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Seva lends itself to easy appropriation across political and religious contexts, while also furnishing mutually intelligible tropes of service, welfare, and social betterment.

What does it mean to be of service to others? Does it necessarily imply selflessness? If not, at what point does service become a means to advancing self- or group-interests? When do such interests challenge hegemonic structures, and when do they risk reinforcing normative positions? The notion and practice of seva, often translated as “service,” poses these questions in Indian religious and political contexts. With deep roots in Indic spiritual traditions, seva is invoked as a political tool, but also runs the risk of seeming too sectarian. In its multiple articulations in Indian political life since the nineteenth century, this tension has defined seva.

The root words “saha” (together with) and “eva” (that/them too) that make up seva translate into “being together with the other.” It thus invokes a commitment to togetherness and empathy cutting across caste, economic, and religious lines. For the sevak (the one performing seva), it requires an ethic of sacrifice, discipline, and selfless service in bettering the lot of the oppressed and the marginalized. Both the mode of service and the other to whom the sevak caters invite multiple intersecting, but also divergent, imaginaries. Thus, seva’s role around discourses of caste and nationalism in Indian political-spiritual life merits greater engagement. Each paradigm counters but also complements the other, at levels of both conceptualizing and practicing seva. At least a part of this overlap traces back to a dichotomy inherent in seva’s role as both political ideology and action. Seva invariably strikes notes of religiosity in everyday politics, even in forms that actively interrogate and challenge the centrality of religion in Indian social life. Seva thus lends itself to easy appropriation across political and religious contexts, while also furnishing mutually intelligible tropes of service, welfare, and social betterment.

Seva as Non-Duality 

Seva emerged in the public realm with Hindu reform movements in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, invoked especially by the philosopher-monk Swami Vivekananda, who reconfigured the much older Advaita school’s message of non-dualism into a commitment to serving the other. Sumit Sarkar posits Vivekananda’s philosophy as a radical break from the tendency of his time to view spirituality as belonging in an exclusively private realm, in opposition to the increasingly material, urban, and Westernizing public sphere of late nineteenth-century India. However, Vivekananda and his monastic order’s avowed aim to steer clear of political activism complicates the extent of seva’s role in public life. As Gwilym Beckerlegge shows, seva activities necessarily demand engagement with political forces, even adopting a clear—if also subtle—stance on issues of caste, and increasingly human rights. At the same time, a seva-orientation also means such articulations often uncritically extoll the virtues of the eternal faith (sanatana dharma) in seeming indifference to the histories of discrimination perpetuated under its name.

Seva and Caste 

Although based outside a monastic order, Gandhi’s vision of seva is in some senses more spiritual than Vivekananda’s. It involves an unqualified surrender to the service and well-being of the other, setting aside egotistic urges of the self. At its core, Gandhian seva rests on an ability to perform service in a disinterested, detached manner, ignoring its impact on the self. As Tridib Suhrud points out, even though the Gandhian lineage of seva is traceable to the notion of yajna or sacrifice in the Bhagavad Gita, in the nationalist context, it also becomes a supreme assertion of the self’s agency, and thus, an expression of both spiritual and political freedom. To be free, then, is an act of transcending all self-interested action in the service of the most marginalized and oppressed.

According to R.Srivatsan, despite these spiritual undertones, the Gandhian paradigm of seva had a strong political economic component in the form of promoting, for example, cottage industries and homespun cloth. In addition to challenging colonialism, seva critiques modernity’s techno-economic scale. Here again, we see a tension between framing seva in purely traditional spiritual terms and deploying it as a strategic political force. Admittedly, the Gandhian framework sees both of these as mutually supportive strands in India’s freedom movement. Thus, it brings together anti-colonial resistance and uplifting oppressed castes within a seva-oriented nationalist discourse.

Gandhian seva’s root in Hindu spiritual traditions left limited room for strident social reform. Most notably, the anti-caste stance Gandhi adopted tends more towards a patronizing than an inclusive stance. Its appeal remains limited to the upper castes in exhorting a purification of heart as a first step toward overcoming discriminatory mindsets. In this vision, seva follows a top-down approach and casts the oppressed castes as passive recipients of favors, marginal to the project of national reawakening.

A Rights-Based Approach

Gandhi’s strongest critic, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, attacks this conservative approach to seva. Ambedkar formulates an alternative, rights-based approach to seva with social justice for the marginalized at its core. The sevak, in this model, is no longer necessarily from the upper castes, but rather drawn from within the ranks of the oppressed. As Ambedkar notes, those with shared life experiences can perform seva more effectively than those from a vantage point of relative privilege. Shifting from a predominantly religious framing of seva, Ambedkar proposes seva as a means for cultivating solidarity among citizens of the then-future Indian republic. The impulse to seva emerges on this view from an ability to commiserate in shared, collective suffering.

While avoiding religious tropes, Ambedkar’s politics does eventually draw from Buddhist instead of Hindu thought systems. Ananya Vajpeyi argues that Ambedkar’s politics of social justice stem from reinterpreting the Buddhist notion of duhkha (individual grief or suffering). He links the spiritual with the political by reimagining duhkha as collective suffering of the oppressed under casteism. Likewise, if the antidote to such suffering is solidarity expressed through service at the political level, the spirit of solidarity in seva gets formalized as fraternity in the preamble to the Indian constitution. As Aakash Singh Rathore discusses, Ambedkar cites the Buddhist notion of metta (in Pali) or maitri (in Sanskrit), both meaning friendship, as closer to his formulation of fraternity. This shift from the political to the ethical/spiritual indicates the tension intrinsic to seva‘s deployment as a political act.

Balancing Political Possibilities 

Seva, as an ethic and practice of care, thus points toward the possibilities of politics at odds with each other at many levels. On one hand, the concept’s deep roots in Indic traditions furnish a plank for conservative, revivalist articulations such as right-wing Hindutva. On the other, the stress on intergroup solidarities as a means to social change equips seva with a transformative, radical possibility that finds expression in social movements of and by the marginalized, including in anti-caste movements. Even within these movements, seva’s emphasis on unflinching sacrifice of the self in the service of the other needs to be balanced against ceding ground to competing interest groups. The relationship between the provider and beneficiary of seva also influences this balancing act. In both spiritual and political terms, seva as an ideal necessitates moving beyond, and often inverting, the dynamic of privilege and privation that makes the relationship possible in the first place. In a relationship of seva, the benefactor also stands to gain in terms of accruing spiritual and moral worth.

Seva-oriented politics draws much of its political capital from presenting an image of stolid indifference to the fruits of one’s actions. With its emphasis on discharging duties regardless of their results, seva privileges means of political action over ends. In fact, an inability to cultivate such an outlook is cast as a moral failure and associated with political rivals. Bereft of a spiritual and moral core, such forms of politics appear as mere opportunism.

Generally, this viewpoint indicates a degree of unease in the Indian political scene, with complete separation between secular and spiritual realms. As a result, even in left-leaning politics, tropes of selfless service for the collective tap into spiritual or at least cultural idioms related to seva as a means of legitimacy. As with selfless service, the challenge in this case lies in reconciling advancing political ends with the means-centric approach that defines seva, especially in the realm of everyday power dynamics. At the theoretical and practical level, then, it becomes important to situate such realpolitikal maneuvers in relation to realizing a grand, often teleological vision. Malini Bhattacharjee points out that the emotional appeal of seva often helps create and mobilize favorable constituencies. In the current political context, this is most evident in Hindutva politics, which deftly maneuver seva-based activities to craft and reinforce inter-caste solidarity within Hindu groups. While such activities in themselves are not exclusionary of other religious groups, they have the potential to translate into consolidation for Hindu supremacist forces. 

The tension between selflessness and expediency that characterises seva’s role in public life traces back to the opposing imperatives that underlie its spiritual avatar. In fact, the arc of seva attains completeness only in being both a performance and an orientation of service toward the world and the other. Even as the sevak renounces material well-being, or commits to a life of disinterested action, they cannot shy away from and sustain engagement with the public sphere seva demands. All seva-centric politics both replicate and negotiate past this dilemma.   


Annotated Bibliography

Beckerlegge, Gwilym. “Responding to Conflict: A Test of the Limits of Neo-Vedantic Social Activism in Ramakrishna Math and Mission?” International Journal of Hindu Studies, 11, no. 1 (2007): 1-25.

Theorizing Vivekananda’s notion of seva as a pragmatic, expedient strategy to popularize traditionally hermetic Vedantic teachings, Beckerlegge highlights the tension between social reformist interventions of seva and the decidedly apolitical stance Vivekananda and his monastic order adopted.

Bhattacharjee, Malini. “Building a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ through ‘Seva.’” Economic and Political Weekly Engage 56, no. 3 (2021).

Contextualizing her study in the growing relevance of Hindutva in India, Bhattacharjee explores seva as a defining core of Hindutva’s political ambitions. Avoiding conventional readings that identify seva as merely a tool for reaping electoral gains, she studies seva‘s emotive appeal at both organizational and popular level for right-wing politics.

Menon, Sangeetha. Advaita Vedanta. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed on 03 December 2022.

This entry is a succinct introduction to Advaita, one of the oldest schools of Hindu philosophy. While focusing predominantly on the monistic theory of knowledge associated with the school, she also brings out the relation between this knowledge and its outcomes in terms of an individual’s actions towards the self and others.    

Moon, Vasant (Ed.). Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol.9. New Delhi: Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 2014.

A part of the seventeen volume collection of Ambedkar’s works, this book features arguments distinguishing his vision of seva from the one outlined by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress.    

Rathore, Aakash Singh. Ambedkar’s Preamble: A Secret History of the Constitution of India. Gurgaon: Vintage, 2020. 

An exploration of the intellectual influences on Ambedkar’s drafting of the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. Rathore shows that both Western and Indic thought systems played a critical role for Ambedkar in defining the Preamble’s principles in terms relatable to most Indians.

Sarkar, Sumit. “‘Kaliyuga’, ‘Chakri’ and ‘Bhakti’: Ramakrishna and His Times.” Economic and Political Weekly, 27, no. 29 (1992): 1543-1566.

Sarkar posits the appeal of the nineteenth century urban religious reform movements on their presenting an alternative vision of colonial modernity. He argues that this tendency was most evident among the upwardly mobile middle classes who saw in these spaces a possibility to realize their spiritual yearnings, including those of adopting more socially committed stances.

Srivatsan, R. “Concept of ‘Seva’ and the ‘Sevak’ in the Freedom Movement.” Economic and Political Weekly 41, no. 5 (2006): 427-438.

Srivatsan interrogates opposing formulations of seva within the Gandhian and Ambedkarite paradigms. He recognizes the introduction of seva as central to Gandhi’s nationalist discourse, but also highlights the patronizing narrative this spurs, and Ambedkar’s subsequent rebuttal from a rights-centric rather than charity-centric prism.

Suhrud, Tridib. “Seva”, Keywords for India: A Conceptual Lexicon for the 21st Century. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020: 284-85

Suhrud traces the evolution of seva from a primarily religious concept through its increasingly political contemporary usage, showing how the sacrifice-centric understanding of the term in the Bhagavad Gita found articulations in how Vivekananda and Gandhi interpreted seva.

Vajpeyi, Ananya. Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India. London: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Vajpeyi examines Ambedkar’s reinterpretation of the foundational Buddhist concept of “duhkha,” or disenchantment with the world, in the context of twentieth-century anti-caste politics. She identifies this concept as the basis of Ambedkar’s policy formulations against casteism.

Vivekananda, Swami. Karma Yoga: The Yoga of Action, Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, [1896] 2010.   

In this book Vivekananda lays out the path of ethical and informed action, more specifically, service to others, as a means to attain salvation. Along with jnana (knowledge), bhakti (devotion) and raja (meditation), this path forms one of the core tenets of his philosophy of self-realization.

Survivance

Native survivance, in [Gerald] Vizenor’s parlance, is a combination of the words “survival” and “resistance,” and it “creates a sense of presence.” According to him, “The suffix -ance designates a condition, a nature, or a quality that is more than a mere description of survival.”

Relationality

Where relationality is most productive in critical projects is where it transcends its projects of critique and explores the possibilities—ethical, political, and theological—of its account of subjectivity and community.

Martyrdom

Facing the violence of contemporary terror, many intellectuals have spoken in our present times about a return of political theology and religion in its violent forms. Attention to the concept of martyrdom has reappeared due to an increasing interest in religious conflicts.

Autopoiesis

In autopoiesis, there is no separation between what we do and the particular way in which the world appears to us.

Sovereignty

Where state sovereignty as theology would have subjected groups accept their condition with its attending violence and suffering, the micro sovereignty I propose here – not merely as a futuristic idea, but more as a reflection on how subjected groups have dealt with subjection – invites us not to accept that violence and suffering, but to find creative ways out of it through the cracks of Empire.

Abolition

Abolition is a process of imagining alternatives to the settler colonial, carceral present; it requires modes of kinship and care to replace prisons and policing.

Gratuitous Violence

Signifying a critical homology between the fields of Black studies and political theology, gratuitous violence is an important keyword for interrogating how religio-political concepts can afford unique insights into issues of slavery, race, and the human which continue to inform our world today.  

Techno-Orientalism

Asian American literary criticism’s analysis of contemporary orientalisms centered around the figuration of Asian subjectivities reminds political theologians that unconscious (white) fear and fascination with the Orient still guides political and theoretical engagement with the Asian “other.”

Thing

Thing as concept can be helpful to elucidate the specific yet ambiguous interaction of the religious and the political. Using recent thingly theoretical work within these two spheres, with an emphasis on body and shape, I will suggest ways through which thing (and things and thingness) both clarifies and challenges that interaction.

Diaspora

Diaspora might be a problem for political progressives for the very reason that it is so alluring. Diaspora promises both freedom and connection: freedom from national borders or the essentialisms of race and language, connection between people who affirm shared memory and heritage.
But heritage is never really free.

Blackness

If there is one thing that can be said about blackness, it is this: blackness is unruly.

Black Reason

Black reason is propelled by a fantastic imaginary, a changeling animus that aggregates and transmogrifies the desires and fears of whiteness.

Racial Capitalism

The historical and theoretical relationships between race and capitalism are internally contested and in need of further exploration from theologians and scholars of religion.

Eugenics

Sometimes referred to as “population control,” other times “better breeding,” eugenics has been seen as a religious solution to social ills, and sometimes a new religion unto itself.

Humanism

Gilroy’s “planetary humanism” contributes to political theology by offering more than a critique: in his work, humanism is a starting point, a concept to guide multicultural political projects today.

Risk

Official responses to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have encouraged us to understand risk in individual terms. They’re wrong: risk is all about interdependence.

Food Sovereignty

Food sovereignty represents a refusal of a globally commodified food system in favor of systems and institutions that support self-sufficient communities.

Doxa

Doxa is a term used in sociology to contend with belief and orthodoxy without reducing either to behavior or cognition. It explores disposition and embodied belief—the gut sense of the world which is acquired through practice rather than discourse.

Settler Colonialism

I propose Decolonial Settler Theology as a contextual political theology that is uniquely the task of the settler, who must face their own complicity in narratives of ongoing colonization and aim at their undoing.

Police

In an era during which police institutions and ideology are so fundamental to our cultural common-sense, how can theologians and critical theorists challenge this form of power?

Taboo

This essay takes taboo as a critical term to trace the history of our modern present and as a conceptual companion with which to think through the complex entanglement of the ethical, the theological, and the political.

Affect

What is still nascent… is an explicit conversation between political theology and critical theories of affect, particularly in a way that might contribute to constructive projects. The sort of political theology that might emerge from such collaboration would consider how affective regimes intersect with theological constructions or religious performances.

Kinship

While kinship has traditionally held a vibrant conceptual life in anthropological inquiry, more recent studies on kinship as a form of spiritual relationality have opened up a new space of interdisciplinary exploration for political theology.

Command/Commandment

The modern state form itself is inextricable from the commandement, not just as an emblem for sovereignty in Schmitt’s sense, but also because the exemplary political form of modernity, the nation-state, has racist and exclusionary tendencies that can be understood as political-theological transfers of monotheistic principles.

Mourning

That structural violence is always also relational, proximate, and personal is, perhaps, one of the core insights that the concept of mourning brings to the fore for political theology.

Personhood

The conversation about nature’s personhood and rights is always political, often legal, and sometimes theological. Most importantly, it is a localized conversation about the boundaries of a given community – who is part of the community and who isn’t.

Sympathy

For political theology, we might find ourselves compelled by practices that seek to connect us with our ecologies, our communities, and our relations with ourselves – in ways that are more about humility and provisionality than finding cures or solutions.

Queer

Queer, I think, should remain different, differing, dissonant, and plural. It shouldn’t contract or calcify into anything singular or solid.

Care

If theorizations of care are to more directly address the current “crisis of care,” we need not only to prioritize the kinds of embodied, particularized care that care ethics has highlighted in the past, but to explore a wider range of caring relationships and their diverse structures.

Matter

A preliminary question for political theology is how to understand the meaning and significance of matter. The response to this question shapes how a political theology does or doesn’t engage political economy and theological tradition.

Money

The triangulation of money, sovereignty, and divinity is a good point of entry to study the mutual constitution of theological and political concepts and the questions about ultimate value and social form that they raise.

Refusal

Refusal is a strong current resisting the structure of settler colonialism. It crashes, churns, and erodes the death-dealing dams of settler knowing. Its path turns away from the settler’s gaze.

Seva

Seva lends itself to easy appropriation across political and religious contexts, while also furnishing mutually intelligible tropes of service, welfare, and social betterment.

Abstraction

Political theology intimately understands that given reality teems with forms of life that remain opaque to us.

Flesh

Spillers, Cheng, and Halberstam provide us with tools to approach the histories of violence, economics, relationships, desires, and contestation that infuse our experiences with flesh in its multiplicity. Flesh is never neutral.

Indigeneity

It is not always possible (or advisable) to separate the “political” from the “religious” or “cultural” in Indigenous contexts. Indeed, all of these are concepts developed by outsiders to describe Indigenous life. Instead, Indigeneity invites scholars of political theology and related fields to consider the relationships between these threads of cultural life.

Animal

As we watch the illusion that was Man fall apart, we also see these more-than-human worlds that Man called “animal” disrupting and revealing the cracks and fractures in his own divine intentions.

Temporality I: History

William Apess, like Walter Benjamin a century later, sought to shift the paradigms of society with history and theology as orienting poles for colonial critique. Anticipating Benjamin, Apess looked to those who had been wrecked by the advance of colonialism as the grounding site for historical and political theological inquiry.

Temporality II: Futurity

Both Benjamin and Apess discern that historical narratives are imbricated with notions of futurity, that is, which bodies and polities are allowed to inhabit and thrive within the temporality in which the “not yet” and the “always already” co-constitute each other.

Natality

In this short essay, written from my perspective as a Jewish feminist, I draw together a plurality of engagements with natality to engender new conversations in political theology.

Coming

Critical Race Theory

CRT is a framework or an approach to understanding the way racism is foundational to systems of judicial, political, social, cultural, religious, and theological power.

Coming

Demonology

“[S]ituating demonology more fully in its religious and theological contexts furnishes resources that not only nuance understandings of movements for whom demonization is central, but also recontextualize discussions of core political theological concepts, including sovereignty, power, economy, subjectivity, and freedom.”

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