Growing up, I was taught that there was no other, we were all somehow connected, the same. Every person was to be valued. The legacy of my devout Sikh grandmother was to teach me that we are to treat all people, regardless of religion, colour or socioeconomic status - with grace.
I remember almost every day, during my regular visits to India growing up, I would go with my mother and grandmother to the Sikh gudwara, or temple. We would travel by rickshaw, battling the hoards of people and the beasts that lay claim to the road, to a small unimpressive building. When we arrived at our destination we walked along the dark dusty path to the doorway, where we took off our shoes before entering. The place we entered seemed almost incompatible to its dreary exterior. Inside it was bright and clean and smelt of incense and yummy spicy foods. Some worshippers had already found their spot on the white sheets that swathed the carpet-bare floors. The makeshift flooring made the room look crisper and much larger than it was. The Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, sat prominently in the room, upon a pillowed pedestal under an ornate canopy. The book itself was covered with beautiful bright silk dressings not unlike the Guru Granth Sahib that took up a room in our home in Canada.
In India however, behind the Guru Granth Sahib sat a man with a long graying beard and a bright orange turban, this trained reader was called the granthi. He could be heard chanting even before we entered the room. I loved watching him as he would wave the chauri (typically made of nylon or yak hairs embedded in a silver or wooden handle) over the Guru Granth Sahib, a symbol of royalty and a gesture of respect but I thought then it was to keep the flies from landing on the pages. Regardless, there was a flow and a rhythm to his task.
With our heads covered, and our hands positioned palms together and fingers stretching skyward, we would follow my grandmother as she walked reverently up to the Guru Granth Sahib. She would stop before the ornate canopy, whisper a prayer and then bow before the word of God. Discretely, she would take the money that she held between her praying hands and place it the box on the floor. My mom and I would do the same and then follow my grandmother to where she sat, cross-legged on the floor with the other worshippers. The women sat on one side and the men on the other. I would sit for only a moment until I caught a glimpse of the other children present.
I remember, as a child, running around with my little friends and never once do I recall being told to sit still or be quiet, as the taller people prayed and sang their songs of praise. It was somehow understood by the children – we just knew when we needed to be quiet and when it was okay to just play.
Eventually I would get tired of running around during the long service of prayer and I would find my way to my mother and sit on the floor by her side. Soon the rhythmical tones from the reader of the Guru Granth Sahib would make me sleepy and I would put my head on my mother’s lap and rest, until someone came around with parshad. This sweet, is served to all, and signifies God’s grace and human equality. There was something comforting about this place, a place I shared with the people I loved, a place where God was present, a place where children were welcomed.
After the time of congregational worship, people (from the congregation and from off the street, Sikhs and Hindus alike) would gather outside sitting in the dusty alley in rows to receive lungar. This free meal was offered to all.
I loved it when it was our turn to serve. I would follow my grandmother outside the doors of the temple to find the earlier unpopulated alleyway now full of people sitting on the ground, on either side of the pathway. I would watch my grandmother tie back her beautiful silk scarf, so not to drag on the ground and then she would begin the task of serving. She along with others, including myself would serve to the masses a full vegetarian meal of roti , two kinds of subji, and hot tea I would walk behind her as she would bend down to serve each one individually; my beautifully dressed grandmother serving these dirty, poor, unattractive people sitting side by side with those with much means. This was a place where status and caste did not matter. There was no “us” or “them” there was no “other”. I watched her as she attended each one, looking them in the eyes and smiling a wonderfully compassionate smile. Each person mattered. After we served we sat on the ground in the alleyway where we too ate our meal.
Who is the other? Is there an other? Or is there only “we”?
All I know is God has called us to care, be generous and to serve all.
An excerpt from the award winning article A Global Community: Is there an another? Or is there only we?
Author: Mona Scrivens
Published in March 2014