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Saturday, June 25, 2005

Bhai Kanhaiya's Ideas Inspire Sikh Tsunami Relief Efforts


By: SatSundri Kaur Khalsa

Bhai Kanhaiya Singh was a saintly Sikh during the late 17th and early 18th centuries who established a Dharmsal, a place of rest and care for travelers and those in need of spiritual solace. He was known for service to all regardless of social status or religion. (Selfless service is known as "Seva" to Sikhs — "service without thought of reward.")

During a time of skirmishing between the army of the encroaching Moguls and the Sikhs in the hill countries of the Himalayas, he assisted the injured on both sides with water and medicines. The disciples of the Sikh master, Guru Gobind Singh, questioned Bhai Kanhaiya's loyalty.

Bhai Kanhaiya said it was true that he had helped the enemy -- yet when he looked at the injured, he only saw his master's face in the face of each. Guru Gobind Singh blessed him and said that it was Bhai Kanhaiya who showed the true spirit of the Sikh faith -- seeing and serving God in all. He had correctly understood his teachings. Sikhs today consider his example to be a precursor to the modern Red Cross. My teacher used to say, "If you can't see God in all, you can't see God at all." This has guided me through the years, through much of my interfaith work where I live now and while working in India when my children were in school there during their elementary and middle school education.

What I find in my daily reading or Hukum from the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, the scriptures held sacred by Sikhs, is exactly that message of Bhai Kanhaiya's example: Learn to see to the hearts of humanity; don't be misled or judge a person's worth by outer appearances. Every day, our programs find assistance from many non-Sikhs. Tens of thousands of dollars were donated by non-Sikhs for the building of a large gurdwara (temple) in Phoenix. In our small Sikh community in Austin, we donate blankets and warm socks to SafePlace and homeless people every winter.

After tsunamis hit islands and coastal areas around the south Indian Ocean in December, a U.S.-based organization, United Sikhs (, set up aid efforts in South India and Banda Aceh. These efforts were named after Bhai Kanhaiya, with a little different spelling: Ghanaia. It stands for Giving Humanitarian Aid Necessities Impartially to All, a nongovernment, nonprofit organization providing nonpartisan aid to disaster victims in the form of "langar" and medical assistance.

Langar is the Sikh tradition of sharing a meal with people of all economic and social and religious backgrounds. At Harimandir Sahib, the "Golden Temple" in Amritsar, northern India, as many as 10,000 free meals are provided all day, every day. Anyone is welcome to eat at any time at the langar hall on the Gurdwara grounds. The pots used to cook these meals are huge. Donated provisions of legumes, rice and flour are always in supply. Many teams of langar organizers and cooks arrived in tsunami-hit areas to set up these "free kitchens" so survivors could receive nourishment of body and spirit.

Almost six months after the disaster, they remain involved in Banda Aceh and southern India and Sri Lanka, setting up medical stations, providing meals to survivors and working especially with children in their recovery from the trauma. Recently they purchased 75 nets and hurricane lights for a local village so villagers could once again fish for their families and make their living.

We are grateful for Ghanaia, and all those who work together for the uplifting of humanity, where and whenever that call is made, no matter how softly. These help us to see and realize the same light of God in all.

SatSundri Kaur Khalsa is a representative of the Austin Sikh community, Austin Area Interreligious Ministries. Learn more about them at