On Service with Empathy and Compassion – Seva and Karuna

The concept of compassion or empathy has a unique expression in Sanskrit – it is called karuna. I have been contemplating this word ever since a visit with Amma Karunamayi a few weeks ago. She had made a very important point about helping those in need – often called “seva”. She insisted that “seva” should be done with compassion, or “karuna”. However, if “seva” is done with a sense of guilt or a sense of obligation , it does very little benefit to the giver or recipient of the “seva”.

Exploring Compassion

On further research and questioning, I was pointed to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by my good friend, Gopi Maliwal. The concept of karuna is in fact embodied in the Yoga Sutras as one of the four positive traits or bhavanas that one needs to strive for – if one is to achieve true happiness.

So, what began as a seed of a thought planted in my head, has now led me to this wonderful discovery of the four bhavanas, which I will share with you in this and future articles.

The relevant Yoga Sutra (Samadhi Pada, 33) from Patanjali is as follows :

मैत्री करुणा मुदित पेक्षाणां सुख दुःख पुण्यापुण्य विषयाणां भावनातः चित्तप्रसादनम्

maitrī karuṇā mudita-pekṣāṇāṁ-sukha-duḥkha puṇya-apuṇya-viṣayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaḥ citta-prasādanam

The four traits for happiness

The four bhavanas (भावना) are enumerated as:

  • maitri (मैत्री, maitrī): coming from or given by or belonging to a friend, friendly, amicable, benevolent, affectionate
  • karuna (करुणा, karuṇā): the sentiment of compassion
  • mudita (मुदित, mudita): delighted, joyful, glad, rejoicing in
  • upekshana (उपेक्षन, upekṣana): the act of disregarding, overlooking, disregard , indifference or imperturbability

(English meanings from Monier-Williams online dictionary)

The four bhavanas are invoked in four distinct circumstances of human existence:

  • sukha (सुख, sukha) = happiness; enjoyment
  • duhkha (दुःख, duḥkha) = painful; suffering
  • punya (पुण्य, puṇya) = successful; recompense
  • apunya (अपुण्य, apuṇya) = failure; sin

The Sutra may be interpreted as:

The development of the four bhavanas of affection (maitri), compassion (karuna), joyfulness (mudita) and imperturbability (upeksha) in the four situations of life (enumerated above), is essential for the overall happiness (prasādanam) of the spirit (citta-). The four bhavanas or traits are symbiotic in nature – development of one accelerates the development of all others.

Seva with Karuna

One may conclude that karuna is to be exercised in the life situation of duhkha of others. However we should not forget karuna towards our own selves, when our heart or spirit is in the state of duhkha. If we aren’t compassion and kind to ourselves in times of our own troubles, how can we truly be compassionate to others?

we should not forget karuna towards our own selves, when our heart or spirit is in the state of suffering

Which brings us back to the core idea of performing seva to others, with karuna, in times of their duhkha. It is simply a matter of human dignity. Even those in need of our help deserve to keep their dignity intact, don’t they?

What are your thoughts – are charitable and non-governmental organizations actually performing service with compassion? Or are they performing seva with a sense of obligation?

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Upcoming article: The role of maitri (friendliness) in the state of sukha (happiness)