“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.”
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)