05/16/2011 07:35 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2011

Seva: Celebrating the Sacredness of Service

"The best way to find your self is to lose yourself in the service of others." Mahatma Gandhi

What we seek from religion is a sense of meaning, purpose, belonging; a stronger connection to each other. This is what seva is and this is what seva does. When we speak of seva, we mean ego-less service in which we put ourselves to work in aid of the greater community. It answers all these needs in a profound way. Vikas Khanna and I began exploring seva in True Business, our first Holy Kitchens film about Sikhism. We were intending only to show how people shared food but quickly discovered that sharing food was just the beginning of seva. This work of quiet dignity allows its practitioners to directly benefit from the work they do in that they can see its effect in front of their eyes. Hungry people come and they are fed. The fear of starvation is removed from their lives. When you take away someone's hunger, you make it possible for him to think about his existence on a higher spiritual plane. In the secular world we refer to this as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. In a spiritual setting it is putting someone in reach of the divine. When you put a roof over someone's head, provide access to clean water, give children medicine to keep them alive, this is seva. It is keeping the promise of the covenant that we are all our brothers' and sisters' keepers.

Seva, by any other name, is at the heart of all religions.

An aspect of existence that is overlooked in our modern world is our desperate need to feel connected. This explains the constant spiritual questing, the proliferation of self-help books, the success of internet based social media. We are all looking for meaning. What we found in Sikhism is that this work creates powerful social bonds and makes Sikhs a dynamic and cohesive force in the world today. Each and every day at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, trucks line up to donate fresh produce and grains for the langar, or kitchen in the temple. As part of their seva, Sikhs donate the food, cook it, serve it and then clean up for everyone who comes to eat, regardless of their beliefs. Hungry people come by the hundreds of thousands every day to be fed by volunteers and no matter how many people are fed, there are still more waiting for a turn to help cut up vegetables, make bread, wash dishes or serve food. Beginning in early childhood, Sikh children have the opportunity to develop true self-esteem from dignified work. They help in the kitchen and feed the community. While doing so they learn about the comfort of being connected with others in their community.

My stepdaughter, currently en route to confirmation in the Catholic Church has been frustrated in trying to fulfill her community service obligations. Unfortunately, where she lives in New Jersey, there are no opportunities to serve. She ended up working in her father's business and getting credit for that time as did most of her peers. Imagine how much better it would have been for her and her friends to do real work that makes a difference in someone's life. To put food in someone's belly or build a well: that is real service. That is real self esteem that you can't take away from someone who has worked for it. It makes for a positive, durable and proud psyche and creates a community with tight, powerful bonds rooted in the sense of having a common cause. We don't provide enough of this type of opportunity for our children and we spend too much time validating them for things that aren't really accomplishments. We need to learn from our more recent immigrants to rediscover the beauty of working with and for the community.

"Be the Change you want to see in the world." - Mahatma Gandhi

This is one of Anju's Bhargava's favorite quotes as it encourages people to take matters into their own hands and empowers them to make real change in the world. Our first encounter with Anju was while we were filming Amma, the hugging saint of Kerala, in New York. Ms. Bhargava spoke eloquently for us in our Holy Kitchens film, Karma to Nirvana, and we have followed her activities with keen interest ever since. This dynamic woman is changing the world around her so it's no surprise that our remarkable friend Anju is the first person to bring the concept of seva to the White House. The organization she co-founded, the Hindu American Seva Charities (HASC) is sponsoring an essay contest to inspire people to perform more service related activities around the world. There will be a press briefing at the White House on July 29th followed by a conference at Georgetown University.

In addition to founding HASC, Anju Bhargava is a member of President Obama's Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in which she advises the White House on matters relating to faith based organizations' roles in addressing specific policy issues in domestic and global development. Ms. Bhargava balances a busy and successful management consulting career with teaching and mentoring young people and looks outside herself for ways she can be useful to the community at large. People like Anju are teaching Americans about the new pluralism of America and inspiring people to build stronger communities by the example of their seva.

The essay competition is open until May 30th with four categories, including:
1. High School Students
2. Undergraduate Students
3. Graduates/Young Professionals
4. Senior Citizens

To enter your 1,000 word essay in the competition, go to the HASC website for details on submission requirements. You can support the activities of Hindu American Seva Charities through their website. Please donate generously. It is tax deductible and serves a great cause. It is a non-religious Non Governmental Organization whose mission is to promote pluralism, social justice, and civic engagement through seva and interfaith dialogues to build healthy communities.