Abrahamic faiths:

…at the moment of his encounter with God, Moses was ordered to take off his shoes because he was treading on sacred ground…The fathers of the early Christian church were intrigued by the instruction to Moses. They thought shoes reflected decay and mortality, because they were made from the skin of dead animals, while God was calling Moses to a richer form of life.

The article brought to mind the symbolism and practices related to feet in the Sikh faith.

For Sikhs, it is religious practice that shoes are not to be worn in the presence of the Guru as a sign of humility; to do otherwise is considered sacrilegious. Thus, in every Gurdwara, worshipers remove their shoes before entering the main space of worship, the diwan hall, in which the Guru Granth Sahib — the Sikh scriptures and recognized Guru of the Sikhs for the past three hundred years — is situated. This is also the practice in the langar hall — the community kitchen attached to every Gurdwara — in which all sit, eat and serve together as an expression of equality and service. Often, as another expression of humility and service, members of the congregation will take it upon themselves to wipe the dirt from the stored shoes of worshipers who are inside the diwan hall.

Congregants will either remove both shoes and socks, or just the shoes. My own tendency has been to leave on my socks when entering the diwan hall. However, for some unknown reason I was compelled to remove my socks and enter barefoot during my last visit. Walking into the diwan hall and experiencing the sensations of the floor directly on the bottoms of my feet, I felt increasingly unmasked (for lack of a better term) and connected to the sanctity of the worship space. I also felt that I was in a more informal, natural, and relaxed state with which to imbibe the teachings from the Guru Granth Sahib as they were being sung by the congregation. Perhaps I am over-attributing the effect of being barefoot in the Gurdwara, but I think this is how I will enter the Gurdwara from now on.

The foot as a metaphor finds significant mention in the Guru Granth Sahib. To account for all references to feet would be a lengthy task, however shabads (hymns) in the Guru Granth Sahib (as composed by the Sikh Gurus and other Hindu and Muslim saints) often make reference to the feet of saints or of the Guru, usually as the point of attachment: it is symbolic of humility that a follower attaches to God or Guru by way of the foot.

As example is in the following hymn composed by Guru Arjun (the fifth Guru):

Raag Gauree Poorbee, Fifth Mehl:
Listen, my friends, I beg of you: now is the time to serve the Saints!
In this world, earn the profit of the Lord’s Name, and hereafter, you shall dwell in peace. ||1||
This life is diminishing, day and night.
Meeting with the Guru, your affairs shall be resolved. ||1||Pause||
This world is engrossed in corruption and cynicism. Only those who know God are saved.
Only those who are awakened by the Lord to drink in this Sublime Essence, come to know the Unspoken Speech of the Lord. ||2||
Purchase only that for which you have come into the world, and through the Guru, the Lord shall dwell within your mind.
Within the home of your own inner being, you shall obtain the Mansion of the Lord’s Presence with intuitive ease. You shall not be consigned again to the wheel of reincarnation. ||3||
O Inner-knower, Searcher of Hearts, O Primal Being, Architect of Destiny: please fulfill this yearning of my mind.
Nanak, Your slave, begs for this happiness: let me be the dust of the feet of the Saints. ||4||5||

The Guru Granth Sahib reminds us often that no matter what our place or position in life, we must always seek connection to those who have discovered spiritual truth. It is considered a matter of privilege for one to be dust on the foot of a true saint.

This recognition of a disciple’s connection to the Guru’s feet is also found in the writings of Bhai Gurdas (1551-1636) as well, who was a contemporary of the third through sixth Gurus and who transcribed the first edition of the Sikh scriptures as it was dictated by Guru Arjun. In Bhai Gurdas’ Vaaran, there is a suggestion of more than a symbolic connection between the disciple and the foot of the Guru, as he makes reference to a commitment ceremony whereby followers would drink water with which the Guru washed his foot.

Today, despite westernization and concepts of modernity, Sikhs have not deviated from the practice of removing shoes when entering a Gurdwara’s diwan or langar halls. For Sikhs, the bare foot is an expression of humility and connection to the congregation, the Guru, and the Divine.

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