When Guru Nanak started the tradition of Langar upon his return to Kartarpur; it was meant to be its literal meaning: ‘The Anchor’ to bind the community together under the principles of Vand Chakna . A simple diet of produce and water which would not only satiate the basic dietary need of the visitors, but of the needy, the servers and the Guru alike in their physical, mental and spiritual quest. Guru Ka Langar since then embarked on its journey enriched by the sweetness of Mata Khivi, the dedication of Bhai Manjh, the humility of Emperor Akbar, and the revival of the true spirit of the principle of Langar by Bhai Nand Lal Ji.
Whatever the transformation, the basic principles remained the same. Langar was kept simple. It was there for everyone to partake. Needy people knew where to go to satisfy their hunger if they could not provide for their family, and the community was bound together.
Unfortunately, today in the Diaspora, Langar is losing its meaning. It has lost most of its original characteristics. Let us see how.
1. Langar today is anything but the simple nutritious food it was intended to be.
2. It is not reaching the truly needy and homeless.
3. It has become a burden and in some cases a competition.
4. The spirit of gratefulness and appreciation with which it is received is somewhat gone.
Simple and Langar are antonyms today. Loaded with ghee and oils, deep fried items, dairy, sugars, spices, refined white flour and artificial colors, our Langar today is complicated and refined Indian cuisine. You feel like you are eating fancy Indian Restaurant food only on the floor and in Styrofoam plates. You are virtually unable to move after you stuff yourself with Langar on Sunday afternoons. Was that Guru Nanak’s intention for Langar?
And by the way, what happened to feeding the needy and homeless? Do they even know that something like Langar exists? Granted, often in North America Gurdwaras are not located in areas surrounded by people having to beg for food. However, even the leftover food is usually distributed among the Sangat instead of being carried to shelters or low-income areas.
In the past Langar was prepared from the collaborative dasvandh and by the sangat pooling in physical seva together complete with humility and dedication. Today in many western Gurdwaras, it has become the responsibility of individual families as they take turns providing the seva. In the quest to show off their skills and resources, Langar has become so elaborate that some people are scared to take the responsibility for fear of not being able to meet expectations. This, in turn, means that a limited number of families keep getting assigned to the sewa. The pleasure and gratitude of doing seva for the Sangat then becomes a burden every time they have to take their turn.
Another complication is that we produce so much non-biodegradable trash during Sunday Langars from the North American Gurdwaras that I am certain it contributes to the pollution of our environment, to Nature, and to the Cosmic Physical Entity.
Gurbani says, “Pavan Guru Pani Pita Mata Dhart Mahat” – "Air is the Guru, Water the Father, Earth is the great mother." Yet, we go out of our way to prepare fancy dishes that are costly both in time and money when we could put that time and money towards buying and washing reusable steel plates.
The spirit of thankfulness in which the Langar is received today is gone. If it is anything less than a lavish party meal done to culinary perfection, you can hear comments being whispered. On the flip side, unnecessary encouragement of elaborate and lavish food deters families who want to keep it simple. Instead they are forced to be flexible and keep up with the trend.
If we transform the Langar back to a simple daal, whole grain roti and a side of slightly cooked vegetables or a salad, we can easily satisfy our stomachs. We save time, money and effort, which we can spend on spreading the mission of Langar and other useful programs. Besides, we ensure that we are providing only nutritious food to our body, mind and spirit in accordance with the Guru’s Hukam:
"Unni Duniya toRe bandhana ann pani thoRa khaya": "They burn away the bonds of the world, who eat a simple diet of grain and water" (SGGS – Ang 467)
It is a simple task to incorporate ‘serving the needy’ element back into Langar. Most Churches have a marquee where they display a Sunday message. We could advertise something to the effect of “Free Nutritious Food For All – Sunday 1-2 PM”. A volunteer could be assigned to receive the visitors, explain Sikhi and make sure they are served. What a way to serve the hungry and reach out to the community at the same time! In addition we could advertise in other venues like homeless shelters, local food banks, offices and universities campuses (you can find a lot of hungry; short of money and, eager to learn students).
Also, by doing this we will alleviate the evils of competition and the problems that arise at times when Langar becomes a burden. If the Langar was going to be just the three items of daal, roti and vegetables, it would be so much easier that more people would be willing to sponsor it.
Fortunately, in spite of the shortcomings, to a great extent Langar today is still the anchor that holds the community together; which gives us the chance and hope to revive it completely in its true meaning as Bhai Nadlal Ji did.
For readers who are not familiar with the context; during Guru Gobind Singh’s time Langar did take a ritualistic flavor. They were offered only after a whole sequence of ceremonies, i.e. Patth and Ardas. It also was opened only at meal times when all the dishes were ready. Bhai Sahib felt that the spirit of Langar needed revival. So he opened Langar at his house where, irrespective of the time of day, whatever food was ready was rationed to any who came. Guru Ji visited Bhai Sahib’s Langar and was pleased with the true spirit.
And now it is time for us to revive the true spirit and practice of this wonderful tradition.
Men, discuss Langar with your families, including its simplicity, impact upon the environmental, and nutritional value as well as the need to provide it in a spirit of dedication to the Sangat and the needy alike.
Ladies, stop that competition and let go of the desire for praise of your culinary skills. Add a piece of fruit if you feel the need for sweets at the end of Langar. Don’t worry; with the plenty of beans, lentils, legumes available in the market your daal will not be boring. With the array of vegetables, herbs and fruits your sabzi or salad can be simple, highly nutritious yet, colorful with nature’s beauty and taste. With whole grain flour available at all grocery stores around the continent; you can make the goodness and wholesomeness of the traditional Langar parshade felt once more.
Gurdwara Management Leaders, talk to the Sangat to make Langar simple. Mandate it. Start a project to fund raise for those reusable steel utensils and build large sinks. Encourage youth to take on the dish cleaning sewa. And, make sure to get those biodegradable dishwashing soaps to protect the water and earth.
Youngsters, stop pressuring your parents to cater Pizza and donuts for Langar. It is neither nutritious nor prepared with seva bhavna (serving devotion); nor are the devotional traditions in preparations observed, i.e. heads covered; simran done.
Let us take whatever steps we as individuals can take on this road to transformation.
Let us make the Gurdwaras once again a model that anchors the community, revives our physical, mental and spiritual bodies, and caters to the needy with eco-friendly, nutritious, simple meals.