Seva and Karma – The Dual Helix of Causality and the Mandate to Engage

It is interesting to observe the idea of seva or service in the Indic darsanas. Whatever be the outlook towards life, the importance to service of others is given a lot of importance. This definitely arises from the intertwined helical relationship between karma and seva. A succinct example of the depth of embedding of seva in the philosophy of karma can be be found in the Srivaishnava sampradaya’s understanding of the Advaita marga as put out first by reformer saint Sri Ramanujacharya, who lived in the 12th century AD. As Mohan Sagar had elaborated in his short piece on Ramanujacharya’s darsana[1] highlights some important facts:

·   Each and every aatma or soul in a crude translation is in its essential nature, its svarUpam, a simple receptacle to the Lord's Grace, and a humble instrument to His Good. This nature of servitude is not only limited to the soul, but is indeed the nature of matter, as well.

·     Consequently, the Lord is likened to the Soul of the Universe, with all the myriad of souls, the bodies in which they reside, and the matter that are their material possessions, being likened to His Body, dependent wholly upon Him and serving as Instruments to His Good. It only stands to reason then that when we seek to love and serve God, we must be willing and able to serve what is His, namely His Body, this Universe.

·        When we go beyond the things that separate us, when we know that each and every one of us exists solely because of the Grace of God, and when we know that all living beings are in their True Nature servants to Sriman Narayana, we can begin to operate from this mood of serving the world as a means of expressing love and servitude to Him, nurturing and caring for each other such that we can serve Him better.

The nature of seva is also defined in its impact, both on the physical level and the metaphysical. It is well recognized that the conflict of what constitutes seva, the boundaries within which it gets defined, and its connection to karma are all limited in how individuals and societies relate within themselves and with other systems of belief and forms of social setups. Scale is appreciated, but not at the cost of the bhava or the sense of devotion that drives it. A classic example can be found in the parable surrounding Sri Rama’s affection for the chipmunk who brought tiny stones to build the bridge that would help Sri Rama’s vanara sena (monkey army) across the ocean to Lanka. As a rendition states Rama telling the vanaras, who made fun of the squirrel[2]:

“Always remember, however small, every task is equally important. A project can never be completed by the main people alone. They need the support of all, and however small, an effort should always be appreciated!”

This seva bhavana in turn helps to therefore fulfil both at the physical and the metaphysical requirements of humans, and has driven philanthropic efforts in India for millenia now. 

Seva does not go unrewarded in the matrix of religion, and does become ever more important as it is always about karma. The end goal of seva is not to gain heaven – rather, the end goal of seva is to ensure that your aatma gains mukti from the cycle of birth and death and become one with the Maker, a factor that makes the idea of service distinctly different from Abrahamic ideology of service to mankind, which is driven more by the idea of achieving heaven and coming closer to God. In this, the instructive guidance comes from the Dharmashastras, which clearly underline the need for people to be engaged with society through karma, which also includes seva. This can be seen in the way shastras talk about seva in improving the karma of humans. That philanthropy is dictated is a matter of fact reference for such scholars as P V Kane, who in a detailed note had this to say when criticizing the narrow view of missionary scholars of the West on the Dharmasastras[3]:

Every house-holder was called upon by the Hindu Śāstras to offer food according to his ability to students, ascetics and to all beings including the untouchable candālas and even dogs and crows. Every brāhmana who could teach had to do so without demanding any fee beforehand, Maṭhs were established in all parts of India for expounding religious books, feeding students and the poor. There are annasatras even now where hundreds are fed every day. No necessity arose throughout the ages for a Poor Law in India with its attendant evils well portrayed in Dickens' famous master-piece 'Oliver Twist’. The above were some of the different aspects of philanthropy and charity which are now dubbed social service.

Kane, in fact, goes on to further elaborate on the ancient nature of this sense of service, tracing it back to the Yajur Veda, which mandates the donation of cows to the sick people, and then finding evidences to the same in the Mauryan emperor Asoka’s reign, whereby hospitals were established even for beasts.

In the Buddhist and Jain realms, donations are extremely equally important. Service is again playing a major role in attaining moksha. In his introduction to the Niyamasara of Acharya Kunda Kunda, Uggar Sain had clearly enumerated hows every Jaina house-holder is supposed to perform six daily duties, one of which is Dana or charity, comprising of giving of food, knowledge, medicine, or protection[4]. Similarly, in Buddhist literature, one sees references to the importance of service and charity, as shown in the various Jatakas[5] or stories of the Buddha’s previous birth lives where he identified himself with the one who would engage in generosity, compassion and charity, and building many structures of service.

[3] Kane. P.V., HISTORY OF THE DHARMA ŚĀSTRA (ANCIENT AND MEDIEVAL RELIGIOUS AND CIVIL LAW), Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona 1941, viewed at
[4] The Sacred Books Of The Jainas: Niyamsara (The Perfect Law) of Shri KundKund Acharya, Jagmander Lal Jain Memorial Series, Vol V, 1931 Central Jain Publishing House, viewed at
[5] Tales of the Buddha retold by Ken & Visakha Kawasaki 1995, viewed at


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