A Sikh Theology of Food

Food as a Divine gift

Food is part of the spiritual life of every Sikh, which Sikhs commonly referred to as rijak, divine sustenance, or giras, nourishment. It is understood that after creating the Creation, the Divine continuously nourishes it and sustains it through breath and food. As the Sikh Guru, Guru Amar Das writes:

The Creator created the creation; the Creator gazes upon it, and blesses it with breath and nourishment 
(SGGS, 1055)

The Sikh Gurus remind us that the constant nourishment by the Creator enables us to maintain a healthy mind and body, which we treat as a temple for the Divine. Hence a person who is spiritually attuned is one who accepts these blessings of the great Benefactor and eats according to need, avoiding excess and overindulgence.

The Sikh Gurus further laid great emphasis on the state of mind with which we accept the blessings of this world, living in harmony with Divine:

While laughing, playing, dressing and eating, one is liberated. 
(SGGS, 522)

The Sikh Gurus remind us that even in the normal activities of our lives, we can attain union with the Divine. In Sikhism, the emphasis is on the Divinity contained in one’s own self. It is through eating as well as drinking, playing and laughing that we achieve union with our Inner Master, the highest power contained in all.   

Honest and ethical labour

During the time of the Sikh Gurus (1469 to 1708), Sikhs who lived in rural areas often specialized in agriculture and artisanship, while those living in towns and cities excelled in trade and commerce. For all fields of work, the Sikh Gurus narrated three basic principles to guide daily living:

                        Naam Japna living consciously with the Divine,

                        Kirt Karna ethical and honest work, and

                        Vand Chakna sharing one’s earnings with others.

So central are the ideas of ethical living and honest work that all ten Gurus tried to exemplify them throughout their lives. Today, all Sikh children are taught that the best food is that which is made with pure intention.

Food production

The Gurus used the language of farming to communicate to farmers developing one’s Inner Self, to attain harmony with the Beloved in this world. While speaking to farmers, the fifth Guru, Guru Arjan Dev Ji used the metaphor of cultivating the land with one’s own hands to describe union with the Beloved:

By Your Command, the month of Saawan (monsoon season) has come.

I have hooked up the plough of Truth, and I plant the seed of the Name in hope that the Lord, in His Generosity, will bestow a bountiful harvest. 

(SGGS, 73)

Guru Nanak used the metaphor of cultivating the land with one’s own hands to describe how one should farm the mind-field of this world:

Make love the farm, purity the water, truth and contentment the cows and bulls; humility the plow, consciousness the plowman, remembrance the preparation of the soil, and union with the Divine the planting time. (SGGS, 955)

According to the Sikh Gurus, righteous living in honest labor with one’s mind attuned to the Divine would render a bountiful harvest.

While intensive farming has come under greater scrutiny in recent years, through the heavy use of genetically modified seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and farm machinery, Sikh thought continuous encourages us to marvel, and be in awe of and to live in harmony with Creation, for it only the Divine that knows the true nature of the created Universe.

As Guru Nanak describes:

“Nature is created by the Will of the Divine. The Divine knows best and having created everything complete. The Divine has left no process incomplete.” (SGGS, M. 1 – Need page citation) 

The Sikhs Gurus remind us that humans are unique among all forms of creation, yet we do not have the right to exploit nature. Since the Earth is created by the Divine, everything has the right to live, exist and flourish. We do not have the right to destroy, exploit or modify any part of the ecosystem. Since we have not created it, we do not have the right to destroy it or make any species extinct in it.

Langar: A food system based on compassion

One of the most important traditions in Sikhism is Guru Ka Langar, or the community kitchen. In every gurdwara there is a kitchen, open to all regardless of caste, creed, gender, social standing or need. The tradition was not intended be a symbolic gesture of charity, but to fully involve all who came to the gurdwara in the cultivation and provision of food. In the times of the Sikh Gurus, all who sought the Guru’s guidance would first receive a lesson in the oneness of humanity, sitting together on the ground enjoying basic meal with others.

The aim was that this sharing of food would illustrate, experience and embody the two traditions of sangat and pangat. Sangat refers to the ennobling influence of people who meet together in a shared aspiration towards truthful living. Pangat refers to the idea central to langar, which is of the one family, made of all humanity, sitting together to serve each other. Guru Amar Das felt this was so important that he expected every visitor to take langar before seeing him.

At that time this was such an important gesture not only because people were hungry, but also because there were so many rules in India about who could sit and eat with whom, that the Sikh Gurus wished to show that food should be shared by all, regardless of caste, creed, class, age, gender or any of those divisions that come between us and a sense of our common humanity.

As the tradition developed from the Gurus’ period onwards, farmers became accustomed to bringing the first crop from their fields to their nearby gurdwara. If a farmer is going to harvest wheat, he or she will bring the first wheat bags to the gurdwara. Similarly an orchard owner would bring the first fruit before selling the rest of the harvest, and hence the supply of food was bountiful.

In Panjab and many parts of South Asia today, langar is offered every day in nearly every gurdwara. Every day around 65,000 people come to eat a meal in the Guru Ram Das Langar Hall at Darbar Sahib, the Golden Temple, in Amritsar. Throughout the world the langar provides food for anyone who wishes to share it, and every day around 30 million people are fed with good, honestly bought food, provided free by Sikh Gurdwaras. 

The Guru taught that: “the Divinely-conscious person is animated with an intense desire to do good in this world.” (273 – Need citation) And throughout Sikhism, people are increasingly driven to do small and great acts that are good in this world. One small example of this is how langar kitchens in the subcontinent and elsewhere are beginning to look at issues like composting, waste disposal, and using biofuel or solar energy instead of wood, so there is not unnecessary waste, which is good.

On eating and raising animals

Compassion is at the heart of the langar tradition, and this compassion is extended to the rules of food provision. In order to make the food acceptable and delicious to the widest possible number of people who wish to share it, the langar is traditionally vegetarian for maximum inclusivity. According to the official Code of Conduct for Sikhs, the only absolute rule about eating meat is to avoid ritually slaughtered meat (halal) as per practice during the time of Guru Gobind Singh Ji.   

Though eating meet personal choice of every Sikh, it is certainly a Sikh understanding that humanity should be kind to animals and not use them for greed or exploitation. The Gurus were not alive when mass-production and industrial agricultural techniques were introduced, but a Sikh’ s personal choice should reflect kindness to Creation.

As Guru Arjan Dev reminds us:

Being kind to all life – this is more meritorious than bathing at the sixty-eight sacred shrines of pilgrimage and the giving of all kind of charity. That person, upon whom the Divine bestows Mercy, is a wise person. (SGGS, 136)

Hence a simple diet based on kindness to Creation and ethical production is one that will offer true sustenance to a Sikh.