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General Seva: Neither A Shield, Nor A Sword


Aug 17, 2010
World citizen!
Saturday, June 23, 2012

I have noticed that the concept of seva - loosely translated as "selfless, voluntary service" - is nowadays increasingly wielded as a weapon and less as what it is meant to be.

The other day, when a community volunteer was asked why she repeatedly failed to do what she had undertaken to do, why she hadn't met her obligations fully or in a timely fashion, I was flabbergasted by the response I overheard:

"I do seva, bhenji", she protested. "I'm not getting paid for this. I spend so many hours here, while I could easily be doing something else. I don't have to listen to this nonsense: if you don't want me here, say so, and I'm gone!"

It was a deft use of the very essence of seva. As a shield - a shield from criticism and from accountability.

On another occasion, I heard a fellow wield the word somewhat differently, but equally effectively.

He was addressing members of a community group. "I'm the one who can run this organization and ensure that it stays alive. I've done seva for three years ... day and night, and weekends too. And haven't taken a single cent for my time. How can you even think that another person should come over and run it. Others will simply run it to the ground. And, you know, I'm not going to let you do this. I'm not going to let you turn all my seva into nought!"

I felt, as I watched him through this performance, that he was wielding his seva quite deftly... as a weapon. A sword, actually. The parry and thrust was working: you could see it in the wounded look in the eyes of the audience.

Is this what seva is all about?

Am I wrong in thinking that the moment you use seva ... yes, USE it ... for any ulterior purpose, then it instantly ceases to be seva? If it loses its spiritual core, then all you're left with is ... a clumsy weapon.

The concept of seva, I feel, is simple and uncomplicated in Sikhi.
The very idea of seva begins with a metaphor: that of the milk-pot or vessel. Nanak says:
First, wash the vessel,
Next, disinfect it with incense.
Then, and only then, is it ready to receive the milk.
[GGS, M1, 728:1]

True. What good is the milk once it has been poured into a soiled receptacle? The dirt of the vessel taints everything that is poured into it.

The mind, like the vessel, first needs to be cleansed if one is to prepare it for things spiritual. Otherwise, all effort goes to waste. And this cleansing of the mind, the preparation, is done with the "soap" of humility.

So far, all of this is esoteric and philosophical. But Sikhi brings the exercise down to earth by guiding us how to do it while going about our day-to-day, ordinary lives. In seeking humility, there's no need to blindly wade through religious tomes. No penances, no fasting, no retreats, no masochism of any kind. No feeding of priests, no pilgrimages, no renunciations, no onerous abstentions.

There's a simple, direct and effective way: seva.
No grandiose projects are necessary for this inner cleansing. We don't have to build monuments, or light bonfires on top of mountains, or even go on far-flung crusades fighting for world peace.

Just serving the basic needs of those who are in need puts us on the right path. At home, with the neighbour, around the corner, in the community we live in ... the concentric circles can get as wide or remain as narrow as the situation demands.

Feed the hungry, clothe the destitute, shelter the homeless.
Or even more simple: just wash the dishes at the langar, or serve food, or look after the shoes of those who come to worship.
Anonymity helps. Not wearing a t-shirt or bandana that proclaims SEVADAR, helps.

Doing it without fan-fare, without a shabash or pat on the back, is a definite plus. Doing things that others do not want to, or cannot do, is good. Sweeping the floor, or cleaning the washrooms are therefore bound to be the most rewarding.

It's for the sheer sake of seva. It has no other goal. Even the end result is not important. You don't need a smile or a nod, a pat on the shoulder, or the gratitude of another to validate it. You simply do it, and you do it to the best of your ability, and nothing else matters.

You don't go home and note it in your diary. Or tell your family and friends. Or have it published in a newsletter in the "Acknowledgment" section.
And you don't wave it in the face if you are running for election the next time around.

Here's what I've been taught and what I try to emulate .... though those who know me well could easily cite many a lapse:
Don't let the right hand know what the left hand does ...
It isn't seva if it is for the purpose of getting a tax-deductible receipt.
It isn't seva if your heart and soul aren't in it.
It isn't seva if it isn't done with honesty and integrity.
It isn't seva if you believe that mediocrity is all that is expected of you, and that you needn't do more.
It isn't seva if it's for building your resume.
It isn't seva if it is meant to be a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
It isn't seva if you need to tell others, now or later, that you did it.
It isn't seva if lack of appreciation by others, or their criticism, drives you away.
It isn't seva if you believe that it is your right to do it.
It isn't seva if you have to fight against others to do it.
It isn't seva if you snatch it away from another, to do it.
It isn't seva if you begin to believe you're the best one to do it.
And, it isn't seva if it distresses you that others take credit for what you've done.

And, it is most magical when - and I borrow from the English Bard - it "is not strain'd"...
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.
It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes
May we all, each one of us, be blessed with this gift.

Taken from


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