Why Sikhs Serve: The Tradition of Seva as Justice Inspired by Love
Rohingya refugees escaping violent persecution and crossing the border from Myanmar to Bangladesh are being met by Sikh volunteers providing free food, water, and shelter. So are Syrian and Iraqi refugees, many of whom are abandoning their war-torn countries by foot and encountering free bakeries set up and operated by Sikhs.
Why is this the case? Their altruism comes from the tradition of seva, a practice of justice work that is at the very core of the Sikh tradition. This piece will explain and explore how seva is articulated and formulated in Sikh teachings, how Sikhs use it to conceptualize justice and activism, and the ways we can witness seva in the world today.
The 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.
ਅਵਲਿ ਅਲਹ ਨੂਰੁ ਉਪਾਇਆ ਕੁਦਰਤਿ ਕੇ ਸਭ ਬੰਦੇ ॥
ਨੂਰ ਤੇ ਸਭੁ ਜਗੁ ਉਪਜਿਆ ਕਉਨ ਭਲੇ ਕੋ ਮੰਦੇ॥੧॥
ਲੋਗਾ ਭਰਮਿ ਨ ਭੂਲਹੁ ਭਾਈ ॥
ਖਾਲਿਕੁ ਖਲਕ ਖਲਕ ਮਹਿ ਖਾਲਿਕੁ ਪੂਰਿ ਰਹਿਓ ਸ੍ਰਬ ਠਾਂਈ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥
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.
This notion of love as the end-goal appears throughout the Guru Granth Sahib. For example, the fifth Sikh guru, Guru Arjan Sahib, writes:
ਰਾਜੁ ਨ ਚਾਹਉ ਮੁਕਤਿ ਨ ਚਾਹਉ ਮਨਿ ਪ੍ਰੀਤਿ ਚਰਨ ਕਮਲਾਰੇ ॥
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.
ਏਹ ਕਿਨੇਹੀ ਚਾਕਰੀ ਜਿਤੁ ਭਉ ਖਸਮ ਨ ਜਾਇ ॥
ਨਾਨਕ ਸੇਵਕੁ ਕਾਢੀਐ ਜਿ ਸੇਤੀ ਖਸਮ ਸਮਾਇ ॥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.
ਚਾਕਰੁ ਲਗੈ ਚਾਕਰੀ ਨਾਲੇ ਗਾਰਬੁ ਵਾਦੁ ॥
ਗਲਾ ਕਰੇ ਘਣੇਰੀਆ ਖਸਮ ਨ ਪਾਏ ਸਾਦੁ ॥
ਆਪੁ ਗਵਾਇ ਸੇਵਾ ਕਰੇ ਤਾ ਕਿਛੁ ਪਾਏ ਮਾਨੁ ॥
ਨਾਨਕ ਜਿਸ ਨੋ ਲਗਾ ਤਿਸੁ ਮਿਲੈ ਲਗਾ ਸੋ ਪਰਵਾਨੁ ॥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?