Being served in India feels strange? Understanding Culture and social Situations – 6 Dec 11

Indian culture

Sometimes people who come to India have many questions about the way people work here. In India it is usual to have employees who work as servants in your home. I have heard that the word ‘servant’ has a negative connotation for some people but this work is actually not seen as something negative, it is a normal job.

What actually do such employees do? They work in your home and they do those things that you could actually do yourself but which you often don’t have the time for because you are working. They clean, sometimes they cook, they go for shopping, bring you what you need, they rearrange things in the house when you ask them to and maybe they even do some garden work, too.

Especially foreigners from countries where it is not usual to have employees in your home can find this strange and ask whether you could not actually do this on your own. The answer is yes, of course you could. But if you did it yourself, the other one would not have this work! There are many people who earn their living with this work in someone’s home. They are not forced into this work, they like it and they get a salary for doing it. It is honest work which is not humiliating them in any way.

If they had the feeling that their work would humiliate them, they would simply leave their job. They are free to do that and they change their job or place of employment when they don’t like it anymore. It can actually be quite a task for an employer to keep them working over a longer period of time because they are free to change and whenever they find an opportunity where they get a better payment, they simply leave and work somewhere else. They may have a lower level of education and are aware that they are not managers or doctors but they are still proud of their work and happy about their job and their flexibility.

Those who feel strange about these jobs, be that the cleaning, the gardening or even the driving of someone’s car, are usually people who grew up in the middle class in the west. They cannot afford to have a driver there and they are not aware of it that this actually also exists in the west. It is usual already for many people to have someone come to your home to clean. Others have gardeners and maybe also a cook. But you don’t even need to go that far to compare. When young people in the west work in a restaurant as waiter or bartender, isn’t that the same thing? They earn their money by bringing others what they want, making them feel good and happy. It is more frequent to see those jobs in India in private homes, too, probably because of the way that culture developed here. In India people like to eat at home rather than outside and they spend a lot of time in their homes. So they would rather pay for someone working there than going to a restaurant and pay a waitress.

Our employees, whom we usually call ‘the boys’, because they are for us a part of the Ashram family, don’t only work for us, they also sleep here at the Ashram, eat the same food that we eat and care for us the way we care for them. They get their salary every month and as they have everything they need at the Ashram, they often spend only a very little bit of this money and send the rest to their families to support them there. Their work thus not only feeds themselves but also their parents and siblings. They are happy to be with us and we are happy to have them here. In this way, they don’t only do their duty, they really care. And we care for them. In a way I see it as a kind of exchange. They do work for us which saves us the time to do work they could not do, for example at the computer, and with which we are able to pay their salary. So we actually work for each other.

If you come and spend some time here at the Ashram I am sure you will notice how important their work is, how much they are valued for their work and how free they are in their life and work.


  1. nothingprofound

    That’s wonderful. Everyone should be proud of their work and enjoy what they do. There is no menial work, it’s all valuable and serves its purpose.

  2. Tony

    I did not actually have a strange feeling while i was at the Ashram but I do remember one of the other guests asking me about it. I answered the same thing: if you have someone to clean at home, it is the same! If you pay someone to clean your windows, it is the same! Some people have someone to serve their food in the west, too, it is just not that common! And the boys are so happy and laughing and smiling that you would never get the idea that they don’t like their job!

  3. Iris Wellhausen

    I love how they do their work with a smile on their face, e. g. when they knock at your door in the early morning and serve you a wonderful creamy chai, miss it sometimes here

  4. Govind Sharan Sharma

    The ashram culture is different. General fact is that the situation of household servants in India is really poor. Rich people hire them, they are victims of domestic violence, bad mouthing, false accusations of theft etc. They are poorly paid also. Some kind hearted masters call them ‘domestic help’ instead of calling them servant, but that doesn’t make much difference.

  5. Swami Balendu

    You are right Govind, in the past it was more like that but the situation is getting better. People are getting more aware of their value and rights and many times they are in the leading position during negotiations of working conditions and salary. Another, not so nice factor in this scene is when these servants turn out to be criminals who steal, rob and sometimes even murder their employers. We hear of many cases like that, too, especially in big cities. The most important thing is to have love, respect and humanity in this relation just as in any other relation.

  6. Wenke

    The boys are just part of the Ashram. I couldnt imagine it here without them. I like to see how they help each other, treat each other as brothers and are part of the Ashram family.

  7. Nicky P

    I have not really thought about the role of servants being a cultural parallel to that of a waitress, and this has certainly given me some food for thought. In the past I have felt mildly uncomfortable with the concept of having servants, mainly because it feels like a show of status as much as anything else, and that the employer is essentially demonstrating that they have more money, and a higher social class than the employee. However, I suppose this is, as Swami Ji discusses in his blog, just a difference in cultural attitudes, as only the extremely wealthy Westerners tend to have employees working in their home, with the exception of a cleaner perhaps, who comes into the house for maybe a few hours a week for some middle class families. I think that once again, also the media portray this method of work in a negative light, with many films, books etc, displaying a maltreatment of the workers by their employers. However,should their be a mutual respect between both parties, and the employee has the freedom to leave their role should they want to, then I cannot personally see what issue there is with this form of employment. The positives of course, also being that the family has work to enable a salary to feed them, that without would surely cause more dire problems overall. I suppose the fundamental element to this topic boils down to respect. If respect is shared and received by all involved, then any negatives may not be given the opportunity to arise.

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