Sewa and the community
Seva or Karseva also shortened to ‘Sewa’ is a word used to refer to "selfless service" or "free-voluntary service", performed without any thought of reward or personal benefit. Doing 'Seva' is a central Sikh tenet; all Sikhs are encouraged by their Guru (Guru Granth Sahib) to perform Seva or Selfless Service within the community. Not only is this good for community relations but it is also good and moral uplifting of the person performing the voluntary service.
You will find Sikhs engaged in free service in Gurdwaras washing dishes, cleaning the floors, serving food, working on community langar project, etc. Sikhs are also encouraged to help the community by performing unpaid work in hospitals, 'old peoples' homes, community centres, etc. Volunteers engaged in Seva are referred to as Sevadars and for many people this activity forms an essential part of their daily life, providing spiritual fulfilment and practical benefits.
Sikhism is founded on principles of Sarbat da bhalla - working towards the "common good of all". For Sikhs, this means reaching out to serve and uplift all of humanity as an expression or devotion to the Creator. Many other Sikh institutes, such as Guru-ka-Langar, Kirtan, Paath, etc., depend on the performance of Seva by many in the congregation. So the principles of Seva underpin many Sikh values - such is the importance given to Seva in Sikhism.
This point is highlighted by the Guru in many places in the Guru Granth Sahib. The holy text explains the spiritual benefits of doing seva and the ways in which one should perform it, focussing on the state of the mind when performing seva. The Guru says: "ਸੇਵਾ ਕਰਤ ਹੋਇ ਨਿਹਕਾਮੀ ॥ ਤਿਸ ਕਉ ਹੋਤ ਪਰਾਪਤਿ ਸਆਮੀ ॥ One who performs selfless service, without thought of reward, shall attain his Lord and Master." (SGGS p 286) The Guru states that one who perform selfless service without desire for reward will certainly attain liberation. The need to be "desire-less" ("nehkaami") is critical in making this action fruitful. When one does Seva, one should just do it without any thought for a return - think of it as a duty to the society.
Much guidance about this virtue are given in the holy Granth - see the article on Seva for more details.
Seva and its examples
Many examples of sewa can be given. The following are the more well known examples of community service preformed without distinction as advocated by the Guru Granth Sahib:
- 1. Bhai Kanhaiya (1648-1718), was a Sikh of Guru Tegh Bahadur and was the founder of the Sevapanthi or Addanshahi sect of the Sikhs. His special mission was selfless service of humanity with no distinction of nationality, caste or creed. During the frequent sallies and skirmishes between the Sikhs and the enemy, Bhai Kanhaiya was often seen carrying a mashak (a sort of pouch made of goat's skin that was used to carry water from one place to another), to serve water to anyone who was thirsty. He took upon the task of quenching the thirst of the wounded soldiers in the battle of Anandpur Sahib in 1704. He did this sewa with love and affection without any discrimination between the Guru's Sikh soldiers and the Mughal armies' soldiers.
- 2. Pingalwara was the name given to a humble house for the destitute in Amritsar in northern Indian state of Punjab. In the early 1900's, it was an original idea of the founder, Bhagat Puran Singh to catered for the people of all backgrounds without discrimination, who had been rejected by society. It was an ad-hoc facility for the disabled; the mentally ill; the dispossessed; generally for people who were no longer accepted by anyone in society. Bhagat Puran Singh built this institute literally single-handed with the ideals of his mother as his driving force; the message of Gurbani as a beckon and the generosity of the Punjabi society as his safety net and hunting ground.
- 3. The Langar or free kitchen was started by the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji. It is designed to uphold the principle of equality between all people of the world regardless of religion, caste, colour, creed, age, gender or social status. In addition to the ideals of equality, the tradition of Langar expresses the ethics of sharing, community, inclusiveness and oneness of all humankind. "..the Light of God is in all hearts." (sggs 282). For the first time in history, Guruji designed an institution in which all people would sit on the floor together, as equals, to eat the same simple food. It is here that all people high or low, rich or poor, male or female, all sit in the same pangat (literally "row" or "line") to share and enjoy the food together.
- 5. Housing projects and Shelters: SIKLIGAR HOUSING PROJECT
- 6. Schooling and education Nishkam Puran Institute, Kericho, Kenya
What is the role of Sewa in Sikhism?
The Gurus mentioned the performance of selfless service on the part of a disciple as the first step in Sikhism. By doing service of various kinds without payment or any expectation of reward, one acts as a Sewak, or Sewadar. From this may spring humility and the consequent elimination of one's ego in this way, God's "Name" can best enter a humbled mind.
What are the requirements of a true Sewak? He should have an absolute faith in the Guru; he must surrender himself to follow the code of self-discipline as laid down by the Gurus. Voluntary service can be of different kinds - with body, mind and money. First comes the physical service - cleaning at the Gurdwara, cooking and serving in the Free Kitchen.
Apart from serving Sangat (Congregation) one is also expected to serve one's family members, relations and the community. One may help in cash or kind, to deserving persons and charitable organisations. Then comes service with the mind, such as is required for reflection on Gurbani and the remembrance of God's Name - All these forms of service are recommended by the Gurus. They also warn us that service must be done gladly and without any motive for compensation. It has not be done with a secret or hidden ideas to win approbation, honour or position. These defeat the main object of "service" which is to eliminate the ego.
Need for change
Unfortunately, most Sikhs do little sewa, but expect a big return for what they do such considerations are unbecoming for True Disciples. The Gurus have enumerated various benefits from doing selfless service. One may obtain inner happiness and real honor. As one learns to be humble and associates with holy person, and progresses on the spiritual path, so one may come to worldly success. Sikhism requires a Sadhana - an effort towards the spiritualising of the self.
All the Gurus performed various kinds of voluntary service, both inside and outside Sikh institutions. The Sikhs then followed in their foot-steps; we have examples of the services of Bhai Manjh, Bhai Hindal and Bhai Kanhaiya, to name but a few. Even today, we find various kinds of service organisations run by the Sikhs in India, like orphanages, widows' homes, institutes for the destitute and the handicapped, like the Blind school. The important question to ask oneself is: "What service can I do?" The answer depends on one's own abilities and inclination. One may serve in any field in which one is interested. Any service, is a step on the path of Sikhism, provided it is done in sincerity and without thoughts of the self.