Swami Vivekananda emphasizes the idea of worship of God in all beings in his lecture at the Rameswaram temple in southern India: "This is the gist of all worship-to be pure and do good to others. He who sees Shiva in the poor, in the weak, and in the diseased, really worships Shiva; and if he sees Shiva only in the image, his worship is but preliminary. He who has served and helped one poor man seeing Shiva in him, without thinking of his caste, or creed, or race, or anything, with him Shiva is more pleased than with the man who sees Him only in temples."
In view of the above, need-based service offered with an attitude of seeing God in all becomes a spiritual discipline and draws us closer to God. If, however, service is rendered selectively based on people's ethnic background, it hardly yields any spiritual benefit.
Service becomes spiritually effective only when prompted by selfless love for the one being served. In an inspiring letter to his Madras disciple Dr. Nanjunda Rao, Swami Vivekananda says: "Purity, patience, and perseverance are the three essentials to success and, above all, love." When we offer service with purity of mind and love without expectations, we ennoble our character and improve the quality of our service. Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi, the wife of Sri Ramakrishna, is the ideal exemplar of such service. She was adored as one whose character was spotless, and who was purity incarnate. Her life at Dakshineswar, Syampukur, and Cossipore was one of devoted service to her husband, his mother, and his devotees.
Though Holy Mother was married to Sri Ramakrishna, she was not possessive about him, nor did she think she had a special claim over him. She often spoke of herself as his handmaid and instrument, as one of the many seekers who found refuge at his feet. Sri Ramakrishna looked upon her as the Divine Mother Herself and would not tolerate any disrespect shown to her. Her pure mind and God-centered love made her a perfect helpmate in Sri Ramakrishna's mission. His mission was to rescue humanity from a life drowning in materialism to a life firmly grounded in the Divine. After Sri Ramakrishna's passing, Holy Mother served the fledgling Order founded in his name. She ministered to countless men, women, and children who came to her for spiritual instruction. 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. Swami Vivekananda explains: "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." Purity, patience, and love help us to practice unselfishness. Swami Vivekananda says: "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.