Recently someone left a comment on one of my blog posts that had a link to a story, "Shivinder Singh's ties with low-profile sect go beyond spirituality."
Download Shivinder Singh’s ties with low-profile sect go beyond spirituality - Livemint
The commenter said:
Looks like Shivinder is on his way to become the next Guru ..... What do you think Brian and Dr. Lane?
Well, I don't have an answer to that question, because I have no idea what is behind Shivinder's decision to give up being a billionaire Indian businessman and do volunteer work at the headquarters of a spiritual organization.
What I do know, having written numerous posts on this subject, is that Shivinder Singh is the nephew of the guru, Gurinder Singh, who heads Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), a group I belonged to for many years. The story talks about their financial ties.
In the 1990s, there was speculation that Shivinder’s father Parvinder Singh, the late chairman and managing director of Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd, would succeed Charan Singh as the guru of RSSB.
Shivinder and his older brother Malvinder Singh’s messy ascendancy to the top at Ranbaxy after a battle for control of the drug maker following Parvinder’s death in 1999 was facilitated by Gurinder Singh, who acted as a peacemaker.
When asked about the family’s relationship with RSSB, a Fortis official said that the association goes back six generations.
“There are no strings attached to this decision except for service,” the official said.
However, there are significant business links between Fortis and Religare Enterprises Ltd (both promoted by Malvinder and Shivinder Singh) and RSSB. The family of Gurinder Singh owns a significant stake in Religare Enterprises, according to the latest shareholding pattern of the company available in the public domain.
Very significant, actually. About five years ago I calculated that the guru's family owned shares worth about a quarter of a billion dollars.
But it was the idea of seva (or sewa), selfless service, that grabbed my attention in the story. While this is similar to volunteer work, some passages in the story show that it has a rather different meaning in an Indian religious context.
In a statement, Shivinder said, “A short while ago, I requested sewa at Radha Soami Beas, headquartered near Amritsar, and I am fortunate to have been accepted. I will move to dera, Beas, post transitioning my executive responsibilities at Fortis.”
...Sewa is the concept of selfless service pioneered by gurudwaras wherein devotees perform all tasks, from managing kitchen to cleanliness to administrative duties on their own accord.
Sure, often volunteer positions require certain skills, and not everybody is accepted for them. But Shivinder's mention of requesting sewa points to something different: seva in the Indian context is frequently viewed as being service to God or the Guru (who are often considered to be the same being).
So seva isn't exactly "selfless" in my extensive experience with RSSB sevadars/volunteers. They usually feel special in some way -- even if the feeling is "I'm nothing special; everything I'm doing is being done by God/guru."
I wrote about this in a 2005 post.
I’ve been to RSSB gatherings where I’ve thanked someone for giving me a cup of coffee and a doughnut. Instead of the volunteer simply saying, “You’re welcome,” I hear: “Oh no, brother. Please don’t thank me. I’m doing everything on behalf of the guru. He is the real doer, not me. I am just an instrument in his hands.”
I think to myself, “Hmmmm. This humble selfless instrument standing before me sure sounds like a self-willed someone, given the lengthy response I got to my pithy ‘thank you.’” Why can’t religious people act as naturally as non-religious people?
I did a lot of volunteer work for RSSB, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, during the thirty-plus years I was an active member of the organization. Sometimes (often? always?) I fell prey to the same self-centeredness masquerading as humility that bothered me in the anecdote above.
Now that my volunteering is thoroughly secular, undertaken with an atheist frame of mind, I can compare it with the religious'y "seva" attitude I had before.
For example, recently I spent a week writing a complex document for a community group I'm a member of. We're concerned that the City of Salem is going to waste money on an overly expensive new police facility, which means earthquake-proofing City Hall and the Library won't happen as previously planned.
Many lives could be lost as a result when the anticipated Big One earthquake hits the northwest part of the United States.
To me, this felt a lot like seva. Maybe exactly like seva.
This is the nature of all volunteer work, really. You're doing something without pay because you want to help someone or something else. It feels good to volunteer, since we humans enjoy working together for a common good.
In my view, there's nothing truly selfless about selfless service. Especially if you think, "I'm doing this not for myself, but for the benefit of God/guru." Yeah, right...
I strongly suspect that Shivinder Singh, like almost all RSSB sevadars, considers that he will be earning good karma and God's/guru's grace through his seva. Otherwise, why wouldn't he do some sort of other volunteer work, given how many unmet needs there are in India that he could help fulfill?
Understand: I'm not criticizing his decision to stop being a businessman and start being a sevadar at RSSB's spiritual community in the Punjab known as the Dera. That's up to him. During my time as a RSSB member, I knew other people who did the same thing -- become full-time volunteers at the Dera.
I'm just saying this: seva is simply volunteer work. It's no different from what countless people do without pay every day all around the world. Giving it a special name doesn't make it special.