When service to your self is considered as selfishness, how can the service to the group of souls (society) not be selfishness as well? Whether it is a single zero or hundred zeros, it is immaterial. God is like the number one which is greater than a single zero or hundred zeros. Shankara condemned social service with reference to the service to God (refer to Loka Sevaka Mata Nirasa of Shankara Digvijayam). This entire society is the kingdom of God and is running under the divine administration of God. If there is a beggar in this kingdom, it is because he is undergoing punishment for his sins as decided by the judgment of God. No injustice can happen in His kingdom. Therefore, converting a beggar in to a devotee is the primary work [if we are interested in helping him]. Helping the beggar in materialistic ways is only a secondary activity since the punishment was given only for the changing the soul. Your effort to transform that soul into a devotee is appreciated by God because that is the very purpose of the punishment. Unless the soul is transformed, you cannot help the soul in any way.
If you are doing some service to a beggar, remember that you are doing it only by the will of God. Therefore, you cannot interfere in the divine administration in any way if you are saving the life of a beggar by giving food to a dying person; it is emergency-service. If his life is lost, there is no possibility for the soul to transform by devotion here. Therefore, this emergency-service should be done by every body because life is the basis for the transformation. However, remember that you are doing even this service by the will of God alone; the beggar may die even after eating your food. Providing the basic needs for human beings is the emergency-service by which God is always pleased. If the fellow dies even after your service, it means that there was no possibility of transformation of that soul on earth. Only the special methods of torture in hell can transform the soul. Therefore, the soul was sent to hell by the Lord. If there were a possibility of transformation on the earth, God would have given him food through some body to save his life. Therefore, you should not get even a trace of egoism in the social service, because you are driven only by God everywhere.
Social service is not greater than personal service to God because God is above society. When Jesus indicated the crossing of I [canceling the ego; self-sacrifice] by crucifixion, it means that every soul is to be crossed in the same way. Society is not above God and in fact it is not even above your family. Your family is grateful to you and so the business is fair. The society is not grateful to you even after receiving help from you. The society just thanks you by words after receiving your service, where as the family reciprocates your service through service to you. Your self and your family are certainly better than society. Of course, in the case of emergency-service, you can rise above your self and family to help in the basic needs of the poor people because life should be saved and life should be settled for any spiritual effort.
Since we do not know the background of any soul, our impressions about any soul cannot be real. Suppose you are watching the scene of the hanging of a prisoner, you will sympathize with the prisoner and criticize the jailer. If you had seen the past scene of the prisoner in which he murdered several innocent people, you would have killed him immediately; on the spot! The judicial system has taken so much time to enquire into the truth and arrive at the judgement and punishment. Abhimanyu was brought up by Krishna and he was the only nephew of the Lord. Krishna diverted Arjuna from the war and saw to it that Abhimanyu got killed. Anyone will scold Krishna for this action and call Him as the cruelest person. However, Krishna knew the entire background of Abhimanyu. Abhimanyu was a demon who had killed several innocent people. Therefore the actions of the Lord cannot be understood because they are based on the total background. Your actions are based only on the present which is seen. Even in the present you cannot know the internal nature of the person. However, the Lord knows the internal structure of the soul. Ravana came as a saint begging for food. Sita sympathized with him and tried to give him food. Therefore a human being cannot understand the internal quality of a beggar. Therefore social service should be done only based on the command from the Lord as told by Shri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
His Holiness Shri Datta Swami