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SEVA: Selfless Service is Good for the Soul

On days you are feeling low or out of sorts, just step out and serve someone. And see the magic unfold. Seva is selfless service that benefits everyone involved.

You could pay someone’s bill, make a donation, volunteer for raising funds/raising awareness or call someone up and pay them a compliment (should be genuine). Better yet, invite them for a conversation/tea/meditation, if you know they have been going through a rough patch or if they seem distressed. You can be imaginative in how you want to serve!

What is Seva?

The Sanskrit word ‘Seva’ is a beautiful word that comes from root words ‘sah’ and ‘eva’ meaning ‘together with.’ It conveys the act of ‘selfless service for the other.’ Whatever it is that one does for the benefit of others, without expecting anything in return is ‘Seva.’

Though in the ancient texts, the word ‘Seva’ has been used in the context of serving in an ashram or a spiritual center, as a means to do selfless work and for spiritual growth. Seva in ashrams wouldn’t always be easy, as spiritual masters would make sure through service an individual was able to cross over his/her aversions and cravings and break the barriers of the mind.

But today, the word has a broader meaning and includes anything that one can do selflessly. In this whole exercise of being available for others, you get to step out of your mind and your problems. You find there is a surge of joy within when you have served someone. This joy of bringing relief, material or spiritual, is something nobody can take away from you.

For its tremendous potential in promoting human well-being, peace, sense of belongingness, and brotherhood, the idea of service or Seva has been integral in many religious and spiritual paths.

At a time when doomsday predictions are being made about the impending mental health crisis as fallout of the longstanding pandemic, the good news is there is more research available today than ever before that shows the myriad mental and physical health benefits of doing good. Multiple studies today talk about the close relationship between happiness and volunteering. But more importantly, studies point that unhappier people are more likely to benefit from volunteering.

Some of the other benefits may include

  • Lowering of blood pressure
  • Better self-esteem
  • Lower depression
  • Lower stress
  • Longevity
  • More happiness and life satisfaction.

Why is Seva important?

The spiritual master and founder of the Art of Living, Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, talks about the two types of joys—one is the joy of getting something and the other is the joy of giving. “The joy of giving is a mature joy. When someone does service in their life, they can experience another level of joy. They can experience a certain type of contentment, depth, and satisfaction.”

Gurudev also points to the simple fact that serving makes society better and more humane. “Imagine if everyone is just taking from you. The world would not survive then. But if everyone comes from a space of contribution, then society becomes harmonious.”

An excuse to get happy!

“To increase our joy we must share the joy with others. Giving is essential for spiritual growth. A willingness to share is seva,” Gurudev says.

We need a society where service is a way of life if we want to build happier societies and nations. There is no better way than engaging in service if you are looking to connect with your community or even just be useful. It starts a beautiful chain of happiness.

Serving gets all the happy hormones (serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine) flowing, activating regions in the brain that are linked to pleasure and sense of connection, leading to what is called ‘helper’s high.’

When you share from this space of happiness, it is likely to catch on among others as well. Studies show that serving has a contagious effect, that is, people when they see individuals helping, instantly desire to imitate that behavior.

Live Longer

A study showed, senior adults above the age of 55 years who served in two or more organizations, “were 44 percent less likely to die over a 5-year period than those who didn’t volunteer—even accounting for many other factors including age, exercise, general health and negative habits like smoking.”

Who can serve?

Anyone and everyone willing to work for others can be a sevak or a volunteer. That is the beauty of selfless service that it does not discriminate and instead, it empowers. A sense of service can also bring people out of victim consciousness, and embolden them to bring change in their communities.

Building Connections, Dissolving Boundaries

We live in times when we are faced with a loneliness epidemic. And scientists warn, this is likely to get worse, with more people falling into a sense of loneliness and isolation, with nowhere to go. In this context, volunteering activities and service can provide much-needed avenues to bring people out of this sense of loneliness and desperation by kindling a sense of connection and bonding with those they help.

“Seva connects us to others and makes them a part of us,” Gurudev shares, “The barriers that separate our happiness from their happiness, dissolve. Lingering moods of unhappiness or misery dissipate when our focus is on helping someone else.”

Sense of Purpose

A lot of us are seeking meaning in our work and daily lives. But experts say, that may not always be tenable for everyone, given the nature of our jobs, financial and domestic compulsions and our social realities. Gurudev says, “Real fulfillment can only come from serving others.”

It Grounds You

Far from sitting in our ivory towers and making social comments, serving communities that need social support can be eye opening and grounding; can increase empathy and open channels of communication with people who need support, financial or otherwise.

Optimism and Self-Healing

Beyond all the other reasons, you yourself cannot escape the warmth of helping someone. It can powerfully change one’s perspective towards the existing suffering and shortages in the society, on one hand, help you understand the myriad mindsets of people, and on the other, can potentially help you heal your own emotional scars by being available for someone else.

Seva Means to be Available

There isn’t much that you need in the way of capabilities, to be able to serve. But it does demand you to be available where and when the need arises. Sometimes we don’t need a big purpose in life to be useful either.

For example, if there is a cook required urgently in a community kitchen and you know basic cooking, that is good enough. If you cannot cook, maybe you can help with cutting and washing the vegetables. It all boils down to nurturing the intent to serve and it does not matter what the size of your contribution is in seva.