“It may be the devil or it may be the Lord,
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
– Bob Dylan
Technology for Liberation
Seva could be understood simply as doing good deeds, helping others, volunteering, being altruistic. But there is another aspect to it. Seva, translated as selfless service or “Karma Yoga,” is described in all spiritual traditions as a fundamental technology for liberation from the illusion of separate existence and the cycle of birth and death, the aim of Yoga. Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita: “At the beginning, mankind and the principle of sacrifice in selfless service were created together, in order to convert worldly pain into happiness.” (3.10)
If we are entrapped in the ego as the prevalent experience of ourselves, but we want to experience the true self (sat naam), we need guidance and technologies. Action without reward for the illusionary doer – the ego – will hurt and humble the ego and ultimately reveal the underlying timeless essence of our being.
The Phenomenon of Ego
The ego is a phenomenon that automatically assumes a seperate identity for any being in creation. It collects and accumulates results of actions, personal history, impressions of reputation, possessions, relations, mental and behavioural patterns and habits, to define and maintain borders and identity. In the course of its lifetime, it will do almost anything to protect itself. Since the ego is an illusionary and therefore transitory product, it has valid reason to fear death.
The game of life consists in the challenge of how much we are prepared and able to put down the beloved toy of ego and gain the liberation of living in pure, true being – to die the death of the ego while still physically alive. It is written that only few succeed in doing this. The immediate and tangible temptations of the ego are always infinitely louder than the sweet but faint and subtle long-distance call of the soul.
The Blessing of Seva
Finding a situation where we can perform an action that serves – according to our best judgement at that time – a good purpose, is a blessing. It needs to be provided by existence, it cannot be claimed solely by our own efforts. Guru Nanak writes: “Whatever service the Divine causes us to do, that is just what we do. The Divine Self acts, who else should be mentioned? It beholds Its own greatness. He alone serves the Guru, whom the Divine Self inspires to do so. Nanak, offering his head, one is emancipated, and honoured in the Court of the Divine.” (Asa ang 421)
Normally, the ego would automatically consume every reward or praise that is issued by anybody about our actions and turn it into satisfaction and identity. The blessing consists in circumstances which will prevent that from happening. This impossibility of claim will hurt the ego, because it is trained and accustomed to cash in the results of our actions immediately and expand on them its fame and assumed identity. Most of the time this actually is a major part of our motivation to do anything at all. True seva opportunity will therefore never feel convenient, and comes with some pain of ego frustration.
Outer Action vs. Motivation and Intention
The true result and karma of our actions – if selfless or not – does not come from the outer action, but from the inner action, the motivation or intention. Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita: “The wise see that there is (internal, karmic) action in the midst of (external) inaction and (internal, karmic) inaction in the midst of (external) action.” (4.18) Consequently, also for the effect of seva, we need to be more aware of our attitude and motivation than concerned with our outer actions and their apparent results.
If seva is understood merely as “good deeds” in a moral sense, we might miss the point of this technology. On the contrary, we might produce undesirable effects. Driven by motivation to improve a situation (which mostly doesn’t need our improvement, when seen from a much bigger perspective), or to improve ourselves, we produce pride in case of success and shame otherwise, which is the standard process of ego in action, the opposite of seva.
Without Fear, Hope or Cleverness
In terms of the decision of what to do in any given situation, we have to rely on our faith, that all information and means are provided to us to perform the best possible action. For this, we need to still the constant inner dialogue of judgement and comparison in our mind and listen to our intuition. We have to always give our best without fear, hope or cunning cleverness. Like this, every action becomes seva. Anything we do to somebody, we ultimately do to the One Existence that we are ourselves in essence. Jesus: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25.40)
In summary, Seva is an attitude of unconditional service which is performed without any expectation of personal gain, yet investing the best skills and spirit possible, offering the results of efforts for a higher or even unknown purpose. Since the ego always expects a return for an investment, this is a radical proposition challenging our usual mindset. The idea is to continuously challenge and ultimately resolve the bonds which tie us to the illusionary sense of who we are, the energies of our history, reputation, relations, possessions, pride and shame, and reach liberation from those entanglements, the state of Yoga.
More Seva Quotes from the Gita:
- Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world. By devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. (3.19)
- You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward. (2.47)
- The spiritually minded, who eat in the spirit of service, are freed from all their karma. But those who prepare food for their own satisfaction eat more karma. (3.13)
- Every selfless act is born from the eternal infinite Divine, It is present in every act of service. Whoever ignores this law, indulging his senses for his own pleasure, ignoring the needs of others, wastes his life. (3.16)
- Whatever you do, make it an offering to me – the food you eat, the sacrifice you make, the help you give, even your suffering. In this way you will be freed from the bondage of karma, and from its results both pleasant and painful. Then, firm in renunciation and yoga, with your heart free, you will come to me. (9.27)
- The awakened sages call a person wise when all his undertakings are free from anxiety about results, all his selfish desires have been consumed by the fire of knowledge. (4.19)
- Aspirants abstain from sense pleasure, but they still crave for them. These cravings all disappear when they see the highest goal. (2.59)
- Those who are deluded by the operation of the three qualities become attached to the result of their actions. (3.29)