Sikhs are big on seva and Radha Soami Satsang Beas' (RSSB) teachings, a form of Sant Mat, are closely aligned with Sikhism.
The way I was taught, the highest form of seva is service to God.
Since the guru was considered to be God in human form, service to the guru was the next best thing to performing service to God directly. Who, since there was no sign of this divine being, wasn't available to be served anyway. Plus, if God is all-powerful and perfect, why would God need anything from us measly humans?
So disciples of the guru were eager to do anything and everything the guru, or his designee, wanted done. People would travel long distances to a regional RSSB center, or even to India, in order to clean bathrooms, make food, move dirt, or whatever.
After a while I began to wonder what this whole seva thing was all about. It seemed to me that opportunities for selfless service abound everywhere.
Why not volunteer for some charity close to home, rather than feeling that service to a guru or his religious organization was the only kind of volunteering that really counted? I was perplexed by disciples who would take a month off to go to India, where they happily did lots of seva, yet seemingly engaged in few, if any, local community volunteer activities.
I agree with him that even if someone doesn't consciously expect some reward for seva, is isn't possible to be totally selfless. Feeling good about volunteering is a benefit to the sevadar (volunteer). Plus, most religiously minded sevadars expect that God will be pleased by their service.
I am skeptical about whether most of us can help others consistently without expecting some kind of reward. I'm not saying that we necessarily need a return favor from the person we help or recognition from society. All I am saying is that, at the very least, we expect to feel good about ourselves after helping someone. I think that expecting to feel good (or to avoid feeling bad) is the anticipated reward that that motivates most charitable acts. Consider the following example.
You are walking down the street and notice that a stranger’s parking meter has expired. You decide to put some change in the meter so the person doesn’t get a parking fine, and then you walk away. Because the owner of the car does not know you, he or she will not be able to thank you or return the favor in any way. But, did you really receive no reward for your random act of kindness? Didn’t you feel good about yourself for helping the stranger? Wasn't feeling good a rewarding experience? Let me put it another way. If you did not expect to feel good after putting the change in the meter, would you have helped the stranger to avoid the parking fine?
I question the notion of pure altruism—of doing something to benefit another person without expecting anything in return. As I said, at the very least, when we do good deeds we expect to feel good about ourselves, or to avoid negative feelings like guilt or shame. Often, we actually expect more. We usually expect in return at least a smile, a “thank you,” or other token of appreciation. Think about it: How long would you keep giving to a friend if he or she never showed appreciation? How long would that friendship last?
Regarding Johnson's other article about the different types of seva, he makes sense here also. Service to others comes in a lot of different guises. The sort of seva espoused by religious organizations isn't the only kind.
So, how is it that religious and spiritual traditions extol the virtues of selfless service over anything else a person might do in this lifetime? In what sense does volunteering to comfort a few sick individuals buy more spiritual currency than any other Holland-type [a schema of personality types] activity?
Realistic types build hospitals and medical equipment that serve thousands of individuals. Investigative types discover cures for diseases that reduce the suffering of millions of people. Artists write stories, perform music, and produce movies that bring joy to countless people who might otherwise be living drab, depressing lives. Enterprising types provide the leadership that directs the activities of all the other types.
And the Conventional types are unsung heroes, gladly engaging in routines and repetitive activities that non-Conventionals might find boring, but are absolutely necessary to maintain everyday life. They are the custodians who take care of us all.
I first thought that religious people who say that selfless service is more spiritual, more important than any other activity, are simply myopically asserting that what they like to do is more important than what others like to do. As Social types, they glorify the value of selfless service, just as the intellectual Abraham Maslow glorified the value of truth and beauty. Then again, maybe I was just being defensive and envious.
What I finally decided that the work of any of the six Holland types can be seva, as long as the work is offered with intent of improving the human condition, without expectation of any kind of compensation or remuneration.