An essential teaching of Sikhi is Seva or service to everyone. Seva can be done in any form towards any living thing in whatever way possible, as per an individual’s capacity.
The most visible form of Seva for Sikhs, as prescribed by the Sikh Gurus, is Langar Seva or the community kitchen. In the Gurudwaras (Sikh Temples) around the world, the community comes together and cooks a typical meal for anyone and everyone to partake. Some donate the food material; others do the preparation and rest serve the food to those who come to the Guru’s doorstep. In larger Gurudwaras, these services are done daily sometimes for tens of thousands and in most other places, about once a week or on major festivals.
Growing up, we all went to the Gurudwara and being restless kids, didn’t like sitting in the kirtan (hymn) singing services. But we loved heading over to the community kitchen, checking out what was happening, and helping with the chores. Then when the Langar (food) was to be served, we would enthusiastically pick up the roti (bread) basket or a dal (lentil) bucket and go down the rows of people sitting on the ground and serve them the food.
What I find fascinating about the Sikh Gurus is that they created a holistic environment for the community, allowing each individual to find their own path of devotion to the Universe. While they extolled their students to meditate and sing hymns to develop a peaceful mind, they also created many opportunities to experience that Oneness through serving IT. When one serves selflessly, especially doing tasks that one would usually find unpleasant, the Seva then builds humility. It lowers the head in reverence that none is higher or lower than another.
There can be other practical benefits of worship through Seva; it allows spending one’s free time in a focused task, which should create a feeling of flow. When the mind gets engrossed, it stops thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Rendering Seva in this mindful manner is almost a meditative experience.
Sometimes, we would do Seva at the Shoe House (footwear is not allowed inside the Gurudwara), where everyone leaves their footwear, in exchange for a token, to be taken care of by the volunteers, some of whom will even clean and shine the boots in service! My Darji (Grandfather) used to say to us, “Putarji (my son), if you go do Jode di Seva (Shoe House Service), it will cleanse your Haume (Ego-Mind) and create compassion for all.”
All are equal in Guru’s house, whether they come wearing Nike sneakers or worn-out sandals.
Also, I feel that not all are in a state of mind for devotional worship or meditation at a given moment. Sometimes life’s vagaries create a despondency that is hard to get out of and still the mind. It is especially at this time that Seva can help, as it moves one from inertia to action. The lethargic body moves to activate the mind and create positive energies, which can then be tapped into for further improvement in spirits.
The pandemic has disrupted the regular services at the Gurudwara, and I have not been part of the comprehensive service for more than six months. Though some of the larger Gurudwaras have been running Langar services for the poor and needy, most other Gurudwaras as shut as per government directives. Some people have gotten together to prepare meals at home and distribute it to the needy in their communities.
ik daatay ik bhaykhaaree jee sabh tayray choj vidaanaa.
Some are givers, and some are beggars. This is all Your Wondrous Play.
tooN aapay daataa aapay bhugtaa jee ha-o tuDh bin avar na jaanaa.Guru Nanak in the Rehras Sahib (Sikh evening prayer)
You Yourself are the Giver, and You Yourself are the Enjoyer. I know no other than You.
One indeed realizes the worth of something when it is no longer available. Those who depended and looked forward to the Langar service to partake the nutritious meal, miss it the most. But I realized that even those who did the serving, not having the opportunity, is also a loss, it is a void that they know is there, but sometimes don’t know how to fill.
This cycle of the serving and the served is that Oneness, its the symbiotic relationship where the one who grows, to the one who sells, to the one who buys, to the one who prepares, to the one who serves and finally the one who eats, its but all One.