As curator of the international art exhibition at the 2015 Parliament of World Religions, I found myself doing a few things on which I hadn’t counted. In addition to helping the artists get set up, I also helped with the setup of a few other venues including building shoe racks for Langar.
We were in the huge expanse of Exhibition Hall C, and we had to lay out massive rolls of carpet, build about 60 racks for shoes, and of course taste-test the food. There was no way, I thought, that this area would be completely filled with people – but it was! The logistics were astounding, but with typical aplomb the Sikhs took it all in stride.
During a particularly turbulent period in India’s history, Hindus and Muslims were at each others’ throats. Out of this chaos a man rose who desperately sought after Divine direction to heal the ongoing strife and violence – Guru Nanak. His miraculous experiences and vision in 1499 lead to the birth of one of the great religions of the world, Sikhism – a faith which promotes peace and the living of an “active, creative, and practical life”.
Proving that human beings have the capacity to coexist peaceably, Langar is an ongoing expression of the practical service infused into the everyday life of a Sikh. This is a meal offered freely to all, designed specifically to be supportive of as many spiritual dietary restrictions as possible (it is vegetarian), and given in an environment of peace and equality.
All who enter the Langar hall are asked to remove their feet coverings (all the shoe racks we built), cover their hair, and are required to sit on the ground peaceably next to whomever is there. “This last requirement, in the early days, was particularly unwelcome for many,” one Sikh volunteer was telling me. “There were many, many people who took blood oaths against other groups or clans and who were more than ready to kill another just at the sight of him. By forcing an environment of peace and equality in this manner, many initial dialogues were started which lead directly to the calming of such terrible disputes, among people who were lifelong enemies.”
“Is this an expression of charity?” I asked one of the organizers.
“Absolutely not,” was the answer.
“As Sikhs we do not go out of our way to perform charity in such a manner,” he explained. “Offering food freely in a safe, peaceful environment – one in which people can grow to become good neighbors who otherwise would never communicate with each other – this has nothing to do with charity. We do not go out of our way for this. This is part and parcel of what it means to be Sikh, it is not a special activity.”
Each day for the entire week of Parliament, the Sikhs provided this wonderful environment and fed thousands of attendees. We came into the Hall, doffed our shoes, received our head coverings, and were brought to a section of carpet to sit. The volunteers preparing and serving the food were unfailingly polite and cheerful, and every day the company was unique and wonderful. Thousands of people were fed – not just with the exotic, filling meal, but with the experience. It was amazing to meet and eat with so many different people, and gave us a window into what a peaceful world looks like.
And did I mention how tasty the food was?