Sikhs are famous for their turbans, their honesty, their bravery as soldiers, and the Golden Temple. It’s a spectacular marble complex in the center of Amritsar, India, where 70,000 or more guests get a good vegetarian meal any time 24 / 7 / 365, and where dozens of men are reading the scripture aloud, nonstop, also 24 / 7 / 365. Let me explain…
Founded around 1500, Sikhism began with the experience of a Hindu man named Nanak. At the age of 30, he had a mystical vision of visiting heaven, where he learned that all religions–including Hinduism and Islam–are imperfect human paths leading to a perfect Divine Path. Nanak was the first of ten gurus (teachers) who served during the next 200 years until the Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth, was declared complete. The book has since then served as on ongoing “eleventh guru.”
Sikhism is one of the largest world religions, and one of the newest. We visited the Golden Temple on two successive days last week, first with the wonderful Davinder Singh as a guide, and then on our own.
As you enter the gates, you catch a glimpse of the gold-covered marble building that seems to float in a huge pool of water. The line of people waiting on the bridge to the entrance pavilion, and then the most sacred (golden) part was long, and didn’t seem to be moving, so we walked slowly around the colonnade that surrounds the four sides.
Inside the Temple are musicians and singers, and the lyrics are projected on jumbotrons like the one below. “O Nanak,” they chanted, “their faces are radiant in the court of the Lord, and many are saved along with them.” The hymn, “Kirat Karo,” is one of the three most famous in Sikhism, reminding people of their duty to work hard as well as meditate. We learned from Davinder (talking with Lynnell, below) that a Sikh house of worship is devoted to both: the inner journey of contemplating God and the outer journey of practicing truthfulness, compassion, contentment, humility, and love.
The “inner journey” was best symbolized, in our opinion, by what was happening in room after room off the colonnade: quiet prayer by individuals, accompanied by a nonstop recitation of the scripture.
In each room, a man sits in front of the scripture and chants one poem after another, until his colleague comes to take a turn. In this way, a relay of 6 men recite the entire scripture — all 1430 pages — in about 48 hours.
If you have a special intention, you can sign up to sponsor a portion or all of this recitation with that intention in mind. We stepped quietly into one such recitation room and found these two women meditating to the sound of the Sant Bhasa (holy language).
The Scripture is treated with great reverence, even put in a luxurious bed every night, under embroidered covers. Then, the “eleventh guru” is awakened the next morning and brought back into the worship space.
Another ceremony of the inner journey is quietly dipping in the pool, after taking a good soapy shower and focusing on one’s intent to walk closer to God’s Will and wash away selfish or lazy habits. Men and women have separate areas, the women’s being more screened from view.
This guy was taking advantage of the serenity of the Golden Temple by taking a nap by a marble staircase. We passed him on our way to the rooftop. Like most Sikh men, he doesn’t cut his hair, like Samson and Samuel in the Bible. Sikhs don’t drink alcohol or gamble, either.
As Davinder said, contemplation is one half of a person’s spiritual life. The other half is action, and the Sikhs are very much women and men of action. Besides being among the first to volunteer for disaster relief, and besides their stellar record of military service in India, Pakistan, the UK, Canada, and the US, Sikhs do one simple thing as well as any religious group I can think of: feed people.
Every Sikh church (they’re called gurdwaras) has a large, well-equipped kitchen, and everyone in the congregation helps with the cooking and joins in the eating. For years, I have looked forward to taking part in this; and although I felt suddenly very shy about volunteering last week, I walked up to this guy and asked him if he needed help. He handed me a stack of plates, fresh from the sanitizing bath, and motioned for me to start welcoming people. So I did. I provoked a few double-takes, but my white privilege kicked in and lots people gave me the thumbs up, grinning their approval for my joining in on something that hundreds of Indians were doing as a matter of course.
One guy took my picture, saying “USA is the best!” In fact, Lynnell and I were recruited into a half-dozen selfies per day by teenagers in Amritsar, and we could hardly say no, since we were always snapping photos of Indians.
You can get a free meal in the Golden Temple kitchen absolutely any time. The all-volunteer crew wheel in carts of flour, milk lentils, rice, oil, and radishes (below) and circles of other volunteers peel, stir, slice, and serve in always-changing groups like the one I joined.
The men and women below are cooking up lentils in spotless cauldrons over propane flames. The scene reminded me vividly of a soup kitchen crew I used to lead one Saturday a month at Trinity Church, Detroit. We mostly made chili with donations from grocery chains, and served a lot of Wonder Bread from their bakery just down the street, which is now a casino.
When you’re ready to eat, you get plate, bowl, and cutlery and walk into one of the dining halls. You find a place on a woven mat, and people come around with serving bowls, ladles, and baskets of chapati bread. I’m pretty sure there are homeless people who eat there more than once a day, every day, right alongside the tourists like me and the Sikh pilgrims from all over the world. Pilgrims know the drill, of course: walk into any Sikh house of worship and you’ll be welcomed with a meal.
I wanted to take a turn at serving food, too, but there wasn’t a break in the action at the front of the house, so I stayed put. I could also have volunteered to hand out drinking water or help with construction and renovation work, like the man below is doing. He and a bunch of teenagers were carrying rubble out to the street in baskets.
Sikhs also have a sacrament they call holy communion. In the course of their worship service, everyone gets a little porridge sweetened with honey. Like Christian communion, it’s more of a reminder than a proper meal. They have baptism, too, but one should wait until ready to follow all the ethical and ritual commandments before accepting baptism. It’s serious business, and our guide, who is our age, told us he is still not really ready to be baptized.
The custom of feeding everyone, called “langar,” is not a sacrament in the same way as baptism or communion. But in keeping with St. Augustine’s definition, “it’s an outward, visible sign of an inward, invisible grace.” Or as my theology teacher in high school used to say, “it does what it signifies.” A sacrament is not just a symbol, though it’s a ritual full of symbolism. It’s a ceremony that somehow accomplishes what it seems, on the surface, to be only playing at.
I’ve often said that Christianity would be a very different religion if, instead of the sacramental “meal” of bread and wine, the followers of Jesus had picked up on his other mandate from the Last Supper: “wash one another’s feet.”
What if that sort of humble service was the norm, instead of taking a little wafer for yourself and sipping wine from a chalice? I think it would be a powerful thing.
It might make us more humble, too, though I fear we’d still have arguments about doctrine. Instead of debating whether communion was the Real Presence of Christ or Just A Memorial, maybe denominations would split over Soap vs. Just Water, or Splash Through A Shallow Pool vs. Let Someone Actually Touch Your Feet.
The Sikhs have their arguments, to be sure. One group in British Columbia has relaxed the rule on haircuts and beards, allowing clean-shaven men full leadership positions, even though the ban on cutting hair is one of the 5 khalsa requirements. The community eventually split in two.
That’s organized religion for you. And disorganized religion, too.
“We all get to be human,” Lynnell says, though we know we can do better!
It’s true. Sigh.