Indian Culture · Inner View · Spirituality beyond Religion · Words of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo

Why Give? Or Not Give?




“Donate for a good cause.”

“Your ten rupees a day can pay for a poor girl’s school fee for a year.”

“Buy these gorgeous handicrafts and help build a rural health center.”

“If not for generous donors like you, this village would have no clean water.”

Sound familiar?

Yes, we have all seen such notifications, such solicitations for donations and charity. Worded to evoke a certain sentiment, with appropriate picture(s) for complete effect. Such ‘calls for charity’ are found abundantly in all forms of mass media – print, broadcast, online, social, even on roadside hoardings. Nothing surprising about it, it has become part of the modern urban/semi-urban experience. It is a pretty standard practice for charitable organisations to shake up (gently) people’s sleeping conscience — mostly the well-to-do middle and upper income groups who are otherwise so occupied with their lives and absorbed in their lifestyles — , some of whom are ‘moved’ enough to open their wallets and chequebooks and help the ‘needy.’

“The existence of poverty is the proof of an unjust & ill organised society, and our public charities are but the first tardy awakening in the conscience of a robber.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 12, p. 447)

But perhaps it may be necessary to spend a few minutes reflecting on the question: why give? Or a better question would be: why should I give? Or not give? Such a questioning requires a sincere checking-in with oneself, especially about one’s motivations.

Am I giving because it is the ‘moral-ethical-socially responsible’ thing to do? Am I giving because I really believe in the ’cause’? Do I even know enough about the ’cause’ for which I am about to give? Do I know how my donation will be actually utilised? Will it actually go toward the ’cause’ or will it end up as part of the big fat salaries for the NGO directors and marketing staff?

Some more questions may come up: Why should I even bother about how the money I give will be used? Isn’t my job over once I have sent the cheque? After all, am I not giving simply because I will get a tax benefit because of this big donation? So why am I calling it a ‘moral’ thing? Isn’t it selfish of me to get tax benefits from this donation?

The deeper the line of questioning, the greater is the need for  stepping back from the first ‘moralistic’ urge to ‘help the needy’ and figure out the source of this urge itself. From where does this instinct arise?

Is it coming from our emotional/vital ego which might feel a sense of pride at having done something good for the ‘less fortunate’ among us? Is it a movement of our mental ego which would perhaps get rid of a bit of its guilt or shame or regret that some may experience at the thought — here we are enjoying all the good things in life while there are so many poor struggling for even the most basic necessities? Is it really a movement of our higher, more compassionate, empathetic layer of our vital, emotional part?

How can we be sure? Or should we even bother about all this introspection and instead merely do the ‘right thing’ by helping those in need? But then, what is indeed the ‘right thing’?

So many questions. How to know what to do? Perhaps the answer can be found in understanding the nature of ‘giving’ itself.

“As with tapasya, all giving also is of an ignorant tamasic, an ostentatious rajasic or a disinterested and enlightened sattwic character. The tamasic gift is offered ignorantly with no consideration of the right conditions of time, place and object; it is a foolish, inconsiderate and in reality a self-regarding movement, an ungenerous and ignoble generosity, the gift offered without sympathy or true liberality, without regard for the feelings of the recipient and despised by him even in the acceptance. The rajasic kind of giving is that which is done with regret, unwillingness or violence to oneself or with a personal and egoistic object or in the hope of a return of some kind from whatever quarter or a corresponding or greater benefit to oneself from the receiver. The sattwic way of giving is to bestow with right reason and goodwill and sympathy in the right conditions of time and place and on the right recipient who is worthy or to whom the gift can be really helpful. Its act is performed for the sake of the giving and the beneficence, without any view to a benefit already done or yet to be done to oneself by the receiver of the benefit and without any personal object in the action.” (Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Vol. 19, p. 490)

Or perhaps the answer lies deeper.

“But even charity and altruism are essentially egoistic in their immediate motive. They are stirred by the discomfort of the sight of suffering to the nervous system or by the pleasurableness of others’ appreciation of our kindliness or by the egoistic self-appreciation of our own benevolence or by the need of indulgence in sympathy. There are philanthropists, who would be troubled, if the poor were not always with us, for they would then have no field for their charity.” (CWSA, Vol. 13, p. 454)

Does it mean there is no such thing as genuine charity or altruism?

“Charity, like all things, must be the result in us of a conscious and reasoned will, for impulse is synonymous with error and above all with egoism.” (The Mother, CWM, Vol. 2. p. 104)

“Fling not thy alms abroad everywhere in an ostentation of charity; understand & love where thou helpest. Let thy soul grow within thee.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 12, p. 447)

Only through a sincere and honest self-knowing can we begin to know whether our act of charity or altruism is truly an unselfish or non-egoistic act.  Because more often than not, “altruism is only the sublimest form of selfishness” (ibid, p. 455)

“It is a mistake to consider service to humanity as the highest expression of service to the Divine. To do so is to remain far too confined within the limits of an exclusive human consciousness.” (The Mother, CWM, Vol. 14, p. 276)

22 thoughts on “Why Give? Or Not Give?

  1. In Tamil there is a saying which says, give alms depending upon the vessel (the Tamil word has a double meaning of vessel and person). More often than not, donation and charity are given without much involvement and often as you have pointed out, to avail of the tax benefits. I only give donations if I know the person doing the work and if I am sure that it is not going for salaries and administrative expenses of a posh NGO.

    The Mother’s quote at the end urging us to rise above the linits of human consciousness is so emphatic.

    1. Aah, that’s a wonderful saying. Thanks for sharing it.

      These days some of the charities have become full-fledged professional organisations with huge admin expenses and board of directors with big salaries and perks etc. So it is all the more important to be cautious where our donations are being spent.

  2. So very true Beloo 🙂 I have oft thought of the nature of giving and its ins and outs and wrote a blog post an year ago I think on lessons learned by giving and taking. It is interesting to peel away layers of the mind and ego.

  3. Sometimes I think the most valuable you can give is your time… But of course money can help… and sometimes it surprises me how a small amount of money can make such a huge difference, if only invested wisely…. Its so true though, you want to make sure the money goes where it can do good, and not in the pocket of some organized criminals etc… I believe that everyone can do some good for others, small or big stuff… Great write up dear Beloo:-)

    1. Hi Eli! Yes, I agree, time is generally the most essential thing, and often that is what we often ignore. Writing a cheque is easy, sign it and mail it, done! I guess in the ultimate analysis, it is the inner attitude with which we do any of this charity work that matters the most. Thank you for bringing up this important point.

  4. I have seen such attitude with the charity I’m involved with. People donate on their birthdays or anniversaries and most think their job is over after that. But most of the times that is not enough. I have seen the little ones waiting for people to talk to them or play with them, but very few people actually do it.

    1. Thanks Titli for bringing up this important point. Often it is the time, attention and the presence/influence that makes greater difference than the money. Though I suppose money is also important. The important thing is that the inner attitude with which we do any work, including charity. No?

  5. I am also wary of donating to charities that have a huge marketing setup and beat you down to donate. I prefer to help out with the studies of children of my care givers. That said I do donate to a few charities

    1. I am with you on this one, about helping out with the studies of my domestic help etc. As a general rule, I avoid bigger charities/NGOs, especially the international ones because I can never be sure of their agendas. Even with smaller, local charities I do thorough research beforehand. But my first preference is always to support the efforts of those who are in my circle – my domestic help, local artisans, small food growers in nearby villages, micro-entrepreneurs, community co-ops etc. There are many ways to help these enterprising individuals.
      Thanks Rachna for adding an important point to the discussion.

    1. Welcome Sanch to this new ‘home’ for my blog! And thank you for sharing your perspective on this topic. I am totally with you about the need for doing proper research. So much nasty stuff happens under the disguise of ‘charity’ these days. Sad.

  6. I give to my alumni trust- the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust- which I know uses the funds for a good cause. Since all the services offered by the Trust are free and none of the funds are solicited, I have no qualms about giving it. I do it with a sense of gratitude for my alma mater. In any event, there is no such thing as true altruism. Every good deed makes us feel good about ourselves. So, in that sense, there is no truly selfless good deed. However, if the only outcome is a good feeling, I’m not against an altruistic goal of giving itself.

    1. Thanks Shailaja for sharing your perspective. I agree that from a certain point of view, there is no truly selfless deed. As for the “outcome” of any deed, well, we can have a long discussion about it, but I guess my point of view is already summarised in the post itself 🙂 Appreciate your visiting.

  7. It is a big question and as you say how do we know if what we are donating is big used for the purpose we have donated. Usually you will find that the board members and others who work or have the charity are multi millionaires. . Makes one wonder WHY..

    I myself think that if you have the means then do give.. It is a way of Sikhism tooo .. The gurus taught us to give 10th part for charity ..
    And true we should not take for granted that helping humanity is divine. . What about nature… We need to take care of nature tooooo…

    1. Thank you Bikramjit for this great comment, and for sharing what you have observed. I also wonder why so many of these big charities are run by multi-millionaires 🙂 I guess in our heart of hearts we know the reason, no?!
      In India we have this old proverb – neki kar kuain mein daal (which basically means – do good and then forget about it). I guess the point there is also to not let our ‘good deeds’ become a means to boost our ego. You probably also know of another proverb, which I, growing up Punjabi in Delhi often heard, which basically says – If you give with right hand, don’t let your left hand know about it. And look at the complete opposite things that are happening now! Today people advertise and boast about the charity they have done. What a fall from grace!

      1. yes so very right, I am faced with a dilemma myself and have been thinking , I have also written this comment and deleted twice now ..

        just posted a issue on farmers and I have had so many emails and messages people asking if I have helped or if they send me money will i forward .. Now what i do and not do is personal.. but then i was also in a fix that maybe i should put a post up and if someone wants to help then maybe i could volunteer..

        But then again .. you know what i mean .. 😦

      2. I can empathise with your dilemma. I am sure you will know in due time what is the right thing for you to do in this case. I guess one way I have learned to avoid such dilemmas, at least in my writing work is by avoiding such topics, in my private domain I can choose how or to what extent I want to help with some cause/charity, but I don’t write about it. Also, writing posts for charity sponsors etc is something I never do. At least haven’t done that so far.

  8. I do have friends who are really passionate about different causes and they not just donate, but volunteer, and actually try to make a difference. I have been donating to cancer council here, but then again, I am guilty of doing any volunteering work. I feel charity is like cleansing, when you selflessly let go of something for the betterment of others, but to boast about it fails the whole purpose of charity.

    1. Thanks Rajlakshmi for your thoughtful comment. I agree charity or any good deed can have a great cleansing effect, as long as it is done with the right intention and without any expectation in return. When charitable work becomes a means to boost one’s ego (sattvic ego is the worst as many spiritual masters have said again and again), then it only enslaves us further.

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