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BAPS Hindu volunteers performing seva in the form of humantarian aid in Ukraine

Sevā (also transcribed as sewa) is the concept of selfless service that is performed without any expectation of reward for performing it. It is predominant in Hinduism and Sikhism. Such services can be performed to benefit other human beings or society. Sevā means "service". A more recent interpretation of the word is "dedication to others".[1] In Hinduism, it is also known as karma yoga, as described in the Bhagavata Gita.[2]

Etymology and religious significance[edit]

Seva comes from the Sanskrit root sev-, "to serve", and is a central concept in both contemporary Hinduism and Sikhism.

In Hinduism, seva means selfless service and is often associated with karma yoga, disciplined action, and bhakti yoga, disciplined devotion. Seva is also connected to other Sanskrit concepts such as dāna (gift giving), karunā (compassion), and preman (kindness).[3] Seva is also performed as a form of ego-transcending spiritual practise known as Sādhanā, and plays a large role in modern Hinduism.[4]: 42  A key concept in Hinduism is liberation (Moksha) from the cycle of births and deaths (Saṃsāra), and sādhanā is the effort one makes to strive for liberation; this highlights the importance of service to others.[4]: 43 

In Sikhism, 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.[5]

Kar seva (Gurmukhi: ਕਰ ਸੇਵਾ), from the Sanskrit words kar, meaning hands or work, and seva, meaning service,[6][7] another concept of Sikhism, is often translated as "voluntary labour". A volunteer for kar seva is called a kar sevak (voluntary labourer)—someone who freely offers their services to a religious cause.[8] Sikhs use the term kar sevak to represent people who engage in ministrations, altruistic philanthropy, and humanitarian endeavours in service to religion and society. Sevadar (Punjabi: ਸੇਵਾਦਾਰ; also transcribed as sewadar), literally "seva-supporter", is another Punjabi word for a volunteer who performs seva.[9]

The idea of selfless service (seva) is an important concept in several religions because God is perceived as having an interest in the well-being of others; serving other people is considered an essential devotional practise of indirectly serving God and living a religious life that is a benefit to others. People of every religion are included in this service.[10][verification needed]

Seva in Hinduism[edit]

In Hinduism, seva is the concept of service to God and/or humanity, without the expectation of return. According to Hindu scriptures, seva is seen as the highest form of dharma (righteousness). Seva has been said to provide good karma which facilitates the atma (soul) to obtain moksha (emancipation from the cycle of death and rebirth).[11] Before the early nineteenth century, the meaning of seva (serving or honouring) had been virtually synonymous with that of puja (worship), which typically also included distribution of prasad (sacrificial offerings or consecrated food), such as food, fruits, and sweets to all gathered.[12] Thus, seva typically involved offering of food to a deity and its murti (idol), followed by the distribution of said food as prasad.[13] The concept of seva and karma yoga is explained in the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna expounds on the subject. In modern times, the concept has been taken to volunteering for the greater good, such as in disaster relief and other major incidents.[14]

Seva in Sikhism[edit]

Seva in Sikhism takes three forms: tan (Gurmukhi: ਤਨ), meaning physical service, i.e. manual labour, man (Gurmukhi: ਮਨ), meaning mental service, such as studying to help others, and dhan (Gurmukhi: ਧਨ), meaning material service, including financial support.[15] Sikhism stresses kirat karō (Gurmukhi: ਕਿਰਤ ਕਰੋ), "honest work", and vaṇḍ chakkō (Gurmukhi: ਵੰਡ ਛਕੋ), "split up", sharing what you have by giving to the needy for the benefit of the community.[16] It is a duty of every Sikh to engage in seva wherever possible, such as volunteering at a Gurdwara, community center, senior living centers, care centers, sites of major world disasters, etc.[17] Seva can also be performed by offering service for a religious cause, such as constructing a gurdwara, a place of worship that performs community services such as providing volunteer-run food kitchens.[18]

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.[sentence fragment][19] Seva is believed to be a way to control inner vices and is a key process in becoming closer to God.[20]


Kar Sewa appeal for the construction of the clock tower gateway entrance to the Golden Temple, Amritsar, Punjab, c. 1951

Some Kar Seva groups and organizations have been criticized for their lack of care for and apathy towards preserving historical Sikh heritage sites, artwork, and architecture during renovation and construction projects.[21] Large amounts of historical Sikh scriptural manuscripts have been systematically "cremated" (burnt to destruction)[22] over the years at secretive ‘Angitha Sahib’ gurdwaras[23] in Dehradun and around India as part of kar seva.[24] The logic behind these crematoriums is the Sikh philosophy handed down by the tenth Guru Gobind Singh that Guru Granth Sahib is the living embodiment of a Guru, and so Sikh funeral rites are carried out. This practice is criticized for systematically destroying historical manuscripts.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pagani, Frederique (2013). "Empathy, Salvation, and Religious Identity". In Schlecker, Markus; Fleischer, Friederike (eds.). Ethnographies of Social Support. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 180. ISBN 978-1-137-33096-3.
  2. ^ Phillips, Stephen (2009). "Karma Yoga". Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth: A Brief History and Philosophy. Columbia University Press. p. 100. ISBN 9780231144841. Thus outlined, yoga can be done in the world, in all kinds of action done for the sake of sacrifice. Yoga becomes seva, service.
  3. ^ Jacobsen, Knut A. (29 May 2018), "Sevā", Brill's Encyclopedia of Hinduism Online, Brill, retrieved 16 April 2022
  4. ^ a b Jacobs, Stephen (2010). Hinduism Today: An Introduction. London: Continuum International Publishing. p. 42. ISBN 9786612874345.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Singha, H. S. (2000). The Encyclopedia of Sikhism. Hemkunt Press. p. 121. ISBN 8170103010.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Alter, Stephen (2001). Amritsar to Lahore: A Journey Across the India-Pakistan Border. University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc. p. 198. ISBN 9780812217438.
  9. ^
  10. ^ "Sewa, Selfless Service". Sikh Philosophy Network. 12 August 2009.
  11. ^ Gibson, Lynne (2002). Hinduism. Heinemann Educational. p. 56. ISBN 9780435336196.
  12. ^
    • "Prasada". Encyclopædia Britannica.
    • "Puja". Encyclopædia Britannica. 23 September 2023.
    • Bhangaokar, Rachana (2020). "The Development of Communal and Spiritual Dutifulness in India: Upholding Dharma, Offering Seva". In Jensen, Lene Arnett (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Moral Development: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Oxford University Press. p. 341. ISBN 9780190676056. The communal preparing and sharing of food or prasad (sacred food offered to the deity and then distributed among the followers) is particularly important as an activity binding together a community of followers.
    • Hawley, John; Narayanan, Vasudha, eds. (2006). The Life of Hinduism. University of California Press. p. 13. ISBN 9780520249141.
  13. ^ Cush, Denise (2012). Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Routledge. p. 783. ISBN 9781135189792.
  14. ^ "Engagement Guidelines: Hindu Leaders" (PDF). FEMA. Tip Sheets: Engaging Faith Communities. Retrieved 3 January 2022.
  15. ^ Wood, Angela (1997). Movement and Change. Cheltenham, England: Nelson Thornes. p. 46. ISBN 978-0-17-437067-3.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ Volz, Christian (2014). Six Ethics A Rights-Based Approach to Establishing an Objective Common Morality. Ebookit.com. pp. 278. ISBN 9781456606916.
  18. ^
    • Ahluwalia, Muninder K.; Locke, Anna Flores; Hylton, Steven (2014). "Sikhism and Positive Psychology". In Kim-Prieto, Chu (ed.). Religion and Spirituality Across Cultures. Springer Netherlands. p. 129. ISBN 9789401789509.
    • Singha, H.S. (2000). "Kar Seva". The Encyclopedia of Sikhism. Hemkunt Publishers. p. 121. ISBN 9788170103011.
  19. ^
    • Goshen-Gottstein, Alon (2018). Interreligious Reflections, Six Volume Set. Wipf and Stock Publishers. p. 259. ISBN 9781532671524.
    • Hett, Geoffrey (2021). Diversity, Culture and Counselling. Brush Education. p. 162. ISBN 9781550598759.
  20. ^ Jhutti-Johal, Jagbir (2011). Sikhism today. London; New York: Continuum. p. 58. ISBN 9786613089229.
  21. ^
  22. ^
    • Mann, Gurinder Singh (2001). "8 The Guru Granth Sahib". The Making of Sikh Scripture. Oxford Academic. pp. 121–136. ...all old manuscripts were sent to Goindval for "cremation" in the late 1980s
    • Taylor, P. M.; Dhami, Sonia, eds. (2021). Sikh art from the Kapany Collection (First Indian ed.). New Delhi, India. pp. 296–302. ISBN 978-81-949691-2-9. OCLC 1258082801.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  23. ^
  24. ^ Dogra, Chander Suta (27 May 2013). "Endangered texts". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 8 January 2023. The logic behind these crematoriums is the Sikh philosophy handed down by the Tenth Guru Gobind Singh that their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib is the embodiment of a guru