There is so much suffering in the world. What should we do to help?
You cannot completely remove all the suffering from this world. Just as in gout and rheumatism the pain and swelling shifts from one joint to another joint, so also if suffering is eradicated in one place, another manifests in another place. The world is very crooked. It is like the tail of a dog. So many avataras, yogis, acharyas, saints and prophets came into the world and preached. Still it is crooked; still it is in the same state.
Therefore, do not bother yourself much in reforming the crooked world. This can never be done. Reform yourself first. Then the whole world can be reformed. How can you help the world when you are yourself weak and ignorant? It will be like one blind man leading another blind man. Both will fall into a deep abyss.
The greatest help or service that you can do to the world is the imparting of knowledge of Self. Spiritual help is the highest help you can render to mankind. One who serves the world serves himself. One who helps others really helps himself. When you serve another person think that God has given an opportunity to improve, correct and mould yourself by service. Be grateful to the person who gave you a chance to serve.
Is it absolutely necessary to practise seva for self-realization? If so, how should it be done?
Yes. You cannot understand and realize the spirit and object of Vedanta if you neglect to perform service for the eradication of the impurities in the mind. Nishkama karma yoga, selfless service, gives you chitta shuddhi, purification of the mind, and eventually culminates in the realization of the unity of the Self.
Serve everyone with intense love, without the idea of agency, without expectation of fruits, reward or appreciation. Feel that you are only a nimitta, an instrument in the hands of the divine. Worship divinity in the poor and the sick. Have no attachment to any place, person or thing.
Keep up mental poise amidst the changes of the world without consideration of success or failure, gain or loss, pleasure and pain. Have the mind always rooted in the Self amidst activities. Then you will become a true karma yogi. Work elevates, when done in the right spirit. Even if people scoff at you, beat and kill you, be indifferent. Continue your sadhana.
How can the mind be purified?
There are three kinds of impurities in the mind. One is mala (impurity) which is removed by the practice of karma yoga. The other is vikshepa (tossing of the mind) which is removed by bhakti, and the third is avarana (veil of ignorance) which is removed by jnana yoga. Thinking, willing, feeling all these must be developed harmoniously, only then will there be integral development. That is your duty. You should not merely study the scriptures and deliver lectures, but also discipline the mind. Whatever the Bhagavad Gita teaches, you should put into practice. Simply lecturing on the Brahma Sutras will not do. If you are not given due respect and honour, you will lose your balance of mind. You should introspect, analyze and find out what virtues you should develop and what defects you should get rid of. That leads to Brahma jnana, not mere study. Develop humility. Cultivate the spirit of selfless service. You must watch for opportunities.
If a man is lying down on the roadside, hungry and thirsty, you must run to him with a cup of milk. Otherwise your study of Brahma Sutras is useless. You should not bring in Vedantic arguments to support your Vedantic indifference here! One man said to the other: My house is on fire; please come and help. The latter replied: Well, friend, this world is unreal. Where is house, where is fire? This is sheer foolishness. The world is unreal . . . for whom? For a jivanmukta, one who is liberated while living. If the sugar is a little less in your coffee and you complain, you will know whether the world is real or unreal for you. It is only when you discipline yourself through untiring selfless service that atma-jnana will arise.
Are ego and ignorance the same thing?
In everything he does man entertains the feeling, I am the doer, I am the possessor of everything. Crush this abhimana, conceit. Assert I am nothing, I do nothing. Everything is being done by the Lord. Hari is the karta. Everything is being done by the power of the Lord. I am only an instrument. You should work in the world completely dedicating yourself to the Lord. This is karma yoga. Karma yoga destroys abhimana.
The very root of the whole question of spiritual realization and emancipation lies in the theory of ignorance. Ignorance is the root. How does ignorance manifest in the individual soul? As ahankara, egoism. The root of the whole problem is the ego in the individual soul, and the moment the ego is removed, the Self shines forth in all its splendour. That is your essential nature. That is satchidananda, truth-consciousness-bliss. To remove the ego is the prime purpose of all yoga.
So, what important truth do all these things reveal? The great enemy of an individual is the ego, the sense of I, with its countless ramifications. Everything that holds one down to ignorance and samsara is nothing but the various forms of the root cause, ahankara, and all branches of yoga ultimately aim only at the removal of ahankara.