Upanishads and the ideal of Service

The Upanishadic Ideal of service is based on the concepts of Truth, Dharma and Yajna. Without comprehending these three concepts we cannot understand what we have come to recognise as service today – the most appealing and popular component of modern religions. Let us, therefore, first understand them.

Discovering the Satyam
Thousands of years ago, when humanity was still in a state of slumber, the super scientists of India, the Vedic rishis, were engaged in the knotty task of uncovering the Ultimate Reality of life. This Reality of all realities, they soon found out, was beyond the world of pluralities, beyond whatever the senses could perceive. Through a step- by- step approach, breaking through the world of plurality, they looked into the very core of their inner being and discovered the Ultimate Truth as the Self (atman) within. This they called as Satyam, the Truth.

When they woke up from this super-conscious experience of Oneness, they also found that Truth is One but its expressions are diverse. It is this truth in which everything in the universe remains interconnected, interrelated and interdependent. This is the greatest discovery ever made by man, and this Truth of Self- realization is the greatest blessings that the rishis have conferred on the world.

For us, in India, this discovery usher in the dawn of life of enlightenment and introduced us to the splendid idea of the Eternal. Since then, this Ganga of internal vision of the rishis has been cascading down the centuries, enriching every field of human activity and giving birth to a unique and spiritually oriented civilisation and culture. That this Satyam, the Eternal Truth, is the basis of Indian culture and civilization is reflected in India’s national emblem, Satyameva Jayate (‘Truth Alone Triumphs’)- a phrase taken from the Mundaka Upanishad.

The Way of Dharma
What is the ideal the Upanishads hold before us? To realise that Eternal Truth within oneself, and feel its presence in the entire universe and adjust all our activities in such a way as to reflect that principle of Oneness in life. This is the dharma kept before every human being. The final aim of dharma is Self realisation. This is what constitutes the essence of Upanishadic knowledge. This was the ancient truth that the rishis presented before us. To know, the Self, again, the dharma is the way. This vision has been summarised in the eloquent words from the Taittiriya Upanishad, satyam vada, dharmam chara (‘speak the truth, follow the dharma).

To the rishis, the Nature outside was an external expression of the Truth within. This was truly a quantum leap in knowledge – from to universality. This vision of the Whole the awareness of man’s interrelatedness and interdependence on all that exists is that has made the Indian culture so singularly spiritual and, at once, in modern terms, highly scientific and holistic.

A profound respect for nature and the wisdom inherent in it is the hallmark of upanishadic vision. To the upanishadic mind, is a byword. When one gets truly established in it, genuine hospitality and warm friendship replace feelings of resentment and strangeness. Ecological balance and social justice are the natural outcome of such a wholesome living centred round the vision of a Universal Reality – where the individual feels himself bound to the cosmos as a whole. This became the Dharma of the individual.

Yajna, the Perennial Sacrifice

The Vedic ideal of Yajna is far more comprehensive, enriching and universal than what is conveyed by the word service. Rishis recognised man as an indivisible part of the Whole. Within him is a spark of the divinity, which is only quantitatively, (not qualitatively, as Swami Vivekananda used to stress) different from the Totality. Therefore, all human efforts should be directed towards the realisation of this Truth. This extraordinary unity of the individual, the world he lives in and the Reality or God is what Sanatana Dharma, the Religion Eternal, emphasised from time immemorial. Yajna, hence, is a symbol of the practical relationship between human beings, world and God or the Ultimate Reality (jiva, jagat and ishwara). That Yajna is an act of unification and expansion of the human spirit and is made clear by its basic tenets.

Let us try to understand various aspects of the spirit of yajna and its dynamics in promoting individual and social well – being. The following discussion focuses on various aspects of the Vedic idea of a holistic life and tries to point out how the Upanishads are a repository of this wisdom.

Idam na mama (‘It is not mine’)
These words are spoken when offerings are poured into the fire during Yanjas. They emphasises the fact that the benefits that accrue from it are not for the doer but are meant for the welfare of all. Such an attitude made the individual dedicate his life for the welfare of all and thus free oneself of the temptations of jealousy, avarice, arrogance, violence, selfish motivation, and so on. This ideal of yajna later took a more practical form when Sri Krishna introduced it in Gita as nishkama karma (work without selfish motive) – an indispensible principle for anyone interested in achieving excellence in life and for one’s inward evolution. Swami Vivekananda called this idea as the core of his ideal of Karma yoga and advocated it as the best means for ‘man making and nation building’ programmes for India’s regeneration.

Swahah (the Sanskrit word used as exclamation while doing a yajna)
Here again the idea is the surrender of ego. Truth, patience, non-stealing, forgiveness, discipline, and so on are all implied in this utterance with which the deities are worshiped through offerings. In the above two practices, renunciation (tyaga) of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ is emphasised. Though tyaga is a difficult idea to a purely materialistic mind to grasp, it is the best way to make oneself free from the bondage of work. When tyaga is backed by a spirit of unselfishness (nishkama bhava), it then leads to skillfulness in action which is the source of all prosperity and social security. This skillfulness is tyaga in another form. The Upanishads thus bridged the gap between the scared and the secular and looked upon life as single whole.

Sham dvipade chatushpade (‘peace be to two-legged as well as four-legged beings’)
As said earlier, the Upanishads are all inclusive in their approach to life. They had deep concern for all life which was born of perception of the One Truth present everywhere. In their prayers, they sought well-being of all beings- human beings or birds (‘two legged’) as as well as animals or insects. They invoked benedictions for peace and good for everyone. This is how they upheld the unity of life and emphasised the interrelatedness and interdependence of existence. They understood that as man evolves, he begins to recognize his own higher self present in everything and starts treating them as his own. He feels compelled to contribute to the well being and prosperity of all. Such a wholesome idea of inter-dependence is dawning in the modern scientific community now. Though late, it is better late than never.

Yajna is not just confined to a fire ritual but has wider implications as well. These implications are a key to understanding the ideal of service mentioned in the Upanishads. This is how the benefits of yajna be understood in a broader perspective as service. Doing a Yajna has the following connotations:

1. Deva puja:
Yajna was a tangible, concrete action in the early part of the Vedic tradition. Later the Vedic rishis discovered its deeper meaning of worship of God by respecting parents, teachers, seniors, guests, as also the mighty powers of the five elements. One may recall here the famous Upanishadic teachings: ‘Worship your mother as Divine. Worship you father as Divine.’ (matri devo bhava, pitri devo bhava). Worship is not just offering some flowers, incense and fruit. supply others’ needs, in a spirit of service detachment is also a form of worship. As Sri Ramakrishna once remarked, ‘Does God manifest only through a stone or wood image. He can manifest in human forms also. So the idea of worship of God in man through attending to their needs is also a compelling form of yajna.

2.Sanghatikaranam (Forging a unity):
As stated earlier, Yajna establishing a relationship between man, world and God. The practical implication of establishing this sense of connectivity lies in maintaining unity and integrity within a home or organisation. This is done by being in tune with the ideals and thoughts of the place or group. The following hymn expresses this ideal of harmony succinctly:
‘Common be your prayer;
Common be your end;
Common be your purpose;
Common be your deliberation;
Common be your desire;
Unified be your hearts;
United be your intentions;
Perfect be the union amongst you.’
(Rig Veda, X, 1919-3,4)
When one keeps this idea of yajna in mind and does his work, he fosters unity of minds which is essential to create healthy and powerful organisations and promote a fellow feeling and righteousness.

3. Dana or donation:
Dana or ‘giving’ can be in any form – giving monetary help or respect or knowledge or service and so on. The underlying idea is that it is by giving that a man receives back and that is what leads to real happiness. In this magnificent, all comprehensive Upanishadic vision, in which every individual life is a part of a cosmic yajna, where does the idea of modern life style fit We must understand that living a gross physical and materialistic life, spending all our energies on our food, clothes and shelter, cannot make us happy and strong. We need to rise above this littleness of vision to learn the secrets of life. Elaborating what is meant by help, Swami Vivekananda says: ‘Helping others physically, by removing their physical needs is indeed great; but the help is greater according as the need is greater and according as the help is far reaching. If a man’s wants can removed for an hour, it is helping him indeed; if his wants can be removed for a year it will be more help to him; but if his wants can be removed for ever, it is surely the greatest help that can be given him. Spiritual knowledge is the only thing that can destroy our miseries forever; any other knowledge satisfies wants only for a time. It is only with the knowledge of the spirit that the faculty of want is annihilated forever; so helping man spiritually is the highest help that can be given him.’ (CW 1: 52)

Let us restate the last sentence of Swamiji. Life, Upanishads believe, becomes complete only when one realises the truth of atman. Hence, the most valuable service that can be rendered is to kindle a desire to realise that truth. Swamiji called this process of Self – experience as an act of de-hypnotisation. When one thinks he is just body and mind, he is hypnotised. When one realises one’s limitless dimension within, the atman, he gets dehypnotised.

The Ideal of Service and Social Regeneration
How to practise this idea of Yajna in life? For this, let us look at the lives of great men like Swami Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna. In them we find how these ideals of Satya, Dharma and Yajna can be lived. We can draw many lessons from their lives and teachings. There are numerous incidents in their lives from which we learn how to practise this profound teaching of the Upanishads in daily life. Let us consider one incident here.

Once Sri Ramakrishna was conversing with devotees in his room in Dakshineshwar Temple Complex. He was quoting the well-known words from a Vaishanava scripture where it is said that in order to be a true devotee, one should develop love for repeating God’s name, serve the holy men and have mercy on others. While he uttered the last of the three pre-requisites, he suddenly stopped and burst into a monologue, ‘Mercy! Who are you to show mercy on others?! You can only serve others in a spirit of worship’. Swami Vivekananda, then known as Narendranath, witnessed the whole episode and after he came out of the room, remarked that if God wills, he will broadcast this revolutionary idea everywhere. And indeed he did broadcast this idea in the form of giving a new motto for service. He called it shivajnane jiva seva or service of man as God.

This is the practical message of the Upanishads. If we have to bring change in the cruel and brutal world scene, it can be done only by serving others in a spirit of worship. It is only service based on this Upanishadic ideals that can bring needed change in our individual and collective lives. Swamiji further reiterated these teachings in his immortal phrase: ‘atmano mokshartham jagaddhitaya cha’ – ‘for one’s own spiritual liberation and for the good of others’. When we keep this as the ideal of our life, we are then in tune with the Upanishads. In other words, divinisation of life is the ideal way to serve others. Let us keep this modern mahavakya of Swamiji in mind ‘Serve Man, Serve God’. To serve is to develop a sense of oneness with others and that is the message of the Upanishads.

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