Selfless service

This is a paper I presented at the first youth conference of the Durban Hindu Temple held on 23 June 2018, in association with the South African Hindu Maha Sabha and Shree Sanathan Dharma Sabha. The category that I presented this paper in, was “Hinduism and the Relevance of the Mandela Legacy”. It is relevant for all religions, faiths and beliefs.
By Maya Jagjivan Kalicharan
The purpose of this paper is to highlight the universality of Hindu scriptures and teachings and how they relate to seva or volunteerism. This was also espoused by Nelson Mandela. But, is it difficult for youth today, particularly in the 30 to 35 age group, to practice seva, given the worldly demands? It is not as difficult as it appears, and my own experience serves as a case study.
सहयज्ञा: प्रजा: सृष्ट्वा पुरोवाच प्रजापति: |
अनेन प्रसविष्यध्वमेष वोऽस्त्विष्टकामधुक् || 10||
saha-yajñā prajā sihvā purovācha prajāpati
anena prasavi
hyadhvam eha vo stviha-kāma-dhuk
saha—along with; yajñā—sacrifices; prajā—humankind; sih—created; purā—in beginning; uvācha—said; prajā-pati—Brahma; anena—by this; prasavihyadhvam—increase prosperity; eha—these; va—your; astu—shall be; iha-kāma-dhuk—bestower of all wishes


BG 3.10: In the beginning of creation, Brahma created humankind along with duties, and said, “Prosper in the performance of these yajñas (sacrifices), for they shall bestow upon you all you wish to achieve.” (SOURCE:

 Shri Krishna presents to us a powerful message that in fact serves as an indictment on society today. Instead of sacrifice, many are consumed by selfishness. Is this the new norm in the era of Kali Yug (Dark Age)? Should we sit back and accept it or look deep within and challenge ourselves to break this norm?
There are many such messages in the Bhagavad Gita and other holy texts of all other religions. Most homes have these scriptures within our arms’ reach but do we extend our arms to gain this worldly knowledge? I dare say, youth today would rather extend their arms, to be on their cellphones or technological devices. This is not a problem. On these devices too, you can find verses from the scriptures in audio and video format. Click on them when you reach for your cellphone, when you wake up in the morning and before you go to bed. I know this is a habit for many – so why not make the first and last thing you listen to, an empowering religious verse or song? It is possible. It has become part of my daily routine, and with each passing day, I find myself drawn more and more to gaining a deeper understanding of scripture.
I have referred to it as my leap of faith, and more than anything else, it was my faith in Shri Krishna that allowed me to take a decision that has truly enabled me to feel that I am living rather than existing, and that I am giving back to society. I was no longer content working a full-time job. It was not the job that was an issue, but rather the context in which I found myself in. I wanted to do something different, and I wanted to give back. I took up a job as a part-time lecturer to share my knowledge and experience from the media industry. It brought me great joy to be shaping a new generation of journalists. I also started writing on my blog – a passion that I had always wanted to pursue, but never did because my mind was not in a clear enough space.
Without a full-time job, I had a significant amount of free time and without any second thought, I began getting involved in religious, cultural and community events that struck a chord with me. There was no payment. But I was paid back ten-fold by helping these causes, by helping others and understanding my life purpose better. It’s only been a few months, and this journey is continuing, because here I am, reaching out to another organisation that stands as an icon of faith – The Durban Hindu Temple, which turns 120 this year. (Read more about the temple here
I do not suggest that everyone follows the same trajectory as I did. But, there needs to be a realisation, at some point, that seva (selfless service) is an integral part of personal and spiritual growth, as it was for me. Everyone will have a different story. But, my case study illustrates that it is possible. It is not about blind faith, but being guided by the teachings in scripture and from our spiritual leaders. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says,

Simply put, it means do what you can, within the limits you have, but by all means, do serve others.
There was one project that I had always admired and wanted to be involved in – the 1860 Heritage Centre in Durban. I had reported about the centre, I had interviewed the curator of the centre, but I had never been there before. In November last year, ahead of the 1860 anniversary commemoration of arrival the first Indian indentured labourers to South Africa, a fellow lecturer, urged me to begin writing more about South African Indian history – and telling stories, that aren’t publicly spoken about enough. And, so that set the tone for my first visit to the centre. Seven months later, here I am, as a proud volunteer of the centre – working and interacting with amazing people who also devote their time and energy to the many inspiring projects that the centre runs throughout the year.
The centre documents the journey from 1860 onwards, but there are also other exhibitions that form an integral part of life in South Africa. There are exhibitions on Mandela, Luthuli, Gandhi, on Curries Fountain and an exhibition in progress on the legendary golfer Papwa Sewgolum. This weekend, there will be an event on the Group Areas Act – a heinous piece of apartheid legislation that changed the architecture of our beloved country. It’s significant that I mention it here, because one of the areas included is the Magazine Barracks – and the Durban Hindu Temple was an integral part of that close-knit community.
What makes the 1860 Heritage Centre so special? The look on the faces of people, both young and old, when they visit the centre is priceless. I call it history in motion – because as they learn more about our history, it moves them into becoming more active citizens.
(You can read about the 1860 Heritage Centre here
And so, I have to ask you, to ask yourself a series of questions to help you start working on your own journey of seva (selfless service).

  1. Is there a community organisation or initiative that I would like to get involved in?
  2. Why would I like to get involved?
  3. What is stopping me?
  4. How can I work around that?
  5. By when can I action my plan? Let me set a date, and work towards it.

Any seva is better than none at all. Former South African President Nelson Mandela took this seva to the highest level of sacrifice. When facing the court during the Rivonia Trial, he declared,

As young South Africans, it is incumbent upon us to find the Mandela within us all – in whatever small measure. The 18th of July – which is International Mandela Day – presents an ideal opportunity to volunteer 67 minutes to serve others. But, we do not have to stop at 67 minutes on that day. We can continue and make it part of our daily lives. That is how we can champion the cause of seva – and the more young people who heed this call today, the better the outlook will be for taking the legacy of Mandela into the future.

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