Fighting Covid, the Sikh way

You must have heard and seen Sikh groups coming forward to help in times of perils. Some provide free food while others help in other modes. What makes them do so? London-based KAMAL PREET KAUR takes a look.

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SIKHS IN ACTION: United Sikhs Malaysia official Mandeep Singh brought some 1.5 tones of groceries to the Orang Asli, one of the Malaysian aborigine groups, in Sungai Jang in Kuala Kubu Bharu, Selangor, in April 2020. – Photo: United Sikhs
By Kamal Preet Kaur | OPINION |

Picture this. A tiny flickering light at the end of a long dark tunnel. As you move closer a figure starts to appear, a full-bearded man with a turban on his head, holding a lamp with a reassuring smile. Back to reality and the picture doesn’t disappoint.

In the times of Covid-19, while the whole world has been pushed indoors, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with professional medics, essential workers and relief teams as harbingers of hope, is a comparatively small religious community of Sikhs. They are a cut above the rest due to its compassion, empathy, generosity of spirit, fearlessness and an iron will to serve. They stand out in the vast sea of humanity with their distinct colourful turbans, adorning them proudly like a crown, which comes with a responsibility to seek and work for Sarbat Da Bhala, welfare of one and all.

The answer to ‘where do these miniscule number of visibly religious people get their lion-heartedness and a tender touch?’ lies in the basic tenets of the faith that originated about 550 years ago in the North West Indian region of Punjab. It’s the magic of their faith that gives them strength to go out and help those in distress despite the risk of contagion.

‘Faith’ is derived from Latin fides, meaning ‘trust, faith, confidence, reliance, credence, belief.’ And Sikhs, the followers of a belief system founded by Guru Nanak, more than just believe in the Guru’s commandments of Kirat Karna (earning honest livelihood), Naam Japna (meditating on God’s name) and Vand Chhakna (sharing with those less fortunate); they endeavour to live up to it as a community and individuals every day.

The statement by the 19th century Oxford professor, author and poet Matthew Arnold — faith is neither the submission of the reason, nor is it the acceptance, simply and absolutely upon testimony, of what reason cannot reach. Faith is: the being able to cleave to a power of goodness appealing to our higher and real self, not to our lower and apparent self — sits well with the believers of the Sikh faith.

FAITH FUNDAMENTALS

Guru Nanak taught that living an active and contributory life of truthfulness, self-control and purity is above the metaphysical truth, and that the ideal man is one who establishes union with God, understands and carries out His Will. He made Simran (meditation) and Sewa (self-less service) as two important pillars of the faith which help Sikhs realise the Divine within their consciousness.

Meditating on God’s name elevates the spirit to higher levels of consciousness and self-less service keeps the seeker humble in the grand scheme of the Divine Order. Balancing the two is the crux of Sikh theological, congregational and individual practice. Guru Nanak also established the system of langar or communal kitchen, in order to demonstrate the need to share and have equality between all people.

The importance of langar as soul food was further signified by the third Guru, Guru Amar Dass who proclaimed ‘Pehle pangat, pachhai sangat’ asking all to first partake food served to them before joining the holy congregation. It signifies that if one can sit with others to eat without discrimination of caste, gender, colour, creed, religious and financial standing, only then does one become ready to realise Divine.

Fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Dev commanded Sikhs to give ‘dasvandh’ one-tenth of their income for welfare causes. “The Provider” is an oft-repeated attribute of God in Sikh scriptures, and considered to be an important characteristic of the individual as well as the larger Sikh Body or Khalsa. The manifestation of the great benevolence of the Khalsa pours forth from the individual contributions of each of the Guru’s Sikhs multiplied manifold; and like a fountain, it showers the blessings from the common pool on all of those who open their arms to receive.

The Tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, founded the Khalsa, the order of the Khalis (pure), saint-soldierly people, who would stand for the oppressed and the downtrodden. They would be fearless and fair, recognising all human race as one. He ordained “Manas ki jaat sabhai ekai pehchanbo.” It is also no coincidence that first one of the Five Beloved Ones (the first five to be initiated into the Khalsa fold) was called Daya Singh. Daya or compassion is the foundation for Dharam, the righteous conduct.

This is a glimpse into underlying teachings of the Gurus which motivate Sikhs to be beacons of hope when the going gets rough for the world. Whether it’s a manmade conflict, as in Yemen and Syria, or a natural calamity like a tsunami, hurricane, floods or forest fires, if there are Sikhs, they come together quickly to arrange aid and relief as required. This often includes delivering life-saving food supplies and other essentials to the people who are left reeling under the effect of these catastrophes. Covid-19 is no different. People around the world are suffering, and Sikhs, as commanded by the Gurus, have come together yet again to provide succour.

Gurjit Singh, Ravinder Singh Oberoi, head granthi, Jasbir Singh, Gurbir Singh Chadha, Arminder Singh and Simerjote Singh Chadha all Members of Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar Sikh community in Dublin with some of their food ready for delivery around the city. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/ The Irish Times
LESSONS IN SELFLESS SERVICE

The way to go about doing relief work by putting the needs of others before their own, even at the cost of risking their own life, has been shown to the Sikhs by the Gurus themselves. There are historic precedents from the life and times of Gurus that guides the Sikh response to all calamities, including the current pandemic Covid 19.

In the last decade of the 16th century, India faced huge famine due to lack of rains. Later, bubonic plague in 1598 added to the miseries of the population. Historian Noor Al Hak records that Lahore, Punjab’s major trade and political centre during the Mughal period, saw huge devastation. Streets of Lahore were filled with corpses emanating unbearable stench and spreading disease. Emperor Akbar and his administrators abandoned their populace as situation spiralled out of control. It is then, the Fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Dev, took upon himself to alleviate the misery of the hapless poor and vulnerable people. The Guru, along with a group of Sikhs, physicians and volunteers travelled to Lahore with all monetary offerings received at Amritsar, the Guru’s abode.

The arrival of the Guru in Lahore brought hope and faith for those living in fear of death and despair. The team of volunteers set to work under Guru Arjan’s dynamic leadership to offer solace to the suffering masses. The first task was to take care of the dead, and people were paid to help clear the bodies off the streets, to be buried and cremated. Streets were cleaned. Langar was set up to feed the poor and destitute. Gurbani was sung to provide emotional and spiritual healing to those grieving. Physicians gave people all possible medical assistance those weakened by prolonged suffering and disease. To help get people back to work, Guru Arjan started a building project in remembrance of Guru Ram Dass ji, his father and the Fourth Guru. This provided economic support to many in need. Guru Arjan stayed there for eight months setting up a blueprint to help rebuild a society from ravages of death and famine.

Similarly, when small pox wreaked havoc in Northern India during the time of Eighth Guru, Guru Har Krishan, at the age of eight, showed amazing grace and courage while caring for those affected by the epidemic. He went from street to street, feeding, tending, comforting those infected and grieving. In doing so, he himself caught the infection and sacrificed his life for the greater good.

The Tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh’s life went fighting battles against tyrant Mughal and other enemy forces. One of his Sikhs, Bhai Ghanaiya, is revered for offering water to the fallen, hurt and dying soldiers on the battlefield. When he appeared in the Guru’s court to face complaints that he was helping the enemy, he had said “Dear Guru, as per your teachings, I only see the light of God in all. I see no enemy. Na ko bairi nahe begana, sagal sang humko ban aayi”. Guru Gobind Singh then gave him medicinal balm and asked him to not only offer water, but also tend to the wounded.

It is these life lessons from the Great Gurus that guide Sikhs to serve those in need no matter who and where they are, with humility and kindness. It is a step closer to Almighty. It is Guru’s commandment that Almighty Waheguru dwells in all living beings and serving the humanity, those less fortunate or less privileged, compassionate holding of hand, is all part of sewa, self-less service, that is important for a Sikh’s spiritual progress. Sewa karat hoye nehkami tiss ko hot prapat swami, says Guru Arjan, which means that those who serve others without any desire of reward or recognition, meet the Lord Master. Sikhs are not allowed to silently witness pain, injustice, suffering or discrimination and not do something about it. Their turbans bear testimony to the fact that Guru wanted them to remain visible, so that they can’t hide or run away from their social responsibility.

COVID-19 AND THE SIKH COLLECTIVE

With traditions of Sarbat Da Bhala (welfare of all) and Chardikala (positive mindset) under their belt, it is no surprise that despite the dangers posed by the novel coronavirus Sikhs are out of their homes, helping where needed.

In India, where the need is far too great due to sheer number of the poor caught in the crisis; Sikhs have geared up to serve. They have set up langars in various cities and streets across the country to provide sustenance where there is none. Hundreds and thousands of meals are being served through the gurdwaras. Many in Delhi have set up medical help to tend to the bleeding blistered feet of those who are having to walk hundreds of kilometres in summer heat. Others are pooling in money to offer travel services so that workers and labourers from different parts of India can reach their native places.

In other countries, where situation is not as alarming or as overwhelming as in India, suitable response and aid work has been put in place by various religious organisations, institutions, charities and individuals. Gurdwaras, the door to the Guru, that have had to close down worldwide to the general public following governments’ instructions during pandemic, have taken langar to those who need it most.

Thousands of bags of packaged, fresh, hot, vegetarian meals are being served to the homeless, vulnerable, elderly and those in need across continents. To spread and share Guru’s message to the regular congregations, now isolating, many gurdwaras are using latest technological ways to live stream programmes on social networks like YouTube and Facebook. The collaboration during the times of social distancing has been possible largely because the elderly who often run services in the gurdwara had to be shielded for their safety and young people, who were normally at the fringes of gurdwara affairs have had to take active part in running food and essential services.

Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Southall, the largest gurdwara outside India, has been serving 2,000 meals a day through its mobile langar sewa. Similarly, gurdwaras across London, Midlands, North, South of England, as well as Wales, Scotland and Sikhs in Northern Ireland are volunteering to feed the left-outs in the UK. They are all offering to provide meals and urgent transport, provide shopping for food and other essentials such as medication, as well as providing telephone support for emotional wellbeing. Meanwhile, in Slough, Guru Maneyo Granth Gurdwara has gone a step further, by not only providing delivery of food and essentials to the community, but offering to open up its entire 4-acre site to the NHS for use as an emergency hospital, if needed.

Stellar charity work is being done by Khalsa Aid, Midlands Langar Sewa Society, Langar Aid, NishkamSWAT to reach out to the overworked Covid-19 frontline staff in hospitals and police stations besides enhancing their regular homeless and other relief work. Many of these charities are also providing protective and sanitary equipment such as face masks, toilet rolls and gloves.

United Sikhs have set up food banks in association with gurdwaras in the UK and other parts of the world. There are a large number of Sikh doctors and nurses, serving the NHS in the UK, looking after the Covid patients. Laudable work is being also done across the US, in California, New York, New Jersey, Montana and Wisconsin. Sikhs are serving the needy in Canadian cities of Vancouver, Brampton, Montreal, Ottawa, Victoria, Toronto and Winnipeg. They have collaborated and offering outreach services in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney in Australia as well as Auckland and Christchurch in New Zealand. Sikh aid and relief work in parts of Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Pakistan and Kenya has also made rounds on social media, which has played a vital role in this worldwide charitable effort.

It is also interesting to note that many Sikhs who haven’t been able to make direct contributions to these ongoing relief efforts due to their own challenging circumstances regularly hold group prayers, kirtan and virtual gurbani recitations around the world. Videos of Sikh households in parts of India, sitting in their balconies or outside their front doors, reciting prayers for Sarbat Da Bhala make an inspiring watch. Similarly, diaspora Sikhs have made the most of the lockdown scenario by organising live religious and spiritual, hymn singing, discourse and discussion programmes on social media to uplift spirits and inspire. All these have helped reinforce Guru’s message on bhana, the Divine Will. Gurbani says where nothing helps, chanting and meditating on God’s Name creates a powerful force and provides sustenance. Spiritual wisdom shows us the way to cope with uncertain times, to deal with grief and suffering in life.

Free food distribution at Gurdwara Sahib Myanmar – Photo: Supplied
COVID LEGACY FOR SIKHS

Unless we learn to revere this Earth as mother and taking leaf from gurbani understand the concept of Pavan Guru, Pani Pita, Mata Dharat Mahat and live in harmony with nature pandemics and natural calamities will continue to reoccur. There needs to be imminent positive shift in the collective behaviour of humans. Sikhs are armed with great set of faith values and should continue to be force for greater good. Langar is not just nourishment for unfed bodies, it also keeps alive faith in inherent human goodness. It will remain significantly relevant in foreseeable future, and until there remains inequality.

Shabad, the word of God, has power to transform lives, uplift the downtrodden and give meaning to our transient existence. Lives should remain as simplified as they have been during lockdowns. Gurdwaras should continue with outreach services and become sanctuaries as envisioned by the Great Gurus.

Words of Martin Luther summarise what faith means to Sikhs– Faith a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.

Kamal Preet Kaur is a London-based freelance journalist writing diaspora stories for various publications in India. 

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