Think before you give. What may appear to be a liberating act may instead entangle you.
Most persons in their middle ages or into their retired life tend to become kindly and benign towards others as they grow older. Especially in India, where begging is considered a profession by many, albeit not so honourable, we see signs of people digging into their pockets whenever approached by a beggar and feeling “nice” about giving in charity to a supposedly poor or needy person. Even teenagers practise this form of charity, most notably in local trains or outside places of worship.
There are many large or small organizations that care for the poor, give free education or food to the poor, run orphanages or homes for widows and destitute women, run free hospitals, educate slum children, and others that work for a myriad of different social causes. All these projects tend to impact society in a materially positive way. Some people donate freely to such institutions or NGOs, whereas some even embark on their own charitable project as a personal commitment or lifetime achievement thing.
But the question that arises is whether all these different types of giving activities constitute charity. The Bhagavad-gita is unequivocal on this point. Let us examine its masterful definitions of the different forms of charity.
Charity in the Mode of Goodness
“That gift which is given out of duty, at the proper time and place, to a worthy person, and without expectation of return, is considered to be charity in the mode of goodness” (Gita 17.20). For your charity to be in sattvaguna, the material mode of goodness, you have to ensure that you are giving to a worthy person, not to a professional beggar or a cheat or drunkard who will utter a hundred lies to “earn” your money. If the money is used for a noble social cause, surely it is well spent. In Vedic times, charity given to a poor brahmana (a person learned in the scriptures) was definitely considered in the mode of goodness. Feeding and clothing the poor, contributing to the education of underprivileged children, paying for a stranger’s hospitalization, arranging for the marriage of a poor girl, are examples of charity in the mode of goodness.
Charity in the Mode of Passion
If you want your name or the name of your parent or beloved spouse on a marble plaque as a permanent facade of the institution to which you have donated a huge amount, so that you might receive some sense gratification from reading their names on a well-made plaque, and your friends might point to the plaque and remember you for what a great guy you are or were, the Gita has news for you.
“But charity performed with the expectation of some return, or with a desire for fruitive results, or in a grudging mood, is said to be charity in the mode of passion” (Gita 17.21).
Since you are clearly looking to earn some fame or recognition for your act of giving, however noble the cause, the charity is said to be in rajo-guna, the material mode of passion, because you expect something in return. It is therefore said that if you practice charity, your right hand should not know what your left hand is doing.
If you feel that you are induced to pay up by peer pressure or the act of not giving might make you appear a miser, your giving might be in a grudging mood, and hence your charity will be of the same quality of passion.
Making a donation to a hospital or club so that your name appears on a marble plaque or you are made life president of a club, NGO or hospital, or even publicizing your charity, are examples of charity in the mode of passion.
Charity in the Mode of Ignorance
“Here comes this guy with his appeals for money. Let’s just give him something and get rid of him, otherwise he’ll keep pleading on and on, and I need to go.” Or we might just part with a coin to get rid of a pesky and persistent beggar, not really liking him or sympathising with him in any way.
“And charity performed at an improper place and time and given to unworthy persons without respect and with contempt is charity in the mode of ignorance.” (Gita 17.22). Since no respect is given to the receiver, or the charity is given in contempt, or the receiver is not worthy of respect, in all these cases, the charity is in tamo-guna, or the material mode of ignorance. Society is probably better off without such charity.
Is Charity Confined Within Boundaries?
One may ask, “Is this all there is to charity ? Charity is classified in grades A, B and C? A is pass with distinction, B is just pass, and C is fail?” Certainly not. “Acts of sacrifice, charity and penance are not to be given up but should be performed. Indeed, sacrifice, charity and penance purify even the great souls” (Gita 18.5).
The three kinds of charity described above are on the material plane and definitely factored into one’s personal karma, which will influence the karmic reactions each of us will perforce undergo in future lives. This charity will ensure our continuity in material life by giving us either an opulent future life or a miserable one, but we will remain entrenched in material life irrespective of our present charitable mode. This indicates that we have not really endeavoured for any substantive changes in the status of our material existence. In future lives also, we shall have to perforce undergo the material pangs of birth, aging, disease and death, necessary conditions all living entities have to undergo once having received a body made from the material elements. Moreover, the person we are trying to help will only temporarily improve his material condition. His spiritual evolution will be stagnant due to continuance on the material platform.
Since this charity helped to reduce the suffering of a living entity which is undergoing transformation through karmic corrections, we are not helping him spiritually. But if our efforts make him regain his spiritual identity or memory, by helping rejuvenate his Krishna consciousness, sooner rather than later, and thereby giving his soul a leg up, this is noble and transcendental activity, attended by transcendental and permanent credit points.
In our zeal for charity to assuage the material deprivation of the beneficiary, we often forget that the spirit soul within each of us has been starved of spiritual energy. Since the soul’s original position is be in a loving relationship with Krishna , innumerable lives of existence bereft of spirituality have starved the soul of its most potent nourishment, Krishna . When, by our efforts, we can connect the deprived person with Krishna again, through devotional activity or exposure to the authorized scriptures such as the Gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the beneficiary gains in Krishna consciousness and this enables him to be nourished and satisfied after many lifetimes of drought. Once this person is on the path of Krishna consciousness, our charity would have been well spent and successful.
Donating towards the building of a beautiful Krishna temple, donating towards upkeep of teachers of spiritual knowledge, assisting in distribution of Krishna prasada to school children, devotees or the general population, helping towards publishing spiritual literature, sponsoring a program for a Gita or Bhagavatam recital session, and similar activities, constitute charity of transcendental quality and pure Krishna consciousness. All these activities draw us very close to Krishna (or Visnu). Krishna , and Krishna alone, can award the living entities with release from this material bondage, the ultimate goal of all spiritual seekers. By contribution to noble causes, and at the same time, dovetailing our activities in Krishna consciousness, we can inexorably pull ourselves and others out of this mundane physical existence and get personally connected to Krishna .
Those who preach and propagate Krishna consciousness throughout the world or support their activities in any way possible are the highest charitable workers. “For one who explains the supreme secret to the devotees, devotional service is guaranteed, and at the end he will come back to Me. There is no servant in this world more dear to Me than he, nor will there ever be one more dear” (Gita 18.68-69). This activity guarantees devotional service and ultimate freedom from the material maelstrom, and the cycle of material life. There is no higher form of charity.
Gautam Saha has done his chemical engineering from IIT Bombay, and he has a diploma in Export Management. He is ex-CEO of the Indo-Angola Chamber of Commerce & Industry and is engaged in corporate communications.