While reading Srila Prabhupada's books, I've often puzzled over passages like this: "Charity is meant for the householders. The householders should earn a livelihood by an honorable means and spend fifty percent of their income to propagate Krsna consciousness all over the world" (Bhagavad-gita 16.3).
When I lived in the temple, I would repeat the phrase "fifty percent of your earnings" rather thoughtlessly. Now that I live outside and have in some ways come out of my ivory tower, I'm a bit more thoughful.
For most people giving fifty percent of their gross income seems too difficult. So I've been trying to understand what "fifty percent of one's income" actually means.
Let's look at a modest British income of $20,000. After taxes you're left with $16,200. Then comes the mortgage or rent, and you're down to $9,000. Fifty percent is already gone. Chalk off another $700 for travel and $1200 for telephone, electricity, and other services. Then maybe $5,000 for food, clothes, repairs and renewals, family recreation, and other expenses. You've only got $2,100 left
In speaking about "fifty percent," Srila Prabhupada cites the example set by Srila Rupa Gosvami when he retired from household life. Srila Rupa Gosvami allocated half of his accumulated funds for Lord Krsna's direct service, a quarter for his family members, and the rest for personal expenses and emergencies. Note that these were accumulated funds
In commenting on the Gita (9.27), Srila Prabhupada mentions "surplus money accumulated." And in the Srimad-Bhagavatam(1.17.42) he further explains, "One's accumulated wealth may be divided into three parts for distribution, namely fifty percent for the service of the Lord, twenty-five percent for the family members, and twenty-five percent for personal necessities. Spending fifty percent for the service of the Lord or for propagation of spiritual knowledge in society by way of the sankirtana-yajna is the maximum display of human mercy. … When everyone is taught to sacrifice fifty percent of his accumulated gold for the Lord's service, certainly austerity, cleanliness, and mercy automatically ensue."
It's pretty clear, then, that "fifty percent of one's accumulated wealth" refers to one's wealth after essential expenses. When Rupa Gosvami made his contributions, he didn't include the expenses he had before he took sannyasa.
When a devotee I know heard this explanation, he suddenly felt that a cloud of confusion, guilt, and apprehension had been lifted. He now felt that it was possible to dedicate fifty percent of his income for Lord Krsna's direct service. Instead of feeling bad about himself and struggling with thoughts like, "If I can't possibly come up to the mark, why bother at all?" he felt encouraged. In fact, he began to look for ways to cut his expenses to have more for Krsna.
Srila Prabhupada didn't pressure people into giving their hard-earned money. By his pure teaching, people understood what is what and naturally surrendered not only their money but their lives as well.
If anyone has further thoughts on this matter, I'd like to hear them. Please write to me c/o BTG in San Diego.
Rohininandana Dasa lives in southern England with his wife and their three children. Please write to him at Woodgate Cottage, Beckley Nr. Rye, E. Sussex TN31 6UH, U.K.