Delving into the heart of what it means to be a “Sikh”, debutant author of the book Seva: Sikh Secrets on How to Be Good in the Real World, Jasreen Mayal Khanna, a travel journalist, and writer, sought inspiration from the community she belongs to after witnessing the selfless constructive support they offered during the pandemic. From feeding hundreds of people in daily langars at gurudwaras and setting up free dialysis camps to offering help and a haven to victims of war, and giving free medication and advice to patients, Sikhs have carried on this selfless act of Seva for as long as anyone can remember. Yet, Khanna is also highly aware that not everybody in the community has a tendency to do and be good.
Although propelled by their faith, Khanna investigates what drives Sikhs to do good beyond their religious morals? She breaks the act of Seva in 8 rules, demonstrated with answers peppered with anecdotes and candid interviews of prominent Sikhs. In her book, she demystifies the idea of Seva as a philosophy of kindness that cuts across religious boundaries and affects every individual personally. We spoke to her at length to understand the essence of Seva.
Aryambika Chatterjee: Tell us a bit about yourself. Who is Jasreen Mayal Khanna as a person?
Jasreen Mayal Khanna: It’s a deceptively simple question, Arya, because our idea of self is difficult to extricate from our careers and our relationships and it’s usually a simple question like this one that can leave us grasping for words. On a lighter note, I’m loud, loyal, and a lover of all things literary. I’m a serial traveler and on my trips, you’ll usually find me at a gin and tonic bar, a cool coffee shop, or taking part in some crazy experience (think vintage motorcycle tour of Paris or wreck diving in Bali). I’m lucky that I got to make my passion my career and now, later in life, it’s also become my purpose through my book, Seva: Sikh Secrets on How to Be Good in the Real World. I believe in doing good for others but that doesn’t contradict with my idea of living a full life myself.
AC: Can you shed some light on your book Seva: Sikh Secrets on How to Be Good in this World? What message did you want to get across to the readers?
JMK: I often find my book stocked on the religion shelf in bookstores, but it actually belongs in the self-help category. Let me explain how I came to write this book and that may give you some context.
I had my first child in May 2020, two months after the country went into its first lockdown. And shortly after I had breastfeeding struggles, post-partum anxiety, and saw my month-old infant go through surgery. And while I was having a troubled time within the four walls of my house, people outside were suffering on a larger scale with Covid, and even losing loved ones.
Meanwhile, in the news, I was reading about Sardars and Sardarnis risking their own lives to help absolute strangers in their darkest moments. While I was very proud, I wasn’t overly surprised because doing Seva is normal for Sikhs.
That’s when my publisher Chiki Sarkar came to me with the question: How is it that Sikhs do so much good and what can be learned from them? I knew I wanted to write this book, for the people of the world but also for my son, Azad. So, to do so I did a number of things:
- I took an online course on Sikhi with Harvard University through the EdEx app
- I introspected my own culture including our strong storytelling tradition
- I did research in the behavioral sciences
- I interviewed numerous Sikhs from all over the world
And I concluded that Sikhs do Seva from a place of joy. It’s only once we’re happy within that can we make room in our hearts to make other people happy.
AC: What literary pilgrimages have you gone on while researching this book?
JMK: When I first switched from being a journalist to an author, I really struggled to get the tone of the book right. Chapter after chapter would come back rejected and I felt incapable of starting let alone completing the book. Then, my publisher, Chiki Sarkar called me one day to chat. She asked me about what was going on in my life and realized I was looking after a newborn and trying to write a book simultaneously. She gave me a three-month sabbatical to calm my frazzled brain and I’ll never forget this kindness.
“Just read endlessly and come back and write me a chapter after three months,” she said. And in those three months, I read voraciously. A lot of it was self-help books like Atomic Habits, Ikigai, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Untamed, Braving the Wilderness, and even the stoics like Seneca. And after three months, when I sent my chapter in, it was approved in one go. I’ve always believed that to write well one must read well.
I also went on a literal literary pilgrimage—a short writing retreat in Kerela. I had been feeling stressed and torn between baby and book and had a bad vertigo attack when I was about halfway through writing the manuscript. So, my niece and I planned a Galentine’s getaway at Little Flower Farms, an organic farm homestay in the Vagamon Hills. It’s the sweetest place with lush nature and so perfect for writers—there are cozy writing corners hidden in the lush foliage, and a desk with incredible mountain views certainly feels inspiring. We came back feeling so refreshed and I picked up speed after being immersed in nature for a few days.
AC: Your book is about Seva, the act of selfless service prominent in the Sikh community. Being a part of that community yourself, can you tell us what was the appeal of writing something so close to home?
JMK: The real appeal was finding myself, to be honest. Writing Seva helped me come full circle in my personal spiritual journey. I grew up in a Sikh household but had grown quite disenchanted with religion considering India’s political climate in the last decade. Introspecting my own culture and religion brought me to the realization that the parts of my personality that I’m most proud of such as being large-hearted or brave or funny or hardworking are deeply rooted in Sikhi. I may cut my hair or read literary fiction instead of prayer books, but I am as Sikh as they come. And I chose to give my son Azad the Sikh middle name, Singh.
AC: Seva can take many forms, but the most critical aspect of Seva is the mindset. How do you think one can go about inculcating this mindset?
JMK: I think we have to stop thinking about volunteering or donating as a grand gesture. Because if it’s going to be this big-time commitment or sacrifice, many of us will hesitate or not end up doing it. We tend to think: life is so hard, and I’m crushed under my despair so how will I help someone else? But in reality, the small, everyday things count just as much. Set yourself a kindness challenge to do one small act of Seva every day for a week. On Monday, share food with your neighbour, on Tuesday help someone with childcare, on Wednesday donate some books or toys, and so on. If you like the feeling, carry on helping. The small acts add up to big changes and the Sikh community exemplifies this perfectly.
But the other aspect of this shift in mentality is to know that doing Seva helps the giver as much as the receiver and I’ll touch on this topic in your later question.
AC: Tell us, what was the most challenging part of the process of writing this book?
JMK: It sounds dramatic but this book really was blood, sweat, and tears. I had steep learning curves both at home (with a new baby) and at work (with a new book). I talked earlier about how getting started was so difficult. And even editing at the end was hard because after you’ve worked with the same material for a year, you can’t see mistakes anymore. Two days before my final submission, my 10-month-old baby developed 103+ temperature. And just when I submitted the manuscript and thought it was all done, the marketing campaign kicked off and I had to write more than a dozen features to promote the book in less than two months. By the end of that, I was completely burned out. So, I took a 6-8 month break after the major marketing push ended. I spent time with my son, cooked, exercised, travelled, and prioritized my well-being. As amazing as it is to create something and be successful, rest is equally important and actually devalued in our society. Rest is crucial to be able to create amazing things.
AC: It is believed that the path of Seva puts us in touch with our Swadharma, or individual purpose. What, to you, are the most important elements of Seva? How does Seva help the giver?
JMK: Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru started the tradition of langar and Seva in Kartarpur, Pakistan in the 16th century. He told his followers to do Seva and positioned it as a solution to all of man’s problems. And he was kind of right!
You see we all worry; we lie awake at night thinking about our problems: our finances, our relationships, our bosses, or work. When we do Seva, especially physical volunteer work, we transfer that energy from ourselves to helping others. And there’s a chance those people are less privileged than us, so it also brings perspective to our problems. This thought is echoed across various schools of thought. If you talk to people who work with their hands like a pashmina shawl weaver or a Japanese makeup brush producer, they liken their crafts to a kind of meditation. They get the benefits without having to do the hard work of getting their monkey mind to be still. Even the modern self-care movement (which took on a life of its own in the pandemic) had people baking banana bread, using adult colouring books, and gardening in their kitchen windows to improve mental health. Working with our hands is known to relieve the anxiety of the mind.
AC: Service is the expression of love, but it also requires a lot of conscious reshaping of the individual ego through the act of mindfulness. Can you share with our readers a few mindfulness tips that you practice as an individual in your daily life?
JMK: Guru Nanak knew that the ego was the barrier between every human being and living an authentic experience, so he introduced selfless service as a daily act because when you do something without any expectation of reward for the other, you are killing your ego. But he also incorporated food, music, laughter, and conversation into Sikhi so that his followers would learn to embrace simple joys and continue doing Seva. Sardars and Saradarnis come back from the gurdwara blissed out with their spiritual experiences but also equally thrilled with melodious kirtans, tasty langar food, and the warmth of being a part of a community.
Personally, my journey took a sharp turn after the birth of my son. I’m a travel writer and went all over the world for work prior to having a baby in the pandemic. But when you’re basing your happiness on external factors, it becomes easy to slip from being in the moment to constantly checking the amount of Instagram likes you got on your last post. After the lockdown, I learned to put my phone away and stay in the moment with my baby. I started cooking to nurture my body through the post-partum phase and shared food with my friends. I’m usually not inclined to music, but I danced with my infant to Bollywood songs every night. I made up baby rap and nonsensical rhymes and sang all day long. Taking a shower both in the morning and the evening helped with exhaustion and post-partum anxiety. I was also lucky that my nieces and nephew moved in with us so I had the chance to bond with family at a time when many couldn’t meet their kin.
Jasreen Mayal Khanna’s book Seva: Sikh Secrets on How to Be Good in the Real World is available on Amazon.