Panel discussion on SEVA (Retrospect 2019)

It was an honour and a pleasure to guide through a panel discussion that opened hearts and minds, made opposites meet and ended, spontaneously, in prayer.

We had arranged the chairs into a circle in order to break the gap between “members of the panel” and “audience”. Approximately 20 people met at eye level to reflect:

  • What is Seva? What is it not?
  • What does Seva do to me/ what effect does Seva have on me?
  • Why Seva?

What is Seva?

The members of the panel gave their initial statements. They were:

Gurusharan Singh Mangat, representative of the Sikh community in Vienna. He explains that SEVA is one of the three pillars of Sikh religion and so it was no wonder that this community excelled providing food for thousands of Syrian refugees in Vienna during the crisis in 2015.

Sister Lucy Kurien, a catholic nun, describes how she came to serve in a village in Maharashtra and yet how limited she felt her service was until the night a tradgedy happened before her eyes. The cries of a woman burning to death shattered Sister Lucy to the result that she eventually founded “Maher” meaning “Mother’s home”, a home for destitute women. Today, Maher has over 30 homes for women, children and men.

Harald Katzenschläger, founder of Dream Academia, closely escaped the Tsunami in 2004 and realised that life was a precious mystery worth discovering. To get in touch with your dreams and find encouragement and practical support in a human network means to dance with that mystery.

Katzi (as Mr. Katzenschläger likes to be called) talks about his mission with great passion and very often tears obstruct his words. “I promised my daughter to stop crying” he comments and explains that there is no need for tears anymore.

Something within me disagrees and when his statement is over I put the question into the round: “Why stop crying? Couldn’t we all cry together and allow the emotion to release the tension we hold in our hearts?”

I am glad I made this comment, because from that moment onwards it was understood that all of our being is welcome. Our presence, our interest in one another and our sharing become truly authentic.

What does Seva do to me?

“It wasn’t easy to stop earning money”, Katzi admits. “It wasn’t easy to be considered crazy.” We all know that feeling of our dreams being crushed by reasoning, a sceptical, maybe even hostile environment. Sister Lucy shares her experience of villagers rejecting her, even spitting on her despite the work she was obviously doing for them. Political forces had successfully intrigued against her.

Such crisis leads us deeper into prayer and meditation. “I didn’t know how to go on”, Sister Lucy remembers. “It was only in deep prayer that I found the strength to continue… and finally I won back the hearts of the people!” Katzi remembers: “I was down on my knees, there was not a penny on my bank account anymore and I felt I had failed completely in my duty towards my wife and our two children… when suddenly my daughter walked up to me with a 20 € and a 50 € note. She begged me: “Daddy, please continue. Don’t give up!”

“Does SEVA require pain and suffering?” I ask.

“The tears we cry purify the heart like a shower purifies the body. We are blocked by so many old, foreign and useless thoughts, beliefs, fears and anxieties”, Katzi explains. “Unlearning is one of the most important steps towards love. All that rubbish needs to get out of our body. That is the pain we witness while we cry.” It took Sister Lucy many years to recover from the deep shock and her feelings of guilt after the tragic experience. Only gradually did she find the strength to transform her pain into service. By grace of God, she met an Austrian partner to (mate)realise her dream of Maher… in that sense the work she developed was part of her own healing process.  Today, she is working at her limits and beyond. “Money comes in where and when it is needed. Just like helping hands. I need not worry. It is a blessing!”

I turn towards Gurusharan: “When Seva is performed as a religious tradition, a community driven practice, what is the motivation of an individual? Is it mere obedience and compliance with the group?

“It is true,” Gurusharan replies,

“part of our income automatically goes towards the needy. It is a rule. But when I walked along the main station in those days seeing the masses of refugees camping on the roadside, I followed an impulse from the heart. I instantly called a few members to cook a big pot of rice and lentils. This kind of food suits the taste of our Syrian brothers and sister much better than the Austrian bread and cheese. The pots were emptied in no time at all! I called for another pot to be brought, and another…”

“The media took interest in our action – that’s when other groupings joined in. But since you also put the question of what is NOT Seva: I believe there should be no pride involved, no interest like publicity. Very often we begin with a pure heart and then the moment we receive appreciation our Ego blows up and the spirit of Seva is lost.”

“Let’s name feelings and key words in context with SEVA!” I suggest into the circle. I begin by naming the feeling “helpless”. We move on to: “grace, love, surrender, cooperation, faith…”

A young man from the audience returns to the question of suffering in context with SEVA.

“I asked myself for many years how I could avoid suffering. I watched my heroes and listened to their stories. I tried to learn from them so as not to make the same mistakes. I wanted to walk along free from pain and failure…” In the end, we come to the conclusion that SEVA can never be “Copy and Paste”. Each person’s SEVA is individual, is unique and requires its own set of experiences. Failure can be an essential step towards inner growth.

I share a very recent experience of SEVA which illustrates that Seva is not necessarily a big, heroic, life changing project. I had been asked to act as an interpreter for BAUL musicians at a concert. Bengali was my father tongue, but I hadn’t learned it as a child. In the past three years, travelling through Bengal (where I also met and became friends with the BAUL musicians), I had managed to pick up the language sufficiently for basic communication. Being asked to interpret was not only an honour, but mere joy and I myself was amazed to experience the flow of words coming through my ears, passing my heart and leaving my lips: SEVA can be light, easy and joyful. It is fulfilling by itself and therefore requires no appreciation by others.

Why Seva?

In the final 10 minutes we reflect on what we recognise with regard to the question of “Why SEVA?”

SEVA brings us in touch with something that is bigger than our individual self and yet it belongs to our individual life essentially. We can understand that, in fact, we are bigger and more powerful than we often believe ourselves to be. As we meet ourselves in a spirit of love, we recognise our brothers and sisters as parts of one body, we touch the reality of oneness, we live at the core of humanity.

A circle of humans hold hands in conclusion of this intensive hour. Silence holds all words shared, our interlocked hands create a heart space in which to realise our deep inner connection. SEVA is present within us. Seva – a permanent option in our life!