Seva in the Ashram

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati. Talk at Mangrove Mountain, Australia, April 2006

Seva is an important component of the ashram culture. It has been translated in English as service, but seva means the final stage of human involvement in the world while being in a higher state of consciousness. The literal meaning of the word seva is ‘to be with that’, saha eva. To be with what? To be with that which is human, compassionate and loving. In other words, seva means to connect with the divine, transcendental nature and to express that nature in thought, word and deed. Of course, to do this you have to let go of the many identities and ideas that you hold close. This is where the concept of letting go or surrender comes in at the ashram. Surrendering to the divine will and becoming the instrument of its peace is the outcome of seva.

Swami Sivananda went one step further when defining seva. He said the purpose of seva should be to purify one’s heart. Purification of the heart comes about when expectations and attachments become refined; they are no longer sensorial or sensual, and do not carry any idea of gain or loss. Instead, you feel for everyone as you do for yourself. There is a shift in perception; it is not a state that can be achieved by saying, “From tomorrow I will be like this.” It is a shift of ideas from self-orientated to self-expressive. Purifying the emotions through seva improves the qualities of the heart, which are further intensified with bhakti yoga. So seva is developed through karma yoga and purity of heart through bhakti yoga. Both go hand in hand.

Balance between self-oriented and selfless actions

There are steps and stages that lead to the experience of seva. The medium is action. The whole of creation, life and existence is based on the principle of action and response to action, known as karma. No one is free from karma. Just as one breathes in and out, action and the outcome of action is a continuous process leading to evolution. Karma can be directed towards self-fulfilment or the selfish group of actions, or towards the selfless group of actions. Actions can be diverted in either direction. This is how balance in life was conceived by the yogis. They believed that if we can find a balance in our actions, ninety percent of life’s problems are solved.

The main thrust of yoga as taught by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita was to find that balance: samatvam yogah uchyate (2:48) – the highest form of yoga is balance. It does not say that the highest form of yoga is samadhi; it is attaining balance between the opposites. Opposites are the outcome of action. However, although the possibility of channelling one’s efforts and actions in either direction exists, due to the association of the senses and the mind with the environment, all our actions tend to be self-oriented. In fact, if we were to try and count our selfless actions, we may find five or ten in a million, not more.

It is these self-oriented actions that give birth to strife, expectations, desires, possessiveness, attachments and jealousies. They develop into a mental obsession, a personality characteristic, and go on growing. An attachment grows into obsession, into insecurity. Analyze how an attachment started in your own life. It is not enough to say that you are attached because someone is your father, mother, son or daughter. There is a point when attachment begins and subsequently goes through changes in a positive as well as a negative direction. However, we are not discussing the direction, but the changes that come about upon the maturity of a thought, association, desire, expectation or identification. These are all the results of karma. The more you think about it, you find that these unseen strings of karma bind you. You may wish to overcome them, but that is not enough. It takes a lot of hard work and one does not even realize it. So, how can we change the direction of our karma without creating an imbalance in life? This is where the attitudes of karma yoga come into play.

Living karma yoga

In normal situations, you neither observe nor try to guide your karmas. If you are medical doctor, you go to your medical practice and follow the rules of the profession. There is very little scope for creativity. Similarly, in all areas of life, we follow set performances, karmas, of the body and mind. A conditioned creativity expresses itself. It is this conditioned creativity that has to become unconditional by adopting the attitudes identified in karma yoga.

What are the attitudes of karma yoga? What does it do? Karma yoga helps develop immunity to the effects or results of karmas. That is the theory, but how can it be lived? The clearest example that I have come across to illustrate this point is the sannyasa initiation day of Swami Satyananda. When his guru, Swami Sivananda, called him and said, “Be ready to be initiated into sannyasa,” Paramahamsaji asked him, “What am I expected to do after sannyasa?” Swami Sivananda said, “Continue to live and act in the same manner as you have done until now.” Swami Satyananda asked, “Does it mean managing the office, looking after the kitchen, being the secretary of the organization, being the cleaner of the roads and rooms?” Swami Sivananda said, “Yes, you do not promote yourself into inaction by taking sannyasa.” Many people try to promote themselves into inaction after they adopt geru robes. Swami Satyananda said, “How long do I have to work?” Swami Sivananda replied, “Until you exhaust your karmas, until you exhaust all desires associated with results, until you are able to treat success and failure with the same smile.” Swami Satyananda said, “I could do the same work at home. What is the difference?” Swami Sivananda said, “At home, you will work for yourself. In the ashram you will work with the feeling of dedication to your guru, God, fellow human beings. Whatever you do is being offered to them, and therefore you will not accrue the effects of karma.”

First level of surrender

The secret of managing karma lies in the above sentence. When one can turn a self-oriented karma into a selfless karma, it becomes seva. The clue is simple. When you do something, remember that you are not the enjoyer. It may be pleasing to you, but you are working to achieve a level of excellence, perfection and qualitative expression in your life. That has to be the aim of your action. Whether you are a doctor, draftsman, gardener, stonemason, engineer, even a sannyasin, the thought behind every action must be that it should help not one, but many. The action should uplift others, whether they are known to you or are total strangers. Such an action is dedicated to guru, it is dedicated to God.

Let us say, the harmonium has a mind of its own and begins to think, “Oh, I play very well.” Is the harmonium right or wrong? The harmonium cannot play itself, someone has to play it. If an adept player does so, the melody will be harmonious. If a first-timer tries to play it, the melody will be disharmonious. So it is the player who is important.

When we come to an understanding that we are only a medium to fulfil a destiny, that there is something else playing us, the first level of surrender comes. “I am not the performer; I am only a box like a harmonium. Somebody is playing me, sometimes in accord, sometimes not, but I am being played and with each melody, each piece, one part of my destiny is being fulfilled.” The first level of surrender comes at this point: I am not the doer. The final commandment of yoga, ishwara pranidhana, is lived: let thy will be done.

Ishwara pranidhana is the first stage in transforming self-oriented karma into selfless karma. This leads to purification of emotions. Swami Sivananda, in his practical eightfold path of yoga, has placed service on the first rung. He says that service, or connecting with those in need, helps to purify oneself. He says, do not fight your attachments because they are a part of you, they are you. He gives the example of drops of black ink put in a cup of water. Will the water turn black or will the ink turn watery? If you want to clear the water of the dark ink, add more water. Add more attachment. If your life is a cup and attachments are drops of ink, add more water. When the attachment is diluted and directed not to one but to ten, not to ten but to a hundred, not to a hundred but to a thousand, then the attachment for one is divided by a thousand. You reduce your attachments by including more people in the fold of your life.

When you include more people in the fold of your life, you experience the eternal human connection that transcends intellect, goes beyond feelings, and tells you that you are a part of that unified field known as G-O-D, the source of Generation, Organization and Destruction. That is consciousness, because it is consciousness that creates, sustains and destroys. That is also the concept of ishwara pranidhana, leading to purification of the heart, because you have expanded your perceptions and awareness.

To come to this point, before seva begins, you have to train yourself. How? Pick up the broom and sweep the floor of the ashram, as simple as that. The first time you do it, you may think, “I am being made to work. I did not come here for this; I came here for yoga.” However, once you develop a feeling for the ashram, the work begins to turn into seva.

Expressive yoga

Sivananda yoga begins when Patanjali yoga stops. When you do your yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, they represent your attempt to come to perfection. An expression of what you have gained through these is Sivananda yoga. In Patanjali’s yoga also you work with your head: pratyahara, dharana and dhyana; in fact, samadhi is head, too. However, in the yoga of Sivananda, when you are expressing the qualities that you have acquired, you use the heart, not the head. Therefore, the first teaching is service. The second teaching is to love. The third is to give, to sacrifice. Fourth is to purify. Fifth is to become good. Sixth is to do good. Seventh is to meditate, the same as the seventh teaching of Patanjali. The eighth is to realize, just as for Patanjali it is samadhi. So, the path of raja yoga as outlined by Patanjali represents the sadhana attempt of yoga and the eightfold path of Sivananda represents the expressive nature of yoga.

We have seen this take place when Paramahamsaji went to Rikhia. The villagers there were total strangers to us, yet we were mandated to serve them, to fulfil their needs. Love came later, first it was service. Construct a house, help them find employment and develop skills by which they could stand on their own. Then came the component of love when Paramahamsaji said that all the young girls and boys of the area would be given the best opportunities. Then came ‘give’. Those of you who have been to Rikhia have seen that. With these comes purification: of intention, emotion, spirit, ideas, thoughts, of a connection that enables one to become good, which is the fifth stage.

When I travel to different cities in India now, I see people living in the spirit of Sivananda Math, or we can say Sivananda yoga. In each city I find at least ten people who have been associated with the spirit of Sivananda yoga and Sivananda Math in one form or another, and continue that work in their own city. Ten years ago, there was nobody. Now there are ten people in each city. Ten years later, maybe there will be a hundred people, fifty years later maybe five thousand people. People are being taught to live like that as a samskara, as a direction in which to evolve and grow, and to contribute to the betterment of this garden which we are all working very hard to improve.

So, using actions and awareness of the actions to change the attitude and understanding, and to sensitize our emotions to connect with others, eventually leads to seva. It is a state of participation in life at a higher level of consciousness. This state is not easy to come by because the ego always plays tricks. In the Bhagavad Gita (18:61), Krishna tells Arjuna that in order to be a real human being, you should see everybody with the same eyes – Ishwara sarvabhutanam hriddesherjuna tishthati. Nobody is superior or inferior. See them all as emanations of that spirit and therefore as a complete being all the time.

You can identify with them physically as small or large, socially as your friends or family, but in your heart of hearts see them as independent units living their own destiny. You are there to help, support and encourage them to live their destiny. Be endowed with compassion, maitra karuna eva cha. When in association with people around you, be without any selfish motive and free from ego expressions, nirmamo nirahankara. Be happy when there is comfort and pleasure and also when there is discomfort and suffering. In this way Krishna identifies the qualities of a person who lives in the world, but is not bound by the trappings of the world. It may sound difficult or philosophical, but in reality it is not.

Everything is how we perceive it. What you perceive will be explained differently by another. You have to begin where you are by observing your karma and participating wholeheartedly by putting your creative nature into it. Therefore, in the ashram exposure is given to many different situations where you know that you are not the gainer, yet you try to express your efficiency and creativity, try to become one with what you are doing, not through the ego, not by saying that this is menial, this is high, this is low, but recognizing the tasks as actions that simply have to be done. Why should ego confrontation take place? Why not a gentle acceptance of the situation by being a part of it?

In the practice of karma yoga, actions should be performed with utmost perfection, without any expectation, and with total participation. If you can incorporate these three ideas in any activity that you undertake at any time, you will find greater happiness, peace and enjoyment. You will discover your own creative nature: a better way to fold paper, a better way to apply glue, a better way to dig. Activities will no longer remain mechanical or routine. Every moment will become one of learning, knowing and realizing, of adjusting. When this begins to happen, life becomes a sadhana. The change takes over and one becomes pure, free from desires and ego influences, but not from commitment. Actions become seva. You identify with your higher nature, and that higher nature expresses itself through you.

Medium of grace

There is a story of a sannyasin who practised austerities for many years to have a glimpse of God. Finally God appeared in front of him and said, “Ask for anything.” The sannyasin looked at God and said, “I did my austerities to have your darshan. I don’t desire anything more.” God said, “But I have spoken, so you have to ask.” The sannyasin said, “You are insulting me by asking me to ask.” God said, “But I am bound by my word!” The sannyasin got angry and just walked away. As God watched him go with his shadow following him, he said to himself, “I will grant the boon of healing to his shadow.” That was it. The man did not know and he kept on walking. The shadow fell on a dead tree and the tree revived. The shadow fell on a blind man and he could see. The shadow fell on a dead person and he came to life. Unknown to the sannyasin, the shadow was working miracles behind him. That is the final example of seva, where you become only a medium of expressing God’s grace and will. That is the meaning of the word seva, where you are with that.

The translation of the word seva in English as service is passable, but in reality seva is the culmination of your having perfected karma yoga. It is the outcome of a state where you are able to perform karma yoga with three ideas only: perfection, participation and no expectation. If you can follow these three ideas, ishwara pranidhana will happen automatically. When there is no expectation, you let go and surrender comes. When there is total participation, one-pointedness comes. When you are striving for perfection, trying to do the best you can and improving every time, new expressions of creativity are seen. The mind, emotions, and actions: head, heart and hands, become aligned; they are balanced. It is this balanced expression that is known as seva. And the ashram environment provides ample encouragement for one to move into the component of seva.