Seva is our innate nature. not exercising it will cause our spiritual muscles to atrophy. If we become indifferent to doing good, our capacity to do good will diminish.
Ami Patel still relishes her first sweet taste of seva.
‘It was my 15th birthday and I was depressed. Running a fever and being laid up in bed was hardly cause for celebration.’ Ami’s mother bundled the girl into the car and they set off for Mumbai’s Chowpathy beach.
Ami recalls, ‘My mother rounded up the little urchins running about the beach. She then bought ice-cream cones and made me hand them out to the kids. Their shy impish smiles, the look on their faces, the laughter all around. I felt something lift in my heart. It felt so good to give!’
Six years ago, Ami did her first Art of Living course. There was a lot of talk about seva all around. ‘The ultimate purpose of life is to be of service,’ Sri Sri Ravi Shankar had said. ‘Seva is our own inner joy pouring forth into action. It is not compulsory duty or uncomfortable obligation, but a natural state of mind.’ Propelled by an immense sense of gratitude on completion of the course, Ami offered her services as an art director. A short while later, the teacher called upon her to design the publicity material for a big AOL gathering to be held in Mumbai.
Ami braced herself, ‘I was busy working full time. Could I handle this, I wondered. All I was equipped with was wholehearted intention and a tiny something akin to confidence. Was that enough?’ But Ami took the plunge. ‘Then like magic almost, old acquaintances began resurfacing, offering to help. Glitches sorted themselves out. Everything simply fell into place in a perfect manner.’
A day before the event, Ami stepped back to survey what had been accomplished. She had surpassed all her expectations, she discovered. ‘And then it struck me – I hadn’t done a thing. Something greater was at work here.’
Ami explains the phenomenon thus, ‘All I’d done was agreed to be a willing instrument, a channel. My inspiration came from a quality of love that was fresh to me – selfless, divine, infinite. It was inexhaustible and the more I drew from it, my talents, skills and energy multiplied. I became boundless. That’s when I glimpsed my infinite self, the true self everyone was talking about. Serving, giving of myself I found, was my true nature.’
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar always says, ‘We come to realize that the true measure of our lives is not how much we have gained for ourselves, but how much we have given.’ Here the action itself is the joy and reward. There is no external motivation like money or the need for recognition that curbs our potential. The seva that springs from love is unfettered, untiring.
Ami soon began noticing the transformative effects of seva in herself. ‘Petty habits and small-mindedness that lingered on the periphery of my existence were the first to disappear. Gossiping and complaining receded giving way to stillness. Stillness had probably existed all along but was buried beneath all that mental chatter.’ Most significantly, Ami now finds her ego being annihilated. ‘No more does the small mind go, ‘what about me, what about me?’ Instead, I find myself asking, ‘What can I do to serve, how can I contribute?’ ‘
Such desire to serve tirelessly possesses a spiritual aspirant once he grasps the aspect of ‘nakarayan’, which means ‘not causing action’. The seeker sees that she is merely God’s vehicle through which work is done. ‘When you surrender completely to God, as the only truth worth having, you find yourself in service of all that exists.’ Mahatma Gandhi has said of this state of non-doership.’It becomes your joy and recreation. You never tire of serving others.’ Gandhi best exemplified this – no task was too menial for him, no human too low to serve. He worked for those lowest on the social ladder, calling them ‘Harijan’, children of God.
What good is it if we shun man and worship idols? What greater sadhana can there be than acknowledging and serving the divine in each human?
Give and Receive
Performing seva can bring us to an elevated state of being by putting us in touch with our ability to love. Such love transforms not just the doers but the recipients as well. Prashant Wahapkar would have been just another wasted and resentful kid from the slums if he hadn’t chanced upon his immense potential to love and serve others in Dharavi.
Near small nallas, gallis and congested areas in Dharavi, Prashant conducts his AOL sessions, organizes medical camps, clean-up camps. Amid the abjection, he has witnessed the flowering of peace and hope; people attending his sessions are less stressed, they are happier and healthier. For the 25-year-old, no reward could be greater than the confidence, joy and peace he receives in return. ‘I walk like a king,’ he exults. ‘Who can rob me of the smile on my lips?’
Money and materials are not essential for service, but a loving heart is, Prashant has learned. It’s not how much you give, rather how you give which matters most in seva.
This was something Dr Divya Mithel had observed as a child, in her father’s relentless acts of service. ‘Our house in Amravati was full of poor students whom my father, a professor of Hindi, gave free tuitions to.’
Her father always said to her: ‘Be ever watchful of your actions. Never do something that’s not your true nature. That’s the greatest service you could render unto yourself.’ Thus was instilled a sensitivity to the call of duty or dharma. Dharma is our nature. Voluntarily, we will do the right thing and our inclination is towards performing our duties to our best abilities, for the good of all.
Divya and her husband Tarin, both qualified doctors, moved out of Mumbai city to the poorer outskirts of Navi Mumbai where there was a dire need of medical professionals. They set up a leprosy clinic in Taloja. Six years ago, Divya, a tuberculosis specialist, was approached by the Sisters of the Destitute, who run Jyothis Terminal Aids Center, looking for volunteers to help with the patients at the hospice. Diyva agreed at once.
For the inmates today, ‘Doctor Didi’ is mother, father, sister and brother rolled into one. The succor they draw from her is not just medical, but emotional and spiritual. It’s a fair exchange, Divya points out, ‘Their dauntless spirit spurs me despite unfriendly government policies, cost constraints and the frustration of insufficient medicines.’
‘I do my best and at the most trying moments I’m pleasantly surprised by unsolicited donations or help arriving.’ The doctor humbly maintains that her service is a way of repaying society and the country for the abilities it has helped her acquire. But for Sister Lekha, Sister Superior at the Mission, Divya is an embodiment of the compassion and mercy that Jesus Christ had spoken of.
‘Whatever you do for the lowest of these brothers you do for me,’ Jesus says in the New Testament. Explains Sister Lekha, ‘Man was created in God’s image. Therefore, the best way to serve God is to serve his children. Jesus himself assumed human form and came down to serve mankind and lead it to the ideals it has ignored. By helping the weak and the poor, the diseased and the disabled, the distressed and the downtrodden, we earn grace.’
Acts of Compassion
What good are your love and compassion hoarded? As Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says, ‘Kept to ourselves, our happiness becomes stagnant and fades away.’ Our joys multiply when shared with others. So do our spiritual earnings. Aghoreshwar Baba Bhagwan Ramji often poses this question to his followers who only restrict themselves to sadhana, ‘What will we do with spiritual powers? Do we want to use them to chastise someone? Do we build palaces, do we build kingdoms? Achieving those powers we should be able to help those beings who are in dire need of livelihood or those who are in complete darkness, beset by every kind of sorrow and pain.’
When we reach out to other beings in service, it can instill more intensely than any other activity the sense of the basic One. Most seva-doers will confess to experiencing this sense of interconnectedness. At the AIDS center, Dr Mithel witnessed how beneath our varied exteriors, we are all the same. ‘We are all human, poor, rich, sick or well; the human spirit shines bright in each one of us.’ For Ami Patel, the concept of ‘the other’ dissolved, ‘You and I are the One. Sri Sri says: When you do sadhana you glimpse the God in yourself. When you do seva you glimpse God in others. There is no other. The concept does not exist.’
Author and spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, in his book Compassion to Action speaks of the network of acts of compassion that sustain the world. ‘Just as we are a part of an interconnected family, acts of caring are part of a vast network of compassionate acts occurring throughout the universe all the time. Though small and seemingly insignificant, they somehow balance out the billions of tiny acts of ignorance, greed, violence and exploitation that are creating suffering.’ Doesn’t this prove that compassion and love are man’s truest nature?
Most gurus and sevaks look to the selfless service rendered by nature for inspiration when in slightest doubt about the true nature of man. Nature can teach us crucial lessons in selflessness and non-doership. Says Sathya Sai Baba, ‘The forces of Nature do all works. But due to delusion and ignorance people assume themselves to be the doer.’
Knowing the truth about nature’s attitude to work can also prove an important lesson in detachment. Gurumayi Chidvilasananda believes nature has many beautiful ways to show us how to live our lives as joyful servants, ‘The Earth keeps rotating in space, the sun and rain nourish us, rivers flow to the ocean, trees bear luscious fruit, our breath continually inhales and exhales, our digestive system never stops performing its daily functions, and the lark effortlessly sings out his song. All this happens without complaint or anxiety! Nature works continually, magnificently, without becoming exhausted.’
Brenda Brisch in As the River Flows: Working with a Heart at Ease conveys Swami Muktananda’s thoughts on the subject, ‘Nature simply revels in its being. All its work is a direct expression of its being…Because humans are a part of nature, it must be that I too could find this natural easeful rhythm. Once I align myself with my God-given nature, I can perform my service in this world as nature does, with a heart at ease.’
Sukh hovai saev kamaaneeaa, Guru Nanak has famously stated – You shall find peace doing seva. For the Sikhs, detachment is crucial to develop the spirit of sacrifice that seva calls for. This could mean detachment from self, ego, expectations from actions in the form of fame, praise or rewards.
All work other than that done as selfless service binds human beings, warns the Bhagavad Gita. ‘Be humble and think that God has given you an opportunity to do service,’ says Sathya Sai Baba, asking us to guard against vanity about the power we hold, skills we possess. ‘Whatever you do to others, your feeling must be that you are serving yourself. It is by doing work without attachment that one attains the Supreme.’ He cites the example of King Janaka, a karmayogi, who attained the perfection of self-realisation through his selfless service as an administrator. When the Creator created human beings, he did so in his infinite selflessness. Man serving man must, by emulating this, unclog the channels of his being so divinity can flow through him.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna explains to Arjuna how when we place conditions on peace and happiness, they begin to elude us. Attachment brings about great suffering. Krishna’s panacea is detachment so peace and harmony can prevail.
A life in service becomes a garden filled with blossoms of various virtues. ‘Love is born in the womb of service,’ observes Sathya Sai Baba. Soon humility takes root. Sai devotee Shanti Bhawalkar remembers how her experience of seva taught her to count her blessings. Since her schooldays, Shanti was involved with the visually handicapped, mostly reading to them and helping as a writer during exams. ‘I began to see I was more fortunate than most,’ she says. ‘Suddenly my sufferings and complaints about life began to appear trivial in comparison to most people’s. I still think twice and abstain from lavishing luxuries upon myself.’
For over 15 years, Shanti continued to record textbooks for the blind during her spare time at the M.P. Shah Talking Book Studio in Mumbai. One day in 1996, a blind student was sent to her by an acquaintance. ‘The young man was in class 11, determined to graduate but had no monetary assistance of any kind. Three of my friends and I helped out and he did us proud by graduating,’ Shanti fondly remembers. ‘But what I’ll never forget is how this boy, whom I’d never met before, instantly recognized my voice from the recordings he’d heard. My service was bearing such joyful fruit! I then realized that all the good that you do comes back to you tenfold.’
When we give the very best of ourselves to the people and the activities we are engaged with, we cannot help but receive in return inner inspiration, revelation and fulfillment.
Path of Service
‘We are only empty vessels. Sadhana brims us with spirituality. This then spills over as seva,’ says Sri Sri Ravi Shankar on how sadhana and seva fortify each other. Gurumayi Chidvilasananda in Enthusiasm opines: ‘It is seva that accelerates the sadhana of a seeker and lights the path to God.’
Sathya Sai Baba explains how the sadhana of service is quite distinct. ‘In service you devote all your energy and attention to the task at hand. You forget the body’s demands. You set aside your individuality and its prestige and perquisites. You pluck your ego by its roots and cast it away. You give up your status, conceit, your name and form and all that they demand from others.’
Seva is our innate nature. Not exercising it will in fact cause our spiritual muscles to atrophy. If we become indifferent to doing good, our capacity to do good will diminish.
Some of us shy away from doing seva, in doubt about our own abilities. Remember this: God often uses the least-gifted people when some great service is needed. For people who know their own weakness are fully open to such power and responsibility. A pure heart, uncontaminated by conceit, greed, envy, hatred or competition is all the qualification you require to serve.
Countless days we might have squandered in idle and selfish pursuits. But let us engage now in purposeful action. Let us serve so we gather the most enduring treasures of inner awareness and bliss. Let us serve to lead ourselves to perfection.
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