For Hindus, dana (giving) is an important part of one’s dharma (religious duty). Dharma has a wide variety of meanings such as eternal law, duty, conduct, behaviour, morality and righteousness. Each person has a dharma towards family, society, the world and all living things.
Dharma needs to be seen within the framework of the traditional extended Hindu family, which plays the role of a welfare state. The wealth a person acquires is not for him/herself but for the welfare of the extended family and others. One has a responsibility towards those members of one’s family who cannot maintain themselves. In some circumstances an individual may have no option but to give up or compromise his/her personal goals for the sake of the family. In short, ‘giving’ begins at home but extends beyond home.
Different types of giving
The well known Hindu text the Bhagavadgita speaks of three types of giving:
- A gift that is given without any expectation of appreciation or reward is beneficial to both giver and recipient.
- A gift that is given reluctantly and with the expectation of some advantage is harmful to both giver and recipient.
- A gift that is given without any regard for the feelings of the recipient and at the wrong time, so causing embarrassment to the recipient, is again harmful to both giver and recipient.
Any giving that is motivated by selfish considerations loses its value from the spiritual point of view.
It is not so much wealth that brings happiness and peace but our attitude to possessions. Hindu philosophical texts such as the Isa Upanishad (1) point to the fact that true enjoyment and peace lie in detachment from wealth. We are not asked to renounce wealth but rather our sense of possession. Whatever we give will have no value if we part with our wealth reluctantly.
King Janasruti Pautrayana and the cart-driver
In the Chandogya Upanishad (4.1-2) we find an interesting account of a king called Janasruti Pautrayana, renowned for his generous giving and philanthropic works, and Raikva, the cart-driver who was indifferent to wealth. The king felt restless on overhearing a conversation between two geese who were flying over his palace. They commented on the king’s charity being motivated by his desire for name and fame, whereas Raikva, the cart-driver, was at peace with himself as he cared not for wealth or fame. The king went to Raikva loaded with gifts and asked him which deity he needed to worship in order to attain inner peace and happiness. But Raikva told the king that the gifts were of no use to him. The king again went to Raikva with lavish gifts and begged him to teach him the way to true happiness. Raikva imparted the sacred teaching: that all things in the universe are supported by the Spirit and all belong to the Spirit. The mere giving of gifts without this spiritual wisdom can bring no true peace.
Sharing food with others
One of the commonest forms of giving is anna dana, the sharing of food with others. It is part of one’s religious duty (dharma) to offer food to any unexpected guest. In the orthodox tradition a householder is expected to partake of food only after it has been reverentially offered to the deities, the ancestors, the mendicant, and those dependent on him. The practice of anna dana is common to all sections of Indian society and continues to be an important aspect of people’s way of life. On religious and other important occasions anna dana may be undertaken on a large scale. Some Hindus organize a special meal for the needy, or donate to a charitable cause, in memory of the deceased.
To refuse hospitality to one who comes to your door is an unpardonable act. The Chandgoya Upanishad (4.3) refers to two sages who are about to have their meal when they hear a knock at the door. They dismiss the starving young student on their doorstep. He did not expect such treatment from such reverend persons. When he finds out that they both worship Vayu, the wind-god, also called prana (breath, life-force), the young man reminds the sages that prana, which pervades the universe, also pervades the hungry mortal, who is also part of this universe. In neglecting the young man, they are not honouring the divine.
Although this passage focuses on theological questions, it is not without practical implications – that there is no point in worshipping Brahman (Supreme Being) in all creation while ignoring the needs of others.
Charity in pre-colonial India
Charity is more than merely giving; it involves the sharing of resources with others, be it wealth, food or other things. It may involve giving to philanthropic causes – providing rest-houses, planting trees, digging wells. The Chinese scholar Hiuen-Tsiang, who visited India in the seventh century during the period of the Indian king Harshavardhana, recorded the king’s generous sharing of his wealth with his people. Similarly, the kings of Thanjavur in the nineteenth century were renowned for establishing chatrams, centres of hospitality located along the road to pilgrim centres, which took care of the needy, the sick and those who died in their care.
With the advent of colonialism, chatrams were deprived of this important role. What we see today in these traditional institutions of hospitality are scenes of hunger, starvation and deprivation. Raja Sarfoji, the king of Thanjavur, in a letter to the British colonial masters in 1801, implored them to ensure that whatever else might befall his state, this tradition of hospitality would not be curtailed or done away with. But the British came to see these traditional institutions of hospitality as a wasteful use of resources. The Indian kings were warned against directing funds to their maintenance, and elite Indians were quick to internalize this attitude. With the Famine Commission Report of 1880, an elaborate state-controlled bureaucratic management of supply and distribution of food was introduced, thus discouraging the existing centres of hospitality and undermining the religious and cultural values underpinning them.
Minimizing needs and sharing resources
Although material prosperity is valued, the accumulation of wealth for one’s personal greed goes against the principle of dharma – righteous living. The Bhagavata Purana states that we have no right to claim more than what is required for our basic purposes. The Mahabharata recommends that one third of our wealth is used for philanthropic purposes. Mahatma Gandhi laid emphasis on minimizing one’s wants even if resources are in abundance. ‘It is a fundamental law of Nature’, Gandhi remarked, ‘that Nature produces enough for our wants from day to day; and if only everyone took enough for their own needs and nothing more, there would be no poverty in this world’.
Gandhi made a telling remark to Nehru about the wasteful use of water. Nehru was pouring water from a jug for Gandhi to wash his face and hands, but as they were deeply engaged in conversation Gandhi didn’t realize that he had used up all the water. Gandhi was embarrassed but Nehru assured him that there was plenty of water in his hometown of Allahabad where there are three rivers, the Ganga, the Jamuna and the Sarasvati. Gandhi’s response was: ‘Nehru, you are right. You have three great rivers in your home town but my share in those rivers is only one jug of water a morning and no more.’ Gandhi’s Sarvodaya (welfare for all) schemes and Vinobhave’s Bhoodan movement (distribution of land to the landless) and other ventures by individuals and organizations are good examples not so much of ‘giving’ in the traditional sense of the term but of showing that by minimizing our needs we can promote self-sufficiency.
Misconceptions about Hindu beliefs
Hindu beliefs such as maya, karma and rebirth have been seen as not conducive to progress. Maya, which means ‘illusion’, is largely understood in a literal sense: this world is an illusion and there is therefore no point in changing it. In fact the term maya is also used to indicate that this world is a manifestation of the divine creative power. Understood rightly, maya does not deny the reality of the empirical world.
Although within the tradition there is both affirmation and negation of this world, it is the negation that has been given exclusive emphasis in some approaches to Hinduism. The Hindu sannyasi (renunciant) is seen as lacking concern for this world and therefore unable to contribute to the material welfare of society. On the contrary, even this ‘other-worldliness’ is beneficial to the society because people’s wants are reduced to the minimum. In an era of globalization and capitalist enterprise, these values may seem out of date and out of place, but they do foster values such as selflessness, sacrifice and simple living which are not detrimental to development and progress.
Similarly, the theory of karma is interpreted in a simplistic and legalistic way. The term karma implies that all thoughts and actions carry consequences which must be faced in this life or in the life to come. This is not a punishment inflicted on us but created by us inasmuch as by our actions we create bad or good karma for ourselves and others.
The teachings of Hindu gurus and leaders emphasize the need to devote some time to seva or serving humanity in a selfless manner. Dana also includes physical, intellectual and spiritual service. Some professionally qualified Hindu doctors and surgeons render free medical service on certain days of the week. The Swami Narayan temple in Neasden in London and Hindu groups and individuals were quick to respond to the recent earthquake in Gujarat by collecting funds for the rehabilitation of the earthquake victims.
Although within Hinduism (a loosely knit tradition with no centralized authority) one does not see large-scale organized charity, Hindu religious movements such as the Ramakrishna Mission, Swaminarayan, Sri Satya Sai Baba, Chinmaya Mission, Hindu ashrams, International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) and other organizations are actively involved in charitable work – in providing for educational, medical and other basic needs. The Bhagavadgita urges people to act selflessly for the welfare of others: ‘Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains to the supreme goal in life. Do your work with the welfare of others in mind’ (3.19-26).
1 A K Bajaj and M D Srinivas, ‘Annam Bahu Kurvita: The Indian tradition of growing
and sharing food’, Manushi, nos 92-93, January-April 1996, pp16-20.
2 Quoted by Ranchor Prime in Hinduism and Ecology: Seeds of truth (1992) Cassell, London, p63.
3 Quoted in Resurgence 143, 1991, p11.
Sharada Sugirtharajah is a lecturer at the School of Historical Studies, University of Birmingham. She can be contacted by email at V.S.Sugirtharajah@bham.ac.uk
The gods have not ordained that humans die of hunger;
even to the well-fed man death comes in many shapes.
The wealth of the generous man never wastes away,
but the niggard has none to console him.
He who, possessed of food, hardens his heart
against the weak man, hungry and suffering,
who comes to him for help, though of old he helped him –
surely he finds none to console him. …
In vain does the mean man acquire food;
it is – I speak the truth – verily his death;
he who does not cherish a comrade or a friend,
who eats all alone, is all sin.
Rig Veda 10.117.1-2,6
The story of King Rantideva
Dana includes selfless service or seva to those in need. Most Hindus are familiar with the story of King Rantideva, who was known for his generosity. When his kingdom was struck by a devastating famine, he wanted to share the suffering of his subjects and so fasted for 48 days until all his people were fed. When he was about to break his fast with a glass of water he heard the cry of a thirsty man. He gave his glass of water to the man. As he was about to take a morsel of food, there appeared an unexpected hungry guest to whom he gave it. The compassionate king remarked to his ministers, who were concerned about his welfare: ‘I do not desire from God the great state attended by divine powers or even deliverance from rebirth. Establishing myself in the hearts of all beings, I take on myself their suffering so that they may be rid of their misery.’
Srimad Bhagavatam 9