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The spirit of seva

Spiritual activists, as opposed to NGOs, understand that the biggest contribution to changing the world is self-change, says Suma Varughese

Around 13 years ago I left mainstream journalism and joined a start-up body-mind-spirit magazine. It did not take me long to discern that I had actually penetrated a subterranean domain of reality where people were connected to something higher than themselves, and that this connection inspired them to contribute to society.

After a lifetime of being around people who were preoccupied with their own self-interest, I met people who were busy promoting vermiculture, teaching reiki for free, helping the underprivileged, supporting the education of the girl-child, helping the farmer -- all sorts of benevolent activities. It struck me then, that it was this subterranean vein that was actually keeping the country going. Silently, unobtrusively, a flow of goodness was nourishing and nurturing the country and restoring its resilience and life force.

Over time, this conviction was further reinforced when I got better acquainted with spiritual organisations. Without exception I found that spiritual organisations ran like clockwork. Whether it was the Brahma Kumaris down at Mount Abu, the Art of Living organisation in Bangalore, the Oneness University in Andhra Pradesh, the Sadhu Vaswani Mission in Pune, I found a happy joyous community whose zest for service was apparently endless. I still remember going to the Brahma Kumaris during a youth conference. Many women from the village were offering the seva of rolling out perfectly round chappatis. One of the renunciates came around and asked them what they would prefer -- lunch or more seva. My jaw dropped as they responded in unison: seva! At the same ashram, a young renunciate working in the accounts division said that he worked for more than 15 hours a day. However, he added, the work did not seem like work at all!

During an international conference on education at the Art of Living ashram in Bangalore, I watched as the media cell slaved for hours on end, taking care of journalists, preparing daily reports, fixing interviews and meetings for the journalists and so on. None of them seemed to get more than four hours of sleep, but their fresh smiling faces never lost their enthusiasm.

The same can be said of the silent and sublime guides of the Oneness University. Seva is their middle name as they spend hours explaining the teachings to students both within and without the study course, counselling those in need, and giving deekshas for all who need them. They appear to be awake right through the night and yet exude a freshness and energy at the dawn of a new day.

The point I am trying to make is that spiritual organisations naturally generate a desire for seva and a capacity for committed sustained action. Activists in the NGO field frequently talk about compassion fatigue, but that is a syndrome that rarely affects those in spiritual organisations, for the simple reason that these people constantly work on themselves. Spiritual activists, as opposed to NGOs, understand that the biggest contribution to changing the world is self-change. The focus on self-change keeps them humble, inner-directed and service-oriented. It also cleans up their motives. As they grow in spiritual maturity, the doing is less and less ego-driven and becomes more and more selfless. A newfound clarity dawns, which enables them to re-evaluate what they do and how they do it. After all, doing things for others without reducing their sense of self and without increasing your sense of self is not an easy balance to find. Love for the guru or for God is another tremendous motivation that enables them to perform almost superhuman tasks with a smile. I don’t of course mean to imply that spiritual sevaks are beyond the pale. There are many who falter, but by and large it is my contention that they are more sincere in their service.

It is no wonder therefore that many spiritual organisations immerse themselves in social activities and contribute substantially to society. Mata Amritanandamayi has an ashram in Kerala which is renowned for its outreach. Amma is once heard to have said: “If it is someone’s karma to fall into a ditch, then it is our karma to help him out”, and the range of her helping hand is immense. In healthcare there are a number of hospices and hospitals, including the Amrita Institute of Medical Science, a superspecialty hospital in Cochin which offers the best of medical care at affordable rates and offers the poor charitable help. She also runs a number of educational institutes across the country and has contributed generous amounts for disaster management including over $300 million for tsunami victims in South Asia. She assists with social support, offering pensions and homes to the disadvantaged.

Similarly Sathya Sai Baba, whose ashram is in Puttaparthi, has done outstanding outreach work in Andhra Pradesh, including a massive water project that cost $63 million and provides water to over 700 villages in Andhra Pradesh. Other areas include educational initiatives such as Sri Sathya Sai University where holistic education is rendered and the Sathya Sai Institute of Music. The organisation also focuses on medical care, ranging from dispensaries, medical camps to treat cataracts and collect blood, general hospitals as well as superspecialty hospitals. Free treatment is the norm in all these places. His recipe for spiritual service: “Service is effective only when I and mine are replaced by God and God’s.”

Baba Ramdev at a spiritual lecture

“Our first and foremost commitment is to do seva to the world,” is the founder of Art of Living, Sri Sri Ravi Shanker’s motto. He lives up to it with a plethora of service initiatives which include supporting rural and farming communities in becoming self-sufficient in water, in sanitation and, above all, in returning to organic farming. The organisation also trains rural youth through leadership programmes called Youth Leadership Training Programmes, organises Art of Living programmes in prisons, brings warring communities together, and provides education for underprivileged children. They also do considerable disaster relief work especially during the Mumbai floods of 2005 and the 2004 tsunami.

The Sadhu Vaswani Mission in Pune is far smaller in size, but it too is staunchly dedicated to the ideal of service, not just to humanity but to the animal and bird kingdom as well. Vegetarianism is an avowed ideal of the organisation, and daily feeding of birds and animals is a ritual. Daily feeding and service is also offered to the poor, the homeless, the sick, and the elderly. The organisation runs several educational institutes in Pune, including a college called Mira College. It runs several medical camps in and around Pune, and a prestigious hospital in the city.

Similarly, the Brahma Kumaris of Mount Abu, Jaggi Vasudev of Isha Yoga, Rishi Prabhakar of Siddha Samadhi Yoga, the Chinmaya Mission, the Ramkrishna Mission, the Swaminarayans of Ahmedabad and various other spiritual centres, both large and small, strive to serve the world every way they can. With millions of devoted sevaks at their disposal, generous funds pouring into their coffers, and little red-tapism to dampen their spirits they fan out into the world, a real force for the good.

I personally am convinced that the Indian can only respond to inspiration, and that he or she works best when he or she is in seva mode. How can the rest of civil society make use of this unique temperament? It’s worth thinking about.   

(Suma Varughese is Editor-in-Chief, Life Positive magazine)

Infochange News & Features, November 2009