Seva: Practising Selfless Service


The Hindu Dharmic tradition focuses primarily on inner self-realization to achieve a state of oneness with the Divine power. It is usually considered by many as an inside out approach. But a closer understanding of Hindu philosophy would make it clear that the path to inner realization, which would ultimately transcend one’s experience of living, is varied.

In fact, according to traditional Indian philosophy, one can become one with the Divine by three different paths:

Yoga literally means “union”. It means the union of the self with the Divine power. So whatever path one might follow, the final destination is the same, i.e. realization of the union of the self with the Divine power.

In bhakti yoga or in the path of devotion, a devotee chants the name of God and meditates upon the Divine in the hope of experiencing the union with the Supreme Power. Whereas karma yoga or the path of righteous action can be said to be primarily manifested through the concept of “Seva”.

The term “Seva” is a Sanskrit word and it means “selfless service”. It is work performed without any thought of reward in mind. According to Vedic philosophy, it is believed that “Service to Man is Service to God”. And thus in India, there exists a firm belief that one can achieve spiritual growth through Seva. Hence, every religious place in India ardently prescribes Seva for all its followers.

My wish here is not to elucidate on the different ways to achieve transcendental experiences of spirituality. But my intent is to explain how such spiritual ideas can be put to use for humanitarian agendas and to make the world a place that thrives on altruism.

However to my dismay, I have discovered that the meaning of Seva is usually misunderstood while some even completely misunderstand the idea of Seva. These people consider Seva to be a means to attract blessings of the Almighty, and to expiate their sins and wrongdoings. Thus they are the ones who are very enthusiastic about Seva, but completely unaware of its true meaning.

Another category of people engage in Seva, perceiving it is as an act of generosity. They believe that Seva helps them to become a better person, who can give their wealth and time for the welfare of others, without having any expectations. Even this category of people are misled by their distorted understanding of Seva. These people usually fail to realize and enjoy the real benefits that Seva can bestow on them.

I do not deny the benefits it provides to the needy. Even a distorted understanding of Seva serves some purpose. People enthusiastically engage in philanthropic projects as a way to perform Seva and in turn benefit the poor and the needy. However, it would be unjust if we were to limit the expansive idea of Seva and use it just for the purpose of benefiting the needy. Seva is meant to benefit both parties: those who perform Seva and those whom it has served. It can be said that the benefits recieved by the needy from Seva is like a by-product. It is inevitable that when anyone engages in Seva, some people will benefit. But a distorted understanding of Seva often results in only one side enjoying the benefits.

The ultimate purpose of Seva is to teach us to see the Divine in all creations. It is not an act of philanthropy or a way to expiate sins. Seva is a means to see the unity of all creations and to develop the ability to see every human being and other creations as an extension of one’s self.  It is a kind of service not just to others but to oneself as well. Seva practised with such an understanding is always a transcending experience.

Whenever we do anything for ourselves, we do it with utmost sincerity, dedication and commitment. However, when doing something for others, our dedication and sincerity usually starts to waver to some extent. Seva demands that we serve others as we serve ourselves. Or serve others in the same way that we would serve God. And when we develop this ability to see ourselves in others, and others in ourselves, we are already united with the Divine. In short, Seva enables us to see the Divine in those we are serving.

I would say that if Seva is practised with the right understanding and intention, it helps us to become true humanitarians. It shapes both our mind and body. It filters our thought process and emancipates us from the firm clutches of ego. We are victims of egoism. Our contemporary culture teaches us to be an individualist. It teaches us that for survival and success “I” should always come before “we”. And it seems we have taken the “I” before “we” too seriously. Thus, we now encounter all the sorrow and indifference that plague our world.

Seva can tenderly dissipate such strong attachment with the self and complete indifference for other creations. It can make us aware of our unity with all creations around us and not just humans. I take it as an exercise to learn to love others as I love myself; to serve others as I would serve myself; to unlearn all the divisions of class and creed that society has taught us over centuries; to realize the inherent and miraculous link that binds all creations together.

We all desire a better world, free from the crippling diseases that humans have invented out of their desire to profit, to gain and to succeed. But haven’t we merely been treating the symptoms of those diseases for a long time? It seems that we are not interested in curing the diseases themselves.

If Seva is an integral part of a culture, will many of the problems plaguing humanity not dissipate on their own? When we eventually learn to see ourselves in every creation around us, won’t the problems regarding the abuse of animals and the environment dissipate on their own over time?


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