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What Is Service?

By Celia Coates

I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I woke and saw that life was service.
I acted, and behold,
Service was joy.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

This is one of Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore’s best-known poems. It is lovely and deceptively simple, an easy read as a kind of lyrical haiku. But it’s so much more than that – it’s a deep lesson from an extraordinary mystic.

Service is work that’s done for others. As I typed that sentence I glanced down at a magazine open on the table in front of me and saw “IT’S ALL ABOUT YOU” printed on the page in big, bold letters. With John McCain’s death this week, praise for his very real service to our country has been front and center in the eulogies. Military service, national service, public service, none of them are about working only for your own self. Service is definitely not all about you, and it seems to have gone out of fashion along with the need to develop character. Instead we are encouraged to establish our brand, create our on-line presence, or design a compelling avatar – all of this is about making efforts just for the individual self.

Tagore’s kind of service – work that’s connected to the Divine – operates at yet another level. Like John McCain’s kind of service it had to do with what he believed, valued, cherished, and fought for in life. Both kinds serve the greater good, but the poet’s understanding of service includes the infinite good.

I’ll back up for a minute and describe a little about Tagore and how he came to his knowledge that service was joy. Born into a distinguished Bengali family with wealth and privilege, he was educated to lead a life of achievement. He was highly independent and preferred to learn on his own rather than through attending schools. He has been quoted as saying that the best education does not involve teachers explaining things, but in creating curiosity.

Rabindranath Tagore is seen primarily as a poet but he also wrote novels, short stories, plays, and essays, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. He was also an influential musician and artist.
He had a great interest in the welfare of the people of India and he,
*  Worked to free villagers from ignorance and powerlessness
*  Advocated the end of British rule and participated in the Indian  nationalist movement
*  Spent years expanding a school founded by his father, Santiniketan,  which became a successful experiment in combining art, human values, and cultural richness.

Tagore’s belief in the essential humanity of all led him to many practical acts of service, doing worldly work for others. His study of the sacred scriptures of Hinduism – the Vedas and Upanishads – taught him about the nature of reality and transcendental states of awareness. He lived by ancient spiritual precepts and they are reflected in his writing. These four are among the most important beliefs for this poem,
*  The universe is a partial manifestation of the Infinite Spirit.
*  The Infinite Spirit is all ineffable joy and love.
*  True knowledge involves the perception of unity of all things in God.
*  The evolution and ultimate freedom of mankind is furthered through self surrender in service and love.

For me the first line, I slept and dreamt that life was joy, is about the transcendent state that is vision-filled and in touch with non-physical reality and mystic wisdom. Then the second line, I woke and saw that life was service, crashes down to the harshness of the ordinary perception of life. With the third line, I acted and behold, tells us about the power of clear choices that resulted in the realization in the fourth line that, Service was joy.

What Tagore meant by acted is that involvement in work provides the way to connect the sacred and the human realities: service is the dynamic manifestation of the infinite in the finite world and results in the joy mystics speak of finding when they meet the Divine.

Tagore’s poem left me with an unanswered question – How, in my own life, can I balance taking care of myself and being of true service? So far I don’t have a full enough answer.

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Some of the information in this post came from TAGORE: The Mystic Poets, one of a series of books published by Skylight Paths Publishing, 2004. The poems were translated from the Bengali by Tagore himself and the Preface was written by Swami Adiswarananda.