Neither a Shield, Nor a Sword

Here is an interesting article on the topic of Seva which I think makes you think. I’m sure most of us are aware of the situation, however it puts things in perspective and hopefully will make us all think deeper about our motivations for doing Seva.



I have noticed that the concept of seva  –  loosely translated as "selfless, voluntary service"  –  is nowadays increasingly wielded as a weapon and less as what it is meant to be.

The other day, when a community volunteer was asked why she repeatedly failed to do what she had undertaken to do, why she hadn’t met her obligations fully or in a timely fashion, I was flabbergasted by the response I overheard:

"I do seva, bhenji", she protested. "I’m not getting paid for this. I spend so many hours here, while I could easily be doing something else. I don’t have to listen to this nonsense: if you don’t want me here, say so, and I’m gone!"

It was a deft use of the very essence of seva. As a shield  –  a shield from criticism and from accountability.

On another occasion, I heard a fellow wield the word somewhat differently, but equally effectively.

He was addressing members of a community group. "I’m the one who can run this organization and ensure that it stays alive. I’ve done seva for three years … day and night, and weekends too. And haven’t taken a single cent for my time. How can you even think that another person should come over and run it. Others will simply run it to the ground. And, you know, I’m not going to let you do this. I’m not going to let you turn all my seva into nought!"

I felt, as I watched him through this performance, that he was wielding his seva quite deftly… as a weapon. A sword, actually. The parry and thrust was working: you could see it in the wounded look in the eyes of the audience.

Is this what seva is all about?

Am I wrong in thinking that the moment you use seva … yes, USE it  … for any ulterior purpose, then it instantly ceases to be seva? If it loses its spiritual core, then all you’re left with is … a clumsy weapon.

The concept of seva, I feel, is simple and uncomplicated in Sikhi.

The very idea of seva begins with a metaphor: that of the milk-pot or vessel. Nanak says:

           First, wash the vessel,

           Next, disinfect it with incense.

           Then, and only then, is it ready to receive the milk.

                                                                     [GGS, M1, 728:1]

True. What good is the milk once it has been poured into a soiled receptacle? The dirt of the vessel taints everything that is poured into it.

The mind, like the vessel, first needs to be cleansed if one is to prepare it for things spiritual. Otherwise, all effort goes to waste. And this cleansing of the mind, the preparation, is done with the "soap" of humility.

So far, all of this is esoteric and philosophical. But Sikhi brings the exercise down to earth by guiding us how to do it while going about our day-to-day, ordinary lives. In seeking humility, there’s no need to blindly wade through religious tomes. No penances, no fasting, no retreats, no masochism of any kind. No feeding of priests, no pilgrimages, no renunciations, no onerous abstentions.

There’s a simple, direct and effective way: seva.    

No grandiose projects are necessary for this inner cleansing. We don’t have to build monuments, or light bonfires on top of mountains, or even go on far-flung crusades fighting for world peace.

Just serving the basic needs of those who are in need puts us on the right path. At home, with the neighbour, around the corner, in the community we live in … the concentric circles can get as wide or remain as narrow as the situation demands.

Feed the hungry, clothe the destitute, shelter the homeless.

Or even more simple: just wash the dishes at the langar, or serve food, or look after the shoes of those who come to worship.

Anonymity helps. Not wearing a t-shirt or bandana that proclaims SEVADAR, helps.

Doing it without fan-fare, without a shabash or pat on the back, is a definite plus. Doing things that others do not want to, or cannot do, is good. Sweeping the floor, or cleaning the washrooms are therefore bound to be the most rewarding.

One of the most moving sights I have seen in my life is something I witnessed a couple of years ago in Espanola, New Mexico. Singh Sahib Harbhajan Singh Yogi had shed his mortal coil and crowds from around the globe had arrived to celebrate his life. By the thousands. The logistics required to cater to the needs of these visitors from far and wide were stupendous.

And one of them was the need for a platoon of portable toilets which were, I’m sure, leased for the occasion. It would’ve been terribly easy to have also bought the services of a handful of workers who could’ve maintained the facilities and kept them clean at all times.

What touched me deep inside was the vision of our hosts who saw it as an unprecedented opportunity to do seva. Any time of the day or night, if you walked into the facilities, you saw a couple of the Sikhs from the Espanola sangat cleaning the toilets and water basins, or down on their hands and knees, cleaning the floor. It was arguably the cleanest spot within the endless acreage roped in for the events of the week.

And, you know, there was not a sign anywhere proclaiming, e.g., "Seva provided by the Sangat of ….."

Nothing. Not a word, not a peep.

That’s seva.

It’s for the sheer sake of seva. It has no other goal. Even the end result is not important. You don’t need a smile or a nod, a pat on the shoulder, or the gratitude of another to validate it. You simply do it, and you do it to the best of your ability, and nothing else matters.

You don’t go home and note it in your diary. Or tell your family and friends. Or have it published in a newsletter in the "Acknowledgment" section.

And you don’t wave it in the face if you are running for election the next time around.

Here’s what I’ve been taught and what I try to emulate …. though those who know me well could easily cite many a lapse:

Don’t let the right hand know what the left hand does …

It isn’t seva if it is for the purpose of getting a tax-deductible receipt.

It isn’t seva if your heart and soul aren’t in it.

It isn’t seva if it isn’t done with honesty and integrity.

It isn’t seva if you believe that mediocrity is all that is expected of you, and that you needn’t do more. 

It isn’t seva if it’s for building your resume.

It isn’t seva if it is meant to be a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

It isn’t seva if you need to tell others, now or later, that you did it.

It isn’t seva if lack of appreciation by others, or their criticism, drives you away.

It isn’t seva if you believe that it is your right to do it.

It isn’t seva if you have to fight against others to do it.

It isn’t seva if you snatch it away from another, to do it.

It isn’t seva if you begin to believe you’re the best one to do it.

And, it isn’t seva if it distresses you that others take credit for what you’ve done.

Not too long ago, I was blessed with an opportunity to visit the Durbar Sahib in Amritsar, after an absence of more than three decades. There were so many things that added to the joy of being there.

Not the least of it was the timeless sight at all hours of the day or night, literally  –  even in the cold and dark hours before dawn  – of men, women and children behind the counter, tending to the shoes of pilgrims.

Quiet faces, moving in the shadows. Ever-so-slight, barely discernible quivering of the lips, silently accompanying the kirtan playing from the speakers around them. No small-talk. No name-tags. No meeting of the eyes, no searching for acquaintances. Just simple, purposeful, swift, efficient movements … the queues were long.

There’s always a hush around the shoe-stalls outside the main entrance, I’ve noticed. The only words you hear are "satnam, satnam…" and "waheguru, waheguru…" And a lot of "ji…ji…jee-o…ji …"

I don’t know how they do it. But I see them taking each pair of foot-wear as if it is a house-warming gift. Lovingly, gently, softly … if you glance back for a split-second, as you turn away, you may even catch one in the shadows wiping the dirt off your shoes as they are placed on the shelves.

I tell you, it is there, standing on the cold wet marble, looking at this scene, that I experienced the first communion with what I had come searching for, after all these years, at the doors of the Harmander.    

It is the epitome of seva.

And, it is most magical when  –  and I borrow from the English Bard  –  it "is not strain’d"…

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.
It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes

May we all, each one of us, be blessed with this gift.

10 Responses to “Neither a Shield, Nor a Sword”

  1. Rajinder says:

    I guess the incident Mr. Singh has included early in his story must have happened in Canada. Unfortuneately, I’ve met more of those here in Canada.

    But, I also remember an incident when I visted Darbar Sahib after 84 turmoil, when Karseva was to be done of the Sarovar. We went to Amritsar on second day of the seva. I was grouped with these middle age women of Delhi. By the time our turn came to haul the mud at bottom of the sarovar, organizers ran out of buckets and Tagaris(metal buckets). We all very disappointed that we won’t be able to carry silt that touched feet of many saints. Then one of the lady said, this opportunity may not come again in our life, because desilting of the sarovar is once a forty years. Mind you, from their attire and jewellry, you could tell they were from very very rich families. One of them said to the sevadar, who was digging silt with his spade, please put few loads in my palla(she made a bucket out longer side of her chunni and other side kept on her head). Others in the group followed, the wet silt was dripping on they expensive cloths. When I think of that incident, it bring tears to my eye, how devoted these ladies were. We all did this for few hour while reciting simran.
    Those incidents left such a powerful mark in my life that I just feel sad for those who think like the ones in Mr. Singh’s story.

  2. Adi Shakti Singh says:

    My intial reaction relates this to a conversation I had a couple days ago.

    Gurucharan S. was teaching a course here on Relationships, and he said that attachment is a needed to define Prem or undying, unconditional, true love. However it is said that attachment is to be avoided by a yogi so I found a contridiction in the two concepts. When discussing this with a senior teacher friend of mine he basically said that it depends on how you are attached to whatever it is you are attached to.

    If I am attached to a person from my ego to their ego, it is something to be avoided but if I am attached to their soul from my soul or to the god in them from the god in me, that is what defines it in such a way relating it to prem. Since doing seva is apart of your relationship with the divine, it would make sense that if you were to relate seva to your ego that it would be unhealthy, just like being attached to your seva from your ego would be unhealthy. That is what these people seem to be doing.


  3. WaheGuru Jiyo!

    “SatGur ki seva safal hai je ko karay chitt laye”

    Gur Bar Akaal

  4. Guruka Singh says:

    T. Sher Singh Ji – Thank you for this lovely and heartfelt article. As you have so lovingly explained, seva is not something we do, it is a state of mind (and heart.) It is how we live.


  5. Amarjot Singh says:

    T Sher Singh Ji,

    Thank you for such a wonderful article. As I have understood growing up, “seva” is serving the creator thru its creation, to reach the infinite thru its finite existence. The knowledge and wisdom of this truth was blessed to us by our Gurus. It’s a shame that we attached worldly incentives to such a spiritual act.

    A Sikh’s life is to be at service every moment in every place, that is what makes us feel, recognize and respect the presence of that Almighty. Having said that I would like to add/share another aspect here. Is cleaning your dishes at home not seva and cleaning dishes at langar is seva? Why is that cleaning your kitchen/bathroom at home is a chore and cleaning kitchen floors at a Gurudwara is seva? We miss the recognition at home, no one is watching us or in other words our ego does not get a booster dose as it does when others praise us.

    I have no doubt that the shadows that serve with anonymity in the blissful environment of Harmander serve their family, friends and others with the same devotion in their daily lives as they do at Harmander.

    May we remember the teaching of our Gurus, understand the meaning of seva and observe it in our life selflessly.


  6. surinder singh jauhal says:

    we all know what selfless seva means but to explain so eloquently and so true to the heart and explaining the situations can only be done by a person who has been blessed with a power of pen who can bring out the feelings of the heart and soul on a paper and can be instrumental in bringing out the tears in your eyes.God bless you T SHER SINGH.

  7. Sat Sang Singh says:

    Sat Nam All,

    I felt the heart experience in this story. T. Sher Singh Ji, you have had a deep experience of seva, and that is a blessing. For myself, in my seva, I feel that it is a real human experience to go through a range of emotions, sometimes driven by ego and sometimes driven by heart. I think it is important to allow each soul to have its own experience, and project/pray for the Guru’s grace to transform us out of our judgements and attachements, and to allow others to also have their journey of consciousness.

    Sat Nam

  8. Very well said, ji. Thank you, both for your thoughtful words which bring to us the true nature of seva; and also for bringing back to me the memory handing over my shoes to those sweet and humble sevadars at Darbar Sahib in Amritsar.

  9. You can read one of T Sher Singh’s latest articles which is in the same theme as this one titled “The Fight Club”

  10. Gurmeet Kaur says:

    waheguru jee…

    i so believe in the power of seva n reading something like this is very very thought provoking

    thank you veer jee

    waheguru jee!!!