Sunday, January 17, 1999
ITs a tough life and we know that Lady Luck, more often than not, smiles on those who help themselves. We struggle to make our ends meet, work tirelessly to better our status and constantly upgrade skills to battle odds and unfair situations. We find ourselves pitched alone in our search for success and happiness. We have only ourselves to depend on. Whenever we turn to people for help, advice or support, we, many a time, find it missing. Of course, not everyone is blunt in denying it .
There are those who are politely non-committal, others who promise help only to backtrack when the time comes, and still others who mislead, deriving sadistic pleasure from seeing someone flounder and go to pieces. Why then should you be charitable, benevolent, generous, kind or helpful? Indeed, as we get more and more engrossed in our quest for individual gratification, we also find ourselves becoming hard and unyielding.
Each hurtful experience leaves its scars. We find ourselves becoming a little more harsh, a little more selfish and a little more unpleasant than before. We learn to say no to people, to turn down requests for help, to make excuses and to wriggle out of situations which make demands on our time and material resources.
We even master the fine art of convincing our inner voice, the conscience, which rears it argumentative head once in a while. Didnt we scale each rung of the ladder ourselves? Where were these people when you needed them? Dont we still have many more miles to go, before we can think of donating or being charitable? In any case, we dont fancy the idea of handing out alms to the undeserving, especially those who can fend for themselves. The very concept of charity has therefore become an anathema to us. It is something we fail to relate to, leave alone imbibe in our character/persona.
We may sing paeans in praise of Mother Teresa, marvelling the good work she did, but do we want to follow in her footsteps? Oh no, that is something we would much rather leave to the Sisters of Charity, to those who have enough money at their disposal or those who are in the twilight of their life and can now comfortably renounce their worldly possessions. Surely, charity is not for those who are on the threshold of a future, where struggle and hard work are the only two certainties. Its not that you are averse to making charitable contributions to the truly needy, destitute and the downtrodden. When the time comes we too will think about it.
At best, we make the stray contribution to the temple fund or donate clothes to a flood relief initiative. Again, such acts of generosity are often half-hearted or dictated by a motive. We may make a donation just to appear large- hearted and philanthropic. Or it may be a quid pro quo kind of a situation, where in return for your charity, the other party grants you a favour. Most of the times we dismiss charity, especially when applied to us directly. We may appreciate it in others, but find ourselves ill-equipped to embrace it in toto.
The modern meaning of charity has got restricted to the giving away of money or material goods to those who are in need. The dictionary defines charitable actions as alms-giving for the needy, without expectation of appreciation and reward. Traditionally, the meaning of charity extended to include universal love, benevolence and the harbouring of good and positive feelings about others. A charitable person perceived others needs without being told and extended a helpful hand without announcing his good deed to the world.
This need could be financial, psychological, emotional or mental. An anonymous poem puts the entire concept of charity in perspective: Charity is silence when your words would hurt, its patience when your neighbours hurt, its deafness when scandal flows, its thoughtfulness for anothers woes, its promptness when stern duty calls and its courage when misfortune falls.
This implies that many of us are charitable without our even realising so. When a friend looses his mother, we spend hours with him helping him overcome the loss. When your sister falls ill before an exam, you call up her friends, collect notes, prepare master sheets and help her revise orally. You not only equip her for the exams but also instil feelings of confidence and love.
When your maids alcoholic husband runs away with all the jewellery and cash a week before their daughters wedding, you go on a donation collection spree. You approach your rich and not-so-rich friends to part with some cash. You also dip into your personal savings and hand over a sum enough to salvage her honour and commitment.
Now tell us, arent these charitable thoughts and actions? In all the above instances, we could see traces of compassion, consideration, sacrifice, selflessness, concern and fortitude. All of these go into the making of a charitable person or institution.
A lot of us stay away from charity because we are disillusioned with it. Commercialisation has crept into every field of human activity. When we see huge philanthropic organisations in spite of being endorsed and popularised by celebrities, indulging in charities, auctions and fund raisings, which on the surface are for a social cause, but otherwise a cover for unscrupulous money-making activities, we tend to regard all such efforts with doubt and circumspection.
When we see the increasing profusion of beggars and the organised crime network that they operate within, all charitable feelings get replaced with disgust. The general perception is that if the beggar is in a position to work, any kind of work, we shall happily pay him for services rendered, but why should we give alms to someone who is undeserving, lazy and unwilling to earn his daily bread? If some of us, out of a sense of pity or guilt, do reach into our wallets, there are those who reprimand us for being soft- hearted and for encouraging the beggar to live a wasted life.
Charity was not always viewed so cynically. In our scriptures, charity or daan was considered one of the three prescribed duties. It was dharma. And among the four orders of life, sustenance by begging was the essential component of a celibate, of one who is a brahmachari. The idea being to inculcate in him the concept of humility as a virtue. The mendicant or the sanyasi was sustained by alms alone.
This giving of charity was an integral part of every household. Ask your grannies and they will affirm that yes, every day they religiously handed out alms to the visiting mendicants. This was not in the form of left-over discarded food. It was a voluntary gesture done in a humble and genuine manner. Charity is not charity unless given in good faith with modesty and friendly feelings. It is very important not to offend the sensibilities and/or the self-respect of the recipient.
One of the greatest daanis
was Karna, who even when dying on the battlefield did
not disappoint the person who approached him for alms.
Legend has it that gasping for his last breath, he picked
up a stone, broke his own gold tooth and handed it over
to the person who was begging for alms. Again his
ultimate act of charity was not out of any sense of
obligation or fear of dying but out of a sense of
compassion for a fellow human being. At that point of
time, wounded and bereft of his riches and ample
resources, that was the only thing that struck him which
he could give to help a fellow being.
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