Service As a Spiritual Discipline (Part 2)

Service and the Five Selves

An important way to approach the eternal Reality is rendering service with an attitude of worship of God, who dwells in all. Such service purifies our mind and awakens the infinite dimension of our being. There are four kinds of service corresponding to the different selves described earlier.

According to the Taittiriya Upanishad, we have five different selves. These selves are the result of our identification with the five layers of our personality. The Atman, our real "I", is imprisoned, as it were, in these five layers. Self-realization amounts to freeing ourselves from identification with them.

Physical help: We are the physical self when we identify with our body. The world and its objects are real to us in this state. We look upon ourselves and others as male or female, young or old, dark or fair, and think and act accordingly.

Saving of life: Saving a life or extending it by medical treatment pertains to the energy self.

Gift of knowledge: The gift of knowledge consists in offering the recipient the type of education that teaches self-reliance, thinking for ourselves, and the courage to solve our own problems. Swami Vivekananda wanted that education "by which character is formed, strength of mind is increased, the intellect is expanded, and by which one can stand on one's own feet." The gift of knowledge relates to the mental and intelligence selves.

Spiritual help: Awakening people to the goal of God-realization, helping them strengthen their will and power of discrimination, giving them spiritual instruction-these correspond to intelligence and blissful selves. Such help gradually awakens the buddhi, shows us the way to the blissful self, and, finally, reveals the pure Atman.

Relative Merits of Different Kinds of Service

Two factors determine the relative merits of each kind of service: (1) How long does the recipient remain free from want. (2) How does it transform his character. In the words of Swami Vivekananda, "The gift of spirituality and spiritual knowledge is the highest; the next gift is the gift of secular knowledge; the next is the gift of life; and the fourth is the gift of food." Physical help does not remove want permanently or transform character. It does not result in de-identification with the body. Swami Vivekananda sounds a note of caution about physical help: "In considering the question of helping others, we must always strive not to commit the mistake of thinking that physical help is the only help that can be given. It is not only the last but the least, because it cannot bring about permanent satisfaction. The misery that I feel when I am hungry is satisfied by eating, but hunger returns; my misery can cease only when I am satisfied beyond all want."

Saving a life or prolonging it is a little higher than physical help. But merely extending a life without making a qualitative change in it does not help the recipient advance toward the goal of life. Next is the gift of knowledge. In Swami Vivekananda's words, "The gift of knowledge is a far higher gift than that of food and clothes; it is even higher than giving life to a man, because the real life of man consists of knowledge. Ignorance is death, knowledge is life. Life is of very little value, if it is a life in the dark, groping through ignorance and misery." He continues: "The gift of spirituality and spiritual knowledge is the highest, for it saves from many and many a birth."

Back To Top