What is Narayan Seva and how must it be done?
A discourse beyond compare
It was the year 1975 and the month of November. Many of the Indian newspapers screamed in their headlines - All roads lead to Puttaparthi. People in their thousands traveled via trains, buses, cars, two-wheelers and bullock carts towards the holy hamlet. Baba’s birth-village, which had been considered as a stone’s throw from stone age just a decade ago was today being proclaimed by Indian newspapers as a replacement for Rome in the popular saying. What was the reason for this mass influx of people into Prasanthi Nilayam? Simple. It was the golden jubilee birthday celebrations of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba - the 50th birthday.
The 50th birthday year was a landmark event for reasons more than one. The Sri Sathya Sai Gokulam (dairy farm) was inaugurated with about 50 cattle; the police station for Puttaparthi was inaugurated by Baba; the Sarva Dharma Aikya Stoopa (pillar of the unity of religions) came into existence along with the main entrance for the ashram, the Gopuram. Three major conferences were held in the 9-day period from the 15th of November till the 23rd of November - The 3rd All-India Seva Dal Conference, a Bal Vikas Gurus conference and the 2nd World Conference of Sathya Sai Organizations.
The focus of this article is the 21st of November, 1975, the concluding day of the 2nd world conference. Swami’s discourse was poignant and full of guidance for the worldwide organizations. If I had to use two words to describe the discourse, they would be spellbinding and powerful. Sadly, this discourse, like the six out of eight delivered during the 9-day period, has not been recorded in Sathya Sai Speaks nor has been aired on Radiosai, the official broadcaster from Prasanthi Nilayam. While the team at Radiosai works on gathering these valuable treasures of discourses from various sources and bring them out in digital media for everyone’s benefit, here is a rare sneak preview of the discourse.
On that day, Swami explained beautifully on how one should do Narayan Seva and how one should not do it. Though each discourse by Bhagawan is nectar divine, this one had a tremendous impact on me - it inspired me to share the same with the world too. But before we receive those words of wisdom which Swami gave in 1975, it would be good to know what Narayan Seva means and how Swami conducts Narayan Seva. Both these can be understood when we relive one Narayan Seva that Swami conducted in Puttaparthi in 1998.
18th November 1998 - a memorable day indeed
Little did I know that it was going to be a very special day in my life. I would be witnessing an event which was going to be held for the penultimate time in the Vidyagiri stadium in the physical presence of Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba - the Narayan Seva. From the year 2000 onward, the annual Narayan Seva that Swami conducted was stopped because it had evolved into the massive and magnificent Grama Seva (during the 75th birthday celebrations of Baba). The Grama Seva continues even today and has become part of the curriculum for the students of the Sri Sathya Sai educational institutions. Though am tempted to narrate how this evolution of Narayan Seva into Grama Seva came about, I shall control myself here because that is the subject of another story which is linked above.
I woke up in the morning with considerable excitement. In fact, I had not slept much the whole night because of the excitement. Another reason why I had not slept well was the fact that poor people (whom Swami refers to as Narayana) from Puttaparthi and a host of neighboring villages had arrived at the gates of the Vidyagiri stadium in large numbers by 11pm itself. The noise of the gathered thousands was enough to keep a light sleeper awake.
The gathering was also excited because the next day, their Lord, their Swami would be serving them with sumptuous food and presenting them new clothes. These gifts were more than mere materials for them. They were signs of God’s grace; His way of reassuring them that He was always with them, in their homes. The clothes became tokens of Swami’s blessings and love which would soon become objects of faith for many.
Though this was an annual affair on every 18th of November, it would be my first as a student in His school. Having pined and waited to become a student in His school, I wanted to get the best out of the days I was spending with Him. Thus, I had volunteered to be a full-time ‘worker’ during the Narayan Seva in spite of wanting to take pictures of Swami’s visit. I felt that I could manage doing both - I wanted the cake and wanted to eat it too! In fact, I had contemplated even going to the mandir to attend the Rathotsavam that would be flagged off on the same morning. However, I realised that I was biting off more than I could chew! (Forgive the liberal use of cliches - they seemed so perfect here and both concerned eating. So I couldn’t resist.)
My teacher put me in the team that was allotted the task of distributing food and clothes in row number 3. That would mean serving at least 400-500 people on the gents’ side of the ground. I mentally readied myself as I cleaned my camera and prepared the Kodak film rolls that would go into it. The ‘security boys’ or the well-built students of the hostel had already made their way to the grounds to help in crowd control.
Narayana and Narayana Seva
Swami arrived to the stadium at about 9:15am. What happened in the next 25 minutes or so will require thousands of words for me to describe. I will restrain myself to one incident that is seared in my memory.
Swami alighted from the maroon Mercedes Benz car. He raised His hands in Abhayahastha for all the gathered thousands. Immediately shouts of victory in the name of Sai rented the air. A shamiana (tent) had been erected with a chair for Swami to sit and watch the proceedings. But Swami would not go there. He asked for the area where the food had been kept.
The food had been cooked and spread on large mats under the audience galleries of the stadium. Since the quantities of food were so large, they were just put on the floor mats. From there, the food would be transferred to the ground via thousands of serving vessels. I did not know about this till I followed Swami to that area with my camera. Naïve that I was, I thought,
“Oh My God! How can they keep food like this on the floor?”
Needless to stay, the food was well-protected and covered but one’s first thoughts are one’s first thoughts. My thoughts continued,
“Maybe I will not partake this food...”
My thoughts were rudely interrupted by a sight that shook me completely. Yes! It was Swami. Swami entered the area where the food had been spread out. He was to bless the food by breaking two coconuts over it and sprinkling the water from the coconuts over it. He did that. However, immediately after doing so, He did something that I did not imagine. He bent down to the floor, picked up the food that was spread there and put it into His mouth! Was I shocked!
Here was the Lord who deserved to be served the choicest dishes in golden vessels and He was eating ‘off the floor’! Immediately I decided,
“If the food is good enough for my Lord, it is definitely more than good enough for me. It is indeed my privilege to partake this food.”
Here is the most important lesson I learned that day about doing Narayan Seva - serve food that is fit to be served the Lord. That is why Swami does not call it ‘poor feeding’. Narayan Seva means serving Narayana or serving the Lord. Simple isn’t it? That was exactly the sentiment that Swami echoed during that discourse on the 21st of November 1975:
Who is poor and who is rich. He who has much desires is poorest man, he who is content is richest man. Narayan seva is not poor feeding. When you do such a noble task, will you do it ‘poorly’ that you call it ‘poor-feeding’? English does not have a proper translation for Narayan Seva which is actually an opportunity to feed the Lord Himself.
But do I do it in that spirit? Whenever I give food for the poor, I give the remnants and discards. Do I give away freshly cooked food? Swami often says that love expresses itself as sacrifice and Narayan Seva should be an act of love. When I do Narayan Seva, what is it that I am sacrificing? Swami answers this too in that same discourse:
This morning, several delegates gave their opinions and advice. They said that for Narayan Seva, we need to collect money from all to procure food. Those that have the necessary wherewithal to sponsor such Narayan Seva can do so. But never seek money from others to serve food to those that are hungry. Never get the name that members of Sathya Sai Organization are big beggars. None of the Sathya Sai Organization members should go house to house collecting money. If you are enthusiastic, here is my advice. You may not be able to buy large amounts of rice. Everyday, in your pooja room (altar), you make an offering to God. Instead of that, keep that amount as “bhiksha” (alms) for Swami. Take me as the beggar at your home. Once a week, all such devotees who have kept aside food for Swami can come together, cook that food that has been kept aside and use it for Narayana Seva. Have the feeling that this is alms for Swami. Consider Swami as your ‘daridra’ and offer your handful of rice.
Whatever be one’s means, sacrifice is an important aspect of Narayan Seva. Throwing in my excess wealth for tax-saving purposes or to appear like a donor does not constitute the spirit of Narayan Seva. I must deprive myself of something that I need and then offer the same to the Lord in another. That is why, Narayan Seva is about empathy and not sympathy. It is not as if the ‘giver’ is big and the ‘receiver’ is small. Both are equals - children of God. Is that not the reason why Swami always values the feeling behind the act rather that the ‘bigness’ of the act. There are many instances to show the same.
Therefore, Narayan Seva should make me humble. Again, Swami is the ideal for such humility. I conclude with another excerpt from that same discourse.
When a messenger came from the king to Kabir and said
“Because you are Anatha (orphan), the king has offered you great wealth.”
“I have a Natha (Lord) - Rama. Rama has no protector or Lord and so, He is Anatha. Give all alms to him not me.”
(The word Anatha in Sanskrit means - one who has no protector. Therefore, it is commonly used to denote the orphans and destitutes.)
Never consider anyone as Anatha. Only God is Anatha. Keep alms for the poor, regarding them as embodiments of God. These poor people, knowingly or unknowingly utter, “I am Anatha”. Anatha is one who has no beginning and end. If you see, they are actually proclaiming the ultimate Truth because all are indeed divine.
“Narayana Seva” is such a noble way to help ourselves by helping others. Surely, I have understood it better thanks to my Master.
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© 2013 Aravind Balasubramanya