Understanding Seva

Amongst seekers, one word that we often see being used is seva. The common translation for the word seva is selfless service. But what is selfless service? How precisely do we define seva?And what is it’s purpose? I’ve been thinking about this for a while and thought I’d share my thoughts so far…

In the Bhagavad Gita, one path to the Divine revealed by Lord Krishna to Arjuna is the path of Karma Yoga, or union with the Supreme through the path of Action. In Karma Yoga the essential mindset is one in which we continue to engage with the World through action, but where we forego, or do not focus on, or get attached to the fruits of those actions.

As seekers, we often choose to start invoking this mindset in our lives by doing seva, or selfless service wherever possible. But what exactly does seva mean?

I was listening to a very interesting recording of a satsang, or workshop as he often calls it, by the teacher and renowned kirtan singer Krishna Das. In it he shared some stories of his guru Neem Karoli Baba, and in particular shared his guru’s remarks when his disciples asked about the seva the were doing. “Pah! Only God can do seva!” he exclaimed. What an interesting and revealing answer from this great Master.

I believe there are three forms of seva, each of which conditions us in different ways and which are linked to our internal spiritual growth

The first seva is where we work, often for a particular amount of time and for a cause that is deemed to be beneficial to society. We contribute our time and energy, but with our focus on the desired result. That result, if we are truly honest with ourselves is only partly related to the cause we are working on. Quite often it is equally related to other benefits that we might get from doing that work – social respect, acknowledgement, personal satisfaction, and yes more likes on facebook!

In doing seva, we start to associate with people that also offer similar contributions of time and energy and this creates a positive influence on our thoughts and takes us away from solely focusing on our own individual, minute problems to thinking of others. From this perspective, starting to do seva is a wonderful thing. However, with the focus constantly assessing and measuring what we feel we are getting out it, confusion can start clouding our minds and we can potentially end up adding unwanted layers onto the ego. Where this happens we quickly find such ‘seva’ becoming counter-productive is creating spiritual growth

The second type of seva is where the mindset shifts to a perspective in which a person starts to regard all work as none other than service to the Lord. In this view, action is not taken for any personal benefit, nor even for the benefit of society. It is taken only to please Him, to allow us to know Him, and to seek His love. The work is performed to the best of our ability but without any attention paid to the success or failure. All success and failure in such work is surrendered to Him. Wherever thoughts start to arise from the ego – thoughts of personal prestige or satisfaction, they are calmly and soothingly sent on their way with remembrance of His name. This is where the beauty of japa, or the practice of repetition of the Lord’s name is found.

Our attitude starts to change as we offer everything of ourselves, or as we continue to serve our higher self with a loving surrender of our lower self. We start finding gratitude for things regardless of the external situation, and this only fuels our sense of wanting to offer more.

If you think of a situation in which you have been incredibly grateful for something someone has done, does what we offer that person as thanks ever feel like enough? In the same way the devotee feels that everything offered to the Lord in the way of service is inadequate but strives to offer with all his or her heart and soul.

We desire to be only an instrument for the Lord and through every action we consciously strive to continue to cleaning and purifying ourselves so that we may be able to offer and serve more.

The third type of seva can be described as the fruit of the second type of seva described above. As a devotee continues to surrender not just his actions in good deeds, but in all activity, the lower self that is surrendered eventually becomes silent – and actions become self-less.

When we hear a beautiful song being played, our reaction is to be amazed at the musician and offer affection to the player. We don’t ever feel in awe of the harmonium or guitar or drum! In the same way, the devotee becomes that instrument of grace. Whatever is played is the Lord’s song and all success or failure is irrelevant to that instrument.

The body and mind of such a devotee become an instrument that is perfect for the Lord to use – like the flute of Lord Krishna, it is hollowed of all ego-centric thought. As divine breath flows through the flute, each note played by the Lord is clearly and effortlessly transformed to sweet music. Each action performed by is an action of seva – a direct service to the will of the Lord, the Universe, Love, and Divinity.

In contrast to the second type of seva, in this ultimate form of seva all action is not performed in search of love, but rather as an expression of love.

I believe this is what the wise master meant in his remarks to his devotees. When we start on our internal quest, we start trying to perform seva to start purifying ourselves and to set us on a path of yoga. It is when, through surrender and service we ourselves become selfless, and ultimately become the path itself, that our attempts to perform seva stop, and true seva begins to flow through us.

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