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The Praxis of Niṣkāma Sevā and Mainstream Social Work

Richard Alpert, a Stanford psychology professor known for his work on psychoanalysis and the therapeutic use of psychedelic drugs, underwent a transformative journey that led him to become Ram Dass. Intrigued by the concept of Kuṇḍalini in yoga – a primal energy often visualized as a coiled serpent at the spine’s base, believed to awaken spiritual enlightenment and self-realization – he once asked his Guru, Neem Karoli Baba, about the best way to awaken this energy.

Neem Karoli Baba, affectionately known as Maharaj Ji, responded with love and warmth, offering profound yet simple guidance. He suggested, feeding the poor and serving them (seva) was the path to awakening the Kuṇḍalini. In his words, serving ‘Nara’ (the Individual) is akin to serving ‘Nārāyaṇa’ (the Divine). This answer encapsulates the essence of spiritual practice as selfless service, emphasizing compassion and altruism as keys to spiritual growth and enlightenment.

From a social work perspective, academic circles have a broad consensus about the profound connection between spirituality and social work. This understanding not only sees caring for others and serving the community as social responsibilities but also views them as spiritual practices that contribute to personal growth and fulfilment. Furthermore, incorporating spirituality into social work often cultivates altruism, enhancing the act of helping others. This sense of selfless concern for the well-being of others, inspired by spiritual values, significantly enriches and motivates the practice of social work.

Today’s social work structure and praxis however are deeply rooted and influenced by the Biopsychosocial Framework and its complex interactions in understanding health, illness, and health care delivery.

Social workers approach issues from an ecological perspective, understanding that problems are systemic and involve biological, psychological, social, and spiritual elements. Recognising these complexities, our assessments delve into these interconnected dimensions, ensuring a thorough and effective understanding of intervention.

When we observe the various facets of this biopsychosocial framework we understand the following components:

Biological Lens

The biological dimension refers to the role of biological systems — be they within our bodies (e.g. genetic predispositions), or outside (e.g. airborne pathogens that impact our functioning) — upon our health and well-being.

Psychological Lens

The psychological dimension refers to the role of thoughts, emotions, and behaviour on individual, group, or community functioning. Including this dimension also requires us to look at the mind-body connection in assessing a variety of common social work phenomena such as the emotional regulation of stress.

Social Lens

The social dimension refers to how individuals relate to various groups and institutions in society – and how groups and institutions relate to individuals or classes of individuals. Our mission to assist not only the immediate client system but also the larger society is one of the things that separates social work from the other helping professions. The social lens allows us to see the impact of “isms” such as racism, sexism, and ageism on the ability of people to reach goals. It also reveals key strengths in the social systems that surround clients, which can be leveraged to help solve the problem.

Shifting to a different yet pivotal aspect of the Biopsychosocial framework, recent studies on the psychological dimensions of altruistic motivations in individuals dedicated to humanitarian service have highlighted the need to incorporate a spiritual lens. This evolving understanding suggests that spirituality, often overlooked in traditional frameworks, is indeed a significant factor in comprehending the motivations and actions of those committed to serving humanity. It underscores the importance of a more holistic approach in analyzing and supporting altruistic behaviors, an outlook understood as a Spiritual lens.

Spiritual Lens

The spiritual dimension refers to the role of religious or spiritual beliefs on well-being here, while it is not clear what role spirituality plays in the lives of the individuals.

Viewed from a Bhāratīya perspective, particularly in the realm of social work, ‘spirituality’ is increasingly seen as a vital intervention, especially in transpersonal domains. It also serves as an epistemic foundation for the values and ethics intrinsic to the profession. The core belief here is that the spiritual Self (Ātman) of an individual is central, with all other aspects of existence either converging towards or diverging from this spiritual essence. This perspective enriches our understanding and approach to social work, integrating a deep spiritual dimension into the care and support of individuals.

This ādhyātmika sheath to the altruistic nature of various saints and individuals has always existed, it can be seen in countless examples of various saints and seers can be seen in the tradition where the centrality of the “individual self-making and Self-actualization’’ to acts of altruism’ that cuts across the rich spiritual legacy of Bhārata encompassing Sanātana dharma (with its sub-traditions sampradāya), Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.

Sant Eknath, Damaji Pant, and Sant Tukaram are revered figures whose actions were deeply rooted in spiritual values, demonstrating how such principles can inspire significant societal change. Similarly, King Janaka, known to be a contemporary of Lord Rāma, is a powerful example, with his story as recounted in the Bhagavadgītā. Janaka was celebrated as a just and compassionate ruler who served his people with wisdom and detachment. He embodied the principle of Niṣkāma Sevā, performing his duties as a king without any attachment to personal gain or the outcomes of his actions.

Just like Eknath’s commitment to fighting societal ills such as untouchability, inspired by Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s teachings and emphasizing purity in thought, speech, and practices, Janaka’s reign illustrates the practice of selfless service in governance. Similarly, Damaji Pant’s act of risking his life to open granaries for the drought-stricken populace and Tukaram’s extreme selflessness in giving away all his possessions for societal welfare resonate with Janaka’s philosophy of detached action for the greater good.

These stories collectively offer profound insights into how spiritual values can significantly influence actions for the betterment of society. The lives of these luminaries continue to inspire and guide efforts towards creating a more just and compassionate world. Their legacy underlines the impact of spirituality in fostering altruism and social responsibility.

Further understanding the philosophies that drive this altruism, one can take the example of the idea of practical Vedānta by Swami Vivekananda, the essence of such an approach to the Vedānta philosophy by Ādi Śaṅkarācārya was to transform it into a universal value system for the common populace. The main intention of Sw. Vivekananda’s practical Vedānta is to make possible the development of a ‘universal attitude’ towards the common people. The ‘universal attitude’, as understood by Vivekananda means to see one’s self in others, and other creatures in one’s self. One understands that the philosophy of Vivekananda is highly relevant to the turmoil situation we are running through.

Swami Vivekananda’s philosophy, deeply rooted in spirituality, plays a pivotal role in shaping the lives of both the ordinary and the extraordinary. Unlike traditional sannyāsins focused solely on personal liberation, his approach was revolutionary. He dedicated his life to the salvation of society as a whole. His interpretation of saṃnyāsa as an act of doing good for others highlights a profound shift from self-centered spirituality to an epitome of altruism.

Vivekananda’s teachings, grounded in Vedānta, particularly Advaita Vedānta, offer solutions to the erosion of human values in contemporary society. He believed that applying these principles could combat social evils such as dishonesty, violence, and greed. By embracing the ideology of Advaita Vedānta, which teaches the oneness of all souls and their inherent divinity, individuals can develop self-confidence, courage, and a broader perspective on life.

This philosophical framework posits that understanding one’s identity with Brahman (the universal consciousness) can liberate an individual from limitations. Vivekananda emphasized that realizing “Tattvamasi” allows a person to identify as Brahman alone, unlocking a spiritual force that elevates humanity beyond its perceived boundaries.

Swami Vivekananda’s emphasis on Niṣkāma Karma (selfless action), which he termed ‘sevā’ (service), is a testament to how spirituality can foster altruism. This concept is integral to modern social work, where selfless service and the welfare of the community are paramount. By viewing each soul as part of a universal whole, we are reminded of our interconnectedness, encouraging us to act for the collective good. Vivekananda’s address at the Chicago Parliament of Religions, starting with “My sisters and brothers of America,” and his belief that “the whole world is my family,” underline this ethos.

Incorporating such spiritual perspectives into today’s social work ecosystem can profoundly influence how we approach service and altruism. It can inspire a shift from individualistic pursuits to a more collective, empathetic, and selfless approach to societal development and human welfare.

Further, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism are also crucial components of Indian Knowledge Systems and offer distinct insights. Jainism focuses on non-violence and karma, influencing concepts of interconnectedness and selfless service. Buddhism, with its teachings on suffering and enlightenment, deepens our understanding of the human experience and spiritual pursuit and Sikhism signifies selfless acts of sacrifice and protecting the vulnerable.

Together, these traditions enrich Indian philosophical thought with their perspectives on compassion and ethical living.

The Jain motto “Parasparopagraho Jīvānām” from the Tattvārtha Sūtra beautifully captures the essence of ‘seva’ in Jain philosophy, which is interpreted both secularly as “All life is bound together by mutual support and interdependence,” and philosophically as “Souls render service to one another.” These interpretations highlight the mutual respect and interdependence of all life. Further complementing this view, Jina Mahavir’s teachings emphasize that harming any living being is akin to harming oneself, and compassion for others is compassion for oneself. This aligns with the Jain belief in karma, where every action impacts the individual first and foremost. In this context, ‘seva’ is a conscious choice to engage in positive, self-realizing actions, affirming the interconnected nature of all existence and actions.

In Buddhism, the concept of service is deeply connected with the teachings of compassion and loving-kindness, as emphasized by Buddha. He highlighted the importance of life to all beings, teaching that every creature, no matter how small, holds the desire to live. This principle of reverence for life underpins the Buddhist practice of metta (loving-kindness), which is cultivated towards all beings, as expressed in the “Metta Sutta.” Buddha urged the cultivation of boundless love and kindness towards all beings, akin to a mother protecting her only child, reinforcing that service and compassion are inseparable in Buddhist philosophy.

This Buddhist ethos of service and compassion, as taught by Buddha, shares a profound connection with the ideals exemplified by Guru Tegh Bahadur in Sikhism.

Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, is revered for embodying Niṣkāma Sevā, or selfless service, especially in his commitment to religious freedom. He opposed forced conversions in a time of intense turmoil in India, a stance culminating in his martyrdom in 1675, now commemorated by the Gurdwara Sheesh Ganj Sahib in Delhi. His teachings, particularly in Sorath Rag, outline the virtues of an ideal human, advocating equanimity, detachment from materialism, and transcendence over ego and desires. His life and teachings symbolize devotion to upholding dharma and moral righteousness, transcending religious barriers and continuing to inspire the path of selfless service and spiritual integrity.

As Swami Vivekananda emphasized, “Ātmano mokṣārthaṃ jagaddhitāya ca,” - For one’s own salvation and the welfare of the world” drives home the message of serving the divine through service of humanity.

Understanding the need for imbibing these spiritual aspects and their impact on social work and as a part of praxis in deep diving into the same, the Centre of Excellence for Indian Knowledge Systems at IIT Kharagpur, in collaboration with the Indian Council of Social Science Research and Brhat, is organizing a two-day National Seminar on Niṣkāma Sevā. This seminar aims to explore the intersection of spirituality and social work, emphasizing the holistic Indic models from Sanatana, Jain, and Buddhist traditions.

Key topics include defining spirituality in social work, the transition from individual spirituality to altruism, and the role of spirituality in human life.

This event is a significant part of a larger project titled ‘Emerging inter-disciplinary models based on the study of niṣkāma sevā in different Indic schools of thought,’ led by Dr. Richa Chopra (CoE-IKS, IIT Kharagpur) as Principal Investigator with Co-PIs Dr. Sima Dey (Sports Authority of India), Pravrajika Divyanandaprana( Sri Sarada Math & Ramakrishna Sarada Mission), and Dr. Ravindra P N (Centre for Consciousness Studies, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences).

This seminar and project collectively aim to integrate these spiritual perspectives into mainstream social work practices. For more detailed information, you can visit the seminar’s webpage (CoE IKS, IIT KGP, 2024)

To understand the core of the project, in social work, spirituality is gradually visualized as a classical intervention (particularly in transpersonal domains) as well as in lending an epistemic base to the values and ethics of the profession. In Bhārata, the accounts of Sanātana dharma extend from centuries. Within Sanātana dharma, there are many spiritual sub-traditions, generally called “sampradāya”. Seeking to emphasize their fidelity to Vedas, darśana (as Yoga, Vedānta,), Upaniṣads, and Bhagavadgītā, these sub-traditions differ in ideology, sādhanā, rituals, and forms of worship, yet contain a commonality – the centrality of ‘individual self-making and Self-actualization’ which expresses as the essence of altruism. This plays a critical role in configuring the nature of the public sphere. The underlying assumption is that the spiritual Self of the individual needs to be addressed, and only then do all other aspects of existence converge into, or diverge from.

With Research Aims as:
  • Explore the psychic processes in the evolution of an individual through micro-oriented spiritual enculturation and its macro-oriented altruistic demonstrations (niṣkāma sevā) – based on phenomenological accounts of renunciate sādhakas from Ramakrishna order (Advaita Vedānta), Bauls (Vaiṣṇava Sahajiyā), ISKCON (Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism) and the Art of Living (AOL; Yoga-Vedānta, Āyurveda). An Indic model of niṣkāma sevā - critical to spiritually inclined social work interventions - is envisioned.
  • Evolve the ‘Art of Living’ as a ‘science of living’ module/theory by identification of common factors that help participants transform themselves and
  • Outline scientific research directions for a Yoga-Vedānta ‘First Person Research Methodology Framework’.

With Projected Outcomes:

  • Gaps addressed in the existing bio-psycho-social models of social work by the emerged Indic model of niṣkāma sevā
  • The Indic ‘science of living’ posited.
  • An expected epistemological and theoretical Yoga-Vedānta framework that would shed light on the current challenges of First-person Inquiry.
  • First-person accounts of renunciate sādhakas which will serve as raw data for future research endeavours to carry out inter- and trans-disciplinary experiments especially relevant to the fast-emerging fields such as neuro-phenomenology, cognitive psychology, and positive psychology.
  • Establishment and augmentation of the scope of Yoga-Vedānta, in a practical manner and for larger humanity as a ‘do it by yourself science’ for inner & outer well-being. (CoE IKS, IIT KGP, 2024)

The seminar, convened by Dr. Richa Chopra, seeks to enrich mainstream social work with an Indic model of selfless service. It focuses on spiritual practices leading to altruism, as she highlights, “Unconditionality is the crown jewel of liberation.” The event will delve into defining spirituality in social work, the transformation of personal spirituality to altruism, and the role of spirituality in human existence, aiming to integrate India’s spiritual heritage into social work and contribute to theoretical and psycho-spiritual literature and Bṛhat is proud to associate here as a knowledge partner supporting this seminal effort building a theory around the idea of Indic model of niṣkāma sevā.

The Seminar invites participation and contributions from various stakeholders, including:

  1. Students and faculty from Higher Educational Institutions.

  2. Professionals in the social work field and related domains.

  3. Scholars and grassroots volunteers from organizations dedicated to niṣkāma sevā (selfless service).

For more detailed information in regards to registration, you can visit the seminar’s webpage:


Also, a call for poster presentations is made a part of the seminar.

  1. https://www.routledgesw.com/interactive-cases/riverton/assess/biopsychosocial-perspectives
  2. https://iitkgpcoeiks.in/NiskamaSeva/about.php
  3. https://ir.nbu.ac.in/bitstream/123456789/3396/1/March_2015_19.pdf