Seva – Understanding the human psychology behind volunteering

Unless very spiritually evolved, most of us live in this world with lots of selfish motives. We lead our lives for our sustenance and procreation, to protect ourselves from dangers, to fulfill our desires, to dominate others, to love others, to hate others, to be loved by others, to be respected by others and so on. When, in these motives, we encounter resistance or hurdles, at times we do not mind acting too selfish by causing difficulties and troubles others, subjugating others or treading into others’ territory to garner forcefully something from their rightful share.

The tendency to help others

Side by side with our selfish motives, we also have inkling within our heart, either prompted by our own conscience, or based on the teachings and advice from parents, teachers and religious masters, that selfishness is essentially an undesirable quality. We are also taught to be kind and helpful to others; we are also advised to pay something back to the society in return for what it does for our welfare.

For those believing in God, it is told that God lives in the heart of every being and by offering help to the needy without selfish motives, we are in a way doing something to please the God who happens to be the indweller of the recipient.

Thus even in the heart of a hard core criminal, there is a soft corner to extend a helping hand to others. Tendency to help others is a spiritual force to counter-balance selfishness existing in human psyche.

Volunteering Help

When one willingly offers one’s time, money, material or physical/ mental/intellectual help to others, without “outwardly” expecting anything in return, it is volunteering. Volunteering may take place either unasked or after asked. You see an accident happening on the road right in front of your eyes. You run to the spot and try to extricate accident victims from the damaged vehicle and also call police and ambulance. That is volunteering help unasked.

A neighbor’s son has fallen seriously sick at mid night. The lady in the house is alone and she is too nervous to take her son all alone to the hospital. She wants you to accompany her and you readily agree sacrificing a peaceful sleep at the night. This is volunteering help, when asked.

Who receives the voluntary help

We may offer our voluntary help to relatives, friends, neighbors, local church/ a religious group/ organization, a philanthropic organization, non-profit activities (scientific, intellectual etc) or to a society in distress (say in floods, earthquakes, storms, etc).

Help may also be volunteered to commercial organizations and organizations without a direct role of social welfare, just because the organization sought for voluntary help and there were eager volunteers who felt attached or obligated to the organization in some way. Example: A commercial Blogging site arranging a get-together of all blogging members in a particular town and asking for volunteers from its members for organizing, coordinating and conducting the meeting in an orderly way.

Getting trapped into volunteerism?

Is volunteering always altruistic?

Though volunteering is generally perceived as a good human quality, which is either to be in existence in everyone’s heart or to be cultivated in everyone’s psyche and is perceived to be a quality oriented with one’s spiritual upliftment too, the tendency to volunteer help may not always be altruistic in the heart of a volunteer.

Ideally, in volunteering, selfish motive must be totally absent. But such idealism may not be practical among common mortals.

Mata Amritanandamayi (the “hugging saint”), a great spiritual master in India (and considered as an Avatar of God- Universal Mother) says “Only after self-realization or god realization, one attains a state of complete and total unselfishness. Until that state is reached, whatever service we do calling “selfless service”, is only an attempt to gain the state total unselfishness. Only when our ego is totally eliminated, true selfless service is possible. Until then, some amount of selfishness will always be found mixed in our service. You may claim that you are doing a selfless service, but if your probe deep into you, you will find an element of selfishness lurking inside”.

As Mata says, many times our ego smartly hides our true inner motives of offering voluntary service, and makes us outwardly imagine ourselves to be very unselfish, endowed with very large, magnanimous hearts! Of course, there will always be exceptions and there will always be different degrees of selfishness or unselfishness behind volunteering service.

Overt or hidden motives behind volunteering

Mental and Ego Satisfaction

“It gives me lots of satisfaction to help others; it enhances my personal value to myself; I enjoy helping others and making the world a better place to live; I believe in sharing something that I have but others don’t have” – these are some of the reasons people give when asked what makes them volunteer service to others.

Intellectual satisfaction

A website dedicated to offering solutions on “surface protection against corrosion” invites voluntary “experts” to join the site as members and offer solutions to problems in corrosion issues posted by other members.

Engineers and proprietors of firms who are familiar with corrosion prevention may get themselves enrolled as experts and post solutions to the queries there. Their attitude will be like: “I know I am knowledgeable on this matter and I am quite happy to voluntarily share my knowledge”. For such people it is intellectual satisfaction which is another form of ego satisfaction.


Some people say, “I feel proud that I am able to help others through my voluntary service”. This pride will find expression through some form of boasting.

A person made in-charge of free food distribution to the poor in a religious festival will boast at opportune moment: “The Swami is very particular that the job should be entrusted only to me and none else. This is the 7th year in a row that I am in-charge of this service. There is so much of work pressure at the office and my manager would not grant me leave. But I said “Nothing doing – if you can’t grant me leave, you can take my resignation straight away; this service is more important than my job”. He virtually saluted me and sanctioned the leave!”

Appreciation/ recognition

Many people do not like to lead a faceless life in this world. People want to get noticed. They want to be become widely known to many, if not famous. Whether they are truly qualified or not, whether they have true expertise or not, people think of themselves as possessors of skills and merits that the world has woefully failed to recognize. If any opportunity to showcase and advertise their “unrecognized merits” comes across, they would not mind volunteering their service free, just to get some form of recognition and appreciation.

A website publishes articles under various major subject groups by obtaining them from authors. The website invites volunteers from its writing community to work as subject experts and their duty is to offer suitable titles for articles, monitor the incoming contents for quality and offer “technical” help to the site and to its writing members based on specific needs.

The members are given “Subject Expert” badges that they can prominently display in their Profile pages. They are permitted to boast about it in their writing endeavors outside the website. The site showers them with accolades and smartly gets things done through their voluntary service, what they have to pay and get otherwise!

Calculative Mentality

There are people who would do something voluntarily today with a calculative mind to get something else in return in the future. A clerk in an office goes all out to voluntarily offer service to the Manager, in planning, arranging and organizing the marriage of the manager’s daughter. His idea is that when it comes to promotions in the office, he will stand a better chance to get it when compared to a colleague, who is definitely much more meritorious, but does not care to develop a cordial one-to-one relationship with the manager.

Though many people would stoutly oppose the following statement, it is a widely perceived fact that businessmen and industrialists join Rotary Clubs and Lion’s clubs and offer their voluntary service with an ulterior motive to socialize and develop good business contacts with other businessmen. The services also offer them a respectable recognition in the society as philanthropists.


A purchase manager in a multi-bullion business organization has a social service organization run by his wife. When vendors meet him for business deals, he would casually mention about the philanthropic organization that his wife runs and how he would really appreciate people offering money or materials (say, cement and steel needed for a school building they are constructing) to the organization. He would give a small lecture on how the world has turned too selfish these days and how philanthropic activities can “spiritually elevate” people. He would conclude saying that whatever he says is purely suggestive. No compulsions; nothing to do with the business deals!

But his vendors will be smart enough to understand. They would make sure to donate money or materials to the philanthropic organization mentioned by the Purchase manager and would gladly await flow of orders from his company.

Atoning sin

And there are people who are lured by worldly pulls, pressures and sensual attractions and go astray by indulging in “sinful” activities. However, deep in their heart, they too may have religious and spiritual moorings and their conscience may warn them of dire consequences of their activities. Such people may tend to consider volunteering service or donating huge sums of money to religious or philanthropic activities as a way of atonement of their sins.

Ramakrishna (left) The Master and Vivekananda (right) the Inspired Disciple – “By serving people you are only serving God”

Helping others – at the exalted spiritual point of view

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, a great Hindu spiritual master, who is an expert in exposing threadbare the egoistic machinations human mind, says thus about “helping others”:

“Charity! Doing good to others! How dare you say you can do good to others?… If a householder gives in charity in a spirit of detachment, he is really doing good to himself and not to others. It is God alone that he serves – God, who dwells in all beings; and when he serves lord, he is really doing good to himself and not to others”.

“Helping others, doing good to others – this is the work of God alone… The love you see in parents is God’s love. He has given it to them to preserve his creation. The compassion you see in the kind-hearted person is God’s compassion. He has given it to them to protect the helpless… Do you think the world is so small to depend on your service? ..Whether you are charitable or not, God will have his work done somehow or other”.

Ramakrishna mentions further about his conversation with one of his devotees Shambu.

“Shambu said to me: “It is my desire to build large number of hospitals and dispensaries. This way, I can do much good to the poor”. I said to him: “Yes, that is not bad if you can do it in a detached spirit. But to be detached is very difficult unless you sincerely love God. And further, if you entangle yourself in many activities, you will be attached to them in a way unknown to yourself. You may think you have no motive behind your work, but perhaps there has already grown a desire for fame and the advertising of your name. Further, the pressure of work will make you forget God.”

Charity and love of God

Ramakrishna clearly distinguishes charity work of worldly minded from the Godly minded. He further says “Those who build hospitals and dispensaries and get pleasure from that are no doubt good people; but they are of a different type. He who is a real devotee of God seeks nothing but God. If he finds himself entangled in too much work, he earnestly prays “Lord, be gracious and reduce my work; my mind which should think of you day and night, has been wasting its power; it thinks of worldly things alone”.

Volunteering as Guru Seva with the right mindset

For people who are in the path of spiritual quest, doing voluntary seva is always prescribed by Gurus as the best way of acquiring necessary purity of heart for progressing in spirituality. A spiritual aspirant has to necessarily get rid of his ahankaram (ego) and mamaharam (possessiveness) if he wants spiritual progress.  A sadguru will put a disciple in such a service where there is high scope for his ego getting hit and hurt. He will put him into service where the volunteer is forced to share, sacrifice, adjust with others, come out of his shells of comfort, give away his possessions and possessiveness etc.

The satguru will test his disciples in so many ways by putting him into seva and watching how he performs. Some people will be very attached to their own skills (like photography, painting, computer programming, accounting etc). The satguru may test a disciple by putting them into areas of activities that are totally out of tune with their skills and see how far they are able to adapt, learn new skills and adjust. The guru may give power, post and position to a person and see whether he gets corrupted by them. He may put a person quite used to power, position and commanding others, to work as a subordinate  under another person who may not be fully qualified or skilled in administration.

Unless the disciple is extremely focused in his spiritual goal and be ready to shed his egotism and serve with humility, he would find volunteering quite painful and taxing under a Satguru.

But if the disciple has patience and perseverance, selfless seva is one of the best means to attain mental purity and progress in spirituality at the fastest rate. The Satguru also paves the way for quick disbursal of prarabdhas of the disciple through whatever suffering he undergoes in doing the seva.

Thus volunteering service  has quite a lot of emotional, psychological and spiritual machinations behind it. Volunteering is not truly altruistic always.

Quotation sources:

“Arul Mozhigal – Tamil – Vol. VI Mata Amritanandamayi Math

“The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna” – Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai.


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