Generosity or Charitable Giving By Hindus

Alms Giving

From The Editor's Desk

(Hinduwebsite Editorial - Exploring Truth Amidst Illusions and Distortions)


How generous and charitable are Hindus? Charity is considered one of the highest virtues in Hinduism. Hindus are advised to cultivate generosity to overcome their selfish nature and cultivate detachment and dispassion. The scriptures suggest that generosity or charitable nature leads to removal of sinful karma and thereby to self-purification.

Thus, charity is also self-cleansing and one of the highly recommended spiritual practice. By danam (charity) and showing generosity through self-less giving, one can over overcome danavatvam (cruelty and harshness). In the following discussion, we will examine the generosity of Hindus and how they compare to other communities and religious groups in the world.

In 2014 the Charities Aid Foundation conducted a survey of 134 nations to determine which countries were the most charitable. The survey chose three giving behaviors as the criteria to determine the rank, whether people donated money, volunteered their time to an organization, or helped a stranger or someone they did not know.

Based on their findings, they created a World Giving Index to reflect a global view of giving trends of the people in various countries. The Index shows that India ranks 69 among the charitable nations in the world. In giving, India also lags behind Pakistan (61), Sri Lanka (9), Bhutan (11) and Nepal (44), but slightly ahead of Bangladesh (72) and Afghanistan (79). The Top 20 countries in the World Giving Index, with score and participation in giving behaviors is shown below.

World Giving Index
Five-year score and averages: data represents average participation in countries surveyed in three or more different calendar years in period 2009–2013. One-year score: only includes countries surveyed in 2013. Data relate to participation in giving behaviors during one month prior to interview. World Giving Index and difference scores are shown to the nearest whole number but the rankings are determined using two decimal points.

Myanmar ranks first in the world in generosity

The Survey show that the wealth of a nation does not have a bearing upon the charitable nature or the generosity of its people. Surprisingly, Myanmar, one of the poorest nations in the world, leads the Index at number one as the most charitable country in the world, slightly ahead of USA in some respects. Also sharing the laurels in the top twenty are Sri Lanka (9), Bhutan (11) and Indonesia (13).

According to IMF (2015), in GDP Myanmar ranks 127 among 185 nations in the world, and in per capita income it ranks 149, much behind India and several developed nations. It has also been under a brutal military dictatorship and remained isolated from the rest of the world for a longtime. A documentary made by a visiting foreign reporter a few years ago shows the utter poverty and miserable conditions in which people live and how they have to travel long distances to make a living. Certainly, Myanmar is a good example of how humanity, or being human and generous, is not a byproduct of wealth or abundance but attitude and character.

The role of faith in giving behavior

The Survey also shows that faith plays an important role in influencing people’s attitude towards charity, kindness and helping. For example, although the Buddhist nations are mostly poor, they rank high among the most charitable nations in the world. Examples are, Myanmar (1), Sri Lanka (9), Bhutan (11) and Thailand (21).

In contrast, countries such as South Korea (60), Vietnam (79), China (128) and Japan (90), who were once Buddhist, rank low. It indicates the growing culture of materialism and declining religious faith in these countries, and how it influences their giving nature.

Giving behavior in India

India currently has a population of about 1.252 billion people. According to the Government poverty index of them in 2011-12 about 274 million (21.9%) people were living below the poverty limit. Their daily earnings roughly average to about half a dollar a day. The World Bank puts the same figure at 276 million (23.6%) with an earning capacity of $1.25 per day. The figures may have been further revised up or down in recent times. However, we can safely conclude that the country has about 20% population, or 200 million to 300 million people whose earnings per day range between one and two dollars a day.

Therefore, there is a greater need in India for people who enjoy better living conditions to cultivate generosity or helping nature. As we have seen wealth does not have much bearing upon the generosity or giving nature of people. It has to come from within as part of one’s faith, culture, social and moral values and upbringing. People have to change their attitude and concern themselves not only with the welfare of their individual families but also that of others, which constitute their extended family or the community.

Hinduism and generosity or giving behavior

As Hindus we do take pride in the adage of universal brotherhood (vasudhaika kutumbam) and the spiritual nature of life. That has to be reflected in our thinking and attitude and giving behavior also. The government cannot be the sole savior of the poor. People need to take personal responsibility for the order and regularity of the world, which is what Dharma is all about in Hinduism. It is well exemplified in the idea of five daily sacrifices (nitya karma) towards various beings of this world and of others.

There are indeed genuine and compelling reasons for the country to rank low among the charitable nations. Although India has sizable middle-class and wealthy people, much of the wealth in the country is locked in fixed assets such as houses, land or gold and jewelry. Because of high registration costs and stringent government regulations, they cannot fully be converted into liquid cash. In the event of a sale, lot of money in such transactions has to remain unaccounted for and hidden to avoid tax. Therefore, people who own fixed assets, prefer to keep them rather than sell them unless it is extremely necessary. They may have wealth locked in fixed assets, but they are not cash rich as such properties are not readily convertible.

Secondly, life is very stressful in most metropolitan areas because of high population density. People experience scarcity and competition in every aspect of their lives, from drinking water, school admissions to food and groceries. There is also no social security or welfare protection. Therefore, many feel insecure, even if they are well off, and do not think much about sharing or giving. Religious beliefs also influence their thinking. Belief in karma makes people feel less concerned about others since each person is expected to be responsible for his or her life and actions.

Scope for improvement

Still, as we have seen in case of the Buddhist nations, there is scope for people to cultivate giving nature. The Vedas proclaim that charity is one of the highest virtues for human beings upon earth. They are expected to be charitable to gods, humans and other living beings. Therefore, Hindus should return to this basic virtue as part of the Hindu way of life. The Ramakrishna Mission under the leadership of Swami Vivekananda tried to inculcate it among the people at the grassroots level, highlighting the slogan, “Service to humanity is service to God.” Many Hindu charitable organizations have also tried the same.

One does not have to give money only to help others, although it is the first thing that comes to our minds when we think of charity. One can help others in numerous ways. You can do it in many creative ways if you cultivate compassion and empathy. Even the mere practice of being courteous, gentle or kind to others or to the elderly people can a make difference to someone somewhere.

Giving helps us overcome our selfish nature and see life from a larger perspective as a manifestation of God. Hindu scriptures equate selfishness with evil and declare that engaging in desire-ridden selfish actions lead to bondage and suffering. They consider the practice of karma yoga or doing selfless actions without desires and expectations a great virtue.

Practising charity or generosity is the most ideal path for householders, or those who are engaged in worldly actions. Many spiritual organizations in India are already engaged in selfless work and doing their part. People can do it on their own, in their local communities and raise awareness among others about the need to cultivate giving nature.

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