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What prompts the Sikhs to do good?

The Sikh community’s service during the pandemic and farmers' protests has made headlines. A new book decodes the science behind their habits of giving

A 'langar' organised to feed the public.
A 'langar' organised to feed the public. (Creative Commons)

Sikh families living around gurdwaras invariably find a way to make [seva or service] part of their lives. My father visited ours every Monday morning to start his week right, while my mom was friendly with women in the community who routinely did seva. My brother excitedly woke up at 4 a.m. to go burst firecrackers during prabhatpheris (early morning processions) which happened on important occasions like gurpurabs (Sikh gurus’ birthdays).

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While daily prayers do happen in the gurdwara, seva is an equally big part of Sikhi (as the Sikhs refer to Sikhism). My father donated money to host langars on the death anniversaries of his parents. My mom took me and my brother along to help with langar seva routinely. I’d often get so immersed in my task that I’d forget about polite conversation.

All of us would work in a steady, meditative rhythm, and when the tasks were completed, we returned to go on with our lives. It tickled me that the gurdwara managed to serve a ‘snack langar’ even for the people doing seva, usually tea and samosas. Even the sevadaars have seva done for them. Such are the Sikhs.

It’s hard to be selfless. To be thoughtful, empathetic and generous. It’s easy to write about these qualities, to preach them. Try to practise them on a daily basis and you’ll realize it’s harder than taking part in the Ironman triathlon, becoming a millionaire or looking like a pin-up model at 60. There’s a reason why so many of us struggle to be good.

Seva: Sikh secrets on how to be good in the real world, by Jasreen Mayal Khanna, published by Juggernaut Books, 256 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499
Seva: Sikh secrets on how to be good in the real world, by Jasreen Mayal Khanna, published by Juggernaut Books, 256 pages, 499

Five hundred years ago, Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhi, understood this truth. And he created a radical religion that helped humans become better people in their everyday lives. He did it using a transformative idea called seva. Nanak identified our ego as the barrier that keeps us from an authentic existence… Seeing the world from the perspective of ‘I’ keeps us from being happy. His words resonate meaningfully in our increasingly individualistic and inward-looking lives. Have you caught yourself getting stuck in a replay loop of a fight you had with a loved one or worrying about what will happen in an annual review with your boss? Do you go to bed thinking about your finances or a family conflict that’s eating you up? Redirecting your focus from your own problems to serving others can help.

‘Taking the focus off ourselves seems to be health-giving in more ways than one,’ says Alice G. Walter, a health and science journalist… ‘Much of our mental anguish, stress and depression is linked to rumination and worry-based self-referential thoughts. Transferring your focus from yourself to another might work to quiet worry and distress about one’s own plight, much in the same way that meditation is known to quiet activity in the “me-centres” of the brain.’ Walton has a doctorate in biopsychology and behavioural neuroscience, and her advice makes sense once you try it. Transferring that me-energy outwards brings perspective to your own plight; your problems could seem small compared to other people’s. That’s why Guru Nanak made seva the song of the Sikhs.

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This is not unique to Sikhi. We see it repeated across various religions. In Buddhism, the practice of meditation is prescribed as a way of softening the walls of the ego and becoming one with the world around. But meditation requires great mental discipline. You have to still your mind, learn to sit quietly. It takes months, even years to build up a practice of sitting quietly for thirty minutes. On the other hand, Nanak told his disciples that it was through seva that they would find God because he wanted it to become the daily act that all Sikhs practice.

Seva is an action-oriented, instant balm to our problems. It is rooted in the real world and encompasses all types of tasks, from preparing food for strangers, looking after their shoes, cleaning the tank around the Golden Temple or even tending to the health of the poor. There are no good or bad jobs in seva. You get your hands dirty, and the action is its own cure.

It’s not just Sikhs who have unlocked the secrets of service. Science has plenty of evidence on the benefits of volunteering and giving. While the idea of gaining something from selfless service sounds counter-intuitive at first, think about the last time you gave a loved one a meaningful gift. You likely felt excited as you waited for them to open it and wanted to see their reaction. Giving lights up the reward centre in the brain, known also as the mesolimbic pathway. This, in turn, releases endorphins – the hormones that fight pain and stress – and leads to what is called the ‘helper’s high’….

Generosity is contagious: it propagates within social networks, places of worship and workplaces. Experts in preventive medicine are now suggesting that community service is just as important for one’s health as avoiding tobacco and obesity. Stephen Post, author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People, writes that giving to others alleviates symptoms and improves the health of people with chronic illness, such as HIV and multiple sclerosis.

Mural painting of Guru Nanak from Gurdwara Baba Atal.
Mural painting of Guru Nanak from Gurdwara Baba Atal. (Creative Commons)

Research scholar Khushbeen Kaur Sohi co-authored a paper about Sikh seva, published in the Journal of Religion and Health. The study analysed seva within a 165-member Sikh community and revealed that frequent participation in rituals like seva is correlated with higher social well-being and also gives Sikhs a sense of community. Being part of a community helps us survive and thrive because a strong network helps in accessing resources and satisfies emotional needs….

So if giving and volunteering have such immense benefits, why doesn’t everyone do more of it? Perhaps because these findings are contrary to popular belief. We think we only want to act in our self-interest or in the interest of our loved ones. Participants in a study predicted that they’d feel happier spending money on themselves. But it turned out that they actually felt happier spending it on someone else.

The common perception of human nature is that we have unlimited greed. But in reality, we can be greedy in some situations and be extremely generous in others. Human nature is not black and white but encompasses many shades of grey. We can move from being selfish to being selfless and sometimes even be both at once! Sikhs just choose to make selflessness a big part of their lives, inspired by their gurus’ words and deeds.

Excerpted from Seva: Sikh Secrets on How to Be Good in the Real World by Jasreen Mayal Khanna, with permission from Juggernaut Books. The book, currently on pre-order, releases on 26 July.

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