By Morgana RavenTree
At the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Toronto, Canada last November, I was privileged to take part in a Langar (rhymes with “hunger”) hosted by the Local Sikh community.
Several Sikh (pronounced “sick” not “seek”) Gurdwara (temples) in the Toronto area took turns hosting a daily “free lunch” for anyone at the parliament. In addition, I attended a workshop about the Langar and spoke with several members of the local Sikh community (oh and I also heard some performances of Sikh music which were fabulous).
If you’re wondering why I would write an article about a Sikh practice for a Pagan newsletter, it’s because I believe there is a great deal Pagans can learn from this custom and practice.
Langar (kitchen) is the term used by Sikhs for the community kitchen or meal served in their Gurdwara. Each day a free meal is served to all the visitors without distinction of religion, caste, gender, economic status or ethnicity. To accommodate many different dietary needs the daily free meal is always vegetarian, but there are certain special occasions when an additional meal, including meat, might be served as Sikhs are not vegetarians.
The first time I attended the Langar, there was a large room set aside (later moved into a section of the Exhibition Hall). Everyone was asked to remove our shoes and leave anything we didn’t need with us outside the meal area. Next, we were asked to cover our heads (men and women both). As most people didn’t have headscarves, the community provided orange scarves and helped tie them around people’s heads. Those who had headscarves could skip that part.
Next, we stood in line for hand-washing stations (cleanliness being an important principle of Sikhism), then we lined up for the food stations.
The foods were simple and basic: rice, chapatti (bread), dal (lentils or yellow split peas), red beans (though I understand sometimes they serve vegetables). Once we had our plates and cups of water, we sat down on the floor in rows (there were also a few tables along the wall for people unable to sit on the floor). The practice of sitting on the floor is to emphasize there is no rank within the temple. Everyone sits together, all are equal.
As most people didn’t know each other, it was an ideal time to strike up conversations with other diners. I met a woman who works with Pagan Pride Philadelphia, a couple from Africa, another couple from Northern California and many others.
After the meal, we could line up again for dessert and spiced tea (chai). I’m not really sure what the desserts were, but they had the consistency of fudge, though they were made of pistachios and milk or chickpeas. One day there were also some very delicious savory “crackers” made from chickpeas. Afterwards diners would return to parliament activities. So, at first it seemed like just a free meal, but as I learned in the workshop there is so much more to it than that.
For those unfamiliar with Sikhism, it is a monotheistic religion that originated in the Punjab region of India around the end of the 15th century. It is the world’s ninth-largest organized religion. It is not an Abrahamic religion, rather following the teachings of 10 gurus (teachers), the first of whom, Guru Nanak, supposedly started the Langar tradition.
As we were told in the workshop, Guru Nanak’s father gave him a sum of money to go seek his fortune in the world. Guru Nanak came upon a village where people were poor and hungry. He used the money to buy food for everyone, believing nourishing the body was necessary for nourishing the soul. Thus the tradition began. However, I later found a different origin story, that the Langar was actually started by Sufi (Muslim) mystics a couple of centuries earlier. Nevertheless, with the establishment of Sikh temples in North America and Europe, the Sikh version of the Langar is better known.
During the meal, there are no readings, no efforts to proselytize. Although not Abrahamic, Sikhs nonetheless believe in one creator. They also believe in divine unity and equality of all humankind, selfless service, striving for justice for the benefit and prosperity of all. Sikhs reject the idea that any particular religion possesses Absolute Truth. Equality of all people is one of the most important precepts of this religion.
So what can Pagans learn from the Langar? Too often the “feast” that is typically served after Pagan gatherings is sort of an afterthought. An “oh yeah, we need to bring some food” and a quick trip to Trader Joe’s. In contrast, Sikhs consider the food preparation to be a devotional exercise, putting great care and thought into the process. Sharing the food brings as much blessing to them as to the people they feed. Pagans should consider this when planning their own feasts. The food doesn’t need to be complicated or exotic. Simple, healthy, natural foods served in a simple way should be sufficient, fueling the body as well as the mind. Sikhs make the food vegetarian to accommodate many different diets, something Pagans should consider before bringing a bag of Doritos or bottle of Coke to feast. Put some thought and care into your feast dishes. If you don’t cook, there’s nothing wrong with bringing fruits or healthy veggies, so long as you properly clean and prep them. If you do like to cook but don’t have time on ritual days, there’s this machine in most kitchens called a “refrigerator” that usually has a “freezer” you can use to prepare foods ahead of time.
The feast is an opportunity to build community within your group, to share the bounty of the Goddess. It is also a moment when “rank” disappears and we are just a family sitting down together enjoying each other’s company. It is as important to the group as the actual ritual and an opportunity to strengthen our bonds to each other.
If you are interested in experiencing a Langar check your local Sikh temple for their Langar schedule. All are welcome.
Morgana RavenTree is the current President of Pagan Pride LA/OC and a former National Board member of Covenant of the Goddess. As an anthropologist by training, she has always had a strong interest in world cultures. She performs Persian and Central Asian dance with Tandemonium and sings with Te Mau Marite Tahitian Folk Music. She is a former member of Avaz International Dance Theatre, Zhena Folk Chorus (Balkan Music) and Polsie Iskrie (Polish dance). Because everything is connected.