Swami Vivekananda always spoke about the need to serve. For him ‘Service’ was not merely an act done out of compassion but was a tool for one’s own self-realization. The need of the hour for India was to address the issues of poverty, ignorance and illiteracy. In combining the ideal of ‘Service’ and Sacrifice’, Swamiji ensured that one’s personal ideal of spiritual evolution could find meaning in working for societal progress and welfare. He knew that in the ideal of Service we could find solutions for many of our national problems. As one thinks of this, one wrestles with the question of not just the concept of service, but also whether ‘Selfless Service’ is possible and desirable. Can one truly serve others around him with no thought of himself or his own personal welfare? Can one in the context of today’s India, where the reigning philosophy is ‘every man for himself’, be truly unselfish? How does one go about it in a practical way negotiating through the complex reality of today’s materialistic existence?
In Swamiji’s message lies a very practical way of going about this. He talks about first building ourselves – not just physically, but also intellectually and emotionally. He made a case for each individual to first prepare himself for the task ahead. Though this ‘individualistic’ approach sounds contradictory to the concept of selfless service, it is only an essential first step towards looking at the larger picture. What Vivekananda wanted was to first build our own selves and strengthen our resolve so that we are prepared for the challenges that lie ahead of us. He wanted our outlook to grow and progress centrifugally – beginning first with ourselves and gradually encompassing those immediately around us. He wanted us to move outwards to look at our neighbours, people living in our village, our town, our district and so on. As we grow in our abilities and capabilities, so should our sphere of service grow. He wanted it to grow and expand till one embraced entire humanity itself. Though it may sound abstract and impossible, this is possibly an excellent road map for all those who embark on service. Each one needs to undertake activities based on one’s own ability.
As one continues to serve, so will our abilities expand. In proportion to our expanding capabilities, we need to reach out to more and more people and serve them unconditionally. In our world, in which every action is undertaken with an undercurrent of reciprocity, we need to be mindful of not expecting anything in return for any act of service that we do. This can be done only when we undertake such action with the internalization that we are not the doer and that we are only an instrument through which service is getting done. Going beyond feeling like a provider, we need to constantly tell ourselves that we serve because it is in our nature to do so. We should seek neither recognition nor affirmation for our acts. Undertaking such action in order to evolve spiritually is also being conditional and will not qualify as selfless service. One should not even expect that the good we do will have its own positive consequences. Such an attitude is indeed difficult to sustain and being mindful of ourselves and our actions is the only way of undertaking it.