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Spirit Of Service: Exploring My Hindu Identity Through Seva

Pramal Lad

Spirit of Service: Exploring my Hindu Identity through Seva

To roaring applause, Sachin, one of our unemployed graduates, confidently walks off stage after delivering an inspiring nomination speech as part of the ‘Student Panchayat Elections’, a practical exercise to give our rural students leadership training, which will translate into well-paid careers thus removing family poverty once and for all. As my eyes brim with tears, like a proud father on graduation day, I recognize how a meek and insecure Sachin has grown into a man over the past three months of training where I have had the privilege to be his coach, mentor and friend.
This time last year, I was spending my evenings consulting corporate clients on their strategic tax planning at one of the world’s largest professional service firms. So why did I trade my London pin-striped lifestyle for a Gandhian, simple living, grassroots immersion, training economically disadvantaged rural graduates in South India? A call to service by my ever-evolving Hindu faith.
During my childhood years, my parents actively engaged us in all aspects of the faith, from morning pooja and prarthna to fasting during Shravan-mahina and playing Garba for the full nine nights! Their steadfast commitment to the rituals, customs and stories of Hinduism, however bizarre or fantastical, stemmed from a life of struggles. In fact, ask just about anyone in their generation and they will recollect endless vivid memories of how hard they worked for meager wages or how extended families squeezed into small rented rooms wrapped up in blankets because they could not afford heating charges. Faith was their common safe haven, a place to escape and a source of strength when it could not be found in their challenging surroundings. This is a generation imbibed in hierarchical discipline and respect, a ‘do what you are told to do’ culture; to question upwards was tantamount to insult. I suppose that when you start with nothing (from a material perspective), you tend not to take anything for granted and perceive even the smallest good fortune as a blessing from above. When I questioned my father as to why we dress up, offer meals and sing to little characters that seemed more suited to a Disney animation, he replied with morally-conscious ‘do good, be good’-type answers. While his responses were blatantly insufficient, we accepted them, preferring instead to indulge in the delicious prasaad that followed.
In thinking about my parents’ relationship to our faith, I realize it is deeply rooted in a sense of gratitude, a mindset that stemmed from their humble beginnings. However, when I look around at the way we have been raised, with everything practically handed to us on a silver platter, I recognize that gratitude has been supplanted by a sense of entitlement. I started to become aware of how apathetic this environment of privilege was making me about issues outside of my immediate bubble. I thought back to the nation of my origins, of our samskars, in which a large majority still could not afford basic ‘roti, kapda, makan’ whilst we frivolously wasted half the refrigerator contents, changed clothing every season and contemplated rental yields on investment properties. 5000 years ago, on the holy battlefield of Kurukshetra (translated ‘field of action’), despondent warrior prince Arjuna turned to his charioteer, Lord Krishna, to remove his paralyzing anxiety. My battlefield became apparent from within: the conflict between a comfortable, worldly existence and a selfless desire to perform purposeful work in service to others.
A brief stint volunteering with slum communities in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, during an extended break from the London corporate scene whet my interest in service; I remember being inspired to embody the same level of compassion for all people that the dedicated social workers tirelessly exhibited around me. I returned to my desk job but taxes and number-crunching suddenly paled in comparison to aiding a community in their rise from poverty. So, I decided to return to this dharma bhoomi (sacred land) from which my grandparents had migrated with a year-long commitment to grassroots service. With their motto ‘Service for the Soul’, I knew instantly that an Indicorps Fellowship would give me the scope to explore what my dharma (duty) was and how I could practice my interpretation of Karma Yoga (yoga of action) in its purest form as seva, or selfless service.
Whilst my parents continue to spend many hours everyday in devotional worship or Bhakti Yoga, I invest all of my time supporting the neglected rural communities of Karnataka, adding value to their lives, both present and future. My parents worship a statue, spending many hours offering food, clothing and attention to the divine representation, whilst I work with living, breathing manifestations of the divine spirit – a subset of the hundreds of millions of Indians who are in desperate need of the same clothing, food and attention. I worship by serving the underserved.
Even President Barack Obama, in reference to the US military serving abroad, called upon the world to embody the same sense of seva that has guided this year for me and many others in development: ‘...they embody the Spirit of Service: a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment, a moment that will define a generation, it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.’
The wise words of Lord Krishna are slowly starting to make sense to me. It is not necessary for me to completely renounce a corporate lifestyle and serve in remote corners of the world. Rather, my faith has enlightened me of my true identity: that of a spiritual soul who can practice seva or karma yoga in whatever field of work I choose, and in turn, mindfully transform apathy into action.

Pramal's Biography

Pramal Lad (25), born and raised in the UK, left his career working as a Tax Consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers to join the NGO sector in Karnataka training rural graduate students with the aim of securing well-paid employment. He is currently a Fellow with Indicorps, a grassroots partnership organization that places young Indians who have a willingness to give themselves fully for one year in the development of local communities in India. He has also volunteered previously with Manav Sadhna, an NGO based at the Sabar Mati Gandhi Ashram, working to uplift the nearby slum community. Presently, Pramal is working on establishing Microfinance opportunities to underserved rural women in South India. Pramal is a third generation NRI, having both of his parents born and partly raised in Kenya, before coming to England.

(Pramal Lad was the winner of the first prize and $500 in the 23 - 27 year age group essay competition organized by the Hindu American Foundation. )

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