Sangat and Pangat
Guru Nanak felt that the real cause of the misery of the people was their disunity born of diversity of belief. He therefore, refused to recognize any distinction between man and man and tried to bring his followers together both in thought and deed. He inculcated a common mode of worship and a common social institute by laying the foundation of Sangat and Pangat. Sangat means "association". It is getting together of noble and good people. Pangat literally means a same row. It stands for people sitting and eating together in the same row in Guru-ka-langar. From the time of Guru Nanak, Sangat and Pangat have gone together, for the Sikhs, both in percept as well as in practice. Wherever there was a Sangat there also was a Langar, as these Sangats were 'not merely places of worship but also wayside refectories which gave food and shelter to indigent wayfarers.
Bhai Gurdas recapitulates the everyday duties of a Sikh thus:A Sikh is to rise from his bed in the last watch of the night and take his bath. He should then repeat the Name in silence and absolute concentration as instructed by the Guru. His next duty is to go to the Sangat and there, steeped in true reverence, recite and listen to the holy hymns. And before partaking of his food, he should distribute a part of it to others. At dusk he is enjoined upon to recite the Sodar and before retiring the Sohila Sahib.
A Sikh has thus been given a simple holy routine for daily practice. He has been asked to cultivate a certain discipline. A true Sikh has to be unceasing in his devotion for the Guru and service to the Sangat. Sangat is also called Satsangat (congregation of true ones) or Sadh sangat (the congregation of the saints). The sangats played a significant role in the development and the success of Sikh missionary work. The Sikh belief is that the Guru lives in the sangat. The guild of devotees represents the Guru and can guide the community for various purposes. Those who join the sangat learn to serve the people and in the company of the true ones disciples get lesson of Love for the Holy Name. "In holy company we become true and develop love for the word".
When a Sikh joins the sangat, he comes in contact with noble people. He feels a great change in himself. It helps him to remove his egotism, angularities and eccentricities. He learns to work in c co-operative and democratic set-up and by doing so his sense of selfishness vanishes. In sangat all disciples are equal. They pray together and share meals with each other. They get pleasure in offering voluntary service for community development and social welfare. The Sikh Gurus established sangats at different places and the members of these sangats dug wells for the benefit of the masses, built rest-houses and looked after the needs of the poor and the disabled. Through these sangats service was done not just to the Sikhs but also to the members of other communities. The Sikh Gurus established Dharamshalas. Such places of worship and shelter catered to the needs of pilgrims, visitors and the homeless. These were Langars with such hospices where religion was preached in a practical manner. The Sikh concept of charity or philanthropy is a widely social concept. Charity or Dan in the Sikh religion is not merely "giving alms". It rather stands for service. The exhortation of Dan was meant to create an economic agency, which through offerings made to the Gurus, served to keep the Sikh Langars alive. Later on, it crystallized into the institution of Daswandh (tithe) and the Gurus established Masands for its collection.
Teja Singh says, "It is the glory of the Sikh history that the Guru had in mind the duties of a nation, as much as the duties of an individual". The Sikh were given the realization that their concern was not merely their personal salvation, but being member of a community they also had a large set of duties and responsibilities. The ideal of service in this larger context became intimately bound up with concept of the "Sikh Brotherhood" or the "Sikh Sangat". So the ideal of service for the Sikh ceases to be merely individualistic and involves a sense of corporate responsibility. A corporate sense could only arise if certain obligations were made definite and universal, so that a character of a corporate liability is evolved. "It is important to grasp this" says I.B.Bannerji, "because it explains the specialty that arose in Sikhism. It shows why, inspite of the fact that the ideal of service and the inculcation of a spirit of brotherhood were equally significant features of almost all the schools of religious revival in contemporary India, it was in Sikhism alone that sense of corporate unity gradually evolved." And from its earliest days, in Sikhism, one manifestation of this corporate obligation was the maintenance of the Langar.
As the faith gradually grew and gained popularity a situation arose when it became necessary to organize the Sangats and provide the Sikhs with convenient local centers. It was to meet this necessity that the Manji-system was reorganized during the days of Guru Amar Das. He divided the 'Sikh spiritual empire' into 22 manjis. Manjis literally means 'couches' on which the Gurus sat and issued instructions on their audiences. These manjis organized the Sikh sangats and as the Sangats multiplied steadily so grew the Guru-ka-Langar, a free community kitchen, which is an essential part of every Sikh Gurdwara or the Sikh temple. The Masands, together with the Sangats forward the pivot of the organization during the time of Guru Arjan and for several decades had creditably served the cause of Sikhism. The well-knit organization of the Sangats and the Masands not only kept the Sikhs together and in touch with the Guru, but also provided them with funds necessary for the various kitchens at different places and for other common purposes.
Under Guru Hargobind and his successors the system of Sangats and Masands was supplemented by several Dhuans (hearths) and Bakhshishs (bounties). But the Masand system could not continue for a long time in proper order. The misappropriation of offerings became a habit with almost all the Masands. So Guru Gobind Singh, convinced of the perversity of the Masands, finished this system. Because of liberal traditions, Sikhs are bound by no strict dogmas or rituals, observe no rigid do's and don'ts in the matter of food and recognize no difference between man and man in Sangat and Pangat. These are inviolable principles of the Sikh tradition as laid down by Guru Nanak and carried on by the other Gurus, and are being followed by the faithful Sikhs till now. A true Sikh spirit shines through the congregational prayer and chanting of hymns in the Sikh Sangats, and serving of food in the Langars to all who sit in the Pangats, which are very essential religious and social services in the Sikh Gurdwaras. These institution have played a great role to build the liberal and tolerant character of the Sikhs.
'Man lives by bread, but not by bread alone. And he lives not just for bread, there is some higher and nobler aim to live for.' This is what a devout Sikh feels. The Sikh Gurus combined worship and bread. A Sikh Temple is the 'Temple of worship and Prayer', and the Langar attached to it is the 'Temple of Bread'. In the Common Kitchen people who come to eat together sit in Pangats. This is the arrangement for feeding the people in Guru-Ka-Langar since its inception. Pangat-system was popularized by Guru Amar Das, the third Guru of Sikhs. Pangat in the community mess gives practical training in discipline of service. Disciples of the Guru not only sit together in congregation to pray together but also sit in the Langar to share the food. Both these are important part of the Sikh Religion.
Probably the most largely attended community meal in the whole world is the Langar of the Sikhs. When the Sikh people celebrate the birthday of a Guru, or a death anniversary of a martyr, free meals are provided for all who participate in the celebrations. In such mass meals not only the Sikhs but members of other communities so often join to share the food in the name of the Guru. Normally there is a dining hall with every Sikh Gurdwara which is of great importance. Suitable space and proper arrangement for the pantry, the kitchen for the cooking are essential for a langar. Supply of water, vegetables, lentils, milk, sugar and ghee (purified butter) and other amenities are to be ensured first to run a langar smoothly. The maintenance of the langar is the responsibility of the community.
The sangat and pangat provide avenues of service, as for example collection of funds to secure fuel and rations, cleaning of grains, cutting of vegetables, cooking of food and distribution of meals. Similarly serving of water, washing of utensils and dishes, and the cleaning of the dining hall, through sangat and pangat one gets practical lesson of love for human being and hospitality and also a fulfillment of the Sikh's obligation to share his food with others. In order to ensure a regular and permanent source of food grains and income for the maintenance of sangat and pangat many devout Sikhs make adequate provisions. On the occasion of festivals - like Vaisakhi and Diwali - or the birth and death anniversaries of the Gurus the magnitude of the langar can be imagined when it is realized that mammoth members, ranging from 20,000 to 100,000 attend a single meal. And it is held in every city in India where the Sikhs are in sufficient number to raise the necessary finance and obtain the required quota to ration and materials.
The spirit of co-operation and dedication the prevails on such occasions among the organizers and their associates in truly remarkable. 'The generosity of the Sikh community in the form of monetary and material contributions can be rivaled only be the sense of service displayed by its members. The highly-placed and more prosperous Sikhs not only contribute large sums towards meeting the expenses of the langar, but also vie with one another in volunteering for the lowliest of the work related to the organizational aspect of the function.' The preparation of meals for the multitude attending a langar calls for great organizational abilities. Enclosures are constructed in the style of an army camp. The cooking is done on the spot in huge open-air kitchen divided into various sections.
The expression of service and a belief in the unreality of caste and class distinction is but an extension of earliest teachings of the Sikh Gurus. Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth master, strengthened such an attitude among the Sikhs and in all rites emphasized the spirit of fellowship of and duty. A communion ceremony was specially designed to encourage an outlook of equality among all in the faith. After the Amrit ceremony all who are baptized in Sikh style partake of cooking of consecrated flow, purified butter and sugar - known as Karah Parsaad and thus set themselves free from meaning less restriction between man and man. It is obvious that the langar serves a dual purpose. It is a symbol of Sikh recognition of equality among all people, to whatever caste, creed, color, nationality of religion that may belong. it also helps the Sikhs to put into practice the spirit of social service.
It is not unusual to see at a langar of the Sikhs a millionaire seated next to his own servant in a pangat. Some high caste having his meal along with a harijan, or a landlord sitting along with his workers. Attending to the needs of others among them there may be his own master. While reciting Gurbani, the hymns of the Gurus, in jovial mood and at the same time partaking of food at the same place are common features at a Guru's langar. The spirit of true socialism at a langar must be understood and allowed to flourish beyond the socio-religious field to which it has been confined so far. This aspect of Sikhism is laudable and should not be overlooked by the leaders of the community, who, in politics, reveal separatist tendencies. It needs to be encouraged by the Sikhs themselves, so that members of their faith will prove a guiding example to other communities in India.
The differences are forgotten at the langar, where people of all ranks, denomination and political affiliations rub shoulders, the food and Karah Parsaad that is taken symbolize the acceptance of equality in all spheres. It should be the birth of greater sagacity and understanding among their leaders, so that disruptive cries are not raised any longer and the Sikh community continues to be an inherent and active part of the country and the world. In fact, Sangat and Pangat had a potent influence in the emancipation of the down-trodden in India in general and the Punjab in particular. These institutions gradually brought before the people the vision of a classless democratic society, where all could claim equal status in faith and in practice. These allied and integrated institutions bestow upon the Sikhs a distinct individuality, dignity and unity. They give them the discipline of service and a spirit of co-operation, teach them philanthropy, equality and brotherhood.