SEVĀ, from Sanskrit root sev (to serve, wait or attend upon, honour, or worship), is usually translated as 'service' or 'serving' which commonly relates to work paid for, but does not convey the sense in which the term is used in the Sikh tradition. The word sevā has, in fact, had two distinct connotations; one, it means to serve, to attend to, to render obedience to; and the second, to worship, to adore, to reverence, to pay homage to. Traditionally in the Indian ( Hindu) society, sevā in the sense of worship (of gods) has been the preserve of the high-caste Brāhmaṇs, while that in the sense of service (to man) relegated to the lowest of the castes. In the Sikh sense, the two connotations seem to have merged together for the reasons : first, because of its egalitarian meaning. Sikhism does not recognize caste distinctions, and hence no distinctive caste roles in it; and second, God in Sikhism is not apart from His creatures. He pervades His Creation (GG, l350). Therefore service rendered to humanity (i.e. God in man) is indeed considered a form of worship. In fact, in Sikhism, no worship is conceivable without sevā (GG, 1013). The Sikh is forbidden from serving anyone apart from God ('Serve you the Lord alone : none else must you serve' (GG, 490). However, this also means that whomsoever we serve, we really serve our Lord through him. Therefore it becomes incumbent upon the Sikh to render sevā with the highest sense of duty since thereby he or she is worshipping the Lord.
Sevā in Sikhism is imperative for spiritual life. It is the highest penance (GG, 423). It is a means to acquiring the highest merit. The Sikh often prays to God for a chance to render sevā. Says Gurū Arjan, Nānak V, "I beg to serve those who serve you (GG, 43)" and "I, your servant, beg for sevā of your people, which is available through good fortune alone (GG,802)." According to Gurū Amar Dās, "He who is turned towards the Gurū finds repose and joy in sevā" (GG, 125).
Three varieties of sevā are sanctioned in the Sikh lore : that rendered through the corporal instrument (tan), that through the mental apparatus (man) and that through the material wherewithal (dhan).
The first of them is considered to be the highest of all and is imperatively prescribed for every Sikh. "Cursed are the hands and feet that engage not in sevā" (Bhāī Gurdās, Vārāṅ, 27.1). In traditional Indian society work involving corporal labour was considered low and relegated to the humblest castes. By sanctifying it as an honourable religious practice, the Sikh Gurūs established the dignity of labour, a concept then almost unknown to the Indian society. Not only did the Gurūs sanctify it ; they also institutionalized it, e.g. service in Gurū kā Laṅgar ( the Gurū's community kitchen) and serving the saṅgat (holy assembly) in other ways such as by grinding corn for it, fanning it to soften the rigour of a hot day and drawing water for it. "I beg of you, O, Merciful One, make me the slave of your Slaves... Let me have the pleasure of fanning them, drawing water for them, grinding corn for them and of washing their feet," prays Gurū Arjan (GG, 518).
Sevā through the mental apparatus (man) lies in contributing ones talents creative, communicative, managerial, etc. to the corporate welfare of the community and mankind in general. It also lies in sharing the pain of others. Response to the pain of others is a sine qua non of the membership of the brotherhood of man. That is why the Sikh prayer said in unison ends with a supplication for the welfare of all. Sevā of this kind is motivated not by the attitude of compassion alone, but primarily to discover practical avenues for serving God through man.
Sevā through material means (dhan) or philanthropy (dān) was particularly sought to be made non-personal. The offerings (kār bheṭā) made to the Gurūs and the dasvandh (tithe) contributed by the Sikhs went straight into the common coffers of the community. Personal philanthropy can be debasing for the receiver and ego-entrenching for the giver, but self-effacing community service is ennobling. Sevā must be so carried out as to dissolve the ego and lead to self-transcendence, which is the ability to acknowledge and respond to that which is other than oneself. Sevā must serve to indicate the way in which such transcendence manifests in one's responsiveness to the needs of others in an impersonal way.
The Sikh is particularly enjoined upon to render sevā to the poor. "The poor man's mouth is the depository of the Gurū", says the Rahitnāmā of Chaupā Siṅgh. The poor and the needy are, thus, treated as legitimate recipients of dān (charity) and not the Brāhmaṇ who had traditionally reserved for himself this privilege. Even in serving the poor, one serves not the individual concerned, but God Himself through him. Even as one feeds the hungry, it has been the customary Sikh practice to pray: "The grain, O God, is your own gift. Only the sevā is mine which please be gracious enough to accept."
In the Sikh way of life, sevā is considered the prime duty of the householder (grihasthī). "That home in which holymen are not served, God is served not. Such mansions must be likened to graveyards where ghosts alone abide", says Kabīr (GG, 1374). The Sikhs are all ordained to be householders, and sevā their duty. In Sikh thought, the polarity of renunciation is not with attachment, but with sevā.
True sevā according to Sikh scriptures must be without desire (nishkām), guileless (nishkapaṭ), in humility (nimartā), with purity of intention (hirdā suddh), with sincerity (chit lāe) and in utter selflessness (vichoṅ āp gavāe). Such sevā for the Sikh is the doorway to dignity as well as to muktī (liberation). "If one earns merit here through sevā, one will get a seat of honour in His Court hereafter" (GG, 26).
According to Sikh tenets, "You become like the one you serve" (GG, 549). Therefore, for those who desire oneness with God, serving God and God alone is the prime way. But God in Sikhism is transcendent as well as immanent. The Transcendent One is ineffable and can only be conceived through contemplation. Service of God, therefore, only relates to the immanent aspect of God and comprises service of His creatures. Humanitarian service is thus the Sikh ideal of sevā.
Jaswant Siṅgh Nekī