I was only seven or eight when I first did seva at the gurdwara near my home. I was handed a basket of rotis and walked into the langar hall feeling rather shy and small. But within the hour, I was gaily offering rotis to the congregation with loud calls of “Parshada ji (Bread anyone?)“ Rich, poor, young, old and people from all religious affiliations including my parents sat on the floor together breaking bread.
Serving them put me in a state psychologists call flow – a mental state where you are fully immersed in an activity, beautifully focused on it and enjoying yourself as well. Around me fellow sardars and sardarnis were cleaning the gurdwara premises and looking after the devotees’ footwear. All of us did this seva (selfless service) routinely, some on Sundays, others on important personal occasions and yet others on Sikh gurus’ birthdays called gurpurabs.
Fast forward to the early days of the pandemic in May 2020. I had just had a baby and as I was nursing my newborn, I saw pictures of Sikhs in the news risking their own lives to battle the Covid-19 pandemic. From gurdwaras to NGOs like Hemkunt Foundation, from Sikh soup kitchens in New York to oxygen langars in Delhi, the Sikh community rallied across last year to help those in need.
I found myself asking: how is it that Sikhs do so much good even at great personal cost?
All religions teach us to be good, but what makes Sikhs go out in the world and do so much? This doesn’t mean all Sikhs are good – violence, patriarchy, corruption exist among us all – but the values of doing selfless service seem more entrenched in this community.
To answer this, I wrote a book called Seva and the first clue lies on the cover which has the lotus symbol. Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, lived in the 15th and 16th centuries when it was considered admirable to give up familial and material ties and become a hermit. But he had the opposite vision and told his followers to live honourably in and with the world. He gave them a simple simile to understand this idea. Live in the world but remain untouched by like just like a lotus flower which grows in muddy waters but rises beautifully above them.
So Sikhism is created for the real world and gives us guidance on how to live as parents, siblings, colleagues and eventually as fellow human beings. That’s why it teaches us to work harder than we pray. A gurdwaras is not just temple, but a community shelter as well as a soup kitchen. The work we do there – feeding others, cleaning up, cooking - is our prayer.
Why did Nanak make seva the song of the Sikhs? Because he realised that it would act as a balm to calm personal worries. So many of us lie awake at night thinking about fights with our partners, money in the bank or work-related stresses. Nanak told his followers to keep busy and help each other – keeping active, thinking about others would help, calm our own stresses, and move us out of our me-centered world.
Studies confirm that giving and volunteering are correlated with lower BP, lower mortality rates and higher markers of happiness, according to the Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley.
So Seva is in our religious DNA, but I believe the reason why we adhere to this rule so well is because it comes from a place of joy. Most world religions usually proscribe or restrict the consumption of certain foods, include some form or fasting, require clergy to be celibate. Some even consider music frivolous or harmful to the spirit. Sikhism, on the other hand, does not consider these things sinful.
Gurdwaras feed scores of people belonging to all faiths every day, music is an integral part of the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, and Sikh granthis (priests) live on gurdwara premises with their wives and children. I’m not saying Sikhism doesn’t have any rules but sacrificing daily joys of food, music and physical affection aren’t one them.
So seva, too becomes a celebration, not a chore or a grand selfless gesture.
Joy and seva are inextricably linked in the Sikh tradition. This is our secret to being good. Sardars and sardarnis will come home from early morning religious processions and pilgrimages blissed out by their spiritual experiences but equally enthused by the melodious music and delicious comfort food. Is just the taste of langar-waali daal or the joy of communal cooking and eating that permeates the experience?
Embracing joy is not always easy for everyone but it goes a long way in firing the emotion of doing seva. It’s only once you’re happy within that you’ll want to make other people happy too. Scientists say we need both hedonistic happiness (which depends on external factors like compliments or sensory pleasure) as well as eudaimonic happiness (which comes from spending time with loved ones or helping strangers) to live full, happy lives.
Sikhs are adept at incorporating both in their lives. They drive big cars and wear flashy clothes but they also do seva regularly. The sixth Sikh guru, Hargobindji, called this idea of balancing our material lives with our spiritual lives miri-piri. And it is this balance of miri-piri that brings meaningful joy and purpose to the lives of Sikhs. And the reason they keep returning to the practice of seva, bigger and better each time.
Jasreen Mayal Khanna is the author of Seva: Sikh Secrets on How to be Good in the Real World.