Catherine's questioning of Sant Mat, including the possibly detrimental consequences of "mitti seva" (volunteers moving dirt by hand at India's Dera Baba Jaimal Singh), brought to mind the two weeks I spent at the Dera in December 1977.
"Seva" means service. Serving the guru was a big part of the daily routine both for Western visitors and Indians. While I was there, mitti seva was in full swing from about 3:30 to 5:00 in the afternoon.
In Radhasoami Reality, Mark Juergensmeyer describes the scene:
One of the most dramatic examples of ritual humiliation in Radhasoami is mitti seva, the service of dirt. At Beas, when thousands take part, the scene looks like something out of a biblical epic: thousands trudging over a levee with wicker baskets on their heads filled with mud, marching orderly lines to the edge, where they dump their loads and return for more.
The dust in the air gives a gauzy, surreal quality to the panorama, especially from the vantage point of a nearby cliff, where Master Charan Singh sits, dressed in immaculate white and shielded by a temporary awning as he oversees the whole affair.
The devotees carrying the dirt—including businessmen in smudged white shirts and housewives in soiled saris—affirm that they are not only helping the master's construction projects; they are learning something about submission, humility, and service.
I dug out some old photos that I took while mitti seva'ing. Not so brilliantly, I'd written captions on the back of the prints in ink that rubbed off when the photos went back in their storage boxes. Hence, the extraneous smudges and specks.
As Juergensmeyer says, all sorts of people are mixed together in this communal act of service to the satguru (true guru). A South African is on the right (using a non-traditional cloth add-on to keep sand out of his eyes; the baskets are somewhat porous). The Indian girl on the left is carrying a pot full of sand that's just her size.
All eyes are on the master, whenever he's visible (in this photo, on the top of the slope, right of center).
The guru, Charan Singh, would use mitti seva time to go through his mail, read newspapers, or talk with disciples—as he's doing here.
Sometimes the sand would get poured into large ravines to create more usable land. From this dumping off point a solid line of people, about eight abreast, extends to the sand pits. I wrote on this photo, "Shows how great tasks can be accomplished by everyone working together and doing a small share."
An alternative destination for the sand was flatland nearer the Beas river. The man on the left was from Florida. Westerners rarely looked as comfortable as the Indians. But then, we're not used to carrying heavy loads on our heads.
At the end of the trail this elderly gentleman would point with his walking stick at where he wanted the sand dumped. I wrote, "This will be a road across marshland."
I enjoyed my mitti seva. It seemed a minor miracle to me that I never got sand in my contact lenses, given how much dirt drifted down across my face during my basket carrying stints.
I was deeply devoted to the guru back then. It seemed a privilege to be able to do something tangible for him, especially while he was right there, watching from a ridge-top. I was happy to be a das. Juergensmeyer says:
In India, the most common word for someone in servitude is das, which means both "servant" and "slave." Oddly (to Western preconceptions) many dases actually cherish being called a slave, but servitude of a certain sort is valued precisely because hierarchy is taken so seriously.
It is a great honor to be placed on a hierarchical scale with God, even if only as his servant. And in Radhasoami, one is given ample opportunity to serve the Lord directly, since He is close at hand [in the guise of the guru].
From my current perspective, there's the rub: hierarchy. It's tough to be truly humble and self-effacing when you've got the attitude, "I'm doing what God wants and He's watching me, pleased with my dusty service."
This wasn't evident to me at the time, immersed as I was in my unquestioning true belief. However, yesterday I felt a more genuine sense of "seva," and there wasn't a guru or god around.
Just me and a slope full of deer food that my wife had mistakenly planted last year. The brassica and purple topped turnip needed to be pulled up before their invasive roots could spread further across an area that we wanted to keep natural.
I enjoyed my deer food-removal seva just as much as the mitti seva thirty years ago. Yet my service didn't feel like it was directed toward anyone or anything in particular.
Crouching down on increasingly aching knees, yanking resistant root after root from the clay ground, getting pricked by dead blackberry vines (the invasive plant that we'd removed before unknowingly planting another invasive plant), I was feeling good.
What I was doing needed to be done. The earth was going to be a better place for it (the deer might disagree, but for aesthetic and environmental reasons the deer food had to be pulled up). I didn't feel any need to personalize my semi-selfless service by aiming it in a particular direction.
"I'm doing this for you, _____." How could I fill in the blank? Yet back in 1977, if I'd asked my fellow mitti sevadars who they were toting sand for, virtually everyone would have said, "the guru, my beloved Charan Singh."
It's wonderful to serve God, guru, grandparents, anybody. I just increasingly resonate with what Pascal (along with Voltaire, Augustine, and others) said about the almighty:
God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.
Another source quotes Pascal as saying:
Nature is an infinite sphere of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.
God, nature, Tao, primal existence, space-time continuum, Buddha nature, whatever you want to call it…something seems to be omnipresent and worthy of a sentiment akin to reverence, since without that foundation of essential being nothing else could be.
When we narrow our reverential focus to a particular person, place, or creed, the center of the cosmos now is somewhere rather than everywhere, and its circumference is bounded rather than limitless.
Understand: I'm not saying there's anything wrong with particulars. However, if the whole isn't more than the sum of its parts, a whole lot of philosophizing (and science) has gone to waste.
So I'm not keen now on being the servant of a god-man or woman. Directing my spirit of service in a certain hierarchical direction strikes me as limiting. I used to enjoy the idea that God had directed my guru to take me under his wing, which made me two steps removed from the highest divinity. Cool!
And, more than a little egotistical. The servant of a king puffed up with the pride of reflected glory. There's some of that look in the photos I've shared. I know, because I remember how the photographer felt when he was taking them.
No masters, no servants. No above, no below. No pride, no humility.
The older I get, nothing comes to seem more appealing than something.
A few points.
Mitti seva seems to be the flavor of the week. No Indian would ever refer to seva (which is an integral part of all indigenous faiths in India) as humiliating or humiliation. This is essentially a difference in perspective. Mahatma Gandhi used to clean toilets in his ashram – not to get more publicity. There is nothing small about any kind of seva and RSSB does not have a copyright on the concept. It is a part of our culture.
The (supposed) greatness and following of RSSB is not because of seva, dera, guru and the lineage; but because they claim to show THE PATH. Everything else is peripheral and part of the environment. If there is a case against RSSB it has to be that meditation does not help. That would be the only conclusive argument against the Path.
Any one who has given a serious shot to 2.5 hours daily and has nothing to show for it has the right to throw the first stone. With my pathetic performance and track record it can’t be me.
I ask this for unlike all of you, who accepted the Path as adults; I was born in a family of followers and have had no other reference point. For me all Paths outside are equally dark or bright.
Posted by: shalini | February 20, 2007 at 11:21 AM
Shalini, very touching post, and open too. I feel you.
If you get the almost automatic verbal and personal tirade of criticism for this as other posters who concede even the slightest smidgen of 'warmth' to RS do (even taking into consisderation 'cultural' context), I hope you have the strength to ignore it.
We're all ultimately unknowing, it's just some like to cover this up by shouting louder!
I wish you peace....
Posted by: Manjit | February 20, 2007 at 12:37 PM
Since you were born in a family of believers you have been conditioned to accept the claims of the RS theology. But they are simply claims, reinforced constantly in the community by the talks and books and various rituals of which Sewa is one. The two and a half hour meditation requirement simply makes it impossible for the Satsangis to question the Guru about the path, because hardly anyone can ever get beyond the guilt-trip laid on them.
You say the only conclusive case against RSSB would be if the meditation does not help? Help for what? Having a period of quiet?
Many methods of meditation allow that.
For realizing God?
How would you know?
God is not an experience. He is our underlying reality.
Anyway, if you are inclined to break out of the shell of your conditioning, you can start exploring the Hindu traditions expressed in the Upanishads from which the Sikh branch developed and later the Radhasoami branch, off the Sikh branch.
The field of inquiry is vast, but you have to start somewhere for yourself. Our tradition says, Tat Twam Asi (You are that ). Find out if that is true. It is not a trivial matter.
Posted by: awake_108 | February 20, 2007 at 09:20 PM
Criticism doesn't bother me. That’s why I am here. I believe only two things can happen at the end of this enquiry. I go back saying it wasn't so bad after all or get on to something that makes more sense.
I am not able to express myself as lucidly as Brian, Tao, Edward and some of the others do. Please do not mind if the response on Seva came across as rather harsh. It wasn’t meant to be that way. I just wanted to introduce a different perspective for the western contributors.
Good points. Let me think through
Both of you and the rest - Thank You for your patience.
Posted by: shalini | February 20, 2007 at 10:12 PM
How do you know - "God is not an experience. He is our underlying reality."
Have you experienced that underlying reality? Are you saying this based on your experience? I know many in RSSB say this based on their personal experience.
Posted by: Paul | February 21, 2007 at 08:06 AM
"I know many in RSSB say this based on their personal experience."
Say 'this' what?
Posted by: awake_108 | February 21, 2007 at 08:58 AM
I, too, am having difficulty in understanding your statement(s) that: "God is not an experience. He is our underlying reality."
Does this mean that we/I cannot "experience" our/my "underlying reality"? Also, how is this "God" to be conceived of as a "he" (or "He")?
I would appreciate your instruction.
Robert Paul Howard
Posted by: Robert Paul Howard | February 21, 2007 at 11:13 AM
The end of service is the provision of service, a position without conclusion, or in business parlance, an action plan with no resolution. It is here that the departure from common understanding of the purpose of business enterprises takes place. Service can only be whole, and therefore successful, when it is done for its own sake, as Human Service.
Posted by: Edward | February 21, 2007 at 12:11 PM
God is not an experience.
Experience is limited to that which is relative, conditional, and perceptual.
You asked, but have YOU realized that underlying reality?
Those who have, do not have the kind of duality and doubt that you exhibit.
You wrote: "I know many in RSSB say this based on their personal experience."
Bullshit. RSSB satsangis say nothing of the sort. They merely parrot RS dogma.
If they had such realization they would not be following RS, and they would undertand "that underlying reality".
I have known many of them and it is quite obvious that they, like yourself, clearly do not.
Posted by: tao | February 21, 2007 at 04:27 PM
Yes, God is not an experience. We can only intuit His immanence when we strive to discover our own reality in our inmost being.
One step to discover one's own reality may be to ponder the question: What is my reality? or Who am I?
or, to make it personal to you,
Who or what is having the difficulty (you mentioned) ?
The inner response to your own question comes, when it comes, intuitively. It is not tied to any specific experience.
About the use of the pronoun He for God. That is just shorthand for the immanent power. There is no gender connotation.
As for a concept for God, you can use what pleases you. Eventually all concepts drop away.
Posted by: awake_108 | February 21, 2007 at 05:12 PM
I did mitti seva in 1975 at various places outside of the Dera walls--once it was somewhere near the river where the water had receeded and I was bouncing up and down with each step like I was walking on hardened jello. I still have some photos like Brian's that I took, minus the ink markings from storage. Nobody ever coerced me to do any seva for the three months I was there, I could have chosen not to do any at all. Nobody asked me for any money either, not even when I got a nasty case of bronchitis and I went to the little clinic for some medicine. I remember sitting and waiting to be examined next to an old Indian man who had a tumor in his stomach that made him look like he had swallowed a shoe. It's a good thing nobody asked me for any money, since I made it back home with about $25 in my wallet and a mechanically challenged VW.
I enjoyed doing seva then so I did it frequently. Today, I don't enjoy it because of the attitude of many of the "bosses", so I'm not doing any. In fact, I haven't even gone to satsang for quite a while. So what? I used to believe that skipping mass on Sunday would doom me to hell, but I got over that. I used to think that going to satsang was important--I guess I'm getting over that too.
I do enjoy listening to Gurinder Singh talk and answer questions, but like I heard him say once, "How do you know I'm just not an ordinary guy with the gift of gab?" He's right--one can never know until one has internal knowledge of it. And no, I have no knowledge of it. Maybe someday I will. Until one has some internal experiences, one just spouts a bunch of concepts, (Gurinder's term) which are a dime a dozen in any number of (fill in your favorite RS/religion/new age/meditative) texts. Until then, it's just a very large, chaotic, mentally stimulating forensics tournament. (Not that I don't enjoy reading all of the pros and cons at the site here).
Please feel free to disregard anything or everything I have said since this message will not self-destruct in ten seconds.
Posted by: Kevin | February 21, 2007 at 08:33 PM
pls send Hajoor Maharaj ji's snaps on this site
Posted by: Deepak kumar | March 25, 2007 at 11:52 PM
This is the Age of Christ called Satguru and Jesus was the first anointed Christ whilst Nanak the Second. All the Bhagats and Apostles were Satgurus.
This Radhaswami is the blind guide of the blind who cannot render exposition of the Bible or Bani.
In this Dark Age, every one has to give his own account to God and so be a solitary and seek the narrow road to Salvation.
Posted by: Chaudhry Rajinder Nijjhar Jatt | September 01, 2007 at 02:40 PM