Seva is a sanksrit word that literally means selfless service. It is often difficult for people of modern day cultures, and non-eastern religions to fully understand the concept of seva. But if one were to look closely, one would find versions of the concept in many, many spiritual traditions. The idea of Charity and service to God can be seen in many forms and in many places from Mother Teresa to your neighborhood soup kitchen. Seva is classically performed in the service of a spiritual master but is not limitted to that, for it is an act that is performed as an offering to God.
In India, seva had been an important spiritual practice for hundreds of years. Seva is more than just the physical action of service. Many spiritual masters in India used seva as a teaching tool for seekers. In a spiritual belief system where personal ego is seen as an obstacle to enlightenment, what better way to challenge people to overcome their egos by performing work for the sake of service, and not personal credit or gain?
One who controls the senses by a trained and purified mind and intellect, and engages the organs of action to selfless service, is superior, O Arjun. (3.07) Perform your obligatory duty, because working is indeed better than sitting idle. Even the maintenance of your body would be impossible without work. (3.08) Human beings are bound by work (Karm) that is not performed as a selfless service (Seva, Yajn). Therefore, O Arjun, becoming free from selfish attachment to the fruits of work, do your duty efficiently as a service to Me. (3.09)1
The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most widely known texts to expound on the virtues of seva. In the above quote Krishna explains that not just any work is seva, that seva involves offering ones work to God.
Therefore, always perform your duty efficiently and without any selfish attachment to the results, because by doing work without attachment one attains the Supreme Being. (3.19)2
Seva is not simply an action that a person performs. The attitude with which one performs seva is also important. It is only when a seeker performs seva with love and humility that his or her ego is able to fall away, and a deeper understanding of Truth come to fruition. There is a beautiful anecdote that I once heard that illustrates this point.
Once there was a man who sought out a spiritual teacher. He asked the teacher for instruction, and the teacher replied.
"What should I say? Everything is the Self. You are the Self, everything and everyone around you is the self. Recognize this, and you will know everything."
The man was disappointed. “Is this all you have to say? I could have picked up a book and read that.”
The man then sought out a second teacher. The second teacher looked at the man for a time, and told him that he would give him a spiritual teaching, but first, the man must perform seva for twelve years. The man agreed. He was given the task of shovelling buffalo dung. As his desire to learn the Truth was strong and sincere, he agreed.
One day the man realized twelve years had passed. He went back to his teacher and told him twelve years had passed, and again requested instruction. The teacher replied
"Everything is the Self. You are the Self, everything and everyone around you is the self." Because of his years of service, the man’s mind was open, and as soon as his teacher spoke, he sank into a deep meditation and experienced the Truth. When he came out of his meditation he asked his teacher.
"One thing puzzles me. I already received this teaching twelve years ago."
"Yes" the teacher replied. “The truth hasn’t changed in twelve years. But only now are you ready to receive it."
1,2Quotes from the Bhagavad Gita, chapter three, courtesy of www.gita4free.com.