Feeding the Hungry: What We Learn from the Sikhs

By Shlomo Maital


Can you name the world’s fifth-largest organized religion? I could not. It is the religion of the Sikhs. There are 30 million adherents in the world, including 500,000 in the United States. Most Sikhs are in India.

   And we can learn a great deal from them. According to today’s New York Times [1] 

   “An essential part of Sikhism is langar, the practice of preparing and serving a free meal to promote the Sikh tenet of seva, or selfless service. Anyone, Sikh or not, can visit a gurdwara and partake in langar, with the biggest ones — like the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India — serving more than 100,000 people every day. “

   All across the US, as hunger spreads in the wake of the pandemic, Sikhs have mobilized their gundwara, or places of worship, to feed the needy. No special preparations were required – the Sikhs have been doing it for years.

   Sikhism is based on the teachings of Guru Nanak, the first Guru and the nine Sikh Gurus that succeeded him. The tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, named the Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib as his successor, terminating the line of human Gurus and establishing the scripture as the eternal, religious spiritual guide for Sikhs Guru Nanak taught that living an “active, creative, and practical life” of “truthfulness, fidelity, self-control and purity” is above the metaphysical truth, and that the ideal man is one who “establishes union with God, knows His Will, and carries out that Will.”

     Sikhs are feeding anti-racist protestors and, for instance, “Last week, a dozen or so volunteers from the Queens center served 500 portions of matar paneer, rice and rajma, a creamy, comforting dish of red beans stewed with tomatoes, and 1,000 bottles of water and cans of soda to demonstrators in Sunnyside. They also offered dessert: kheer, a sweetened rice pudding.   Where we see peaceful protest, we are going,” said Himmat Singh, a coordinator at the World Sikh Parliament, an advocacy group providing volunteers for the Queens Village efforts. “We are looking for justice. We support this.” “

   “Since the pandemic began, soup kitchens have had difficulty keeping up with demand. Shuttered schools and even fine-dining restaurants are using their kitchens to prepare and serve hot meals. But few other places are as well positioned to handle the sheer scale of assistance required right now as the gurdwaras. Most have large, well-equipped kitchens, a steady stream of volunteers and no shortage of ingredients, thanks to regular donations from community members. During the last annual Sikh Day Parade in New York, in April 2019, the Queens Village kitchen — which has a walk-in cooler, multiple freezers, 50-liter stockpots and a huge grill that can cook dozens of rotis at once — produced 15,000 meals in a single day.”

   “The Sikhs’ biggest challenge isn’t keeping up with demand. It’s letting people know that they’re here — without making a big show of it or proselytizing, which is forbidden.”

   As the “build the wall” President continues to spread division and hatred of minorities and immigrants, communities like those of the Sikhs continue to act quietly and effectively, to implement their values. We can learn a lot from them. We can learn and embrace “langar” and “seva”.

     Canada has a Sikh Minister of National Defense, Harjit Singh Sajjan, who earlier had a distinguished career in the Canadian Armed Forces. Perhaps one day, Canada will have a Sikh Prime Minister – and the US, a Sikh President.

     One day soon, as NYT columnist Tom Friedman observed today, America will have a “minority majority” (that is, the racial minorities, black and brown, will be a majority of the country). Maybe then, as former President George W. Bush once said, America will be “kinder and gentler”.

[1] Priya Krishna, “Protests open paths for Sikhs to serve”,   NYT June 11 2020, p. 5