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Seva and Gift Economy

Seva is a spectacular word! In a time where volunteering and voluntourism are both taking rank in our global culture, elevating these moments to a philosophy and lifestyle can be a wonderful opportunity for each person willing to explore their actions for deeper meaning.

I am a caregiver by nature. I’ve worked as a professional nanny, managed 1000’s volunteers, ran a cow sanctuary, taken the role of environmentalist my entire life, and in general, mishaps and mistakes aside, tried my best to be a loving person.[1] I learned the core of this from my parents. Thank you, Mom and Dad.

To me, seva is one of three Indian concepts that I see as a holistic set of philosophies. The other two are ahimsa and sadhana. Worded differently they are seva/actions, ahimsa/thoughts, and sadhana/purpose.[2] Brilliantly, their meanings are interchangeable.

Gift economy is a form of seva. In my case, my resource in abundance is the willingness to help and to share experiences. I give this as my gift. If we actually lived in a society of mutual support, our actions would be the commerce of life, not our gains. In either reality, I’m offering the service I can best provide as selflessly as possible.[3]

Your seva may be different than mine. Have you held the door for someone in a shop or fed a child or loved one recently? Did you clean something in a common space because it ‘needed’ to be done? I’m mentioning unconscious daily examples because these are the foundation of a giving society. Did you take less pay to fill the job that gives you purpose and contributes to the well being of us all? Do you volunteer, teach, heal, or listen? Are you a parent? Are you a grammar nerd and bothered by my writing but look past it to hear what I have to say? Assuredly, you are a kind and giving person, more than you may realize. Your seva is really appreciated!

One might say, ‘Yes, but I do it because I want it to be done for me. That’s the world I wish to live in so it isn’t selfless.’ Wanting your actions mirrored is different than expecting them to be so. And if you really think about the last time you did any of the examples I gave, was immediately expecting the same in return your motivation? There probably wasn’t a second door to be opened for you. Two meals would probably be one too many. When a space is clean, it is clean, isn’t it? It seems likely that your behavior was you being true to the kind and giving person that you are.

Seva and gift economy are not limited to people. Governments and businesses can perform in the best interests of the people they cater to. And some do… and most could do more. There are great thinkers and actors working to make this so. I focus my teaching on the individual. After all, we ‘individuals’ make up the companies and governments. Therefore if an individual goes into those fields with high levels of personal integrity, they may act in a way that goes beyond profit or personal gain.

Yes, I’m an idealist and yes, what I say holds potential as an attainable ideal.[4] Kindness is amazing! Smiles of gratitude are very meaningful. It starts with each of us, each day, sharing what we have in that moment.[5] What will your seva be today?


[1] Love is all you need. In the future I will explain the science of why this is so.

[2] I’m waiting to be corrected by Sanskrit experts that I’ve got it all wrong, that for some reason or another they can’t be side by side, but I’m okay with how I see them. Either way, they’ve worked to complete a meaningful practice for me.

[3] Is there such a thing as selflessness? I don’t believe so though I use it as a phrase to illustrate the intention. I think the ego is always attached. What rewards the ego is what can be altered.

[4] I’m aware of many human traits (biological and societal ((same thing, isn’t it)), that make this ideal difficult to achieve. My position is this: we don’t fully know the biology of our behaviors nor do we know the potential of certain ideals when embodied for several generations. Both have evidence on either side and since that is the case, I lean towards believing that we can have happy and functional existence on this planet.

[5] If what I say here doesn’t resonate, then experiment. Go out into the world today and do a few nice things, some alone, some in the presence of others, and some for others. Don’t expect any reactions, just observe. Scientists observe. Great gardeners and agriculturalists observe. The best teachers observe. After, explore your observations and see if you have felt connected to them. I hope the results inspire you.

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