Seva (Indian religions)

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Kar seva at Śri Darbār Sahib

Seva (Punjabi: ਸੇਵਾ; also transcribed as sewa), in Sikhism and Hinduism, is a selfless service that is performed without any expectation of result or award for performing it. In Hinduism, it is also known as karma yoga, as described in the holy scripture the Bhagavata Gita. Such services can be performed to benefit other human beings or society. Seva means "service", referring to the selfless efforts for. A more recent interpretation of the word is "dedication to others".[1]

Etymology and religious significance[edit]

Seva is short for kar seva, which is derived from the Sanskrit words kar, meaning hands or work, and seva, meaning service.[2][3]

In Punjabi, the word seva also means "to worship, to adore, to pay homage through the act of love." In the writings of Sikh gurus, these two meanings of seva (service and worship) have been merged. Seva is expected to be a labour of love performed without desire and intention, and with humility.[4]

Kar seva is often translated as "voluntary labour." A volunteer for kar seva is called a kar sevak. A kar sevak is someone who freely offers their services to a dharmic cause. The term is derived from the Sanskrit words kar (hand or work) and sevaka (servant).[5] Sikhs use the term kar sevak to represent people who engage in ministrations, altruistic philanthropy, and humanitarian endeavours in service to religion and society.[6] Sevadar (Punjabi: ਸੇਵਾਦਾਰ; also transcribed as sewadar), literally "seva-supporter", is another Punjabi word for a volunteer who performs seva, deriving from the Sanskrit roots seva and dhṛ.

The idea of selfless service (seva) is an important concept in a number of religions because God is perceived as having an interest in the well-being of others as well as oneself; serving other people is considered an essential devotional practice of indirectly serving God and living a religious life that is a benefit to others. People of every religion are included in this service.[7]

Seva in Hinduism[edit]

In Hinduism, Seva is the concept of service to God and/or humanity, without the expectation of return. The concept of Seva and Karma yoga is explained in the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna (who is believed to be the avatar of God) expounds on the subject. In more modern days, the concept has been taken to volunteering for the greater good, such as in disaster relief and other major incidents. Controversially, Seva has also been used to describe the people who conducted the Demolition of the Babri Masjid, where Hindu volunteers demolished the Babri Masjid, which was built over the birthplace of the Hindu avatar Rama. In the beginnings of Sikhism, with Guru Nanak's teaches being considered part of the Hindu bhakti movement, the concept of Seva was also part of it, but Sikhism soon grew to it's own religion soon following.

Seva in Sikhism[edit]

Kar seva is one of the main teachings of Sikhism — including its ordained philosophy, in Sikh scripture, theology, and hermeneutics. A tradition set forth with the clear understanding that there is God within all of us, and thus by serving humanity you are serving God's creation.

Seva in Sikhism takes three forms: tan (physical service, i.e. manual labour), man (mental service, such as studying to help others), and dhan (material service, including financial support).[8] Sikhism stresses kirat karō, "honest work", and vaṇḍ chakkō, sharing what you have by giving to the needy for the benefit of the community.[9] Seva is also performed further by offering service for a religious cause, often for constructing a gurdwara, a place of worship serving the One Creator which performs community services such as liturgy and providing communal food kitchens open to all.

Organised seva in Sikhism[edit]

A main organiser of kar seva for Sikh gurdwaras is the "Kar Seva" organisation of Harbans Singh and others based in the Bangla Sahib gurdwara in Delhi. It has several offices in Punjab and Haryana, and organises the construction and refurbishment of a large number of gurdwaras in India. The organisation is said to extensive financial donations from abroad.[10]

The Guru Nanak Nishkam Sevak Jatha based in Birmingham, UK, organises kar seva in the UK as well as India. It was established by Baba Puran Singh in 1976, who moved from Kericho, Kenya to the UK a few years earlier. The group constructed the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Birmingham and several others in the UK as well as India. Its projects include the refurbishment of the gold exterior of the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar.[10]

Seva for the Golden Temple[edit]

According to tradition, Guru Hargobind had the Akal Takht (the seat of God) at the Golden Temple built through kar seva. When the Mughal emperor Jahangir visited the site, he offered help for the construction. The Guru is said to have politely refused the offer stating that the Akal Takht should be constructed by the followers of the faith through their own hands.[2]

Since it involves voluntary work by the community, kar seva is considered the most respected method for constructing Sikh gurdwaras.[2]

On 4 June 1984, the Golden Temple faced a military action by the Indian government for clearing it of the militant separatists lodged there. The temple was damaged during the action, in particular the Akal Takht. The Government decided to repair the damaged Akal Takht under the leadership of the Home Minister Buta Singh. The reconstruction was labelled kar seva and ostensibly organised by the nihang leader Jathedar Baba Santa Singhji Budahdal, but carried out by the Public Works Department and its contractors. The High Priests of the Golden Temple rejected the effort and excommunicated Santa Singh.[11]

The reconstruction was dubbed sarkar seva (government service). When the rebuilt temple was handed over to the High Priests, they decided to pull it down and rebuild it. Subsequently, it was demolished on 26 January 1986 and rebuilt through traditional kar seva.[12]

In May 2008, the Outlook magazine reported that hundreds of historic gurdwaras were being demolished and replaced by new "garish, opulent, marble gurudwaras." It was said that the large amounts of money collected for the rebuilding of the Akal Takht made the babas aware of the money available from donations and led to these reconstructions.[13]

Other usage[edit]

The term is used in military awards such as, Ati Vishisht Seva Medal (AVSM), Param Vishisht Seva Medal (PVSM), and institutions like Seva Foundation, Gandhi Seva Sadan, Seva Development, and Seva Bharati.


Sewa Day was launched in 2010 by a nonprofit of the same name, a charity registered in England & Wales (No. 4446848).[14][15] The first six Sewa Days were held on the first Sunday of October, until 2016 when the date changed.

In 2013, over 75,000 volunteers took part in over 25 countries resulting in more than 561,000 volunteering hours. Sewa Day has taken place in the following countries:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schlecker Markus, Fleischer Friederike (June 14, 2013). Ethnographies of Social Support. p. 180. ISBN 978-1137330963.
  2. ^ a b c Singha, H. S. (2000). The Encyclopedia of Sikhism. Hemkunt Press. p. 121. ISBN 8170103010.
  3. ^ Christiane Brosius, Melissa Butcher (1999). Image journeys: audio-visual media and cultural change in India. Sage Publications. p. 134. ISBN 978-0-7619-9325-4.
  4. ^ Virdee, Gurmit Singh (2005). "Labour of love: Kar seva at Darbar Sahib's Amrit Sarover". Sikh Formations: Religion, Culture, Theory. 1 (1): 13–28. doi:10.1080/17448720500231409. S2CID 144267107.
  5. ^ Christiane Brosius, Melissa Butcher (1999). Image journeys: audio-visual media and cultural change in India. Sage Publications. p. 134. ISBN 978-0-7619-9325-4.
  6. ^ "Gaurav Ayodhya ka - Ram Janmabhoomi". VHP - Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Retrieved 5 July 2017.
  7. ^ Sewa, Selfless Service
  8. ^ Wood, Angela (1997). Movement and Change. Cheltenham, England: Nelson Thornes. p. 46. ISBN 978-0-17-437067-3.
  9. ^ Cole, W. Owen; Sambhi, Piara Singh (2005). A Popular Dictionary of Sikhism: Sikh Religion and Philosophy. Abingdon-on-Thames, England: Routledge. pp. 31, 59. ISBN 978-1-135-79760-7.
  10. ^ a b Murphy, Anne (2004). "Mobilizing seva ('service'): modes of Sikh diasporic action". South Asians in the diaspora: histories and religious traditions. pp. 367–402.
  11. ^ Tully, Mark; Jacob, Satish (1985). "The Aftermath". Amritsar: Mrs Gandhi's Last Battle. Rupa Publications. ISBN 8129109174.
  12. ^ Chopra, Radhika (2010). "Commemorating Hurt: Memorializing Operation Bluestar". Sikh Formations: Religion, Culture, Theory. 6 (2): 119–152. doi:10.1080/17448727.2010.530509. S2CID 144432496.
  13. ^ Dogra, Chander Suta (5 May 2008). "Have you the eyes for it?". Outlook. pp. 16–18.
  14. ^ Sewa Day About Us, accessed June 24, 2016
  15. ^ Sewa Day Facts, accessed June 24, 2016
  16. ^ Seva Day 2010, accessed June 24, 2016
  17. ^ Seva Day 2012, accessed June 24, 2016
  18. ^ National Hindu Students' Forum (UK), accessed June 24, 2016
  19. ^ Communities take part in Sewa Day 2012 - Leicester, SikhNet, accessed June 24, 2016
  20. ^ Seva Day 2013, accessed June 24, 2016
  21. ^ Seva Day 2014, accessed June 24, 2016
  22. ^ Seva Day 2015, accessed June 24, 2016
  23. ^ Sewa Day Facts, accessed June 24, 2016
  24. ^ Sewa Day Facebook page, accessed June 24, 2016