Seva and Sadhana

Swami Vibhooti Saraswati

Who is your neighbour? These days, the whole world is next door, so all people are your kith and kin. Now, many of these relations of yours need your help. This is action.

— Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Reading the book The Life of Ramakrishna by Romain Rolland, I was constantly reminded of my own guru, Swami Satyananda and the work he has been doing in Rikhia, Deoghar, for his poor and needy neighbours, along with his personal sadhana. Because he realized in Rikhia that without seva, sadhana does not bear fruit.

After having experienced the highest ecstasy, nirvikalpa samadhi, union with the formless Brahman, Paramahamsa Ramakrishna, like Swami Satyananda, still chose to return from the heights he had attained, in order to serve and uplift his fellows. On the threshold of his deepest ecstasies Ramakrishna prayed to Mother Kali, “Oh Mother, let me remain in contact with men! Do not make me a dried up ascetic,” and she allowed him to remain on the threshold of relative consciousness for the love of humanity. Swami Satyananda also chose to remain on this threshold. He realized that self-realization is no realization at all as long as so many are drowning in the darkness of ignorance and the misery of want. If we wish to go ahead in sadhana and progress in spiritual life, we must also serve those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Only on the two beautifully balanced wings of seva and sadhana can we learn to fly high.

For as Swami Satyananda told Swami Niranjanananda, “You can desire to become anything in life. It is your desire, and it can be your inspiration. You can wish to become self-realized, you may wish to be a saint, but what is the use of that realization if it isolates you from people?” When Swami Vivekananda beseeched his guru to allow him to remain in the highest samadhi, Ramakrishna replied, “How can you ask such things. I thought you were a vast receptacle of life, and here you wish to stay absorbed in personal joy like an ordinary person. This realization will become so natural to you, by the grace of the Mother, that in your normal state you will realize the One Divinity in all beings. You will do great things in the world; you will bring spiritual consciousness to men, and assuage the misery of the humble and the poor.” It appears therefore that the more we can perform selfless service, the better we can progress in our sadhana and the more we progress in sadhana, the better we can serve.

Atmabhava and the fate of the poor

Serve others with the feeling that God dwells in all and receives your service as worship. Service of humanity is service of God only. Service of humanity must not be mere mechanical acts. It must be done with atmabhava.

— Swami Sivananda Saraswati

In 1868, Ramakrishna went on a pilgrimage with Mathur Babu, his patron and the owner of the Kali temple in which he was acting as priest. On this pilgrimage, for the first time he discovered human suffering face to face outside the confines of the temple precinct. Rolland writes: “When Ramakrishna arrived at Deoghar with his rich companion, he saw its almost naked inhabitants (the Santhals), emaciated and dying of hunger, for a terrible famine was ravaging the land. He told Mathur Babu that he must feed these unfortunates. Mathur Babu objected that he was not rich enough to support the misery of the whole world. Ramakrishna thereupon sat down among the poor creatures and wept, declaring that he would not move from there, but would share their fate. Mathur Babu was obliged to submit and to do the will of his poor priest.”

This story illustrates atmabhava, the feeling of oneness with all beings. Ramakrishna had developed atmabhava to such a degree that, like Sri Swamiji, he came to identify himself with the whole world. If he saw anyone being beaten or in a state of suffering, he experienced the marks of the beating and the suffering in his own body and mind, as he did the stigmata when he was worshipping Christ. He once said, while in a state of trance, “Jiva is Shiva (all living beings are God). Who then dares talk of showing mercy to them? Not mercy but service, service, for man must be regarded as God.”

Swami Satyananda tells us that spiritual life only begins when we can actually experience the suffering of others. Until that point is reached we are living only in the mind and have not yet contacted the heart, let alone the spirit. He tells of one night when he could not do his sadhana because the house of a poor widow with three children had burnt down and he felt her grief and distress as if it were his own. He could find no peace to continue his practices until he had seen that her house was rebuilt and her hope restored. He tells us, “When I eat, I think of the hungry and starving and send food to such houses. When the cold hits me, the first thought that crosses my mind is whether others have a covering to protect themselves from the cold.”

When Swami Satyananda first came to Rikhia, Deoghar, the local people had no hope for the future. The government had completely deserted them. They had nobody – no food, no shelter, no medical care, no proper work, no constant water supply for bathing or pure water to drink, not even enough clothes to cover their bodies! But, with his enormous heart, Sri Swamiji loved them. “They are very simple and innocent,” he says. “They are poor but loving. They have big hearts and small bank balances.” His wholehearted interest is now in these local people who, in turn, accepted him with love.

Sivananda Math

Loving God and serving others is the secret of true life. The meaning of true life is service and sacrifice.

— Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Swami Satyananda now feels for these Santhalis with the same bhava, or feeling, and in the same spirit as Ramakrishna once did; there is no difference in the tender and compassionate hearts of the two paramahamsas and all great souls. Sri Swamiji is now responsible for their welfare. In the name of his guru, Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, he has brought into being Sivananda Math, a charitable institution, which provides housing, medical care, education, scholarships, employment, bhoj (feeding the poor), grain, tube wells, clothes, cows, bicycles, rickshaws, farming equipment, seeds and many other facilities for the village people. In the early days he even sent swamis to plough their fields. For, with the insight of a visionary, he warns us, “The villagers are the load-bearers of society, and when they crack, society will collapse. Therefore, we must recognize their role and accept their existence.”

By far the most important seva done at Paramahamsa Alakh Bara is educating the local children, mainly the girls. They are being given both a firm foundation of spiritual samskaras and a practical training for life and lessons in English. At present, there are over four hundred children between the ages of four and fourteen. Under the watchful eye of Sri Swamiji, they are being lovingly and carefully moulded as their hidden potential naturally unfolds. But this is no ordinary education. It is how education was carried out in ancient times by the enlightened rishis. It involves the direct transmission from an enlightened sage to the pure, fresh and innocent minds that are open to receive and imbibe it.

Sri Swamiji stresses the importance of education, for it is children who are the hope for the future and the new harmonious yogic society that he has envisioned. The character of the future generation is in the hands of the women of our society who are mothers. To build a strong and peaceful society based on the principles of Sanatan Dharma, it is the women who have and can impart the qualities of gentleness, understanding, love of goodness and beauty, a desire for peace and a compassionate heart. Therefore, Sri Swamiji sees the upliftment of women as being of paramount importance for the betterment of society in general and advocates the education of girls as well as boys.


Through selfless service and charity develop the heart and cleanse the lower mind.

— Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Sivananda Math is a charitable organization, but by charity Sri Swamiji does not mean mere philanthropic work done with ego, with the sense of ‘I am giving’. His concept of charity is the same as that of Ramakrishna and he often reminds us that, “I am God’s servant. God has asked me to do the work that is being done in the villages of Rikhia, so I am doing it. Swami Satyananda does not provide anyone with anything. It is not he but God who does it.” To Paramahamsa Ramakrishna, charity meant nothing less than serving God in the form of all people; for God is incarnate in man, woman and child. Therefore, he wished his disciples to attain self-realization for the very reason that they could better consecrate themselves to the service of humanity. One of his disciples, named Swami Sivananda, conveys this idea beautifully: “Without the realization of the divine spirit within one’s own self and others, true sympathy, true love and true service are not possible.” Only through seva is the heart opened, and only when the heart is open can we truly serve.

Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, our paramguru, says, “Charity is universal love. It is liberality to the poor. That which is given to relieve the needy is charity. True charity is the desire to be useful to others, without thought of recompense or reward. Charity is love in action. Share with others whatever you possess - physical, mental or spiritual. This is the real yajna. You will expand. You will experience oneness and unity with life. This will lead you to adwaitic realization!”

You are also welcome to share whatever skills and gifts you have with others at the Paramahamsa Alakh Bara in Rikhia. You can serve the sick in the clinic, help with the children in the school and work in Prasad Kutir sorting and preparing clothes and gifts to be given as prasad. You can help prepare food and pack grain in the kitchen for distribution to the villages. You can assist at the building sites, lend your office, computer and other skills for some time, or just come to wash sheets, sweep the rooms, work in the gardens, and clean away all your cobwebs. Not only will you help in the work of uplifting others, you yourself will be uplifted in the process!


Hold your life for the service of others. The more energy you spend in elevating and serving others, the more the divine energy will flow to you.

— Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Paramahamsa Ramakrishna prayed to Mother Kali, “Let me be condemned to be born over and over again, even in the form of a dog, if I can be of help to a single soul. I will give up twenty thousand such bodies to help one man. It is glorious to help even one man!” This is the message of Buddha, of Swami Sivananda and of Swami Satyananda. It is also the message of his successor, Swami Niranjanananda, who has said, “Let me take birth again and again and again, to help those who are suffering physically, mentally, emotionally and socially, to help people find their place in life, to wipe away the tears of suffering and push people out of this planet onto a different path. My sankalpa is to struggle to make others free.” This is the vow of the Boddhisattwa, one who is prepared to sacrifice his own freedom in order to come back to help the world until all beings have been freed from the wheel of samsara. The heart of the Boddhisattwa reaches out wherever there is a cry for help, whether near or far, and cannot stand to see the suffering of others.

And Sivananda Math is reaching out further and further to offer aid, for to Sri Swamiji the whole world is his neighbour in times of need. ‘Need’ is not just material, it is also mental, emotional and spiritual. The souls of countless people are crying out all around the globe, and he is answering their call.

Heart yoga

Service is yoga for purification of the heart and the consequent descent of light. Purify your heart by selfless and humble service of the poor and afflicted, and make it a fit abode for God to dwell in. Selfless service alone can purify your heart and fill it with divine virtues. Only the pure in heart will have the vision of God.

— Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Sri Swamiji’s work in Rikhia is now spreading around the globe as the flame of his love leaps from heart to heart. The seed was planted long ago in ancient times by the rishis who lived here when the area was covered with forest and dense jungle. Moreover, this is the place where the heart of Sati (Shiva’s consort) fell in Satya Yuga (the first age of the world, or the age of truth). It is a place of the heart, a heart space, a hridaya peetha, and from here the bhakti renaissance, led by a modern-day rishi, Swami Satyananda, is springing forth once more.

Often the emphasis in yoga is on ‘self’ development and ‘self’ knowledge. You can learn yoga for personal balance and harmony of body, mind and emotions. You can stand on your head and do all sorts of scientific techniques to purify and perfect yourself. You can get a certificate or diploma in yoga, teach yoga to others, propagate this ancient culture, and even earn a living in the process – yoga is a great science, a culture for the good of the whole world!

But at the same time you should open and purify your heart through seva, selfless service of the poor and needy, the yoga of the heart. Just forget yourself for a short time and think of those who need your help, the ‘kith and kin’ who are outside the realm of your conscious awareness at present. This you can do in the home of Swami Satyananda in Rikhia by giving your head, heart and hands for some time in the service of others. There are so many different works to be done! Always remember the words of Sri Swami Sivananda: “Feed the hungry, nurse the sick, comfort the afflicted and lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful. God will bless you. Clothe the naked. Educate the illiterate. Feed the poor. Raise the downtrodden. The world is burning with misery and suffering. Wake up! Serve! Serve with love. Serve untiringly and attain the peace of the eternal.”