Pentagon Vaisakhi Address: Seva Is More Than Service

05/05/2015 01:18 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016

The following are the prepared remarks of Simran Jeet Singh at the Pentagon's second-ever commemoration of the Sikh faith on May 1, 2015. Singh spoke alongside Valarie Kaur and Inni Kaur on "Seva" - selfless service in the Sikh religion. Hosted by the Pentagon Chaplain on Vaisakhi, the program was organized by Major Kamal Singh Kalsi and the Sikh Coalition, an organization leading the campaign for turbaned Sikhs and other people of faith to be allowed to serve in the U.S. military.

Vahiguru Ji Ka Khalsa! Vahiguru Ji Ki Fateh!

Thank you to the Pentagon for bringing us together today to celebrate Vaisakhi, one of the most significant Sikh occasions. Over the past couple of weeks, Sikhs around the world have been marking Vaisakhi with parades, collective worship, and community service. It is deeply meaningful to celebrate the occasion here at the Pentagon and to share the richness and beauty of Vaisakhi with all of you today.

Sikhs have been celebrating Vaisakhi for centuries now, and although it is not considered a holiday -- at least in the western sense -- there are many reasons why the Sikh community cherishes Vaisakhi so dearly.

Culturally, Vaisakhi marks the spring harvest in Punjab, the Sikh homeland, where agriculture remains a primary industry. Vaisakhi is also mentioned in some of the earliest Sikh manuscripts, which tell us that the founder of the Sikh religion - Guru Nanak - was born on this day a little over 500 years ago. And perhaps most central to collective memory, Vaisakhi marks the day that the tenth Sikh Guru - Guru Gobind Singh - formalized and passed authority on to the Sikh community - Guru Khalsa Panth.

When we look closely at each of these reasons for celebrating Vaisakhi, we see clearly that what ties them together is a commitment to engaging with the world.

The Sikh word that best represents this engagement with the world - seva - has no precise English translation. The closest English word is "service," yet it's not the same.

Seva is more than service. It's selfless. It's inspired. It's spiritual. It's an attitude. It's a way to make sense of how we fit into the world around us.

Seva is so many things -- and it is fundamental to the Sikh worldview. I want to take a moment to explore this concept together because it is critical for understanding -- and practicing -- the Sikh way of life.

The primary theological principle of Sikhism is a belief in oneness. The entire world is connected by a single force, a Creator who permeates all of Creation. The Sikh Gurus teach that the Divine is equally present within every aspect of this world, and that our outlooks and actions should reflect this. We ought to treat the world around us as if God is present within it. And if we were to recognize the divinity within one another, we would certainly change how we treat the people we encountered in our lives.

This message emerges clearly from Sikh scripture, when we sing:

Avil Alh nUru aupwieAw kudriq ky sB bMdy ] eyk nUr qy sBu jgu aupijAw kaun Bly ko mMdy ]1]

"The Divine created the Light, from which all beings are created. If the entire world is sourced from the same light, how can we distinguish between good and bad?"

This belief that the Creator resides within the Creation informed how the Sikh Gurus viewed the nature of the world. Whereas some religions regard the world to be an illusion, Sikh teachings relate that the entire world is Real -- sach. The world is not false, nor is it a distraction from which we must escape. Instead, it is reality. Joy is reality, and so is suffering. The challenges that we face are not to be dismissed -- they are real. And we can only overcome them with collective support -- sangat.

The practice of supporting and serving those in need is intrinsic to the Sikh tradition. Sikhi holds that religion is not just to spiritual cultivation. Being socially engaged is religious practice as well For a Sikh, every aspect of life is equally real and therefore deserves attention. One ought to be spiritually focused but also physically fit, emotionally stable and intellectually developed.

The Sikh term for living a holistic lifestyle is miri-piri, which signifies a balanced commitment to spiritual cultivation and political engagement. Every Sikh is to be a sant-sipahi, a saint-soldier -- not just one or the other - a saint and a soldier. This formula is also represented by the phrase deg-tegh fateh -- victory comes to bear when one can simultaneously wield the serving bowl and the sword.

The holistic Sikh lifestyle reflects the notion of divine oneness at the core of Sikh theology. To be a Sikh is to adopt an integrated life, to live with integrity, and to live beyond the individual self.

There is another term in the Sikh tradition that captures this balance -- seva-simran -- serving through action while engaged in devotional remembrance. At its core, the Sikh lifestyle is centered around the simultaneous practice of worship (simran) and service (seva).
A Sikh -- is one -- who engages -- in prayerful action.

According to the Sikh Gurus, seva is more than just the action itself. It has to do with what animates our actions. Seva is an expression of gratitude for all the gifts we receive. Seva is a selfless act in which we give generously without expecting anything in return. Seva is a way for us to connect with our own spiritual selves while also helping to reduce the pain and suffering of those around us.

From a Sikh perspective, seva is way of living that brings together a mindset of devotion and gratitude with the practice of service and action. In this sense, engaging with and contributing to the world through seva is at the heart of our celebration today -- Vaisakhi -- just as it is the spirit that animates the Sikh tradition.

Vahiguru Ji Ka Khalsa
Vahiguru Ji Ki Fateh