The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented life and livelihood challenges in almost every corner of the world. The depredations of the virus have led to the loss of millions of jobs and unleashed a humanitarian crisis that is exacerbated by hunger and starvation. To mitigate the crisis, governments all over the world have come out with economic packages to provide interim relief to their citizens. Remedying the economy by state intervention has been widely discussed but there are many instances of non-market interventions through which individuals and communities have extended a helping hand, based solely on the principles of compassion. The exceptional role of civil society, NGOs and religious organisations during these challenging times has become a fine example of what we can call a moral economy — relations that are sustained over time following a moral principle. One such institution is the practice of Guru Ka Langar in gurdwaras all over the globe.
In Delhi, since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, one lakh meals have been cooked every day at the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib alone, with the sevadars working 18-hour shifts. This helped in feeding the migrant workers who were rendered jobless in the early days of the lockdown. Recently, the gurdwara has also started an initiative called “Meals on Wheels Langar” to take food to the remote corners of the city. As a gesture of appreciation of the gurdwara’s role during the crisis, the Delhi Police performed a parikrama of Bangla Sahib. A recent New York Times article has highlighted the American experience of langar, highlighting both how Sikhs ran kitchens to help the COVID-19-affected as well as how they have fed the protesters of the Black Lives Matter movement. The article notes that people often get surprised when they are offered food for free. Indeed, the dimensions and spectacle of this large-scale consumption, which is outside the exchange economy, have surprised many people even when one is not in the midst of extraordinary events. One example among many is the TV show, John Torode’s Asia, where we see the host being visibly moved by the langar at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This emotion endorses the understanding that this Sikh practice is something exceptional.
In the Sikh religion, the notion of “seva” (service) is particularly manifest in Guru ka Langar. This is perhaps best described in terms of a gift economy, following the sociologist David Cheal, who sees gift-giving as “institutionalisation of social ties within a moral economy”. The langar is a key institution that puts into operation the act of seva – with the gurdwara forming the backbone on which such seva becomes operative. Seva is one of the main principles of Sikhism. Ever since Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak in the 15th century, the principles of this relatively new religion have emphasised selfless service to God as well as humanity. The practice of a free community kitchen serving food to everyone without any discrimination was established by Guru Nanak and since then, the tradition has become well-known all over the globe. This practice derives its meaning from the touchstone of Nanak’s three pillars of philosophy – “kirat karo” (earn with labour), “naam japo” (contemplate the various names of God), and “vand chako” (share with others). As is well known, caste and religious divides are well entrenched in Indian society and often characterise it. The sharing of meals by people sitting together on the floor irrespective of their social background was a one-of-its-kind taboo-breaking practice. Selfless service is seen as a ladder to get closer to God. The gifts to others, whether they be in the form of bodily, mental, and material gestures, require a platform to become operational. This has generated institutions such as the round-the-clock langar, which in turn, can be sustained only with a material base. Such a material base is provided by a large number of daily offerings in the form of money and other goods. The offering in cash and kind can be thought of as a redistribution which allows a progressive transfer of resources to make society more equitable. It is perhaps akin to a progressive tax in spirit, only that it is a transfer by voluntary contribution based on faith and compassion made in a setting which is outside the exchange economy.
The challenges posed by the pandemic have exposed many fault lines in our society. The negligence of healthcare and lack of adequate social safety nets have made millions of people vulnerable. In such times, the institution of langar, based on the Guru’s philosophy of equality and progressiveness, provides a glimmer of hope that strong institutions whether they are created in the societal, economic, or religious sphere can stand any storm. Langar is one such practice based on the principle of inclusion and unity in the religious sphere that helps everyone and anyone in times of hunger. The choice is for mankind whether it creates institutions that divide and carve out exclusionary spaces or builds strong and protean institutions, like the practice of langar, that bring the human race together in trying times without any discrimination.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 14, 2020 under the title ‘Seva in a pandemic’. Singh is professor and Waraich is doctoral student, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, JNU
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