Ideas That Ground Seva
The numeral 1 is the first character in the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh scripture), and it is the cornerstone of Sikhi (the Sikh religious tradition). 1 points to the oneness of the world, the connectedness of reality, the intermingling of creator and creation.
The opening numeral is tied to another character, oankar, and together, the characters form 1 oankar, referring to a single divine force. This logic leads to a concept of divinity that connects all that exists.
The Sikh view is that divinity permeates every aspect of our world. Perhaps the most relatable way of understanding this concept is to think on an atomic level: if everything we know is composed of atoms, then think of each atom as being infused with divinity. In the
Sikh worldview, all is divine and pure. Nothing is inherently profane or evil.
The logic of this outlook is clearly expressed in a scriptural composition by Bhagat Kabir, a renowned devotional poet of early modern North India.
ਅਵਿਲ ਅਲਹਨੂਰੁਉਪਾਇਆ ਕੁਦਰਿਤਕੇਸਭਬੰਦੇ॥
ਲੋਗਾ ਭਰਿਮਨਭੂਲਹੁਭਾਈ ॥
First Allah created the light and all the people of the world.
If the whole world is born from the one light, then who is good or bad?
O Siblings, don’t be deluded by doubt —
The creator is in the creation, the creation is in the creator – deeply embedded in all space.
The vision of divine interconnectedness extends to a view of all people as divine. There is no such concept as original sin, nor is there any space for social discrimination based on notions of purity. The idea of divine presence is central to the Sikh principle of absolute equality.
The goal of Sikh life is to go beyond any egocentric way of seeing the world and to realize the oneness of the world. Sikh teachings refer to this state of realization with many words, including simran (remembrance), anand (bliss), and sahaj (equipoise). Sikh teachings describe this realization as a form of deep love that is joyful, self-effacing, and all-consuming.
of love as the end-goal appears throughout the Guru Granth Sahib. For example,
the fifth Sikh guru, Guru Arjan Sahib, writes:
ਰਾਜੁਨ ਚਾਹਉਮੁਕਿਤਨ ਚਾਹਉਮਿਨਪੀਿਤ ਚਰਨਕਮਲਾਰੇ॥
I don’t want power, and I don’t desire salvation. All I want is to be in love at your lotus feet.
A Sikh aims to live with love through a daily practice of experiencing love and oneness within one’s own life.
Oneness and love are the two building blocks of Sikh living.
Seeing the world as divine informs the ways that Sikhs aim to interact with the world. One can honor the creator by honoring the creation. One can serve Vahiguru by serving those
around them. The two are one in the same.
Service, for Sikhs, becomes a way to express love. Service is prayerful action. Service is worship manifest.
As I already mentioned, the Sikh tradition has a specific term for this work, seva. Except, Sikhs will say that “service” and “activism” are not adequate translations of that term because
they fail to sufficiently capture the logic and spirit underlying it. Thus, Sikhs have generally translated seva into English as “selfless service,” which does a better job of articulating the
distinction between activism and seva.
At the risk of being overly simplistic, let me put it like this: activism is about the action itself, whereas seva takes into account the motivation as well as the action. In the Sikh tradition, it’s not the action alone that constitutes seva – the intention is just as important. True service is motivated by love.
ਏਹਿਕਨਹੀ ਚਾਕਰੀ ਿਜਤੁਭਉਖਸਮਨਜਾਇ ॥
ਨਾਨਕਸੇਵਕੁਕਾਢੀਐ ਿਜਸੇਤੀਖਸਮਸਮਾਇ ॥੨॥
What kind of a servant is that in which fear of the master does not dissipate?
O Nanak, the real servant is the one who always remains connected with the master.
Serving with love is not just about eliminating fear. It is also about eliminating the sense of self. This is what Sikhs mean when they describe seva as selfless service. It ties directly to the
idea of realizing divine oneness by effacing human ego. To truly serve with love is to not see a distinction between the self and the other.
ਗਲਾ ਕਰੇਘਣੇਰੀਆ ਖਸਮ ਨ ਪਾਏ ਸਾਦੁ॥
ਆਪੁਗਵਾਇ ਸੇਵਾ ਕਰੇਤਾ ਿਕਛੁਪਾਏ ਮਾਨੁ॥
ਨਾਨਕ ਿਜਸ ਨਲਗਾ ਿਤਸੁਿਮਲੈਲਗਾ ਸੋਪਰਵਾਨੁ॥੧॥
If a servant performs service with ego and anger and excessive speech, the master will not be happy.
If one performs seva while removing the sense of self, the honor is obtained.
O Nanak: One who serves with love receives honor and is truly accepted.
The tension here, of course, is that this love is not just about loving the other. It is also about loving the self. So how can we define service as selfless when it is also, in a way, self-serving?
Sikhs answer that question by flipping its attendant assumption – when one sees the world through a lens of interconnectedness, then what is the difference between the self and the other?
When one sees no difference between the self and the other, it becomes crystal-clear that our experiences are interconnected. And if my liberation is tied to your liberation, and if your suffering is tied to my suffering, then the only way forward is through loving, selfless
service – or seva.