Service becomes spiritually effective only when prompted by selfless love for the one being served. In his inspiring letter to his Madras disciple Dr. Nanjunda Rao, Swami Vivekananda spells out some essentials for success in life: "Purity, patience, and perseverance are the three essentials to success and, above all, love." When we offer service with purity of mind and undemanding love, we ennoble our character and bring about a remarkable improvement in the quality of our service. Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi is the ideal exemplar of such service. Adored as one whose life and character were spotless, one who was purity incarnate, she was the spiritual consort of Sri Ramakrishna. Her life at Dakshineswar (and later at Syampukur and Cossipore) was one of devoted service to her husband, his mother, and his disciples and devotees.
Though she was married to Sri Ramakrishna, she was not possessive about him, nor did she think she had any special claim over him as his wife. She often spoke of herself as his handmaid and instrument, as one of the many seekers who found refuge at his feet. She lived at Dakshineswar in a small room hardly forty feet from his room; yet there were times when she could not see him even once in two months. She would console herself with the thought, "O mind, are you so fortunate that you can see him every day?" Sri Ramakrishna looked upon her as the Divine Mother Herself and would brook no disrespect to her. Their marriage consummated not at the physical but at the spiritual level. It was her immaculately pure mind and God-centered love that made her a willing help-mate in Sri Ramakrishna's mission of raising humanity from a life drowning in materialism to a life anchored in divinity. After Sri Ramakrishna's passing, Holy Mother served the fledgling Order founded in his name and her countless children who flocked to her for spiritual solace. The unique lives of this divine couple demonstrate the truth of the Upanishadic dictum, "A husband (or wife) is not loved for the sake of the husband (or wife), but for the sake of the Self within."
Unselfishness is the main theme of service. No definition of unselfishness is more concise than Swami Vivekananda's: "The world is one thing and God is another; and this distinction is very true. What they mean by the world is selfishness. Unselfishness is God." His inspiring words can goad anyone to practice this noble virtue: "As a rule, the desire for name and fame seldom brings quick results; they come to us when we are old and have almost done with life. If a man works without any selfish motive, does he not gain something? Yes, he gains the highest benefit. Unselfishness is more paying; only people have not the patience to practice it. It is more paying from the point of view of health also. Love, truth and unselfishness are not merely figures of speech used by moralists, but they form our highest ideal, because in them lies such a manifestation of power."
If service is to further our spiritual growth, it has to be practiced with love and detachment, without any expectation of return. Above all, we need to remember that service is only a means to an end: the unfolding of our innate divinity.