NEW DELHI – While India is on track to surpass China as the world’s fastest-growing economy, poverty remains pervasive, and civil society, including religious organizations, provide vital support to alleviate human suffering.
At the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a prominent Sikh house of worship in New Delhi, religious leaders have created a bustling hub of charitable outreach that provides meals and community for poor individuals, regardless of their religious persuasion. The Gurudwara is a popular draw for both Sikhs and non-Sikhs. Thousands of people, barefoot with heads covered, visit each day to drink in the impressive, gleaming white marblework and massive golden domes. Some take a dip in the open-air holy pool, called a sarovar, meant for cleansing and a place to seek blessings. The complex is also home to a higher secondary school, Baba Baghel Singh Museum, a library and a hospital.
“This religion consists of practical living, in rendering service to humanity and engendering tolerance and brotherly love towards all,” the Gurudwara Management Committee said in a statement. “Sikhism does not accept the ideology of pessimism. It advocates optimism and hope … This community kitchen is meant for providing food to all devotees, pilgrims and visitors. It is a symbol of equality, fraternity and brotherhood.”
Last week at the Gurudwara’s Langar, the Sikh word for community kitchen, volunteers peeled and chopped vegetables, pounded, grilled and flipped flatbread dough for meals served to diners seated on the floor. Between 50,000 and 70,000 meals are served each day around the clock, funded through in-kind and monetary donations. Similar work takes place at Sikh complexes across the country.
This work fulfills Sikhism’s emphasis on community services and helping the needy. In every Gurudwara there is a langar as in Hindu Temples, and every member of the Sikh faith is expected to help prepare the free communal meals. Volunteering is seen as a blessing for the person serving others.
“All are welcome here,” said a spokesman for the Gurudwara. “At our meals you will have the most impoverished seated next to a multimillionaire. It is a great equalizer.”
Sikhism, a monotheistic religion founded in the 15th century in Punjab, India, eschews the caste system, which is systematic, religious-based discrimination and racism. Despite the work of political leaders to abolish the caste system and encourage equality in the world’s largest democracy, Indian society too often remains fraught with ethnic and religious tensions, particularly clashes between Muslims and Hindus. Sikhism teaches that all religions have validity and it also places women and men on equal footing in worship services and in broader society. Sikhs make up just 2 percent of the Indian population, though a spokesman for the Gurudwara said Sikhs pay some 20 percent of India’s taxes. He attributes this to an industrious Sikh culture and also a commitment to fighting corruption and tax evasion, rampant problems in India that stymie economic growth.
As in the United States and elsewhere, faith is a powerful motivating force to alleviate human suffering. It fills an emotional void that no government can replace. Research highlighted by American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks shows faith is one of four key pillars (the others are family, work and community) in successfully winning the war on poverty.
In America, The Chronicle of Philanthrophy found that people who tend to donate the most live in more religious areas. Religious people are more generous with their disposable income, though some skeptics point out that much of these donations are for religions rather than secular causes. Yet in America as well as India and elsewhere, religiously motivated individuals are often the first responders to disasters and play pivotal roles in providing healthcare and education. Whether it’s Catholic schools offering free tuition for low-income students or Sikh temples offering free meals and medical care, faith communities around the globe exhibit lived expressions of their faith.
“Riches and personal possession are not hindrances in living by spiritual ideals,” the Gurudwara Management Committee continued. “The Sikh Gurus did not advocate retirement from the world in order to attain salvation. It can be achieved by any one who earns honest living and leads a normal life.”
While Hinduism and Buddhism often emphasize a detachment from this world that some observers say can contribute to the perpetuation of poverty, India’s Sikhs show blending spirituality with material well-being can offer a holistic remedy for poverty.
Carrie Sheffield is the founder of Bold. She is passionate about storytelling to empower and connect others. A founding POLITICO reporter, Carrie contributed on political economy at Forbes and wrote editorials for The Washington Times. After earning a master’s in public policy from Harvard University, she managed credit risk at Goldman Sachs and researched for Edward Conard, Bain Capital founding partner and American Enterprise Institute scholar. She earned a B.A. in communications at Brigham Young University and completed a Fulbright fellowship in Berlin.