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The Science Of Seva


Sep 24, 2004

It doesn’t happen that often but it does often enough.

Some days I come across something in the newspaper that connects us to Sikhi – it grabs you and won’t let go.

On July 8, 2012, just a very few days ago, it was an opinion piece in the New York Times. The headline screamed “Don’t Indulge Be Happy.” I was busy with breakfast and dismissed the report as the usual pop psychology that I had seen enough of in the turbulent “60’s.

When I read it a while later, the message hit me right between the eyes –or should I say that it was clearly aimed at my third eye, if I have one — as the pop psychologists of yesteryear may claim.

It spoke to me of the bedrock foundations of Sikhi.

I felt driven to write a commentary connecting the essay in The Times to how Sikhi looks at life. To work myself towards a clearer vision of my ideas I often like to explore them in conversations with friends before I put pen to paper – or in modern parlance switch on the keyboard.

The next morning on the phone with Guruka Singh (Editor of Sikhnet) I had barely inched into the merits of the Op-Ed piece when he broke in to say that he had just posted the column from the New York Times on Sikhnet.

It is written by two academics: Elizabeth Dunn, associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and Michael Norton, associate professor of Business administration at Harvard Business School,

Their research methodology appears sound by the rules of academia and their thesis will surely open some windows of the mind.

Their research convincingly argues that “once you have reached, say, $75,000 a year in income, earning more doesn’t really help. (In this day and age? I wonder.)

They continue: “Even children feel better when they share what they have.”

Since the original New York Times article is available on Sikhnet I won’t go into its details. Suffice it to say that money is essential, but after a reasonable limit an excess or overindulgence doesn’t seem to help. And $75,000 – the amount where they draw a line -- seems like an eminently attainable middle class number in America – neither piddlingly dismissible nor threateningly or obscenely large.

What it means to me, then is that money can only be a means; even critically important, but never an end in itself.

Often in life the choice is to spend it either on oneself or give it away. In other words, deciding between overindulgence and deliberate underindulgence using your own money. (The word “underindulgence” is of recent coinage; it doesn’t yet exist in most dictionaries.)

This may sound radically crazy like standing logic on its head. But research clearly showed that happiness was more intense and longer lasting if the money was spent on others.

Backed by credible data, the research shows that instead of just buying more experiences, we are better served by simply buying less for ourselves — and buying for others, when possible.

The researchers find overindulgence unsatisfying in the long run. It reminds me of the oft-quoted lines from the Sikh morning prayer (Japji Sahib, Guru Granth p.1)) that reminds us “Bhukyaa(n) bhukh na utrae jay banna purya(n) paar…”

It speaks of our “needs” that are few and simple, and “wants” that are never-ending.

When these researchers find that there is greater happiness in sharing than in indulging the self I immediately gravitate towards the three-legged structural framework of the Sikh way of life: An honest day’s living, sharing the rewards of life with fellow humans, and both to be driven by the conscious awareness of the overwhelming presence of the Infinite within us all, and the universal connectivity that it provides. These are the fundamentals of a stable, progressive and egalitarian society.

Seva is the concept in Sikhi that defines the sharing of one’s life with others. It defines giving unto others in need, not only because of their need but, more importantly, because it sates our own inner need to share and give. Therein lies our sense of a productive life; a life well lived with a measure of our lives and contentment. This is what gives purpose to our lives. It is an existential need.

That’s why Sikhi asks us not to see seva as a bargain; not to look for a payoff when we do it. Or to cavil, argue or complain when the gods seemingly forget our lifetime of seva and the lottery ticket doesn’t come through in spite of our prayers.

Yes, human have coded within their DNA the propensity to look for the instant reward of a good deed. And that’s why Guru Granth asks us to lose the self in seva so that the cause becomes bigger than the self (Aap gavayay seva karay taa kitch paayay maan…Guru Granth p. 474). A Similar thought resonates in the words of St. Francis of Assisi: “It is in giving that we receive…”

Instant gratification and a sense of entitlement have to go. This is what Guru Granth says; and this is exactly what these scientists are telling us.

Dunn and Norton are scientists. Theirs is the work of rigorously trained investigators and academicians. They probably have no desire to be drawn into any particular religion’s creed, customs, traditions and worldview. Yet, their experiments and observations bring the language and methodology of science to what we generally see as the spiritual reality.

Science and Seva! They are not strangers to each other after all. Today Dunn and Norton explore here the rational, scientific basis for mankind’s fundamental need to help others – Seva.

Both science and religion provide remarkable insights into the human mind and they are not contradictory. They speak in different languages and their tools are different but they are not inimical to each other. They have to be wielded differently and interpreted with great sensitivity.

Religious truths need and deserve to be accosted, felt and understood with the languages of the heart and mind. Poetry and logic are not antithetical to each other. Engagement with religion requires the dual lenses of faith and reason; either lens alone is insufficient.

My exchange with Guruka Singh brought out four fundamental truths that are rooted in Sikhi:

1. Our happiness is inversely proportional to the time spent obsessing about our own predicaments in life;

2. Seva isn't something one does; it's something one is or becomes since seva is a way of life;

3. Seva is the source of all power and the only way to uplift the self and humanity; and

4. Seva is never a commercial transaction.

Religions are experiential processes but, like Science, they too need the artist’s feeling of the mystical and intuitive processes along with the merciless logic that collectively pave the path to discovery. Without intellect and faith yoked to each other and operating in tandem, religion is reduced to dogma and superstition, while science becomes no more than technique and mechanics without a soul or purpose.

But, I confess to a great deal of satisfaction at the congruence of these thoughts that many still think are like parallel forces that were never meant to meet.


July 19, 2012



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