Seva in Sikhism

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ਵਿਚਿ ਦ੝ਨੀਆ ਸੇਵ ਕਮਾਈਝ ॥ ਤਾ ਦਰਗਹ ਬੈਸਣ੝ ਪਾਈਝ ॥ ਕਹ੝ ਨਾਨਕ ਬਾਹ ਲ੝ਡਾਈਝ ॥੪॥੩੩॥
vicẖ ḝunī­ĝ sėv kamĝ­ī­ai. Ŧĝ ḝargeh baisaṇ pĝ­ī­ai. Kaho Nĝnak bĝh ludĝ­ī­ai. ॥4॥33॥
In the midst of this world, do seva, and you shall be given a place of honor in the Court of the Lord.
Says Nanak, swing your arms in joy! ॥4॥33॥
Karseva at Harimander Sahib with Devotees Restoring the Amrit Sarovar

Seva is the essence of Sikhism. If there is one solitary word to sum up the Sikh religion, I would unhesitatingly pick seva as the operative word. Seva is the voluntary service to fellow beings without any expectation of reciprocation. It is deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of the Sikhs. Seva is what shines in Sikhism above all. I can say it without any exaggeration or the fear of contradiction that the extent of seva that is found among the Sikhs is rarely found in any other religion. The accent is upon the word, `Voluntary'. That makes the Sikhs unique.

It has often been seen in India that whenever there is any natural calamity on a large scale, the Sikh organizations are the first to reach there to provide succour to the affected people. After the devastating earth-quake in Katchh in the Gujarat State of India in 2001, the Sikhs quickly put up some of the biggest camps, providing free food to the quake-affected people. The contributions to run those camps were voluntary, as Sikhs from all over India came forward to foot the bill to run those camps. On such occasions, their largesse is not bound and constricted by thoughts of serving only Sikhs; they serve the needy without regard to their religion or creed. That is but one of the numerous examples of the Sikh philosophy of service to all of mankind, epitomized in their daily Ardas (prayer) - Sarbat da bhala (may good come to all).

Please take a moment to view a presentation on Seva in Sikhism (

An interesting story on Seva

During our travels of North America I and my wife had seen numerous examples of seva. From small thing to big thing the philosophy behind seva is always there among all the Sikhs. We choose one of the examples of the many that we came across:

We were in California going from one Gurdwara to another showing a documentary about the premiere Sikh shrine, Sri Harimandir Sahib. After we had shown the documentary of the Golden Temple in Stockton Gurdwara Sahib, our next show was at El Sobrante Gurdwara Sahib, a small township near San Francisco. Having completed our engagements on Sunday, we wanted to leave Stockton on Monday.

Sevadars working in the Guru's kitchen

However, Stockton did not have any direct bus link with El Sobrante. So, I asked the Stockton Gurdwara Giani ji to arrange for some transport for us, if possible. On Sunday evening Giani ji informed us that he had made the necessary arrangements. One Sikh by the name of Tarsem Singh Gill would pick us up on Monday morning at 9 A.M., to drive us to EI Sobrante.

As promised, at 9 A.M on Monday morning, Tarsem Singh came with his car; we were waiting for him. He parked the car there and introduced himself to me. We exchanged greetings.

"Are you ready?", asked Tarsem Singh

"Of course," I said. "The Giani ji had told me that you would like to return well in time, before the evening."

We loaded our luggage and he drove on. Tarsem Singh was a Sikh man of over sixty-five, seemingly in good health, slightly on the stockier side. In the car, by way of conversation I asked him what he did for a living.

"I am a retired person," he said with a relish of a person who has had the satisfaction of having done all that was wanted of him in his life. "However, after the retirement my main preoccupation is to perform this seva, transporting the jathas, etc., to and from the Stockton Gurdwara."

I was surprised. Hitherto, we had come across people doing such seva once in a while. But for some one to make it as his main preoccupation was news to us.

"Does it happen very often?" I asked. My tone betrayed my curiosity. "I thought providing this type of transportation seva, like today, would be a stray occurrence."

"Well," he said with a disarming smile, "at least once in a week I am given the chance to render such seva; may be twice in a week, sometimes."

I looked at him, wondering; he performing such seva week after week. And yet he claimed to be a retired person. Obviously, a retired person, but certainly he was not yet a tired person.

Bhai Kanhaiya doing water Sewa without discrimination

"How come you have chosen this seva?" I asked him, full of surprise.

"In our religion the accent is upon the fact that whoever can perform any seva he must do so, even without being asked," he said with a smile. Then he was slightly hesitant whether to add some more to that or not. Then he added, all the same. "Secondly, I am very fortunate. I have a car always available to me. There are retired persons, among our Sikhs over here, who may have all the time to do the seva, but may not have a car available when needed. This type of seva can call upon your service any time. Therefore, it is necessary to have a car available at that time."

That was a new angle. I knew from my own experience, considering the strata of life that ordinary Sikhs came from, most of the retired persons were in more straightened circumstances. Those who still had jobs did not have the time to do such seva.

"How do you always have a car available?" I was curious to know. One never knows what new knowledge may be gained during discussions with new people.

He smiled. "I am lucky," he said. "My younger son is in the business of buying and selling pre-owned cars, that is what in India we call `second-hand cars'. He has his own car-yard. In that yard there are always 8-10 cars in transit, awaiting sale or delivery. I can pick up any one of those cars for a few hours, to perform the seva. For example, this car that we are using, came only two days ago."

"But, considering it is his business, does your son allow you that liberty?"

He smiled broadly. "Even he knows that it is for seva. I do not use the cars for pleasure, but for serving the cause of Guru Nanak."

Obviously, the son was very understanding. That warmed the cockles of my heart. Besides, the cars were truly available to him. Therefore, his seva made a lot of sense. But, still there was the physical effort and the cost of petrol involved, especially considering his advanced age.

"Don't you get tired driving so much?" I asked. "After all, no round trip would not be less than four hours. Please don't mind my saying so, but you are not young any longer."

He laughed. "I am sixty-seven," he said with obvious pride, "But in good health, thanks to Waheguru. I believe that Waheguru has given me this good health so that I can perform this seva for Him."

Sevadar sweeping the Gurdwara floor

"What about the petrol?" I asked. "That costs money. You are required to drive long distances."

"Yes, it is true. The distances are there," he said. "But it is nothing that I cannot afford. Waheguru has been so kind to me and to my family. I am in good financial condition, even without recourse to my son. I have saved enough for myself. Besides, my son has a very flourishing business."

"Do you help your son in his business?" I asked. "After all in a family business any numbers of family hands are welcome."

"Not really," he said. "Since I am free most of the day, so I go and sit in the car-yard," he said. "It enables my son to go around hunting for old cars to buy, or do all the other things that in a business need to be done. He is not worried about the things back in the yard. I look after them."

"What do you do in the yard?" I wanted to know.

"Basically I sit there and see that every thing is okay," he said. "As it is, throughout the day someone or the other keeps dropping by to have a look at the cars on display there. Seeing that it is a second-hand car-yard some of them bring over their second-hand cars that they are interested in selling. Someone has to be there to welcome the clients. Since my son is mostly out I fill in for him."

"You make the sales?', I asked.

"No, not normally," he said. "In America selling a car, either new or a second-hand, involves a whole lot of bargaining. That is handled by my son." Then he added with a chuckle, "The haggling is worse than what you would expect in India."

"What if a customer comes and your son is not there?"

"Thanks to the Cell-phone we are in constant touch. I seek his guidance on the opening bid. Well, we have been in it for some time. It is not difficult. Tricky yes, but not difficult, we get by."

"Well, the sangat would be thankful to you for this permanent seva. The itinerant raagis and the gianis would find it difficult otherwise," I said coming back to the earlier topic.

"I do my duty for my Guru's sake. I enjoy it. Besides, when the Guru has given me so much there has to be a way to show my gratitude. This is it," he said happily.

"I appreciate your seva and you attitude," I said.

United Sikhs doing rebuilding Sewa in South East Asia

He seemed to look back in his mind and what he recollected seemed to amuse him. His face lit up with a smile, the eyes became merry, "I will narrate an interesting story." He then added, "One day I went to Sacramento to pick up a jatha, to bring them to Stockton. At Sacramento there was another raagi Singh, a single soul, who wanted to go to Fremont but was not getting a ride. When he saw me and came to know the purpose of my visit there he asked me if I could drop him at Fremont. I agreed. After all, it would involve only one more hour's drive.

We all got in the car. First, from Sacramento I drove to Fremont to drop him there. Strange to say, at Fremont I met another raagi Singh who wanted to come to Stockton. You know they keep shuffling all the time. So I took him next, along with the group that I had picked up at Sacramento. By the time we finally landed at Stockton, it was evening. My son was frantically trying to locate me. He was worried about his old man. So, the next day he gave me a cellular phone, to remain in touch. Till then I had not much liked the idea of keeping a Cell-phone. But now the necessity had arisen."

I was touched by his dedication. It is the people like him who are the true salt of the earth. For these simple Sikhs, religion is not a matter of mere abstract philosophical discussions, but a matter of practical involvement and seva comes in right at the top. Our heads must bow before such simple yet resolute dedication.

"They alone become nobles in His Court Who obey His Orders." ਹ੝ਕਮ੝ ਮੰਨੇ ਸਿਰਦਾਰ੝ ਦਰਿ ਦੀਬਾਣੀਝ ॥ (SGGS p. 142)