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

YouIt’s hard to believe how dishonesty it was when I worked in a soup kitchen in high school. The memory haunts me even decades later. This insincerity is something that we all recognize. We say things and then fail to act on them, either at home or at work. 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. It is not the same thing to claim that you love your neighbor, but it is different from actually doing so. 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. This is where we have to face our hypocrisy.

We breach people’s trust when we tell them that we love them, but don’t show up for their needs. This betrayal has hurt me more than it should. It is important to me that people act as they say. It’s something I feel we all have.

We can’t believe empty words or actions as substitutes for genuine caring when we start to think that they are. This makes it difficult to reach beyond our limits, and reduces our ability to feel a deeper, more fulfilling, and richer, kind of empathy.

The Sikh concept of seva—selfless, love-inspired service—offers an antidote for our malaise. It encourages us all to find love and selflessness in our lives, which in turn makes us more authentic and helps us move away from empty talk and toward action.

Although seva may feel intuitively right, it is contrary to much that we Westerners have learned from our childhoods: that ends justify means, some lives are more important than others and that happiness can only be found if you take care of yourself.

Good news! Our thinking styles are learned, and not passed down to us. Embarking on seva can be both an intervention as well as a tool. Accepting its wisdom can help improve our lives. We can then use it daily as a mindfulness practice for more compassion and honesty. When we are in confusion, returning to the principle of seva can help us overcome old thinking patterns.

Moments have come when I found clarity by using seva to help me get out of the fog.


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 most effective teachers were those who saw their job as an act of 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.

Service and leadership are two different ways that we can engage the world. As leaders, we see how they influence those following them. We view service as supporting others without power.

Sikhi taught me that both go hand-in-hand: Each of us has our own form of power, and each can use that power to improve the world. This is called servant-leadership.

Leadership is at its best when it’s rooted in compassion and humility. People who have a deep connection to others and are willing to work for the common good of all are leaders. Both are evident to us.

Seva, which is the natural expression and cultivation of love, can also be called “love”. It’s the goal and the practice, the destination and the journey. More directly, seva It 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 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. His leadership style is a serviceable form of leadership that we can all use to build a better, more loving and just 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.”

This wisdom has taught me that to have seva give us peace, it is important what’s in our heart. Which are you focusing on? Where do you dwell? If the underlying motivation is to serve one’s self, then this is a lower form of service – not seva. Pure heart is what defines 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.

This understanding helped me realize how I should approach teaching. With humility, empathy, love. My students and I would not have chosen this path if we hadn’t used seva to improve our mindfulness.

After realizing the benefits of seva, I’ve been motivated to go back to it often. 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. Promoting and marketing are essential components of activism. It is easy to make these activities revolve around celebrities. Sometimes, the praise for my work made me want to promote myself more than 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. We fool ourselves into believing that our intentions can be selfish.

Once I realized I’d fallen from the path of yoga, I reverted to mindfulness-based seva. How do I intend to serve others? Are my intentions to serve others or myself? What can I do to create harmony in my thoughts, words, and actions. These simple questions allowed me to find solid ground by asking myself the following questions. I am on the right track.

Leaning into seva reminds me that although I try my best to share myself and be open with others, it is impossible for me to control the way people see or perceive. We can only control our actions, our words, our heart, and our thoughts.

My life has become a beacon of light and refuge when I look through the prism of seva. It gave me guidance in times of doubt and provided comfort during times of anxiety. It requires more courage than I anticipated and more commitment, but it also has helped me live more authentically with joy and authenticity than I thought 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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