In all religions, serving people selflessly is high on the list of seva and finds mention in most scriptural texts of the world. It's not about donating money - anyone with a little surplus can do that, but about service rendered with feeling and about true philanthropic activities that help empower people and make them independent.
Seva is one of the simplest and yet most profound life-changing ways through which we can put our spiritual knowledge into action. Seva is not about being lost in thoughts of God, meditation and mantra, but in serving God's people.
Goodbye to ego
Says Swami Chidanand Saraswati, spiritual head of the Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh: "Seva takes care of your ego; it makes you humble. It makes you giving, sharing....and the more you give, the more you share, the more joy you get. This leads to a certain freshness, and you find that in this form of giving is real living."
"That real message of giving, I learned from the Ganga," he adds. The Ganga has been giving to everyone, without distinctions of caste, creed or religion since eternity. "It's aim is to give, give, and give," he says.
He urges people to be like the Ganga waters, serving people, irrespective of who they are or what they do. But to do that, "you need a certain bhava, something that spending millions of rupees won't bring," adds the Swami.
Seva in the scriptures
There is mention of seva in all religions. The Bhagavad Gita mentions it all through, interspersed in the dialogues between Arjuna and Krishna, stressing on karma yoga or selfless service. Chapters 3 and 5 of the Gita have many mentions of seva and devotion and the true path to God. Here is a line from the Gita that sums it up - A sage equipped with karma yoga quickly attains Nirvana. (5.06). In other words, selfless service or karma yoga provides preparation, discipline, and purification necessary for renunciation.
Sikhism talks about nishkam seva - the cultivation and practice of selfless service that attracts God's grace. The Sikh religion rides high on seva, whether it is in minding the shoes of the sangat, cleaning the gurdwara or working in the guru ka langar, a concept initiated by Guru Nanak way back in the 1500s. Working in the langar and eating together seated on the floor with everyone was a prerequisite for everyone who came for His darshan at Kartarpur, where Guru Nanak settled after his long travels. This, he said, helped you shed your ego. "By shedding the ego, man merges in God," he said.
Scientific research backs these findings. That is exactly what Susan Skog has documented in her book, The Give-Back Solution. From the extract up on her website and on Amazon.com, this is the line that goes home: "Making a difference has nothing to do with money; it has everything to do with the heart." The stories documented by Skog of everyday volunteers show that helping others is the best medicine there is. They show that we think a lot less about our own troubles when we're serving someone else. So convinced is Skog about the joy of volunteering and giving that she has posted a presentation on the Net outlining its benefits:
You feel rejuvenated
Anxiety and depression disappear
Health and immunity get a boost
You connect with like-minded souls
Your job performance improves
It makes you more practical
"Everyone carries a baggage of unmet needs and consequent pain that could lead to various psychological problems. One effective way of coping is to acknowledge it and develop a spirit of service to people. Often when people empathise with others, they see a reflection of their own pain in them. By caring for someone, the person is also vicariously able to soothe and nurture his own distressed path and be mentally healthy," says Pulkit Sharma, a clinical psychologist, at VIMHANS, Delhi.
This, perhaps is the "helper's high" that people who do a lot of volunteer work talk about. It is when you feel so useful that you forget your own baggage and the troubles you have. Researchers in a Boston college showed that pain, depression, and disability in chronic pain patients decreased after participating in community projects.
Shama Vadhera, a homemaker and grandmother in her 70s, is president of the Ujala School run by the Defence OfficersWives' Association. She is "grateful for this spirit of benevolence bestowed on her by God's grace" that gives her the motivation to work for the economically weaker sections of society. "The courses we run teach girls functional literacy so that they feel empowered enough to change their lives," she says. Shama finds that "Service to man is service to God."
Usha Bakhshi, also in her 70s is vice-chairperson of the Army Navy Airforce Wives' Activity Trust (ANAWA). She spends a considerable part of her day at the ANAWA school in Noida, even while her contemporaries watch soap after soap on TV. She says the spirit of service within her was inculcated by her father, who taught her to save money - and said that he would add a similar amount as an incentive. Then, it went one step further. "He said that if I spent it on the poor, he would give me double. That's how my involvement in seva began. At that point, I said, 'why just give them money, I should teach them instead'," says Bakhshi.
The world would be infinitely better if at least some of us thought that way!