By Gurukirn Kaur Khalsa
Most of us have had an experience, at some point in our lives, where we’re feeling lonely and another person offers us a simple act of kindness that literally makes our day. Such an act of kindness is seva, service in its purest form, where one human being sees into the heart of another and does what he can to lift them up, without asking for anything in return.
The practice of seva is integral to both the yogic and Sikh traditions. In the yogic scriptures, the soul could advance through the round of incarnations to enlightenment through self-discipline and sat karam, good deeds. Good deeds included giving alms and helping others in need. Progression could only be achieved by the true of heart—those who rendered service because of their love for humanity—rather than solely for the desire for advancement. This principle became a foundational element of the Sikh tradition as well, and is called nishkam seva, or selfless service.
When Guru Nanak began sharing his teachings in India in the early 16th Century, there was widespread corruption on many spiritual fronts. The members of the powerful yogic sects held sway over the common people and acted as intercessors, demanding money to pray for them so that they could receive good fortune.
In different ways, people were made to feel small and powerless. Guru Nanak sought to put into place a society where the relationship with God was direct and personal, and where the people in the community cared for each other. By his tireless example, he taught his followers that God lived in each one of them and that they had the power to lift each other up by doing acts both large and small that would make living in this world a little easier.
One of the most profound expressions of nishkam seva, which continues to this day in Sikh Gurdwaras all over the world, is called Guru ka Langar. The caste system of Guru Nanak’s day prescribed a rigid delineation of social classes, which included separated eating spaces. Guru Nanak broke through this barrier by having people of all castes sit in long lines shoulder to shoulder to receive and eat the same food. The beggar was given the same consideration as the king. Indeed, Emperor Akbar sat and ate in the langar lines before being granted an audience with Guru Amar Das. What this did was to raise even the lowliest person to equal status in this spiritual society. It gave each one a sense of belonging. This is what seva does.
At the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona, Spain, the Nishkam Sewak Jatha of Birmingham, Great Britain, set up several tents to prepare and serve Guru ka Langar to the 8,000 delegates each lunch time. The effect was profound. On any day, a Greek Orthodox priest might converse with a Hasidic Jew, a Sikh with an American Indian. Barriers began to melt away and were replaced with understanding. People’s hearts were touched seeing the elder Sikhs who lovingly dusted off each person’s shoes in the shoe rack. Soon, talk of the langar was everywhere and was mentioned as one of the most profound aspects of the whole conference.
As spiritual beings, our deepest pain may come from our sense of separation from the Creator. It is often reflected in our sense of separation from each other. When we reach out to help another person, we overcome this sense of separation, bringing union and oneness instead. By performing seva, we put into action one of Yogi Bhajan’s most cherished phrases: “See God in all, or see God not at all.”
An award-winning poet and artist, Gurukirn Kaur Khalsa lives with her family in Phoenix, Arizona.
Artwork by Gurukirn Kaur