Respect as Service

By Swami Vidyatmananda

Swami Vidyatmananda was a monk at the Vedanta Society of Southern California for many years before he was transferred to the Centre Vedantique-Ramakrishna in Gretz, France where was the Center’s manager until his death in 2000. An accomplished writer, Swami Vidyatmananda was the editor of What Religion Is and was one of the editors of the journal Vedanta in the West.

I remember seeing in India an interesting notice boldly painted on the side of a building which said BE KIND TO ANIMALS BY NOT EATING THEM. How charmingly naïve! And yet how clearly stated and how forthright an appeal!

Reflecting on this entreaty, I asked myself: But what about people? Should not a similar warning apply? How should we be kind to them? Should we not erect a comparable notice in our hearts reading: BE KIND TO PEOPLE BY NOT DEVOURING THEM?

Because that’s what we do with others a good deal of the time. We use others for our own purposes—as consolers, as agents catering to our comfort, as audiences applauding what we do, as victims forced to absorb our contrarieties. Only my need counts; my neighbor exists in order that he may be meat for my appetite.

We are considering the subject of service. Ordinarily, when we turn our attention to the question of service we think of doing something for someone else—helping him or her in terms of food, shelter, or clothing—and perhaps education and health. But I should like to think of service in another way. I believe that we can service others very usefully by showing them respect in the same fashion as the exhortation on the signboard mentioned above. That is to say, I am claiming that one of the most useful means to serve others, and in the long run serve one’s own spiritual objectives, is to develop and apply in all situations the quality of respect.

Respect consists essentially in putting oneself in the place of another, in admiring as much as one admires oneself an entity other than oneself. It is an identification with something external, while feeling for that something the same approval usually reserved for one’s own concerns.

In my youth in Michigan I made the acquaintance of several Native Americans. I recall a saying common among them which illustrates what I mean by respect: “Never criticize anyone until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.” Respect results from mentally “walking in the moccasins” of another person or object. My guru used to phrase it this way: “Feel for others. My child, you must learn to feel for others.” In a subtle fashion, which I hope to make clear in these reflections, such respect, or identification, expresses itself in service.

The amount of respect we show for the qualities of others, or for nature, or for worthy objects, is the clearest indication of our own evolution. Here is a rosebush, a new variety of rose. A person with an ordinary knowledge of flowers will admire it, possibly stoop to smell one of the blooms, or break it off to take home, and walk on. A dog, passing by, may urinate on it.

But a rose specialist, realizing what work has gone into the cultivation of this new variety, will stand before the bush in wonder and appreciation. Understanding what it represents, he or she will respect that rose plant and the horticulture expert who developed it. This respect is the service that is rendered to reward the developer of the new variety for the excellence of his or her handiwork.

The idea is that as we mature, we become more respectful. This is a natural result of the reduction of the ego, of the lessening that occurs in our belief in our own overweening importance. We stop being such gluttons, eating up everybody and everything for our own ends. We might substitute the word wonder or the word reverence for the word respect.

Respectful people will fit more easily into their world, for their attitude of readiness to serve will make them welcome everywhere. The respect we develop for nature, for the animal world, for worthy objects, and most of all for other people will find its full expression ultimately in a respect for the Creator of all.

Or perhaps, as in the case of the vijnani, it may begin with the Creator. If we develop a respect, a wonder, and a reverence for the Creator of all, we feel a respect, a wonder, and a reverence for the elements of this universe, His handiwork. And this will translate itself into service to those elements. And curiously, as a reflection of our spirit of service, service will be rendered unto us.

The English poet William Blake (1757–1827) lived in a kind of ecstasy of wonder. His poems reflect his attitude. He saw the divine image throughout the world he lived in, and celebrated it in verse. Once he went to a zoo and saw a tiger. One of Blake’s most famous poems is called “The Tiger.” In it he described the amazement which he felt that such a complex and wonderfully fashioned creature could exist, and his mind went immediately to the tiger’s Creator. Another of Blake’s most famous poems, which many schoolchildren of my generation memorized, is “The Lamb”:

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee;
He is called by thy name,
For He calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild;
He became a little child.
I am a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!

Respect includes affording nature its due. This is a constant theme of today’s environmentalists. Only by respecting nature shall we be able to enjoy nature’s priceless services to us. There is today a new realization that our debt to nature is so substantial that unless we learn to pay that debt, nature will extract from us a price which we may not be able to afford. To respect nature is to serve nature by being frugal, by curbing our ferocious appetite to devour all of nature’s bounties without a serious thought.

We may remember the poem of Charles Baudelaire called the “The Stranger”—concerning a peculiar man who, when questioned as to what he likes, replies that neither love of country nor “woman” nor “gold” attracts him:

“What do you love most, enigmatic man, tell.”

“I love clouds, those clouds that sail by over there, over there, those marvelous clouds.”

This reminds me of a case mentioned by Sri Ramakrishna in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: “There is a sadhu in Rishikesh who gets up early in the morning and stands near a great waterfall. He looks at it the whole day and says to God, ‘Ah, you have done well! Well done! How amazing!’ He doesn’t practice any other form of japa or austerity. At night he returns to his hut.”

Which brings to mind other examples, such as the favorite subjects of writers comprising the Romantic Movement in the last century, which might be summarized in those familiar lines of Tennyson about the flower in the crannied wall:

Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are; root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

Or the Sufi mystic mentioned by Will Durant in his account of spiritual movements in Islam: “But many Sufis tried to reach God through external objects… ‘Oh God,’ said one mystic, ‘I never listen to the cry of animals, or the quivering of trees, or the murmur of water, or the song of birds, or the rustling of wind or the crashing of thunder, without feeling that there is nothing like unto thee.’”

It is related that the writer Vladimir Nabokov spent blissful hours studying butterflies, marveling over a world beyond common sense where “when a butterfly has to look like a leaf [for its own protection], not only are all the details of a leaf beautifully rendered but markings mimicking grub-bored holes are generously supplied.”

Food too is to be respected, since the service it affords is so considerable. Rumer Godden, who lived in India for many years and wrote a number of books about India, makes the following observation in the second volume of her autobiography, A House with Four Rooms:

…Before the Reformation there was a belief that, even if the food was simple, the home poor, every time the table was laid for a meal it was a humble reflection of the Last Supper; food was holy, not in a ritualistic sense, but as a blessing from God. That reverence seems lost in our lives today. Yet a belief persists—and I have heard doctors endorse it—that if food is cooked with care and love, and, however plain it is, served without haste and invitingly, there will be no indigestion or bad tempers in the family.

And not only animals and nature, but objects as well. Here is Rule 31 of The Holy Rule of Saint Benedict: “Let him [the cellarer] look upon all the vessels and goods of the monastery as though they were the consecrated vessels on the altar.” Rule 32 expands this stipulation:

Let the abbot appoint brethren on whose manner of life and character he can rely, to the charge of the tools, clothes, and other property of the monastery; and let him consign the various things to their charge, as he shall think fit to be kept and to be collected after use. Of these let the abbot keep a list, so that as the brethren succeed to different employments, he may know what he gives and what he gets back.

If anyone treat the property of the monastery in a slovenly or negligent manner, let him be corrected, and if he do not amend, let him be subjected to the discipline of the Rule.

Why respect things? Esteem of things will mean that those things can later serve you and other people. A commentary on this rule states that waste, whether in the manner of food, clothes, electric light, fuel or in the use of less important things such as writing paper, washing and cleaning material, stamps and telephone calls, is an offense against a monk’s conversion of manners as well as against the ideal of poverty. “It offends against humility. It is vulgarity, and it gives scandal.”

But of course our greatest respect must be expressed to people—other people. We all remember the incident concerning Sri Ramakrishna and Girish Ghosh. When Ramakrishna met Girish he bowed before him, showing him respect for his great talents and literary accomplishments. But Girish respected Sri Ramakrishna as a holy man, and he returned Ramakrishna’s homage by himself respectfully saluting Ramakrishna.

Ramakrishna returned this salute with another of his own. And Girish likewise. This went on for some time until Girish put an end to it, saying, “In saluting, too, you are my master. No one can outdo you in showing respect. Sri Krishna redeemed the world through his flute. You will redeem the world through you prostrations.”

This reminds me of an immortal passage in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which the saintly Father Zossima bows down to the violent young man, Dimitri, because he knows that Dimitri is going to have to suffer terribly in the future. (This is Father Zossima’s form of service to a troubled soul.) The passage starts with Dimitri vilifying his own father:

But this unseemly scene was cut short in a most unexpected way. “Father Zossima rose suddenly from his seat. Almost distracted with anxiety for the elder and everyone else. Alyosha (Dimitri’s brother) succeeded however in supporting him by the arm. Father Zossima moved toward Dimitri and reaching him sank on his knees before him.… The elder distinctly and deliberately bowed down at Dimitri’s feet till his forehead touched the floor. Alyosha was so astounded that he failed to assist him when he got up again…

Dimitri stood for a few moments in amazement. Bowing down to him—what did it mean? Suddenly he cried aloud: “Oh God!” hid his face in his hands, and rushed out of the room.

As we subsequently learn in this great novel, Dostoevsky’s theme was that suffering leads to redemption. Dimitri was a sensualist, a convicted murderer (although wrongfully accused). His youth passed in a state of frantic disorder. But the seeds of his salvation were in him and the gesture of Father Zossima was a holy man’s way of recognizing and fostering Dimitri’s eventual transformation. An example of respect as service.

In the life of Pavhari Baba, a recent Indian saint, we see an example of respect even for a robber. Pavhari Baba lived near Benares in an underground cavern. He had almost no possessions. One day a thief came to steal these few possessions. He had put them in a bundle and was about to quit the place. But Pavhari Baba happened to come in just at that time. The robber took fright and ran away, leaving the bundle behind.

Now the saint took the bundle up, pursued the thief, and after quite a chase caught him. He laid the bundle at the feet of the thief and with folded hands and tears in his eyes asked his pardon for his own intrusion which had made the robber abandon the possessions. And Pavhari Baba begged the thief to take again the goods since they now belonged to him and not to himself. This is a vigorous example of respect that was also service.

Ramakrishna spoke of the debts each one owes. These debts must be paid in respect and service: “The father and mother are a great importance to a man. If they are not satisfied with their child, the religious practices of the child will do him no good, will be of no use to him. There are so many debts to pay, to the gods, to the rishis, to one’s parents, to one’s wife.”

An appreciative person will also respect the dead. Is it by accident that old and wise civilizations practiced what has been called ancestor worship? We know that ancestor worship had a certain following among the Romans. The veneration of ancestors reached a high elaboration among the ancient Chinese and likewise in the Japanese Shinto sect.

In the Indian civilization, on the anniversary of the death of one’s father, for example, one is expected to perform a ritual called sraddha in memory of one’s ancestors. Hindus often travel, for the performance of this ritual, to the ancient city of Gaya. If one can perform sraddha at Gaya, it is believed that one’s forefathers will be liberated from their spirit-bodies. One remembers that Khudiram, the father of Sri Ramakrishna, was at Gaya performing the rituals associated with the veneration of his ancestors when he experienced the dream indicating the birth in his family of a divine child.

When one takes the vow of sannyasa one cuts oneself off forever from one’s physical descendance; but before one does so, one respectfully offers a long and complex sraddha observance of respect to those who have given one one’s birth and body. This is a form of service to those to whom one owes much.

In Christian countries it is expected that the living, on the day after All Saints’ Day, should go to the cemeteries to render homage to family members who have died. I have heard of extensions of these practices which seem to me to be very worthy. In Algeria it seems women and children have a habit of going to burial places and picnicking near the graves of departed family members in an effort to demonstrate their solidarity with these departed members. In Yugoslavia it is the custom to go frequently to the cemeteries and there recount to the dead the latest news of the family.

Such practices seem very good. It is impossible to serve the deceased directly, but by respectfully rendering them veneration we are serving them, perhaps, but most certainly enhancing the development of our own character. As worthy individuals, the respect we show to others—family members, those with whom we have relations in our daily life, the living and the dead—is a tangible evidence we give to all life and our readiness to be obligated to all life.

Christ washed the feet of his disciples; we will do well to make a practice, figuratively, of doing likewise. Such attitudes acknowledge that we owe much to many. They also teach us what our place is in the scheme of things. This is as it should be.

This life is seen to be a flowing stream, and where there is respect, one’s place in it becomes clearly understood. Our comprehension that we owe much to many is useful in reducing our ego, making us mature members of the human race, and fitting us to be friends of God.

To learn to feel for others is to acknowledge the qualities of others. Without the habit of giving others their due a human being is nothing but a savage—a devourer of people and things.

I close with an incident which I once read in a book, whose title I can no longer recall.

There was an ancient monastery, now fallen on evil days. It had had a glorious past, but now the institution had been reduced to only five monks and their abbot—all rather old and inclined to be ill-tempered. The buildings had fallen into disrepair, and the grounds around the monastery, which had once been so inviting, now gave out an air of neglect. No new postulants were in prospect and, worst of all, the old-timers who lived there were bored with each other and given to mutual faultfinding. They were not capable of making themselves happy, let alone of serving each other or anyone else.

“What is going to happen to us?” the abbot asked himself every day. “What is going to happen to our dear institution once so fair?” He was often in despair.

The abbot had a friend, a rabbi, reputed to be a wise man, who lived not far away. Having no one to share his despair with, and feeling particularly lonely in his trouble, the abbot decided to meet this acquaintance and talk to him. The two met in the small hermitage at a far corner of the monastery grounds. Each had brought food and drink, so they shared a friendly dinner. After the meal the two sat back and talked.

They established a feeling of fellowship which felt good to the abbot. Then he poured out his worries about the deterioration of the monastery and asked the rabbi what he thought could be done. The rabbi entered into himself silently for some time, then finally spoke. His message was cryptic and short but had to satisfy the abbot. It consisted of one sentence. It was all that he would say. It was this: “There is a great holy man amongst you.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery the monks wanted to know where he had been and what he had done. He decided to tell them. “I had an evening of fellowship with the old rabbi,” he said. “I told him about the conditions in our monastery and my worries about its bleak future.”

“And what did he advise?” they asked.

“He didn’t advise anything. His only reply was: ‘There is a great holy man amongst you.’”

The monks, very much interested, glanced from one to the other and pressed the abbot to tell more. “And did he tell which of us this holy man is?” they asked.

“No, that is all that he would say.”

The brothers were astonished. “A great holy man amongst us!” They looked around wonderingly. “Who could it be? Could it be Brother James?” Brother James looked at Brother John. “Is it Brother John? Perhaps it is Brother Peter?” “Is it X, is it Y, is it Z?” So on around and around the group.

And so the mystery went on, each brother newly respectful to every other, because—who could tell?—that one might be the great holy man. The mystery was never solved, but this did not matter, because in this way each became holier than he had been before. A tremendous respect developed among them, for how else but with esteem could one treat a brother who might be the great holy man? Showing respect was the service they accorded to one another, and this in turn had its effect on each. A vigorous example of respect as service.

Gradually the atmosphere of the monastery began to change. There was a new joy and lightness. Visitors coming for the Sunday service in the chapel felt it, were impressed with the climate, and some stayed to picnic on the grounds—as had been the custom long before—after the service. They also offered help to beautify the surroundings and repair the buildings.

Among the visitors there were some young men who were so attracted by the prevalent feeling that they asked if they might become novices. And gradually the monastery regained the glory of its past.

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Respect as Service