America has much to learn from Sikhs by Diana Eck
Diana Eck is Professor of Comparative Religion & Indian Studies, Harvard University
If the assailant at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin had been simply a curious neighbor or a local visitor, he would have been warmly welcomed for morning tea and snacks as the community assembled for worship. Later on, he would have been served a sumptuous lunch, with the whole congregation seated together — rice, vegetarian curries and lentils ladled out in generous portions. He would have discovered a religious community so confident and expansive in its hospitality that it would embrace a complete stranger.
As director of the Pluralism Project, I have studied the changing face of American religion for 20 years. No religious community I have ever encountered demonstrates the meaning of hospitality as abundantly as the Sikhs. I have visited Sikh temples (called gurdwaras) from coast to coast. In addition to a spacious prayer hall where the congregation sings the devotional hymns of the Sikh scriptures, each gurdwara is equipped with a huge, almost industrial-size kitchen to prepare food for anyone and everyone who comes — community members and strangers alike.
I have enjoyed both the hymns and the hospitality dozens of times at gurdwaras in Boston, often with a class of students in tow. I ask, “May I come with my students?” No problem, bring all 20 or 30, and stay for lunch, is always the response.
In India, the signature community meal, called a langar, is a daily affair, while in the U.S. this common meal takes place mostly on Sundays when the community gathers. Every Sunday, volunteers cook a hearty vegetarian lunch for, say, 300 or 400 people. Families sign up to cook to honor special occasions — a family graduation or anniversary. Men, women and children learn to manage the huge kettles, mixers and stainless steel bowls and to move deftly through row upon row of congregants seated on the floor in the dining hall, ladling out the food.
This hospitality is not just a gesture; it is foundational to the Sikh faith. Eating together is what knits the Sikh community together and breaks down the barriers that divide the wider human community. In caste-conscious India of the 15th century, when the teacher Guru Nanak first gathered what became the Sikh community, the common meal was an egalitarian human revolution. In plain ritual language it spelled out the fact that among Sikhs there would be no discrimination of high caste or low, no male or female, no Muslim or Hindu, no Sikh or non-Sikh.
We are just people, equal in the eyes of the one God. Eating together symbolizes a Sikh’s personal rejection of discrimination and prejudice. The meal is simple vegetarian fare, not because all Sikhs are vegetarian, but because this is the food that can be shared most widely, especially across religious lines. Sikhs remind us that eating together is one of the important liturgies of the human community, for people of every faith and none.
Most Americans still know little of the Sikh Americans whose history in the United States, dating to the early 20th century, is now firmly part of our common history. While we catch up on our basic education, however, it is important to know that Sikhs share three distinctly and deeply American values — the importance of hard work, a commitment to human equality, and the practice of neighborly hospitality.
Not surprisingly, at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek last Sunday, the Sikhs offered the food they had prepared to the hundreds of emergency workers, police officers and staff who surrounded the temple. The dignity and generosity of the Sikh community in the wake of this violence remind us just how much we have to learn from these neighbors.
May we all share more common meals together as we discover what “we the people” truly means.
Diana L. Eck is professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University and director of the Pluralism Project. She may be contacted at email@example.com.
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