Concern for others is central to the teachings of Sikhism, as illustrated by the story of Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith, and his father. Giving to the hungry is seen as giving to God – but only if it is genuine giving from the heart. The giving of alms as a way of gaining hoped-for reward in the hereafter ‘carries no weight’, as a famous verse written by Guru Nanak reminds us.
The true path to God lies in the service of our fellow beings.
Guru Granth Sahib
Pilgrimages, penances and ritual giving
In themselves, carry no weight
Not even that of a grain of mustard seed
Guru Granth Sahib,
Guru Nanak and his father
Nanak’s criticism of the society of the day and his lack of worldly ambition worried his father, Bhai Kalu, a successful businessman. He wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. One day he decided to put his son to the test. He gave the teenaged Nanak some money and told him to go to town to find a profitable investment. Nanak dutifully went off, accompanied by his friend, Bala.
As they neared the town, Nanak saw a group of people emaciated and shivering in the winter cold. It was clear that they had not eaten for days. Nanak continued on his journey until he reached a large market. There, ignoring Bala’s warnings about Kalu’s wrath, he used up all his money buying food and blankets, which he gave to the poor and starving people he had met earlier.
They then made their way home to face the anger of Nanak’s father. Bala raced ahead and told Nanak’s sister of what Nanak had done, begging her to intercede on their behalf. Kalu was furious when he heard what Nanak had done, and matters weren’t helped by Nanak’s calm insistence that helping the needy was the most profitable use of money. Fortunately for Nanak, the love and diplomatic skills of his sister won the day and their father, slowly and grudgingly, forgave Nanak.
As a child Guru Nanak was always questioning the rituals, superstitions and prejudices of the day, and in doing so frequently upset his elders. He was critical of so-called holy men who left their families and their social responsibilities to roam the wilderness in search of God. He also criticized those engaged in the pursuit of power and status through material wealth. He maintained that the only value of money lay in its use to help others.
The Sikh emphasis on giving is seen in the institution of ‘langar’, a free communal eating area attached to every temple or gurdwara. Guru Nanak started the practice of langar against the background of a caste system in which the food of a higher caste was considered polluted by even the shadow of someone from a lower caste passing by. The Guru insisted that all people, rich and poor, beggar and king, sit together on the same level, to eat food prepared and served by those of an equally varied social background. At one gurdwara in Punjab, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, 3,000 free meals are served to visitors every half hour.
The practice of langar is also carried to other areas of social need. At the time of severe flooding in Orissa in India last year, Sikhs set up huge food camps for the thousands who had lost their homes and their livelihoods. More recently, the UK-based charity Khalsa Aid and other Sikhs were involved in the provision of langar and aid to relieve the suffering and distress in earthquake-torn Gujarat on India’s west coast. Khalsa Aid was also involved in relief work in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Serving others without distinction
The story of Bhai Khannia illustrates another aspect of Sikh teaching on service to others. The background to the story is that of active persecution of the infant Sikh community by the ruling Mughal authorities at the time of the last living Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh. Sometimes the persecution led to active conflict.
In one particularly fierce battle, Khannia, a Sikh water carrier, was seen supplying water to the enemy wounded. He was seized by angry Sikh soldiers and dragged before the Guru for punishment for his treason. The Guru listened to the soldiers’ complaint and he then turned to Khannia and asked if the complaint was true, and if so why he had been helping the enemy.
Khannia’s calm response was that the charge was true, but he was merely doing what the Gurus had taught: serving others without distinction or discrimination. The wounded on the enemy side were no threat to anyone. They were simply ordinary human beings in need of comfort and support.
Guru Gobind Singh listened patiently to Khannia’s story. He then went up to Khannia and embraced him, calling him Bhai, or brother. Congratulating Bhai Khannia on being true to the teachings of Sikhism, he gave him some ointment and bandages and asked him to continue his work of alleviating suffering wherever he found it.
Three aspects of positive living
Sikh teachings remind us that there are three aspects to positive living: meditating on God, earning by one’s own effort and sharing with others.
Meditation consists of reading and reflecting on the holy scriptures in a way that helps us to focus on positive living rather than on trivial things that can so easily deflect us. Earning by one’s own effort is a reminder of the need to live a life without begging or depending on the effort of others if we are able to work ourselves. These two teachings take us to the third and most important: sharing with or giving to others. The giving can take the form of money, food, or simply time.
Prevention rather than alleviation
While Sikh teachings strongly emphasize individual responsibility for the alleviation of poverty and distress, their main emphasis is on prevention, or the creation of a fair, just and more responsible world order.
The Gurus taught that we are all equal members of a common family, and as such all people should have the same rights, responsibilities and opportunities. They criticized all notions of caste or race as false, manmade devices to secure privilege for some and serfdom for others. Equally, they taught the full equality of women and insisted that those they described as ‘princesses’ should be encouraged to play their full part in society.
Today, more than 300 years after the time of the Gurus, we live still live in a world of genocide and ‘ethnic cleansing’. Although there has been some improvement, discrimination against women continues. We increasingly talk in an academic sort of way of our one human family, but throw up our hands in horror when, in our increasingly global economy, people move home and country to better their lot and that of their families. The message of Sikhism is that giving of charity to the less fortunate is fine, but we should also be prepared to give up something of our privileged status and standard of living, often obtained at the expense of the less fortunate.
Guru Nanak once rejected the hospitality of a rich merchant, Malik Bhago, who had a reputation for exploiting his employees. He chose instead to stay at the home of a poor carpenter Bhai Lalo. When confronted by the angry merchant, Guru Nanak boldly told him that he preferred the honestly earned coarse bread of Bhai Lalo to rich food obtained by exploiting the poor.
Those that speak for the underprivileged frequently make enemies among the rich and powerful. As a result Sikhs have suffered considerable persecution throughout their 500-year history. At one time, during Mughal rule, there was a price on the head of every Sikh caught dead or alive.
Sikh teachings are all about creating a fairer, more tolerant society, and being ready to stand up for the weak and underprivileged, however daunting the circumstances. This is best illustrated by the story of the 9th Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Teg Bahadhur. Though not a Hindu, the Guru was publicly beheaded for defending the right of Hindus to worship in the manner of their choice in the face of Mughal persecution. The Guru’s martyrdom demonstrates the total commitment to giving in Sikhism; the need not only to give to charity, but to give one’s time and even one’s life for the well-being of others.
Indarjit Singh works in the UK as a broadcaster and journalist; he is editor of the Sikh Messenger. He can be contacted on +44 20 8540 4148 or by email at email@example.com
Bhagat Pooran Singh
One man who gave his entire life to the service to others was Bhagat Pooran Singh, the founder of Pinglewara, literally a home for cripples. As a young university student in the depressed years following the end of the First World War, Pooran Singh was moved by the plight of the sick and crippled on the streets of Amritsar, with no one to care for them.
Soon the gangly figure of Pooran Singh, carrying the sick and suffering on his back to the safety and security of his own home, became a familiar sight. Astonishment turned to widespread admiration. Everyone began to refer to him as Bhagat (literally saint) Puran Singh – a saint who was living true to the Gurus’ teachings.
A groundswell of popular support from the Sikh community soon helped Pooran Singh to move those in his care to larger purpose-built premises where volunteers would help in his humanitarian work. Loving care, food and medicine helped restore the health of many who he had carried to the Pinglewara, with some choosing to stay on to provide the loving care they themselves had received. Pooran Singh’s work rapidly caught the public imagination and cash donations for his work were placed in little ‘letterboxes’, which mushroomed in Punjab’s towns and villages and are still a familiar sight today. Despite his fame, which spread throughout India and abroad, Pooran Singh never gave up his simple lifestyle, remaining totally devoted to his work until his death at the age of 90 in 1992. Today the work of the Pinglewara is strongly supported by Sikhs in India and in many other countries throughout the world.
‘I remember the TV images of thousands of Kosovar refugees escaping from the Serbian armed forces to seek safety and shelter in Albania. I felt very sad that we, the Sikhs, were not following the teachings of the Gurus and were ignoring the plight of these and many other needy people across the globe. I had looked into the general meaning of the Sikh religion, which is that we wish good welfare for all and I thought maybe I should do something.’
This is how Ravinder Singh, the chief coordinator of Khalsa Aid, described the forming of this Sikh humanitarian aid group in the UK in 1999. The motto they adopted was ‘Recognizing all human beings as one’, disregarding caste, creed, gender and religion. This reflects the instruction of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru, to ‘recognize the caste of all Humanity as one’. This spirit of equality is central to the Khalsa, the Sikh nation.
The group’s first mission was to Albania. Khalsa Aid appealed to the Sangat (congregation) for food, clothing and money, as a result of which the group was able to deliver several tonnes of aid to Kosovar refugees. Women from Hounslow’s Sangat volunteered their weekend to sort, pack and label all the aid collected.
The next mission was to Turkey, following the catastrophic earthquake in the summer of 1999. The group was able to send one Sevadar (volunteer) to the area to assess how Khalsa Aid could help. As a result arrangements were made to send several thousand water purification tablets through the Turkish Red Crescent Society. The next mission, to the cyclone-hit Orissa region of India during the winter of 1999, was undertaken at the specific request of the Sikh community in the UK. The most recent mission was to Gujarat, following the earthquake earlier this year.
At home in the UK, Khalsa Aid assists those working with the homeless and refugees, where possible working with other established groups. Members are presently thinking of making a trip to the Punjab, to link with groups and organizations there for more long-term projects. Khalsa Aid has already helped set up a long-term support programme in Kashmir, for the families of Sikhs massacred during Bill Clinton’s visit to India in 2000. This was in collaboration with FATEH, another Sikh group.
For more information, contact KA coordinator Ravinder Singh.
Khalsa Aid, PO Box 1545, Slough, Berks, SL1 2GS, UK.
Tel +44 7748 114 030