On the 15th of April 1469, when a child was born to Kalyan Chand Das Bedi, he was overjoyed. But little did he know that the child he was about to christen ‘Nanak’ was no ordinary mortal. Nanak’s eminence first comes to the fore thanks to his elder sister ‘Bebe Nanki’, who also becomes his first disciple. Nanak’s actions since birth were quite afar from the comprehension of the people around him. His father too was so frustrated with him that he sent him at the age of 15 to his sister, who was married to Jai Ram of Sultanpur. People soon start regarding him as ‘Baba Nanak,’ as he slowly emerges as a spiritual soul. Because his thoughts were so far ahead of his time, people come to realize the depth of his utterances slowly, and over time, he evolves as their spiritual master, becoming ‘Sahib Sri Guru Nanak Dev ji’.
Baba Nanak always did things attempting to bring equality to society, even in childhood. Coming from a Kshatriya (Bedi Khatri) family, he was to be invested with the sacred thread called ‘Janeu’. So at age of 5, his father assembles all family members for the ‘Janeu’ ceremony of Nanak. Just as the priest, Hardial, was about to put the sacred thread around his neck, Nanak stops him, and asks him about the importance of this thread. The priest replies that it is important as without it, one will be regarded as a shudra. Nanak, all of 5 years, says:
“dayaa kapaah santokh soot jat gandhee sat vat. ayhu janeu jee kaa hai ta paaday ghat
naa eh tutai naa mal lagai naa eh jalai na jaa-ay. Dhan so maanas naankaa jo gal chalay paa-ay.”
The above Shloka from Asa Di Var, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, means: “Out of the cotton of mercy roll the thread of contentment, twisting them with righteous zeal, tie them into a knot of continence. O pandit, it will not break or get soiled or be burnt or lost. Blessed is the man, o Nanak, who goes about with such a thread on his neck.” This incident comes as a shock to the entire family and the villagers. But this was just the beginning. One day, his father gives him twenty rupees (a big amount in 15th century) to go to the market in a nearby town and get some goods that may be sold in their village for a profit. Nanak meets some poor saints on his way and uses this money to feed them and clothe them, spending all that his father gave him to buy goods. He then returns home and announces with joy to his father that he have done the most profitable deal of all times. “I have given food to those who were hungry and clothes to the needy.” His father was so angry, that he slaps him for wasting the family’s hard earned money. But this one incident of feeding the poor changed so many things in the history of mankind and Sikhism.
This laid the foundation of the ‘Langar’ (Free Kitchen) concept, where everyone is served food without any charge or discrimination. It became the prime duty of all Nanak’s followers to come and contribute to such community kitchens feeding the needy. Today, the Golden Temple of Amritsar alone feeds more than 1,00,000 visitors daily, who without discrimination of caste, creed or color, sit on the ground side by side and partake in the food prepared for everyone. It is amazing to see these community kitchens work as there is no centrally organized catering system for the millions of Gurudwaras across the world. Disciples just come and start preparing and serving the food. Most Langars run for the entire day, and there are a few gurudwaras where the langar serves hot food 24 hours a day to all who come in. The practice of serving water to the thirsty, however, comes about much later, and is linked to the the martyrdom of the fifth guru of Sikhs. On 16th June 1606, Guru Angad Dev Ji (the 5th Master) was tortured for 5 days during the hot summer by the then rulers, who make him sit on a burning hot metal plate, and poured hot sand over him, which eventually martyred him. Every year on this day, Sikhs remember him by running “Chhabeel Langars” everywhere, serving sweetened cold milk and flavored water to everyone.
Guru Nanak Dev jee went to many different parts of the world and spread the message of equality and humanity. Eventually, he passed the baton to his favorite Sikh ‘Bhai Lehna’, the second Guru of Sikhs, whom he christened ‘Guru Angad’.