Seva, or selfless service, has always been a core Sikh practice, but while for the benefit of all, it has largely remained within the confines of the Sikh community until recently. In this United States, extending seva to beyond our community spaces has become more commonplace — to provide service to those less fortunate to those outside of our community, and during our COVID-19 crisis this has become increasingly so. Langar, the practice of seva in the form of a community kitchen, has also sometimes become a means of engagement, whereby langar is provided to facilitate relationships and advocacy with politicians, communities and large groups. Stories in media, formal and social, are increasingly about Sikhs providing food to those in need across this country and around the world — whether based on individual efforts or more large scale efforts driven by Gurdwaras.
For Sikhs, the act of seva mandates the abdication of any attachment, pride or ego in the act. Instead, it is to be ascribed to and practiced through the connection with the Divine. Yet, when langar and seva is often discussed in media, it is often described as “giving back” to the community.
While a legitimate conversation can be had around how “selfless” langar has become (particularly when langar is provided in an externally-facing way outside of the Gurdwara space) among Sikhs in this country, I offer that the “giving back” framing is a disservice in two respects: first, that it is not precisely reflective of Sikh teachings, and second, it feeds the idea of the immigrant community as a “lesser” while also engaging in the model minority myth.
Accordingly, it might be worth some collective revisiting around the intentions behind what langar is and what our relationship is with it. After all, the language used to define also has feedback implications that shape us.
Gurbani (Sikh scripture) frames the practice of langar as extending the Guru’s blessings. The practice of providing langar is specifically mentioned in the Guru Granth Sahib, Ang (page) 967, relating to the time of the second Guru:
ਬਲਵੰਡ ਖੀਵੀ ਨੇਕ ਜਨ ਜਿਸੁ ਬਹੁਤੀ ਛਾਉ ਪਤ੍ਰਾਲੀ ॥
Balwand says that Khivi, the Guru’s wife, is a noble woman, who gives soothing, leafy shade to all.
ਲੰਗਰਿ ਦਉਲਤਿ ਵੰਡੀਐ ਰਸੁ ਅੰਮ੍ਰਿਤੁ ਖੀਰਿ ਘਿਆਲੀ ॥
She distributes the bounty of the Guru’s Langar; the kheer – the rice pudding and ghee, is like sweet ambrosia.
ਗੁਰਸਿਖਾ ਕੇ ਮੁਖ ਉਜਲੇ ਮਨਮੁਖ ਥੀਏ ਪਰਾਲੀ ॥
The faces of the Guru’s Sikhs are radiant and bright; the self-willed manmukhs are pale, like straw.
ਪਏ ਕਬੂਲੁ ਖਸੰਮ ਨਾਲਿ ਜਾਂ ਘਾਲ ਮਰਦੀ ਘਾਲੀ ॥
The Master gave His approval, when Angad exerted Himself heroically.
ਮਾਤਾ ਖੀਵੀ ਸਹੁ ਸੋਇ ਜਿਨਿ ਗੋਇ ਉਠਾਲੀ ॥੩॥
Such is the Husband of mother Khivi; He sustains the world. ||3||
Note that in this excerpt, there is no implication that langar is intended to return anything that was taken, and that langar is not done as an obligation. Instead, the perspective is more akin to extending the blessings from the Divine and Guru — the source of all that is in this world. It is, in effect, an act of love. And, it resonates with the closing invocation in Ardaas, a Sikh prayer, which (with a loose translation) states:
ਨਾਨਕ ਨਾਮ ਚੜ੍ਹਦੀ ਕਲਾ ॥ ਤੇਰੇ ਭਾਣੇ ਸਰਬੱਤ ਦਾ ਭਲਾ ॥
Nanak, in the Divine Presence may we remain in high spirits. May Your Blessings bring peace to all.
Seva, langar and community service, then, are rooted in the Divine. According to Sikhi, everything is has manifested from the Creator, belongs to the Creator and flows from the Creator according to Its Will. The only ownership suggested is directly tied to the Divine and not to any physical entity.
At the risk of delineating too fine a distinction, “giving back” implies that something was taken and is now being returned. Further, in ascribing this framing to community identity (i.e. “Sikhs believe that we should give back”, “this is what we are taught”), the community is obliging itself to the majority around it. Ownership is assigned to the people we supposedly took from.
Conversely, the Guru-inspired perspective of distributing the Divine’s blessings is more true to our ethos invoked in our Ardaas and in other Sikh invocations. There is no giving back because it is all owned by the Divine. Recall the closing lines of the excerpt provided above, wherein the references to the faces of the Guru Sikh’s are described as radiant, whereas those who exhibit pride and ego — elements of self will — are described in lackluster terms. In effect, those who serve langar as a service of Guru are praised more glowingly than those who are engaged in ego-driven pursuits.
This clarity around langar is especially important because as a community, we are actively engaging in and promoting langar during these difficult times, but often there’s inserted a public relations flavor that is tinged with promoting us as a model community or minority. Through the lens of charitable values, this framing of langar is feeding the model minority myth, setting unjust standards for the Sikh community and other minorities around validating our existence according to majority-applauded standards. At the very worst, when we are marketing ourselves as a charitable community, we are pitting ourselves against other minorities.
Accordingly, Sikhs, particularly in the diaspora, should be intentional about how we frame langar. I propose that the language we have defaulted to in the west is conferring a meaning that detracts from the original intention of langar, and as such, some re-alignment is valuable. The implications of the vocabulary we are using not only signal incongruent and uncomfortable notions in relation to Sikhi, it also educates and establishes definitions that will redefine our intentions going forward.
Instead, we should be deliberate about rooting our practice of langar as described in the Guru Granth Sahib to ensure that this practice provides explicit and direct connections with the Divine. The more intentional and explicit we can be about this, the more we will bring ourselves closer to our Guru’s teachings.