The idea of seva, which means selfless and voluntary service, is being used more like a tool for personal gain rather than its true purpose. In an incident, a community volunteer was asked why she hadn't fulfilled her commitments on time or properly. The reply was:

"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 a different occasion, another individual used the concept of seva in a distinct yet impactful manner. While addressing a community group, this person asserted, "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!"

Is this what seva is all about?

In Sikhi, the idea of seva is straightforward and clear. It's all about serving others selflessly. The concept of seva starts with a simple metaphor, comparing it to a milk-pot or vessel. According to Nanak, seva embodies the spirit of giving without expecting anything in return.

           First, wash the vessel,

           Next, disinfect it with incense.

           Then, and only then, is it ready to receive the milk.

                                                                     [GGS, M1, 728:1]

It is true that if milk is poured into a dirty container, it becomes tainted. The impurities of the vessel affect everything poured into it.

Similarly, our minds need cleansing for spiritual matters. Without this preparation, all efforts are in vain. The key to cleansing the mind is practising humility, often described as the "soap" for this purpose.

Sikhi makes these concepts practical in our everyday lives. Seeking humility doesn't require delving into complex religious texts or engaging in extreme practices. There's no need for penances, fasting, retreats, or any form of self-suffering. No rituals involving priests, pilgrimages, renunciations, or burdensome abstentions are necessary.

There's a simple, direct and effective way: seva.    

Inner cleansing doesn't demand big, impressive plans. Monuments or grand gestures aren't necessary, nor are far-off missions to fight for peace. Simply meeting the basic needs of those who require help guides one along the right path. Whether it's within the neighbourhood, at home, or in the broader community, the scope can expand or stay small based on what's needed.

Helping the hungry, clothing the needy, and providing shelter for the homeless are meaningful steps. Alternatively, even small acts like washing dishes at communal kitchens, serving meals, or tending to the footwear of worshippers hold great value.

Maintaining anonymity is helpful. Not drawing attention with labels like "SEVADAR" on clothing aids in this. Doing tasks without seeking praise or recognition is a positive approach. Engaging in tasks that others might avoid or find challenging, such as sweeping floors or cleaning washrooms, can be particularly fulfilling.

An impactful experience was witnessed a few years back in Espanola, New Mexico. At the time, Singh Sahib Harbhajan Singh Yogi had passed away, drawing thousands of people from across the world to commemorate his life. The logistical efforts to accommodate these visitors were immense, including the need for portable toilets. While these facilities were likely rented for the occasion, it would have been easy to hire workers to maintain and ensure cleanliness.

Deeply moving was the vision of the hosts who viewed it as an incredible chance to serve. Whenever one  visited the  facilities, day or night, members of the Sikh community from Espanola could be witnessed  diligently cleaning toilets, water basins, and floors. Their effort made it possibly the cleanest area amidst the vast space dedicated to the week's events.

Doing something for the sake of serving others is the core idea here, without expecting anything in return. Whether it's a small act or a big gesture, the focus is on giving your best without seeking validation or recognition. This approach doesn't involve boasting about it to friends or family, publicizing it in newsletters, or using it as a campaign strategy.

The essence of this teaching is to act selflessly, without the need for acknowledgement or personal gain. It's not about seeking tax benefits, showcasing it on a resume, or using it as a ladder for personal advancement. True service, known as seva, is about wholeheartedly dedicating yourself to a cause with honesty, integrity, and humility. It's not a competition or a means to prove superiority; instead, it's about contributing sincerely without expecting applause or claiming entitlement over the act.

Seva isn't truly seva if it makes you upset that others get recognition for what you've done. Recently, there was a chance to go to Durbar Sahib in Amritsar after more than thirty years. It was an incredible experience filled with many things that brought immense joy.

One of the most moving aspects was seeing people of all ages behind the counter, caring for the shoes of pilgrims, day or night, even in the cold before dawn. They worked silently, their faces calm and hidden in the shadows. While the speakers played spiritual music, their lips moved almost imperceptibly, accompanying the melodies. There was no small talk, no exchanging of names, no seeking familiar faces. Just a quiet, purposeful, and efficient effort, even with long lines of people.

Let’s look at an example 

Usually, there's always a hush around the shoe-stalls outside the main entrance. The only words you hear are "satnam, satnam..." and "waheguru, waheguru..." And a lot of "ji...ji...jee-o...ji ..."

They observe in a way that's hard to fathom. Every shoe they handle seems to be received like a cherished present for a new home. With such tenderness and care, it's almost as if they're giving each pair a welcoming touch. Sometimes, if you happen to glance back as you walk away, you might catch a glimpse of one of them, hidden in the shadows, delicately wiping away any dirt from the shoes before placing them on the shelves.

Standing on  the cold, damp marble, observing the scene at Harmander's entrance, one experiences a profound connection with one’s  long-sought quest. This moment captures the true essence of seva creating a poignant and lasting impression amid the spiritual atmosphere.


*Based on an article by T. Sher Singh published in Sikh Chic on 28th January 2010


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