By Leena Chawla Rajan
Publisher: Punjab, India: Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 2022.
The Masters say that every contribution in seva, however small it may seem, is equally valuable. Seva is based on love, and love cannot be quantified. The worth of seva is incalculable.
In this book, the author reflects on the challenges, the joys, and the inestimable value of seva (selfless service) for a spiritual seeker. With occasional quotes from the Radha Soami Satsang Beas Masters and the Adi Granth, as well as from such diverse figures as Mother Teresa, Marcus Aurelius, and Mulla Nasruddin, she illustrates how seva is an essential aspect of spirituality. Anecdotes reported by sevadars from satsang centres around the world are woven into the book throughout. Some of these are deeply inspiring, some are cautionary, and some humorous, but all carry a taste of the actual experience of seva – not in some distant past world, but in the midst of today’s complex challenges.
The book is divided into four sections. The first section, titled “Foundations,” addresses the questions: What is seva? What is physical seva? Why do we serve? How do we serve? The overriding theme in these chapters is that the foundation of seva is love, and seva grows love. The author writes:
As we begin to understand the qualities that make up doing seva with the right attitude of love and service, we realize that this is something we will never be done learning. Each time we peel a layer we find there is more to be discovered – about the Master, about seva, and about the inner journey. There is infinite scope to improve our approach to seva; there are infinite ways to grow in our love. It is the work of a lifetime.
The second section, titled “Seva of Body and Mind,” makes up the largest part of the book. Its ten chapters focus on the attitudes or way of approaching seva: Dedication, Responsibility, Self-Discipline, Listening, Humility, Attitude of Selflessness, Obedience, Surrender, Love, and Harmony.
The chapter on Listening begins with a quote from Christian theologian Paul Tillich: “Love listens. It is its first task to listen.” The recurring theme of the book is that seva is rooted in love. The author comments, “To do any seva successfully, we first need to be silent and listen. When we listen with attention and love, we put our ego aside and are essentially saying to another person, ‘Tell me what you would like me to do; your opinion matters to me.’” She adds, “One of the most sincere forms of showing respect to someone is to listen attentively to what that person has to say.”
Humility is essential to seva. The author describes behaviours many sevadars try to adopt to appear humble. These, she says, are not real humility, which “is the outcome of years of meditation.” Yet, “if we wait to become humble before we begin doing seva, we will never begin. Seva is there to help us become humble.”
Can we be happy when our seva goes unnoticed by anyone? She relates a story about Hazur Maharaj Ji when he was on his evening walk around Dera. When he passed by a man cleaning the roof in an out-of-the-way part of Dera,
Hazur commented that this was “true seva.” He added, “He selects sites that are not visited by people so he can go unnoticed. That sevadar is a non-demanding type.” The disciple asked him to clarify what he meant by “non-demanding.” Hazur replied, “He does not ask me for anything. It is a unique quality not to ask for anything.”
The chapter on Harmony brings up the issue many people find hardest in seva: the disharmony that often arises among sevadars. The author comments, “It is easy to love the Master, and most of the time it is easy to love seva, but there are times when we find it difficult to love one another. Yet this is what the Master wants – that we serve together in love and harmony.”
Why is it so difficult to work together? The author says, “We are human: we have faults, we make mistakes. We come from different backgrounds, communities, and cultures. We have different personalities, opinions, and ways of doing things. As a result, we don’t always understand each other, and friction can occur.” Sometimes, she says, we may decide we’d rather work alone. “A sevadar once threw up her hands in despair after a misunderstanding with her team. ‘I can’t do this!" she said. ’Please give me some seva that doesn’t require any interaction with people. Working with others is too difficult!’” But, as the author points out, “The purpose of seva is not served if we avoid difficult situations and isolate ourselves. Some of the qualities we need to learn – kindness, patience, and love – can only be developed when we work with others.” She says that in seva “We usually do not get to choose whom we work with… Our past karmic relationships may make the seva either a smooth road or bumpy road.”
The third section of the book is called “Seva of Mind and Soul.” Its two chapters are Balance and Meditation. In the chapter on Balance, the author says:
Sevadars face the challenge of keeping three things in balance: meditation, worldly life, and seva. Keeping a balance doesn’t mean giving equal time and priority to each one. Meditation is clearly our number one priority. We also have to do justice to our worldly life, which includes earning an honest living; fulfilling responsibilities to family, friends, and community; taking care of our health; and occasionally enjoying leisure activities. Physical seva has immeasurable value, but it is something extra that we do, without compromising on meditation and worldly commitments.
As Marcus Aurelius wrote: “Nothing earthly succeeds by ignoring heaven. And nothing heavenly succeeds by ignoring earth.”
The fourth and final section of the book is Valuing the Gift, comprised of a chapter on Gratitude followed by an Epilogue. The author shows that seva should be imbued not only with gratitude to the Master, but also with gratitude to the sangat for giving us the opportunity to serve, and gratitude to our fellow sevadars because the “love and dedication of the sevadars we work with is a great source of inspiration.”
She stresses that “Seva is not a right – it is a privilege, an honour, and a responsibility. It is a precious gift from the Master.”
The nightmare of every sevadar is the very real possibility that we might start taking our seva for granted. When we think that seva cannot carry on without us, or we become arrogant, or approach a seva task as a chore or a hardship, or treat seva as we would a worldly job – this is when we know that we’ve started to take our seva for granted.
If we appreciate the gift of seva and stick with it, we may undergo a process she calls a “spiritual metamorphosis,” which she likens to a moth entering the cocoon and coming out a butterfly. “When we come to seva, we walk in the door utterly full of ourselves – full of weaknesses, expectations, and demands. We make mistake after mistake, but the Master forgives each one. He cloaks our faults and says there is no one in the world like his sevadars.”
Continuing her metaphor, she says that being in the “cocoon” of seva can be painful. “Real seva is not always easy. Seva is not a utopia with only nice people and no difficulties. Seva can be messy, seva can be difficult. But in the process, it offers infinite learning, infinite growth.” It is a matter of surrendering to a transformative process that we don’t always understand.
We become more compassionate, peaceful, patient, and flexible. Slowly, the effects of seva seep into our worldly life, lending the fragrance of spirituality and positivity to everything we do. The Master says we are all miracles if we consider where we have come from and where we are today.
All of seva is ultimately for the mind: to bend the mind towards the Beloved. Outer seva inspires us to practise inner seva, which is the only seva that can liberate us. And seva of the mind acts as a bridge between outer and inner seva, unifying them.
A true living Master has taken us by the hand and is teaching us how to love – through service to the Lord and service to each other.