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.
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."
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.