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The spirit of selfless service
from a talk by Swami Nirliptananda

The fifth in a series of Swami's discourses on the Bhagavad Gita.

London, England, UK
We all have different types of duties and responsibilities towards our family, our society, our spiritual life and our dharma – righteousness. We are one big family; we depend on each other for our existence – we cannot exist alone. Therefore, we should work for the good of all. That is what dharma essentially is, to perform our duties. We all live in this world and if we all follow our own individual whims and fancies, there will be clashes of interest all the time and men will be mentally and physically forever fighting each other, and so the whole of life will be a battle of fighting for nothing. We all are different, we think in different ways and we all have our individual needs, but if each of us goes his own way when we are together, there will be clashes of interest all the time. So we get together to work on ways and means whereby each one of us will be able to make a sacrifice for our society, for the good of all. Such a 'law of life' – relating to man – shows us how to live in the world.

Our secular world has many laws to regulate us, because when we are not regulated by laws we may kill ourselves, each other and everything else, we may cause awful destruction. Therefore we need to have regulations. The Rishis incorporated these laws in spiritual living for us to practise from our free will. By nature, voluntarily, we will do the right thing; that is what dharma is about. When we do the right thing we will benefit from it and, ultimately, our society will benefit as well. Another type of law is the law that is imposed on us with the police and the army to force us to follow it, but in spite of all these external forces imposed on us, we still do not live peacefully, because our nature is like that. To practise some discipline is essential.

The Vedas state that it is good to have knowledge, that we must have knowledge, but that knowledge alone is not enough, that we have to enforce some discipline on ourselves, so that we will become morally and ethically elevated. When we just talk all the time others will not follow, and we have to put some pressure on so that they will follow. The nature of human beings is like that and that is why we have so many laws. Therefore the Rishis prescribed dharma, which does not say that we must not destroy but that all is divine and when we know that all is divine we will not destroy. It is as simple as that.

The highest perfection

Interdependence is when each of us fulfils our duties as a father, a mother, a daughter, a son, and so on, as a part of society, a part of everything. When we perform duties with the attitude of not thinking of any selfish rewards, but as an obligation, as a contribution to life – that spirit will develop an inner detachment. By performing these types of duties our mind becomes pure, our nature becomes pure and then we become detached from this material world. Attachment arises when we only act for our own selfish requirements, our position, and so on. When we think of our duties towards our family, our society, our religious life and our dharma, we do not become self-centred, but start to think more about others, trying to do things for others; that is what is called seva – selfless service. Through the spirit of selfless service we become detached and our mind becomes purified.

The essential teaching of the Bhagavad Gita is to do seva. Lord Krishna said that through that spirit of selfless activities, when we have nothing to gain and nothing to lose by not doing, performing seva all the time to our family, and so on, we attain that height of realization whereby our mind becomes absorbed in God. So we do not depend on anything else. Lord Krishna advises us, therefore, always to perform – with the spirit of detachment – that action which has to be done; then, verily, we attain to the highest perfection. Lord Krishna explained that when we think only about ourselves all the time and forget everyone else, we become bound to things, and as a result of that attachment all kinds of obstacles come into our life. Therefore, this is not the way for mankind to find peace and happiness. The only way we can find happiness is through detachment, because whenever there is attachment there is suffering – attachment is the cause of suffering. And where there is detachment there is peace and harmony, there is everything because with the spirit of sacrifice comes non-attachment. And where there is sacrifice everyone gains. But when we are self-centred – thinking only about ourselves – no one likes us. No one likes selfish people. Lord Krishna said that there is no place in this world for people who do not make sacrifices, let alone a place in the next world. "Therefore," Lord Krishna said, "always perform action with the spirit of non-attachment."

Whatever great people do and accept as authority, others follow. Spirituality is not just talking; it must express itself in our actions and in our attitude. For it is through example that we can teach, not by just talking. Lord Krishna questioned that if the great people also just talk and do not do anything, what will the others be like? The great people are an example to follow, showing others the way they must walk. So we must work for our family, for our society, for our dharma, and by engaging in these types of activities all the time, our mind will become pure. When our mind becomes pure, God will help us.

Often we think that we are the people who are helping, but we are lucky that we are able to do something. To make a sacrifice is the greatest thing that we can do. As someone said, selfless service is like a tree – we nurture and water it, and when the tree grows we will enjoy it because we have seen the tree from the beginning, we have cared for it, and when it blossoms we feel happy. That is real dharma. The basis of dharma is yajna – to sacrifice. There has not been a great man who has not made a real sacrifice. When we follow this philosophy of sacrifice, we ourselves become great.

The family is the basis

The family is the basis, the root of our society. What our family is, that is what our society becomes. Particularly when the children are very small we need to teach them by example, because if we do not do that when they are small, we will lose control. So Lord Krishna said that we have multiple responsibilities, not one, but responsibilities towards our family, our society, our religious life and our dharma. That is selfless service. If we are like that, our life will be happy and our society will prosper. So the emphasis in the Bhagavad Gita is that when we follow the principles, the ethics and the sadhana – meditation – of the Bhagavad Gita, our life will definitely become sublime; we will experience peace and our society will be in order. Om Tat Sat Hari Om.

The Bhagavad Gita, or 'Song of God', one of the sacred Hindu texts, recounts the dialogue between Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, and Arjuna, His disciple.

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005