Guru Amardas: Seva and Langar

Guru Amardas Ji and the Langar

Before meeting Guru Angad, Baba Amar Das was a vaishnava and was ever in search of a competent Guru. At the age of 62 he adopted Guru Angad as his spiritual guide and became a 'fervent and zealous votary and willing server of the Guru.' He served him with all his heart and sacrificed his own comfort for the sake of the Guru. He undertook to fetch fresh water for the Guru's ablutions every night, just after mid-might from the river Beas, which was more than 5 km from Khadur. He performed his duty without fail, whatever the season was. After the Guru had bathed, he used to go to the nearby jungle to fetch fuel for the langar. While doing such selfless service he was constantly repeating in his mind the Name of the Lord.
Although he served the Guru day and night, yet he would never make an even the least mention of his services nor would he eat food from the public funds devoted for the Guru's langar, rather he used to contribute liberally to the Community Kitchen from his hard and scanty earnings of his humble trade in grocery which he collected by the hire of a pony for delivering goods from village to village. Guru Amardas developed langar into a regular institution. The Guru's Kitchen, which by then had attained great significance, shifted with him to Goindwal where he had settled down. He emphasized it as a device for expressing the notion of equality in a practical way.
Guru Amardas maintained the tradition of Guru Nanak's social, political and reformatory actions. The zeal and activities of Guru Amardas in preaching the faith 'combined with his genial habits and affable disposition,' he secured many converts to Sikhism. He was a 'grand old man,' just and wise. Humble and sweet as he was, he attracted many to Goindwal. Not only the followers of new faith, started by Guru Nanak, but also many seekers of wisdom and solace would flock around Guru Amardas on the bank of Beas. Sometimes even some of his old associates, whom he had met and made friends before becoming a disciple of Guru Angad, would come to meet him. His followers and friends used to stay at Goindwal for days together and listen to his sermons.
So long as Sikhism was in its infancy and people used to come to the Guru in small groups, for instructions, a single pangat for the sangat sufficed. But now Sikhism had grown in popularity and its votaries daily increased. So Guru Amardas thought of organizing the langar on an extensive scale. During his Guruship the number of followers increased so much that a situation arose when it became necessary to provide the Sikhs with convenient local centres. It was to meet this need that he introduced the Manji-system. Indubhushan Banerjee has rightly observed that "it can easily be surmised that these manjis were the earliest Sikh sangats, and, in all probability, in each and everyone of them a langar was set up."
In later days we so often find that the sangats were 'not merely places of worship but also wayside refractories which gave food and shelter to indigent wayfarers.' The Sikhs who managed the affairs of various sangats also arranged Langars for them. 'It is important to note that the obligation to maintain the Guru's langar was thus extended in scope and meaning, though it seems almost certain that the maintenance of the local sangats were made a charge on the local people.' Guru Amardas laid much stress on the pangat. The rule of the Guru was "Pehle Pangat Phir Sangat", first eat together then meet together. One point is to be understood that the pangat and sangat were not two distinct institution which was generally named as the sangat. These sangats were distinguished from each other after the names of the areas, towns or some of those prominent Sikhs who looked after these sangats.
It is obvious that the sangat habit had along with that the pangat-pleasure had become vital part of Sikhism. Wherever a Sikh might be, he was associated with the sangat and through that made to realize that a Sikh is not only to look to his individual character and spiritual development but is also 'to share the feelings of his fellowmen who assemble in the form of sangat and pangat. And he is also to shoulder his responsibilities as a part of the corporate body of the Panth.' The position of the Guru was sole and supreme religious head and was a great source of unity and solidarity. The sangat at Goindwal assembled at the feet of the Guru but the local sangats gathered around the word or the Shabad of the Guru. they used to sing hymns of the Gurus which were by then in circulation, written in Gurmukhi Script. This was their spiritual food. The food for the body was provided at the langar. Thus sangat and pangat had a common aim to unite the Sikhs in the name of the Guru. And to maintain these, the Sikhs made all possible efforts and sacrifices.
At Goindwal though the greatest delicacies were served in the Guru's langar, the Guru himself lived on coarse food according to his most ascetic habits. "The traveler, the stranger, the beggar, as well as the follower of the Guru, could gratify his palate with the six physical tastes - sweet, salt, sour, biter, pungent and astringent - of Punjabi cookery." The Guru himself took only boiled rice and lentils. In the coronation ode, Guru Amar Das's langar receives a special mention:
"In thy kitchen (O Amar Das), butter and flour are served (in plenty), everyday."
The Guru's kitchen remained open until three hours after nightfall. 'Every day's collections of grain were milled and baked into bread and distributed free.' What he daily received was daily spent and nothing was reserved for the morrow. Whatever remained, after feeding the people, was compassionately thrown to the beasts and birds; and if anything still remained, the good disciples took it to the river Beas and feasted the fish with it. One day Bhai Budha asked the Guru: "Is it right for the Sikhs to eat the choicest viands and dainty food while you are satisfied with a coarse meal ? Issue an order that only such food as you eat shall be served from your kitchen." The Guru replied: "O Bhai Budha, do you think there is a difference between the Sikhs and me? I enjoy the flavor of what the Sikhs eat. Be certain that what enters the Sikhs' mouth is contributed to the Guru's sustenance." On the occasion Bhai Jetha (later known as Guru Ramdas) was also present. He composed the following hymns summing up the idea expressed by the third Guru:
"As a mother is delighted when her child takes food,
As a fish is delighted when it bathes in the water,
So the true Guru is delighted when his disciples find food."
Guru Amardas took a social step forward. 'No one could gain an audience of the Guru without first partaking of the Bread of Grace at the Guru's Langar. This injunction of the Guru finished all distinction of Verna and Ashram (caste and position). Members of all the four classes of the Hindus were required to take food simultaneously on the same level, sitting together on the same matting, with no distinction whatsoever. this was contrary to the old conservative practice which was popular among the Hindus.' Not only eating together was compulsory for all the four classes but also the preparation of the food in the kitchen was to be done by the members of all the four classes. Even people of other communities were welcome in the Guru's langar. None could question whether the dishes were cooked by Brahman or a so-called low caste. All were treated alike. Apart from promoting social equality, the langar eliminated taboos about chauka- the preparation of food in special enclosure.
Another significant act of Guru Amardas was the construction of a Baoli at Goindwal. This was a deep well with eighty four steps leading down to its water. The construction of a Baoli brought about a great change amongst the Sikhs, for it had multifaced effects on their way of life and thought. While taking bath at the bank of the river Beas the caste prejudices were not shaken to the extent they were shaken when the people of different castes started taking bath in the Baoli. At the Beas the people of high and low castes could bath at reasonable distance, so that their caste prejudice were not distributed. But while taking bath in the Baoli, the people of different castes could not keep that distance. As in the langar while eating together the people had a feeling of oneness, the caste prejudice were shed off when they dipped in the same well and sipped from the same water. Before the construction of the Baoli the water for the Guru-Ka-Langar was brought from the Beas and the devotees had to walk up and down a distance of about 1 km for this purpose. Now with the Baoli at a few steps from the langar, the availability of water became very easy. Another benefit of the Baoli was that fresh and clean water was available throughout the year-even in the rainy days when the river water would be muddy and polluted.
The Sikh chronicles tell a charming story of the Mughal Emperor Akbar visiting Guru Amardas at Goindwal. He got down from his horse and walked a little distance bare-footed in his habitual reverence for all saints. It was pointed out to the emperor that it was obligatory for all the visitors to dine in the Guru's langar before meeting the Guru. So, instead of being taken into the Guru's presence he was asked to sit on the ground with other visitors and share the 'Bread of Grace'. The Emperor, who had adopted a policy of generous tolerance, compiled with this requirement and partook of the Langar. On seeing the Guru, he said: "Holy Sir, I find that your langar feeds hundreds of men and women everyday. I want to offer an estate that will suffice to pay its expenses." The Guru thankfully declined the offer and said: "I have already obtained enough from my creator. The people are my 'lands' and estates. the devotees who come from far and near bring the necessary supplies to the langar. Each day's collections are spent the same day, and for the next day we trust in Him. Enough that daily we get our bread. Enough that we are of the 'poor' and think of the Beloved.
When Raja of Haripur came to see the Guru he had also to take meal at the langar along with his Ranis and some other members of the family, before they could meet the Guru. Once some faithful Sikhs sought the permission of the Guru's daughter, Bibi Bhani, to offer her attire and ornaments, so that she might decorate herself like other girls. In reply she chanted a hymn of Guru Nanak: "All the gold and silver is illusion, and false are those who wear them," and reminded the Sikhs that the best use to which money could be put would be to fill the Guru's langar with corn and supply, the necessities of pilgrims. Guru Amardas was ever pleased with those who served selflessly in the langar. When the disciples from far and near came to meet the Guru he would always instruct them to feed the poor. The Guru so often stressed the need and importance of the service through langar. Hereunder are some stories in brief which are mentioned in the Suraj Parkash by Bhai Santokh Singh, and some of them have been also narrated by Macauliffe in the Sikh religion.
Jodh, a Brahmin, was a cook in Guru Amardas's kitchen. Leaving all pride of birth he served there. Whatever the offering the disciples brought to the Guru were handed over to him and he spent all on feeding others. He never allowed slackness to interfere with his duty and fed the hungry at all times, as many as were present. The Guru was pleased with his service of devotion and bestowed on him the spiritual knowledge and the Naam.
Lalu, Durga and Jiwanda were three disciples of the Guru. they took shelter at the feet of the Master and engaged in his service. One day while sitting near him, they asked the Guru: "We are thy servants; kindly show us the Way." "There is nothing like doing good to others," replied the Guru. "Try to serve the others at all times. This can be done in the following way. Listen and ever remember: Give to the poor and the distressed whatever wealth you possess. Wherever you find a destitute person give food and clothes to him. The greatest of all gifts is to give food at all times. Food gives life to mankind. How can other gifts equal it ?"
One day Ugar Sain, Ramu, Dipa and Nagauri came to the Guru, and prayed for instructions. The Guru in his mercy said: "Whenever a disciples come to you offer food to him..." Similarly when once Gangu, Sohan and Bhangu came to pay homage, they got the following instructions: "Share your earning s with others. The food alone is blessed which is taken after being offered to others." "In the ages gone by men used to perform Yajnas and appeased their gods by oblations burnt in fire. In this age you will get the same reward by offering food to the hungry."
The whole congregation of Dalla village came to the Guru once and prayed for general instructions for their conduct. The Guru through his grace was pleased to say: "On the days of Gurpurabs and festivals like Vaisakhi and Diwali, gather together in some place. Prepare Karah Parsaad and distribute it among the assembly. recite and sing the holy Word of the Guru. If you find anyone devoid of clothes, offer new clothes to him. Give food to the hungry and unite in helping others." Guru Amardas says: "Even if he were a most learned person of world wide renown, he would take care to remember that nothing is polluted in the kitchen. All restricted kitchens are false. Only he is pure."
Teja Singh says that from that time onwards there was no sanctity observed about eating and drinking among the Sikhs, may be gathered from the following story taken from the Dabistan-i-Mazahib: "One Partab mal, a learned Hindu said to his son who was inclined to turn Mohammadan, 'If you want to get freedom in eating you may better join Sikhism, where there is no restriction about food."