Seva is the foundation stone of spirituality
The Vedanta Kesari, December 2014 – Centenary Year Special Edition
– Pramod Kumar
A Life of Purpose
There is a popular Sanskrit Subashitam (proverb) which declares that the very purpose of life is to lead a life of purpose:
Paropakaaram vahanti nadya, paropakaaram duhanti gaaya |
Paropakaaram phalanti vriksha, paropakaaram idam shariram ||
“Just as the rivers flow for the benefit of others, the cows give away milk for the benefit of others, the trees bear fruit for the benefit of others, so is the human body meant for the service of others.”
The Vedic vision of the oneness of life, the Buddha’s message of compassion, Mahavira’s emphasis on ahimsa and Nanak’s emphasis on brotherhood have one underlying principle in common – spiritual knowledge culminates in a vision of life whose practical application is seva and vice versa – seva done with proper attitude leads a human being to zenith of spiritual attainment. Thus, seva bhava has always been one of the central themes of religion and spirituality in India.
Surviving vs. Contributing
Vedanta urges every human being to become a contributor and not merely a survivor. Seva or the attitude of giving and serving becomes natural to a society which is not chronically impoverished but well-nourished and economically stable. India till the 16th century was known as ‘Sone ki Chidiya (Golden Bird),’ for it occupied a position of dominance in the world economy – experts on the history of world economics like Angus Maddison point out that India retained the no.1 position in world economy for a long period of 1600 years from the 1st century CE to 16th century – an unprecedented and unmatched feat in the history of humanity!
For a prosperous society whose worldview was rooted in the ideals of Dharma, Karma and Daana, service became an integral part of the everyday cultural life of the Indian people. It is an erroneous notion popularized by colonial historians that Hinduism is other-worldly and therefore did not encourage its followers to serve and contribute.
The householder or grihastha was the economic pillar of Indian society who supported people in all the other phases of life – brahmacharya, vanaprastha and sannyasa. Hence, we find that the dharma shastras exhorted the grihastha to share and to contribute wholeheartedly.
The Brihadarnyaka Upanishad, for example, highlights the value of charity ‘Datta’ for human beings through the following story:
“On one occasion the gods, the human beings and the demons all observed self-restraint, Brahmacharya, Tapasya and austerity for the sake of gaining knowledge from the Creator. Having observed great austerity they went to Brahma, the Creator Himself, and said, “Give us instruction.” Who went? Three groups. One group of the celestials, the gods, denizens of Indra-loka, paradise, who enjoy all sorts of pleasures, second the men of this earth plane, and third the demons, extremely cruel in their nature. To the gods he said, “I give you instruction. Listen! Da.” He said but one word, “Da”. “Do you understand what I say?” “Yes, we understand.” “Very good! So, follow this instruction.” Then he looked to the human beings, “Do you want instruction from me?” “Yes!” “Da,” he said again. “Do you follow what I say?” “Yes, we understand.” “Very good! Now go and follow this instruction.” Then the demons were called and he said “Da” to the demons also, and the demons, like the others said, “Yes, we have understood what it is.” “Go and follow this instruction.” To all the three he told the same thing, but the meaning was taken differently by the different groups. “Da, Da, Da,” he said. That is all he spoke. The celestials, the people in paradise, are supposed to be revelling in pleasures of sense. They are fond of enjoyment. There is no old age there. There is no sweating, no toiling, no hunger, no thirst, no drowsiness and nothing untoward as in this world. It is all pleasure and pleasure, honey flowing everywhere in paradise. They are addicted to too much enjoyment. So the instruction to those people was Da-‘Dāmyata’. In Sanskrit Dāmyata means, restrain yourself. Damyata comes from the word Dam, to restrain. Subdue your senses. Do not go too much in the direction of the enjoyment of the senses. That was ‘Da’ to the celestials. Kama is to be controlled by self-restraint. Human beings are greedy. They want to grab everything. Hoarding is their basic nature. “I want a lot of money”; “I have got a lot of land and property”; “I want to keep it with myself”; “I do not want to give anything to anybody”. This is how they think. So, to them ‘Da’ meant Datta – ‘give in charity’. Do not keep with you more than what you need. Do not take what you have not given. Do not appropriate what does not belong to you. All these are implied in the statement – be charitable. Charitable not only in material giving but also in disposition, in feeling, in understanding and in feeling the feelings of others. So, to the human beings this was the instruction – Datta, give, because they are not prepared to give. They always want to keep. Greed is to be controlled by charity. And to the demons, who are very cruel, who always insult, injure and harm other people ‘Da’ meant Dayadhvam – be merciful to others. The third ‘Da’ means Dayadhvam – be merciful. Do not be cruel and hard-hearted. Demons are hard-hearted people. They eat, swallow, destroy and demolish everything. Anger is to be controlled by mercy.”
The householder was expected to contribute at least one-tenth of his income to charity. This contribution was not merely a suggestion but a compulsory injunction. The well-being of the individual here and in the journey beyond death depended on the quantum of charity made by him / her. The law of Karma applied to giving encouraged the conviction that what one gives in charity in this life comes back as inheritance in the next. Poverty becomes the only inheritance for misers, to teach them the value of caring and sharing.
The grihastha was also enjoined upon to perform the ‘Pancha Maha Yajnas’ (Five Great Sacrifices) – Deva Yajna, Rishi Yajna, Pitru Yajna, Manushya Yajna and Bhuta Yajna. Manushya Yajna and Bhuta Yajna laid out the individual’s responsibility to serve fellow human beings and all other beings in the plant and animal kingdom. The practice of setting aside food for unexpected travellers or guests and sharing a portion of the food with cows, crows, dogs and other animals became a household custom.
The Downfall – from Seva to Selfishness
However, the picture that the average Indian and the great Indian middle class presents today is one of rank selfishness which manifests in public life through symptoms like corruption, a sickening indifference and apathy to the plight of the poor and downtrodden and the ‘mera kya mujhe kya’ (what will I get if I do this?) or ‘chalta hai’ (let it be) attitudes which have come to define us a people today.
What led to this degeneration of the Indian character from seva to selfishness? It is important to understand the root cause of this change as it will enable us to bring in correction and revive the old ideal of seva in the everyday life of our people.
There are two causes which seem to have warped the Indian spirit of giving and sharing – (1) prolonged slavery and poverty imposed by the harsh circumstances caused by foreign invasions and colonialism and (2) a materialistic education system that produces only selfish survivors instead of productive contributors to the society
This is not the right place to recount the economic atrocities under British rule which led to genocides like the Great Bengal Famine. But it is important to understand that at least some of the selfishness and cut-throat attitude one comes across in the Indian middle classes today is partly a hangover of the crushing poverty caused by colonial rule. The Indian people never accepted poverty as their fate. But in their eagerness to regain their economic status they have perhaps lost sight of the instruction of ‘Datta’
The educational policies which India adopted after Independence were completely divorced from the ideals of dharma and seva. Secularism devoid of dharma and a materialistic education that excelled in producing degree-holders devoid of life enriching skills have only helped in corrupting our inborn commitment to share and serve.
Swami Vivekananda and the revival of the Indian Ideals
Swami Vivekananda was one of the pioneering visionaries of modern India who revived the ideals of seva and tyaga and reintegrated them into the institution of sannyasa which had otherwise become fossilised with the world rejecting attitude of the ascetics who sought their own moksha and turned a blind eye to the suffering of their countrymen.
Swami Vivekananda’s Vedantic vision of charity stands out in dazzling brilliance in the most inspiring lecture he delivered at Rameswaram:
“This is the gist of all worship — to be pure and to do good to others. He who sees Shiva in the poor, in the weak, and in the diseased, really worships Shiva; and if he sees Shiva only in the image, his worship is but preliminary. He who has served and helped one poor man seeing Shiva in him, without thinking of his caste, or creed, or race, or anything, with him Shiva is more pleased than with the man who sees Him only in temples.
A rich man had a garden and two gardeners. One of these gardeners was very lazy and did not work; but when the owner came to the garden, the lazy man would get up and fold his arms and say, “How beautiful is the face of my master”, and dance before him. The other gardener would not talk much, but would work hard, and produce all sorts of fruits and vegetables which he would carry on his head to his master who lived a long way off. Of these two gardeners, which would be the more beloved of his master? Shiva is that master, and this world is His garden, and there are two sorts of gardeners here; the one who is lazy, hypocritical, and does nothing, only talking about Shiva’s beautiful eyes and nose and other features; and the other, who is taking care of Shiva’s children, all those that are poor and weak, all animals, and all His creation. Which of these would be the more beloved of Shiva? Certainly he that serves His children. He who wants to serve the father must serve the children first. He who wants to serve Shiva must serve His children — must serve all creatures in this world first. It is said in the Shastra that those who serve the servants of God are His greatest servants. So you will bear this in mind.
Let me tell you again that you must be pure and help anyone who comes to you, as much as lies in your power. And this is good Karma. By the power of this, the heart becomes pure (Chitta-shuddhi), and then Shiva who is residing in every one will become manifest. He is always in the heart of every one. If there is dirt and dust on a mirror, we cannot see our image. So ignorance and wickedness are the dirt and dust that are on the mirror of our hearts. Selfishness is the chief sin, thinking of ourselves first. He who thinks, “I will eat first, I will have more money than others, and I will possess everything”, he who thinks, “I will get to heaven before others I will get Mukti before others” is the selfish man. The unselfish man says, “I will be last, I do not care to go to heaven, I will even go to hell if by doing so I can help my brothers.” This unselfishness is the test of religion. He who has more of this unselfishness is more spiritual and nearer to Shiva. Whether he is learned or ignorant, he is nearer to Shiva than anybody else, whether he knows it or not. And if a man is selfish, even though he has visited all the temples, seen all the places of pilgrimage, and painted himself like a leopard, he is still further off from Shiva.” 
In these few words, Swamiji has condensed the essence of Vedanta and spirituality and given us all a manual to live by. Shiva Bhave Jiva Seva and Daridra Narayana are the new taraka mantras which have the potential of liberating Indians from the shackles of demeaning selfishness which have bound ourselves with.
It is heartening to see that Swamiji’s fiery message of seva and tyaga is reaching out to more and more youth across the country, inspiring them to do great deeds of service. A Babar Ali who set up a school for the poor kids of Bengal and became the youngest school principal of the world or Dr. Hanumappa Sudarshan who left behind his medical practice to work with the tribal communities in Karnataka or R. Balasubramaniam who launched the Vivekananda Youth Movement – they are all living examples of the ideals of seva and tyaga that Swami Vivekananda placed before the Indian youth.
India is eagerly waiting for their numbers to grow, for those “… hundred thousand men and women, fired with the zeal of holiness, fortified with eternal faith in the Lord, and nerved to lion’s courage by their sympathy for the poor and the downtrodden, will go over the length and breadth of the land, preaching the gospel of salvation, the gospel of help, the gospel of social raising-up, the gospel of equality.”
 The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad by Swami Krishnananda, Chapter V, http://www.swami-krishnananda.org/brdup/brhad_V-01.html
 Address at the Rameswaram temple on real worship, Lectures from Colombo to Almora, http://www.vivekananda.net/BooksBySwami/LecturesColomboAlmora/4.html