When you hear the word Seva, what does it mean to you? Quite literally, Seva means service. In the context of our faith, it means selfless service rendered as a community action, done for the goodwill and benefit of others. The concept of Seva though is more than all of these things. It is the very essence of Sikhism.
“Centre your awareness on Seva – selfless service – and focus your consciousness on the Word of the Shabad.” (Guru Granth Sahib : Pannaa : 110 Line:1 )
The very act of worship at the Gurudwara is a manifestation of Seva. As we bow to do Matha Tekh, we make an offering of money or food for the upkeep and running of the Temple. After listening to Shabad or completing our worship, we take our place in the Langar and eat food. The Langar is one of the most important institutions of Sikhism, the significant symbolism of which is often overlooked. When we break roti and eat, we are participating in a tradition that has been part of Sikh life since the very birth of our religion.
The Langar is the free kitchen which is open to all. It was founded by Baba Nanak. The philosophy behind it was a radical departure from the prevailing norms of Indian society at the time. Ridden by caste hierarchies and the restrictive religiosity of the ruling class, the Langar was a place where peasent and king, man and woman, high and low, saint and sinner could sit as equals and eat together. In India, dietary rules have always played a restrictive part in everyday life. Such a practical expression of equality, embedded in the very heart of the place of worship, was unprecedented. This ethos remains to this day, and is perhaps the most visible and obvious manifestation of Seva that we encounter in our lives in modern times.
“Do Seva, selfless service, for the Holy Saints, and the noose of Death shall be cut away “ (Guru Granth Sahib : Paanaa : 214 Line:7 )
The Langar is provided by the Sangat , or community. It is cooked by the Sangat, served by the Sangat, and consumed by the Sangat. However, when we eat Langar, it not only serves a social function (to prevent hunger and provide shelter: no man is permitted to want for food within a mile of any Gurudwara, of any religion or race) but as a reminder of God, of Waheguru. God is equated with food in our Seva. Just as food is an essential for life, for our very survival, so is God our provider of sustenance, our nourishment. Just as no man or woman can live without food and water, no matter how high or low born, so can no man or woman exist without the succour and love of the Lord.
“The Sevadar performs selfless service when he is pleased, and confirmed in the True Word of the Shabad” (Guru Granth Sahib : Paanaa :767 Line :8)
So just as food is essential to us being alive, so are we dependent upon God for our existence. But this is a two way process. Sikhism does not preach absolute submission to the higher body. In Sikhism, God is not an arrogant spirit who demands us to be automatons beholden to her will. Because just as we are dependent upon her, so is she dependent on us. We are enjoined to carry out her work on earth. We are urged through Seva to carry out the Guru’s work. Thus, when we take food to the Langar, serve food in the Langar, we are part of a dual process in which we act on behalf of Waheguru. We are equal partners with God in our time on earth. Just as we mark out our own destiny, create our own Karma, forge our own path, we do so under the tutelage of Waheguru. Because Sikhism is a people centred belief system. God is not only found in Temples, in places of Pilgramage, in certain holy people only. It is focussed in you, and you, and you. Guru Tegh Bahadur, ninth Guru and father of Guru Gobind Singh, asks:
“Why do you go to the forest in search of the Divine? God lives in all, and abides in you, too. As fragrance dwells in a flower, and your reflection in the mirror, so the Divine dwells inside everything; seek therefore in your own heart.”
Thus we can see that Sikhism is a call to arms: a religion based not on ritual but action. Truth resides in us all. God resides in us all. Every action, therefore, is holy.
“Whoever has good destiny inscribed on his forehead, applies himself to Seva – selfless service” (Guru Granth Sahib: Paanaa:1142 Line : 4 )
So it is not only in our acts of service at the Gurudwara, or our involvement in charities, helping the homeless and infirm, housing the earthquake victim, that we perform Seva. We can worship God, and perform Seva in our everday activities. Getting up in the morning, going to work and performing our tasks. Going to college and studying for exams. Coming home and cooking and cleaning. Every single mundane activity can be an act of Seva. Keeping in mind your intentions, the reasons for living and helping others, you can realise your status as an ambassador for Waheguru, an agent of truth and love. Herein, God is present in our lives, and we can extend the concept of Seva to include all that we do. Everything is a manifestation of the truth, and our very lives become an affirmation of that. Even if you do not pray every day, and cannot visit the Gurudwara as often as you would like, keep the Guru’s name on your lips and perform the best you can. Because those things that keep us busy: our job, our families, our love of football, our passions, our hobbies, our friends, our music: these are things we should pursue to excellence, to the fullest of our abilities, and with Waheguru in our heart. They are all part of the holy life we lead. Help those in your vicinity. You will be touching the Divine.
Harpreet Singh Soorae