All That Glitters

In early September, the Soul Seed crew departed from Delhi and took India head on, making our way north to the lush patchwork of green fields blanketing the fertile state of Punjab. The city of Amritsar in India’s Northwest corner is the bustling Sikh spiritual capital of India and home to the magnificent Golden Temple. Etymologically, Amritsar is derived from the term ‘amrit sarovar’ and translates to describe the ‘pool of nectar’ or holy water that surrounds the golden gurdwara. Constructed in 1586 by the fourth Guru of the Sikh religion, this is one of the most spiritual places in India. Devotees bathe in the holy water, believing that it will heal their ailments and disease, and visitors from all religions and walks of life come to revel in the immaculate beauty of the scene. With the soft sound of hymns echoing throughout the interior walls, one can’t help but feel a calmness and serenity that is starkly juxtaposed to the chaotic streets of the Punjabi capital outside.

A great majority of the ‘exported India’ the West has come to know is in fact Punjabi in nature. Even across India itself, Punjabi cultural exports monopolize many national trends and represent a ‘good life’ of fortune and wealth. Because Punjabi land has been blessed with fertility and abundance, it is the wealthiest state and therefore home for many of the ex-patriots endowed with the resources allowing them to emigrate to the West. Perhaps this is why many Westerners feel so at home in the Punjab, with its familiar tastes, attitudes, and overwhelming, unconditional hospitality. A primarily Sikh state, the Punjabis bring with them a non-judgemental temperament of open hands and open hearts, taking care of each other with unassuming generosity. The Sikh paradigm of thought, resting on principles of equality and compassion, represents a way of more than merely co-existing, but actively caring for each other in a way that could serve as an ideal for which all communities and societies should strive.

The Sikh worldview of equality, humility, and compassion is symbolically represented in many of the architectural features of the temple and its surrounding complex.  As a symbolic alternative to the normal custom of building a Gurdwara on high land, it was built lower than the surrounding land so that devotees would have to descend a staircase to enter.  In addition and as an alternative to the single-gated Hindu temples, there are four doors leading to the temple, which symbolize the openness of the Sikhs towards all people and religions. These facets created a symbol of the new faith, Sikhism, as the temple was made accessible to every person without any distinction of Caste, creed, sex, or religion. This was a revolutionary concept in the caste-ordered society of 16th-century India where Sikhism began. In addition to the ideals of equality, the tradition of langar expresses the ethics of sharing, community, inclusiveness and oneness of all humankind.

One of my favorite Sikh displays of equality finds manifestation as one of my other passions- Indian food!  Each and every visitor to the Golden Temple is invited to take part in traditional langar, or community meal sharing. A delectable display of the Sikh principle of equality between all people, thousands of visitors share a meal of dal, curry, roti, and rice pudding along rows of thatched mats lining the temple floor. Vegetarian food is served to ensure that all people, regardless of their dietary restrictions, can eat together, simply and with humility, as equals. In a country where the visible inequality can be debilitating, the Sikh community offers a compassionate reminder of the goodness that rests beyond the messy veneer of existence, representing a humanity that cares for one another and values life over money, politics, or religion. Perhaps because the realities of injustice are more extreme and pronounced in India, the strength of the compassion is also more pronounced, reminding me of the benevolence and resiliency of the human spirit at at time when we can all use a little reminder that, in the end, light and compassion will conquer darkness, every time.