According to M. C. Satyanarayana, Sewa or service to the poor and suffering is a principle advocated by all religious faiths. To serve the poor and distressed is enjoined as a duty of human beings whatever be his religious faith. In Hinduism, in particular, our ancient seers have gone in great depth into this principle and have laid down guidelines which are distinctive features of Hindu thought and philosophy. Our Rishis have considered Sewa in all its aspects including questions like - What is sewa? Why Sewa? How sewa is done? To whom is sewa to be done? What is the best kind of sewa? To what extent should a human being do sewa? and so on, some of these questions have been answered by them in a unique way.
What is Sewa?
Sewa is considered a part of human Dharma in Hindu thought. Sewa dharma is a duty. But if one thinks deeply, the concept of sewa is deep and difficult to comprehend in its entirety.
Sewa Dharma Parama Gahano Yoginamapyagamyah
It is said that Sewa is a very deep concept which even sages find it difficult to understand. But for a common man they have put it in simple words by saying Paropakaraya Punyaya, Papaya Parapeedanam ie what ever conduces to the good of others is noble deed and should be followed. By the term Sewa, the common understanding is that it implies an act, word or thought which helps to mitigate the sufferings of others and increases their happiness.
The motives that inspire human beings to do an act of sewa have been varied and many. The feeling of compassion, feeling of humanity, and sympathy are usually mentioned as reasons why human beings do sewa. All these motives imply that the server and the served are separate and distinct entities. In Hindu thought, things are looked at in a different way. The cardinal principle is that God is residing in all beings human, animal, bird, plant or inanimate.
Iswarah Sarva Bhutanam Itruddesha Arjuna Tishtati
The same God who is present in me is also present in other human beings. Therefore serving another human being or a being is serving God. Doing sewa is to worship God and to work for one's salvation and ultimate eternal happiness. So sewa is done for one's own happiness and progress. This idea was expressed beautifully by Swami Vivekananda who preached the worship of the poor. It is said that serving man is serving God; Nara Sewa, Narayana Sewa. This concept is the basis for sewa work in Hindu thought. Sewa is done for one's own joy and comfort.
How is sewa done?
Our seers have said that sewa is done in three ways - Tan, Man, Dhana Sewa namely through one's body, through one's mind and through one's wealth. No sewa is complete if it is not done in these three ways. Service through one's body implies physical service, and making all efforts to help a suffering person/being. Service through the mind consists in thinking about the mitigation of sorrow and misery, talking about it to others in order to motivate them to do sewa, expression of the sewa feeling through art, literature, drama and other means. Service through wealth is sharing one's own resources - money and material - with others. At first thought, this concept of service in three ways may appear to be hard and difficult to follow. But we do see examples of this comprehensive sewa in actual life also. If one observes how a mother serves her child, it becomes evident that she devotes a lot of time and physical effort for the comfort and well being of the child. Whatever she may be doing or wherever she may be, her child is always in her thought. All resources available to her - money or material - are also available to the child. Whenever the child speaks, plays or eats she takes a great pleasure in it and sometimes feels that her child is Lord Krishna himself in her home. Serving her child is serving Lord Krishna, God himself.
To whom sewa is to be done?
The scope for sewa in Hindu thought is very wide. It extends to all beings whether human, animal, birds, plants or any other. It extends to the environment and points out the joy in living in harmony with nature and in the attitude of "live and let live", our scriptures contain many examples of this service - service to mother, father, teacher, guests, friends, animals, birds, other human beings md others. There is the wellknown story of King Shib's who was prepared to cut out flesh from his own body and sacrifice himself in order to serve a pigeon from an eagle. All the saints in our long period of history have set example in the service of man. There are also instances of Kings and emperors who parted with all their wealth for others and willingly became poor.
What's the best kind of sewa?
The best kind of sewa is one that is done without the expectation of any reward, return, name or fame, one that does not destroy the self respect and confidence of sentiments of the beneficiary, the one that helps a beneficiary to help himself.
It is said in Bhagvad Gita (chapter 17, verse 20)
Datavyamiti Yaddanam Deeyatenupa KarineDeshe Kale cha Patrecha Taddanam Sattvikam Smarutam
"That gift which is made to one who can make no return, with the feeling that it is one's duty to give,and which is given at the right place and time and to a worthy person, that gift is held sattvik" (best type).
Real charity is that which provides permanent source of honest earning to the poor. Charities of all kinds are good but the best of them is that of imparting divine knowledge. The great law giver Manu says :
Sarvesharmeva Dananam Brahrnadanam Vishishyate
"Imparting of divine knowledge is the best of all charities." For it is through knowledge that man achieves happiness in this world and salvation for himself.
The Gita also says
Adeshakale Yaddamapatrebhyascha Deyate Asatkrutarnavajnatarn Tattarnasamudahrutam
The Gift that is given at a wrong place or time to unworthy persons, without respect or with insult, that is declared to betamasika (the worst type of gift).
No charity with vanity.
To what extent sewa?
The question of the extent to which a person may give his time, efforts and wealth in charity has been a question facing us at all times. Is there a limit to charity? In Hindu thought, all wealth is given by God and a person receiving or collecting it should not
go on accumulating or hoarding it. To hoard more than what a man needs is a sin. The wealth not needed by man should be given to others for use. One can amass wealth with hundreds of hands but distribute the same with thousands of hands.
Shatahasta Samahara, Sahasrahasta Sankira
"Earn with hundreds of hands,and distribute with thousands" (Atharvaveda 3 -24-5)
It is also said, in relation to charity,
"To live is to give. Give as long as you live". Sewa is a thus a continuous life long process.
What's the place of Sewa in Life?
Hindu philosophers have attached a very great importance to sewa as a selfless and loving service to others. Sewa occupies a high position in one's spiritual life and advancement. One should not only seek to relieve the misery of his fellow-men but also identify himself with them and become a part of them so as to undergo their suffering and share in their misery. "He alone lives who lives for the sake of helping others" Says the Rig Veda: Pareshamupakarurtham Yajjivati sa jivati. This thought is exemplified in the story King Ranti Deva contained in Bhagvata written by Sage Veda Vyasa. It so happened during his reign that his kingdom was gripped once by severe and devastating famine is subjects were hungry and distressed. Moved by their suffering, the king determined that he would share in their misery and decided to fast himself until all the hungry were fed. His fast lasted for forty eight days during which period he took no food and not even water but served his poor subjects. At the end of forty eight days of fasting, he wanted to break his fast by taking a morsel of food and a glass of water. His ministers and councillors were with him at the time of breaking his fast. Just when he was about to drink a glass of water, he heard the potious cry of Pulkasa asking for water to drink desperately. The King immediately ordered that his glass of water be passed on to Pulkasa in spite of the remonstrations of his ministers and his own condition. He then proceeded to eat a morsel of food. Just at that time a guest came at his door asking for food. The King gave all his food to the guest. The people around him pleaded with him not to do so since his life itself was in danger. The reply that the King gave at that time stands out as the altitude of the true sewa karta (server).He said :
"I do not seek from God the Highest bliss attended with eight types of powers (suddhis). Nor do I care for my own salvation or freedom from the cycle of births and deaths. My only desire is to be present in all beings (share their feelings) and undergo suffering with them and serve them so that they may become free from misery, hunger, thirst, fatigue, loss of strength in limbs, distress, grief disappointment, delusion - all these undesirable features of my distressed -soul have all disappeared upon my giving water to one who was suffering from acute thirst ".
God was pleased with this. No need to say that King Ranti Deva was blessed with eternal happiness. He has shown us a noble example of ideal sewa! (Mahatma Gandhi was quite impressed with the sayings of Ranti Deva. He adopted this quotation (original in Sanskrit) for all his sewa work).