Life in our current age is challenging. It’s strange because it’s simultaneously easy and difficult. We have so many facilities (most of us), compared to say just 100 years ago. Yet, am I the only one concerned with the way the world is going? I think not. Just see recent global events – wars, pandemics, lockdowns, all churned together with personal struggles, inflation, debt. Perhaps externally our life is, well, okay… but what about our inner world? The voice in your head, the good dog and the bad dog within, Yudhistira vs Duryodhana within our own bodies and consciousness. Many philosophical minds ponder how to address this suffering.
For instance, Buddha advocated shedding attachments as a means to overcome suffering. The bhakti tradition would agree that one cannot stop the repetition of birth and death and overcome suffering without being completely desireless. That means, free from material desires. However, the bhakti tradition encourages spiritual desires. Now that is a topic of discussion. Simply put, spiritual refers to the eternal, whereas material refers to the temporary. The Bhakti tradition suggests an alternative approach to simply being “desireless” (which of course, is impossible). Bhakti yogis walk the path, neither of exploitation, nor renunciation, but the path of dedication – the path of selfless service, known as “seva.”
“Seva” is a Sanskrit word meaning “service.” Service is an integral part of bhakti yoga and an essential element in diving deep in the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Service helps open our hearts to receive transcendental knowledge and connect with the ancient masters of the tradition, who have giftedknowledge.
But what exactly is seva, and how does it alleviate suffering? Engaging in seva offers a multi-faceted solution. It prompts us to step beyond our self-centered perspective, transcending the “me, myself, and I” outlook that often leads to suffering. Through acts of service, we naturally expand our capacity for compassion. We immerse ourselves in the world of others, cultivating a profound understanding and empathy.
Continuing this practice, our hearts soften, and our compassion extends to embrace all living beings. Seva manifests in various forms, such as serving the saintly persons, assisting those less fortunate by helping to somehow facilitate their spiritual life, supporting loved ones in need, offering our service through daily work and offering the fruits of that work back to our source Krishna, aiding mentors and teachers, caring for animals, eating and serving to others pure food (prasadam), visiting churches, temples and other holy places, and countless other selfless acts.
The most simple and sublime mode of seva, as taught in the Bhakti tradition is the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. This itself is a prayer or aphorism to be engaged further in service to our divine source, Hare, Krishna, Rama.
Surprisingly, we can seamlessly integrate seva into our existing routines. Doing so grants us relief from suffering, or at least gives us the elevated state of mind to see divinity manifesting in each and every situation and relationship.
Adopting a service-oriented mindset also helps us break free from material attachments, another common source of suffering. When we desperately crave something from the external world and it remains elusive, it can lead to distress. However, shifting our focus from receiving to giving transforms the dynamics. Through selfless service, we naturally receive. Actually, this is one secret to happiness. Live for the benefit of others, in relationship to our source, Krishna.
Service is woven into our inherent nature and authentic disposition. We are all servants, either of our family and associates, or our pets, our nation, even humanity. If not any of these (yeah right), then we are servants of the laws of nature. So why not connect the service disposition with the source of all, the all attractive Krishna. By watering the roots of the tree, all the leaves and branches are satisfied. By serving our source, the entire universe is satisfied. This is the teachings of the Veda, and by following such, we naturally release material attachments that often entangle us in suffering and ultimately achieve spiritual awakening and enlightenment of our divine existence.
Consider this experiment: the next time you experience a tough day or find yourself feeling down, extend a helping hand to someone else. You’ll notice an improvement in your mood. The more frequently you engage in such acts of kindness, the better equipped you’ll become to navigate life’s challenges while uplifting others. The greatest gift you can give someone is transcendental knowledge and facilitating their engagement in “seva.” This itself is seva.
Repeated acts of service reshape our mindset and create positive imprints in our consciousness, known as “samskaras” in Sanskrit. These imprints can be positive or negative, often influenced by past experiences. By taking control of our lives and prioritizing seva, we recalibrate our minds toward positivity and kindness. This transformation not only helps us escape suffering but also extends its positive impact to those around us.
So, why not give it a try? Witness the transformative power of selfless service (seva), as taught by the bhakti tradition, in your life. As you make this an integrated part of your life, you’ll discover a more compassionate and joyful way of living, where you experience divinity at every moment. benefiting both yourself and the world. And ultimately, this is the process to break free from the repeated cycle of birth and death and transcend this temporary material reality.