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The Sikh Idea of Seva Is an Antidote to Our Current Malaise

8 minute read
Singh is Executive Director of the Aspen Institute's Religion & Society Program and author of The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life. He is an Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity with Columbia University and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and a Soros Equality Fellow with the Open Society Foundations.

I remember how dishonest I felt in high school volunteering at a soup kitchen, just so I could mention it in my college applications. Decades later, the memory still gnaws at me. All of us know such insincerity because we say things without any intention of following through, whether at home, at work, or with friends. It’s why we’re outraged when politicians offer thoughts and prayers after a tragedy but fail to follow up with meaningful action to keep it from happening again. In the words of Reverend Jim Keat, “If faith without works is dead, shouldn’t the same go for thoughts and prayers?”

We’re so used to words without actions, or actions without heart. Claiming to love our neighbor is different than actually showing that love. Sincere caring builds relationships and cultivates connection, while our empty claims damage us in ways we don’t realize.

When we claim to care sincerely but don’t feel it in our hearts, we create discord in ourselves. This discord may not be noticeable to others, but when it does show itself, it causes confusion and strife—in ourselves and in others. We then have to grapple with our own hypocrisy and figure out the disconnect between our beliefs and our actions.

When we announce to people that we care about them but do not show up in their time of need, we breach their trust. When I have been on the hurting side of this betrayal, it would have been less painful to me if people had never claimed to have my back in the first place. I need people whose actions match their words. I think we all do.

When we come to believe that empty words and actions are substitutes for sincere caring, it becomes difficult for us to push beyond these limits and we reduce our capacity to experience a more expansive kind of empathy, an empathy that is fulfilling and enriching.

The Sikh concept of seva—selfless, love-inspired service—offers an antidote for our malaise. It invites us to ground our lives in love and selflessness, and in turn it moves us away from empty speech and towards authentic action.

While seva might feel right intuitively, it runs counter to so much of what we in the West learn from childhood: that the ends justify the means, that some lives matter more than others, that we will find happiness if we just care for ourselves.

The good news is that our ways of thinking are taught, not inherited. Embracing seva is a both an intervention and a tool. When we can accept its wisdom for improving our lives, we can use it as a daily mindfulness practice to help us live with more compassion and honesty. Returning to the seva principle in moments of confusion can help us push past outdated ways of thinking when they tempt us.

There have been moments where approaching seva as a mindfulness practice has helped me cut through the fog to find clarity.


As a student, and now as an educator myself, I’ve learned from and worked with incredible teachers. But I’ve also seen the deep deficits that can occur when teachers are disinterested, unprepared, or disconnected from their students.

The best teachers were those who approached their work as service. A good teacher doesn’t make teaching about themselves; they make it about meeting the needs of those in the room. It takes incredible humility and compassion to meet people where they are and to prioritize what’s most important to them. I’m reminded of the many coaches I had over the years—Coach Dan, Coach Leo, Coach Dave, Coach McKenna, Coach Stone – who were ready to boycott games when referees said my brothers and I, as young Sikhs, we couldn’t play with our turbans.

Often, leadership and service as two separate ways of engaging with the world around us. We typically think of leadership as how someone with power influences those who follow them, and service as a way of supporting those without power.

What Sikhi has taught me is that the two go hand in hand: We each have our own forms of power and we can each deploy that power for the betterment of our world. This is servant-leadership.

Leadership is at its best when it’s rooted in compassion and humility. Great leaders are those who are connected to their people and who work for the benefit of those they serve, not for themselves or for their own gain. We have seen with our own eyes the difference between the two.

Seva is both the natural expression of love and a way to cultivate it. It’s the goal and the practice, the destination and the journey. More directly, seva is love.

One of the most commonly sung praises of Guru Gobind Singh, the influential tenth Sikh guru who lived from 1667-1708, announces: “Vaho vaho gobind singh aapay gurchela. Amazing, amazing is Gobind Singh, who is both the guru and the servant.”

For Sikhs, this is not just empty praise: We aspire to each be like Guru Gobind Singh and to embody his qualities, including his unique approach to leadership – to lead and to serve in the same breath. We can all learn from his approach to leadership as a form of service as we move toward building a more just and more loving world.

The words of another prophetic Sikh leader, Guru Angad, ring true: “Those who focus on the Truest of Truths in their service – they find true satisfaction.”

What I take from this wisdom is that for our seva to give us the peace we desire, what truly matters is what is in our hearts. What are we focused on? What do we dwell on? If the underlying motivation is to serve one’s self, then this is a lower form of service – not seva. Being pure of heart is the true measure of seva. Buddhist teachings refer to this in the Eightfold Path as rightful intention, which Christianity teaches people to treat others with mercy and compassion to others – as siblings.

Understanding this helped me to understand how to approach teaching: with humility, empathy, and love. Without employing seva as a mindfulness practice, I could very well have not taken this path and my students would have suffered for it.

Seeing the value of seva has encouraged me to return to it frequently. Life is so complex and full of entanglements, it’s not easy to continue down a path with purpose and vigor. It’s easy to get lost.

For me, it’s been tricky to maintain a balance between maintaining a sincere, selfless humility on the one hand while bringing attention to the justice issues that I am passionate about. Marketing and promotion are important components of activism and movement-building, and it can be easy for us to build these efforts around personalities. There have been moments where the praise I received for this work went to my head and made me more interested in promoting myself than serving the cause.

You don’t notice at first when this is happening—at least I didn’t—because you tell yourself what you want to hear. “Enhancing my own brand will enhance the work; building my platform will create more opportunities for justice.” The problem is not that these are untrue. The problem is that we delude ourselves into thinking that our intentions are still selfless.

When I eventually realized that I had fallen off the path of seva, I returned to the practice of seva as mindfulness. What are my intentions? Am I serving myself or others? How do I create alignment across my thoughts, speech, and actions? Asking myself these simple questions helped return me to solid ground. My path forward is clear.

By leaning into seva, I remind myself that I can do my best to be transparent and share myself with people, but that I cannot control how people perceive or receive me. All we can truly control is that we try do the right things with our hands, say the right things with our tongues, and carry the right things in our hearts.

Viewing my life through the lens of seva has been a compass and a refuge. It has given me direction in moments of confusion and comfort at times of self-doubt. While applying it sincerely requires more courage and commitment than I ever anticipated, it has also helped me to live with more authenticity and joy than I ever imagined possible.

Adapted from Simran Jeet Singh’s new book is The Light We Give: The Power of Sikh Wisdom to Transform Your Life, published by Riverhead

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Write to Simran Jeet Singh at sjs2180@columbia.edu

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