The Power of Service
“Paropakarartham Idam Shareeram” - The body is given to help the needy - These eternal words welcomed me along with a picture of Swami and His effulgent smile as I entered the Super Specialty Hospital in Puttaparthi many years ago. The words made an indelible impact on me. I keep a copy of the same photograph on my office desk to remind me every day what my purpose is.
Service to man will help your Divinity blossom, for it will gladden your heart and make you feel that life has been worthwhile. Service to man is service to God, for God is in every man and every living being and, in every stone, and stump.
Sathya Sai Speaks, Vol. 4 Ch. 43, December 5, 1964
Swami has given many opportunities to participate in seva activities throughout my life. Whether it was working in a soup kitchen as a teenager, working as an overnight chaperone in a homeless shelter in college, distributing bag lunches to the homeless during my medical training, or participating in various Sai Center seva projects now, with Swami’s grace the opportunities to serve have been plentiful. Swami has blessed me with chances to participate in Sathya Sai medical camps in Puttaparthi, Haiti, the Philippines, and locally, and He has given me the greatest honour of my life to work in His gastroenterology unit in the Super Specialty Hospital in Puttaparthi. I have felt Swami’s infinite love for all during these service activities, and these endeavours have immeasurably helped my development. I am certain that Swami has given me these opportunities because I needed them to grow and evolve spiritually.
Often when we do service, we feel pleased and fulfilled. But, because the need can be so vast, the service we do is often only a small drop in the ocean. Sometimes I would feel despondent after a service activity because it felt like we were not doing enough. Over time and with experience, I learned that this sorrow came from my ego. I made the mistake of believing that I was the one making a difference. In fact, what I had to learn was that Swami is the Doer and we are His instruments. There was no reason to be upset when He was in control. We must strive to be the hollow flute by which He can play His Divine music.
As a physician, this lesson has been indispensable. It has thoroughly reshaped the way I practise medicine. While some patients have straightforward symptoms and diagnoses, many patients we see have symptoms that are more elusive. When I see such a patient, I remind myself that Swami is the Doer. He will help the patient even if I cannot make a clear diagnosis. As Swami says, when we do not know what to do, we should “refer” the patient to Him! If I am involved in an emergent procedure (such as a patient having a massive, life-threatening gastrointestinal hemorrhage), I remind myself that Swami is doing the procedure, and this helps keep me calm. It is easy to fall prey to praise, however, especially when patients have good outcomes. Sometimes patients will give their doctor the highest praise saying, “Doctor, you saved my life.” If a patient ever tells me this, I remember to respond, “No! Please give God the credit because if things did not turn out so well, I would not want the blame!” We usually have a good laugh, and sometimes I imagine Swami having a chuckle over this too.
When we do service, Swami will answer our questions and soothe our hearts. One such example comes to mind during another trip I made to Prasanthi Nilayam. As an Indian-American growing up in a Telugu family, I was exposed to the Telugu language enough to understand conversational Telugu, but unfortunately, I never became fluent enough to speak the language well. This weighed heavily on me particularly during trips to India, when my conversations with grandparents and other family members were limited. It was also especially distressing when I traveled to Prasanthi Nilayam. My inability to converse with patients in Telugu made me feel inadequate and unworthy of the opportunity to serve in Swami’s hospital.
One day, after working at the hospital and with this weighing on my mind, I was walking back to my room in the ashram. On the path behind Swami’s residence, I came across a woman who appeared frantic. She was shrieking in an unfamiliar language and was quite distressed. I could not understand what she was saying, and she did not speak English. I asked a passerby what the issue was, and he said that she was upset because she was going to miss her bus. She had several suitcases and bags and didn’t know what to do. In that instant, I put two of her bags on my shoulders and carried two of her suitcases. I told her that we were going to try to make the bus. She probably had no idea what I was saying. But she carried another bag she had and we both sprinted past the Ganesha temple to the bus station. We were both short of breath and drenched in sweat, but we were able to get on the bus just before it was leaving. I stowed her bags away on the bus and we stared at each other for a moment, realising that there was no way to communicate. I said, “Sai Ram” and started to get off the bus. She signaled to me to wait because she wanted to give me something. She reached into her purse. What happened next is an unforgettable moment in my life. She gave me a majestic picture of Swami sitting on His golden chariot, with the words beneath: “THERE IS ONLY ONE LANGUAGE – THE LANGUAGE OF THE HEART.” How did Swami know? He knew the pain that was in my heart, and He knew how to melt that pain away instantly. That picture remains with me always, and it is a reminder of how compassionate and loving my Swami is. All He wants from us is our love for mankind and to serve others. With that, He will give us infinite grace.
Swami has said that if we do SEVA, He will SAVE us. What a powerful transposition of letters! Time and time again, this has proven true. Swami illustrated this for me recently during an unusually powerful snow storm. I was working in my office and had finished my last procedure. The snow started to fall quite heavily. My colleague had several more procedures to do. The nurses and other staff would have to stay until all the procedures were done, but of course the roads would only become more treacherous as the snow fell. The nurses and other personnel worried about driving home in the storm. I thought about going home after my procedures were done, but something inside me made me stay to help my colleague finish the remaining procedures, so all could go home in a timely manner. Some of the people in the office thought I was foolish to do this, because I had a long drive home.
After completing the procedures, I started my drive home and I immediately questioned my decision. The road conditions were extremely dangerous, and the drive was slow and difficult. But I assured myself that Swami wouldn’t let anything happen to me, despite seeing the dozens of abandoned cars on the side of the road. Driving home, I chanted the Gayathri mantra. I was only about ten miles from home and I started feeling relieved that I was going to make it home safely. But suddenly, I could feel that I was losing control of the car. The car started heading left towards the concrete center median, and I knew I had no control of what was going to happen next. I could feel the car was about to tip over and crash. At that moment, a popular English bhajan sprang into my mind and I blurted out loud, “Swami, take my hand!” As soon as I uttered those words, miraculously, the car swerved to the right and effortlessly straightened out like nothing had ever happened. What was about to be an inevitable accident was averted by the infinite grace of the Lord! I drove the remaining distance home in a state of shock and euphoria.
When I later introspected about the event, I realised that my feeling that Swami would protect me was indeed true. Swami would always guard me from harm if my desire to help others was sincere. I also realised that I could not take any credit for staying late in the office to help my colleague. The doubt that crept into my mind when I started my drive home proved that it wasn’t I who made the decision to stay. Rather, it was my “inner Swami” who guided me to do the right thing. If we can feel what others are feeling (in this case, the anxiety of driving home in a snow storm), and do something to alleviate that burden, Swami will always guide us and protect us from whatever calamity that may be waiting!
I am so grateful to Swami for keeping me in His fold. What I have learned is that it is imperative that we do seva whenever an opportunity presents itself. If we are doctors, we need not limit ourselves to medical seva. It is just as important to feed the hungry, brighten the spirits of the elderly, and take care of Mother Earth. We should strive to serve our fellow man in any way possible. By doing so, we serve our Lord, as He is in all and everywhere around us. When we do service, it gives Swami the opportunity to grow the love and compassion in our hearts. He alleviates our fears and removes our doubts. He gives us self-confidence. He confers on us His grace and protection. What better benefit than that! I pray that Swami keeps us in His fold and uses us as His instruments always.
All service should be regarded as an offering to God and every opportunity to serve should be welcomed as a gift from God.
Sathya Sai Speaks, Vol. 20 Ch. 26, November 19, 1987
Dr. Ravikant Varanasi, USA
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