How the process, motives and consequences of giving alms have grown over time to be a matter of discomfiture for the educated urban Indian.
This morning, as I indulged in my first cup of milk-tea at a ‘marwari’ tea-stall, an elderly woman, clad in a white saree with a shabby green shawl covering her head from the cold, stretched out her arms in a patronizing way: “Kichhu poysha dao maa” (Please give me some money).
I, who is completely against alms-giving, explained why I didn’t encourage this particular activity. The elderly woman responded in a boorish manner: “Lokeder churi-dakati ta korchhi na. bhikkhey ta chaichhi. Kashi-bashi hole bhikkey korei pet cholto. Daan debe na thik ache, eto gyan kyano dichho?” (I am not stealing from or robbing people, I am simply begging. If I would have been in Kashi, I could have survived by begging. It’s alright that you don’t want to give. Why are you sermonizing?).
And before I could broach a conversation with her, she cantankerously moved on to the next person with her white, plastic bowl. She approached the man with the same fervour and perhaps expectation. He turned his face to the other side to avoid the elderly woman. The woman was still hopeful and so this time, she walked up to a middle-aged lady.
The woman responded in a peevish voice: “Kya? Bhagwan ko denge aur tujhe bhi denge? Itna paisa hain mere paas?” (What? I have to offer God and I have to give you too? Do I have that much money?)
Saddened, the elderly woman circled the tea-chowk for a while. Not a single coin in her bowl. To her, begging was neither socially embarrassing nor unmannerly in any way. It was a legitimate activity that she carried out with no remorse or misgivings. In other words, begging was not necessarily a despised activity. As I continued with my cup of tea, I remembered her cursory references to Kashi, bhikkey and daan and all those men and women (including myself) who turned her down.
Historically, Kashi was an important pilgrimage centre for Hindus. The religious site was established as a refuge for most destitute Hindu women in the 19th century. Kashi officially became the social and religious refuge for most Hindu young and elderly widowed women.
As destination (and destiny) of religious refuge for widowed and destitute women, it therefore drew large numbers of people, who increasingly had to depend on open, unorganized and private ‘alms’ which too were selectively distributed.
The widows, young and old, living in the ashrams of Kashi were provided for their living according to their economic status while widows, who emigrated were forced to make a livelihood of their own.
Moreover, liberal donations from well-to-do Bengalis committed initially out of religious fervour soon died out, leaving a substantial number of widowed women impoverished and homeless.
The daan (offering or giving or donation) perceived as a ‘favour’ towards the economically and socially lowly, therefore, not only comprised of material wealth but also food and temporary lodging for the destitute which in economic terms in contemporary times are identified with ‘basic amenities’ of a household.
Here, it must be noted that the concept of daan was not thought-up by the rich and the affluent to emancipate or empower young and old widowed women in any way. The material relief, besides spiritually uplifting the donor who considered himself to be doing ‘good work’, and providing free food and clothing to the poor in a frivolous manner didn’t socially accomplish much. What such support systems did was evade and possibly obfuscate the real, critical and fundamental social problems the widowed women then encountered.
Sadly, this is still the case with contemporary organized charity. Particularly institutions, where they house elderly people, the hunger for a ‘home’ or a ‘family’ is quenched by a perennial supply of basic amenities such as food and clothing, provided by individual donors or organizations, both public and private, during festivities and through the year, closing all avenues for complaints and grievances from the receivers of such donations.
It is not uncommon for social problems to be silenced through exclusion and erasures or avoided by turning the problem into an economic one.
The contemporary old age home is one illustration of how the longing for belongingness, the desire for a home, family or social relationships is clouded by the look of the plenty augmented by economic favours.
The old age home is a site where we witness the power and mercy of the economic as it enforces rules, regulations and all other kinds of disciplinary mechanisms and compels the abandoned elderly women to be compliant with and conform to stringent norms of the institution.
Unlike the economically privileged, where abundant flow of money is perhaps socially enabling, the provision of free food, clothing and shelter doesn’t socially strengthen the elderly women in any way.
Instead, as abandoned and destitute, daan (donation) silences them forever. The remorse and humiliation infused in this form of daan is tremendous but no one talks about it.
Though unceremonious, alms were the most effective kind of relief to the poor that came from daily begging at the house gates, in the streets and in front of temples. Begging was considered the most traditional and rightful mode of earning as far as the poor and the homeless were concerned.
A mode of survival dependent on ‘alms’ from the nouveaux richesas not necessarily encouraged or even encouraging; nonetheless, it had large public acceptance for several purposes.
While the act of daan suggests Calvinist propensities of dispensing with religious and moral responsibilities by those who benefited by the unequal distribution of wealth and were socially obliged to provide relief to the poor in some way or the other, the concept of charity or daan did exist in pre-colonial India.
Calvin and other Swiss reformers during the Reformation in England encouraged the idea of an institution of organized charity vis-à-vis pauperism where “indiscriminate almsgiving” was to be discouraged and condemned.
Calvin had sown the seed for organized charity where now ecclesiastical doctrines (such as the sin of avarice) were tied with social legislations and prohibitions (such as just price and prohibition of usury) that emphasized economic interests where ‘property’ was no more a “mere aggregate of economic privileges but a responsible office”. Its raisond’etre was not only income, but service.
Curiously, daan was initiated not for the benefit of the receiver but for the benefit of the giver. This was how paupers sometimes benefited little from such charity but in the 19th century the moneyed men of Calcutta continued to practice it with a view to earning yasha (fame) and punya (merit).
In addition to earning fame and merit, the act of daan aided the wealthy babus in building up a local popularity for themselves that to some extent also served as a tacit mode of governance.
Rajat Sanyal, in Voluntary Associations and the Urban Public Life in Bengal, 1815-1876: An Aspect of Social History, writes of how in a report of 1808 (in Asiatic Annual Register, Vol X of London), the Calcutta locality of Chitpore was cited as thronged with poor people for several days receiving charity from the heirs of late Gokul Mitra, a well-to-do Calcuttan of that time.
Whatever the donor’s motive, whether it was to gather fame and merit and mass adulation or whether it was truly intended to ameliorate the miseries of the poor and the destitute, personal forms of charity were widely encouraged particularly because it historically came to be accepted as a ‘good’ deed similar to ‘good works’ of Protestantism.
The only difficulty was that such forms of charity attracted a huge crowd of paupers, whose sole livelihood rested on begging which indiscriminate almsgiving deliberately encouraged.
However, in 19th century Calcutta, this wasn’t as much a social dilemma as it was a matter of habitual religious obedience for daridras (paupers) were also narayans (an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu).
But to be crowded by too many narayans was not very visibly pleasing to the elite wealthy Hindus. For one, the huge crowd of paupers was unmanageable, and secondly, it was not remotely feasible to monetarily appease all of them.
As a result, disappointed beggars often looted roadside markets and bazaars. What once appeared as a deed of religious piety shared by privileged, opulent Bengalis suddenly became a matter of serious social disquiet as the public attention shifted from the givers of charity to a swarm of rowdy receivers, who infested the streets of Calcutta.
A section of Bengali leaders, who by then had begun to inculcate European values, now began to openly criticize the practice of feasting and gratifying the paupers because of the uncleanly, cumbersome incidents.
Note here, how the focus on such acts of kindness towards the destitute and the poor (the paupers)—a historically established cultural phenomenon—gradually shifted from the givers to the receivers of alms and came to be located in the urban space as ‘pauperism’.
It also suggested, how the practice of community provision of food and shelter to disabled people was a common occurrence within most religious sects such as Hindu, Jain, Buddhists and Muslims, where begging was not necessarily a despised activity.
Today the ritual of daan is still widely practiced in most Hindu homes. Without batting an eyelid, we offer our priest a handsome amount as his dakkhina (fees) and the priest doesn’t haggle over what is given to him. However, the same people who generously donate in private and domestic religious rituals steadfastly discourage street-begging.
A city-space thrives on and exudes certain facets of modernity usually associated with structure, order and planning. The mayhem pauperism seems to frustrate the very orderliness that an urban space promises to its more privileged inhabitants. Pauperism is a city-phenomenon and to this day remains an urban dilemma among the educated class.
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