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)

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11 Responses to On Service with Empathy and Compassion – Seva and Karuna

  1. KY says:

    i have always put others happiness and importance over self and i feel that i am doing the right thing.  however, a very close friend pointed out that i should love myself more and should put my needs before others.  i disagree to his view vehemently as being benevolent is a lovely trait.  i failed to realise that i have not been showing the same love to myself.  and being able to show compassion to self is the hardest but the most beautiful thing that i have ever learned. learn to love yourself and you will love the others. 

  2. Neeti Sundari says:

    This website is really helpful to increase spiritual knowledge

  3. […] On Service with Compassion (the first quality) Tagged with: patanjali • yoga  /* […]

  4. […] bhavanas or human traits that are essential for our spiritual growth. Two of these traits – compassion and friendship – were discussed in previous articles. This article focuses on the third trait […]

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  6. gautam says:

    well said…….but we all should follow

  7. Oh, what a wonderful article. Yes, the state of our heart makes such a difference. Your post is a beautiful reminder. Thank you.

  8. Rajeev says:

    Very well explained! The most important point is to respect ourselves first,introspect – look within, have that feeling of dignity for what ever that we are and we have – once that is achieved,the four bhavanas of affection (maitri), compassion (karuna), joyfulness (mudita) and imperturbability (upeksha) will automatically manifest in our actions in our daily lives toward others.

    • kajmani says:

      Yes indeed – introspection is a key element of recognizing the need to be compassionate. Combined with discrimination, introspection can be a great force for change – within and without.

  9. Janghanda says:

    This article’s very knowledgeable in substance and resource as it should be understood that our obligations are not related to the energies of our servitude. If everybody just served when they felt like it the world would be in a constant state of chaos and everything entangled. It should therefore be remembered that we’re charitable and generous to others no matter what state of being we’re in because it’s the habits of our fruitfulness that baresforth the wisdom of its graceful reward. . .

    • kajmani says:

      Great insight into the fact that is not jut an obligation, but indeed our solemn duty to serve those in need. A great reminder!

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