Secular Charity

Last week was the anniversary celebrations of the TI India Foundation. On that day several stalls were put up on the company premises by organizations working for various causes. They used the opportunity to spread awareness of their work and to solicit support for their causes. There was also a blood donation camp that was run in which a lot of the employees participated. I thought it was a great piece of work that was being done and was proud of my company for taking the time and effort(the 2 most precious things in my opinion) to put together something like this.

As I was standing there watching people sign huge checks for supporting causes like children’s education, support for haemophilia patients etc. I started thinking about what charity actually means and why people do it. When I was younger I thought that charity was something that was connected to the church and something that you did because God asks you to do it. 10 percent of your money belongs to the poor dictates the Bible and some other religious texts too. Plus, money that you give to charity is not really money given away. God keeps tabs on what you do for the poor and you can use your excess money to gain bonus points that you can cash-in on reaching heaven.

There are other denominations which teach that money given away in the name of charity will come back magnified 10 fold by God’s grace and it actually can be used as a means to get yourself out of poverty.

Still others teach that real charity does not mean giving bread, water or food to those in need but giving them God. After all, if you have God, then all the other problems will automatically go away. It sounds logical(kind of… you could always ask them why God can’t give himself to everyone and has to depend on these weird guys in shiny suits). This is responsible for the furious virulence of Christian Evangelism as it devotes all the money to spreading itself and doesn’t “waste” any of it on petty stuff like food or clothes.

Then there are God’s like Sai Baba who whisper common sense stuff that most people wouldn’t disagree with adulterated with generous amounts of bullshit. People can’t believe that someone can be partly wrong and someone who teaches that you shouldn’t kill others can also be deluded and plain wrong when it comes to other things. These Gods don’t mind the generous donations and fawning devotion of the masses. The people give it thinking that they are really blessed to be able to directly give to God and to have their contributions counted and noted.

Then there is charity that is done/offered along with prayers to solve personal problems like disease or financial troubles. Or sometimes, in exchange for perceived miracles or some more subtle form of divine intervention.

There are probably a lot more of these types of charity. Money given to temples, churches and mosques and to various religious charities some of which are used as fronts for terrorist organisations. Here is an example list.  I am not saying than no good has come out of it. But, I was just wondering whether this constitutes real charity.

Real Charity

Charity is something that is supposed to be unselfish and not seeking anything in return. When you give something away for a good cause, share a little bit of what you have with someone who needs it badly, you feel good. It is something that is fundamental to human nature. We sometimes feel something tugging at our hearts when we see a child crying or a person in extreme pain. We feel that pain. It is called empathy. Helping out that person becomes a matter of helping ourselves out.

While it is possible to condition someone to become insensitive and uncaring, most people by nature become vulnerable and soft when they witness real suffering in first person. It might be possible to not think of how other people are doing but you cannot ignore what you see before your own eyes.

Helping someone, giving away things, putting up with a little bit of discomfort for someone else’ sake are things that should be done for their own sake. There is no God keeping tab. You won’t be getting any points for it. That money is not going to come back to you. Someone you meet later in life might not treat you with the same kindness that you are demonstrating now. That is the truth. If you are still willing to give things away, then you truly have a noble and generous heart. You did not do it grudgingly. You did it simply because you felt good and to give something to justify atleast in a meager manner what chance has bestowed on you.

I was reading an interview in The Hindu of Amartya Sen and he happened to mention that around 50 per cent of India’s children under the age of 5 are malnourished. I was suddenly struck by the fact that there was a 50- 50 chance of me being one of them. I don’ t think I deserve my blessings nor do they deserve their predicament. There is no cosmic agent balancing rights and wrongs and pain and joy. It is up to everyone of us to ensure justice and to do what it takes to guarantee every member of our society, a fair shot at enjoying life. It is like a responsibility belonging to the same category as the “right” to vote. You don’t do it if you don’t want to, but you really ought to.

Secular Charity

People atleast in some parts of India and in other “spiritually advanced” societies have trouble with donating to secular organizations like CARE, CRY, UNICEF or similar secular organizations despite the fact that they follow international audit guidelines and come under the most intense scrutiny compared to the operations of a lot of religious organizations, a number of which have been accused of a range of things from child abuse to funding terrorism to spreading lies and proselytizing. There are lesser crimes like stunting kids’ intellectual and moral growth and making them prisoners of a medieval world view committed by institutions like Madrassas and to a lesser extent by orphanages run by other religious organizations. Again funded by charitable donations.

Somehow, the social workers who don’t claim God’s support have a tough time attracting the attention of the people or the government. When a Sai Baba sits on a throne with wheels and uses part of the billions of dollars of donation money to build super specialty hospitals and grand projects as monuments to “his” kindness,  people are struck with admiration.The Govt. heaps praises on him for being broad-minded, kind and enlightened. The people are all praises for his “generosity” and his “teachings”.

What about people like Binayak Sen? Our soldiers and officers? What about those working with NGOs for various causes? Why is that no one cares for their efforts? Why is that there is no visit by state dignitaries and words of appreciation for them? But they still exist… That is because they do it out of genuine love. They will keep doing it till their death, because they are passionate about it. We all know how many people the God men, the Babas, The swamis, The priests are going to serve if they were separated from their money and dogmas and fan boys….

People don’t fear or respect or value other humans when there is a God hungry for their ass-kissing. Why is that human suffering fails to evoke a response unless there is a religious sentiment goading us on here in India. Why don’t we value the work that honest people do with no motive other than to help others and occupy themselves with something they consider rewarding. Because they don’t do “magic”?

Isn’t this kind of callousness and obsession with the immaterial and the other-worldly a sign of sickness and moral and intellectual degradation?

A parable from the Bible

Jesus once went to a temple and saw a rich man making generous sacrifices to God. After that he saw a poor, old woman throwing in a few pieces that she had accumulated with great hardship. He then commented that the old woman’s offering was more valuable in the eyes of God. I wonder what Jesus would have had to say to an old, poor, atheist woman giving money away to even poorer people OUTSIDE the temple? Wouldn’t that be the real act of kindness?

“… we have strong social values…”?

I was recently going through some newspaper articles and I noticed one about a court petition filed to allow euthanasia of a person who has been in a Persistent Vegetative State(PVS) for 37 years now.

In that article it was mentioned that AG G.E. Vahnavati had said/stated ..

What was applicable to the western world would not be relevant to “our country where emotions and culture played a major part and we have strong social values.

It kind of stuck. Later, I was wondering why and I realized that I was just confused by the subtle hypocrisy hiding in those words. Questions pertaining to euthanasia are certainly very serious and require intense debate and consideration. But, in the process when you bring into picture our “strong social values” things start to get kind of fuzzy.

As I was digging into the topic, I thought it would be a good idea to first understand what social values are. They are quite what they sound like. They are a set of principles by which one engages with one’s society. Now, notice that it is different from family values which pertain to one’s family.

After that I made sure that I and GE Vahnavati live in the same country. Then I started noting down some things which most bothered me about India. We for long insisted on women committing suicide after their husbands’ death. We treat our women badly.  At least implicitly encourage them to be within the four walls of our home and to take care of all the old people in the family without giving a consideration to what their real inclinations might be.

We as a society have committed infanticide and foeticide on shameless and gigantic scales which has resulted in 32 million “missing”(read murdered) women and a heavily skewed sex ratio. Potential inability to pay a dowry in the future and the social stigma that might result from it is enough to scare ordinary people into murdering their babies.

Entire communities are forced to make a living out of removing other people’s faeces manually. Apparently, this does not in any way clash with our “values”.

We brazenly kill our own family members for the sake of our “honour”. Stories of lower caste people being humiliated, raped and butchered by upper castes are routine news items. People who commit these gross crimes are let go with laughable sentences after long, meandering and frustrating judicial processes.

We let the Anti-Sikh riots happen. Allowed the destruction of the Babri Masjid. The Godhra riots that killed and maimed thousands and that too right under the glare of the media with the state complicit in the violation of every standard of human ethics and morality. The people responsible for it are still holding the highest positions in our government. Narendra Modi is winning election after election. What does it say about the morality and social values of the common man? We accuse The West of being materialistic. Yet, for the sake of development we are willing to ignore the screams for justice of our own people.

Our police uses intelligence as a last resort when it comes to solving crimes. I know of a person who was so badly tortured as a boy when he was about my age, that even after decades he is almost fully blind and permanently handicapped. The police mercilessly beat him and tortured him in the locker after he was falsely accused of stealing a gold chain that belonged to my aunty!! It was later found lying somewhere. My grandfather later regretted having communicated his suspicions to the police. But, no one dared raise their voice against them. The onus of compensating them and lifelong guilt fell on him. Where are the social values of those who are supposed to “Protect and serve”!?

India has a great and ancient culture. But, like everything else it has its flaws. Some of them unconscionably serious. They won’t go away if we keep harping on our relative social superiority vis-a-vis The West! If I were asked to choose between being born as a low-caste person in India and as a poor person in say… Denmark, I am sorry to say, I would have to choose the latter. This might have something to do with my shaky belief in our “strong social values

More about the case

Vahanvati said western parameters seldom applied to Indian conditions and culture. “We do not lead our terminally ill parents or kids to death. Who decides if one should live or die? Who knows tomorrow there might be a cure to a medical state perceived as incurable today. And won’t leading the terminally ill impede pro-life medical research?”

The above words, dripping with moral condescension sound more like rhetoric than the cold, hard considered opinion of a man of the Law. “We do not lead….”!!??  We daily DON’T save thousands of lives than can be saved with simple steps like clean water and cheap drugs. “We….” ha!! What right does he have to sound so supercilious!? “Who decides ….?”. Yes, while you are wondering about such profundities we are unknowingly deciding to prolong someone’s unnecessary suffering.

If pro-life research is going to receive a shot-in-the-arm by prolonging this for a few more years, that would be great. But, a way to restore dead brain tissue hasn’t yet been even conceptualized. It will certainly be not ready in time to help this person. And from what I could gather from the article, there is currently no research that is being helped by this suffering. If I am wrong correct me.

A contradiction….

After stating that western ideas and the recommendation of our own Law Commission would not work given our Strong Social Values and the importance of emotion(have no idea what that means, will come to that later), the AG goes on to say,

Mercy killing would result in a dangerous situation as it would be easy to eliminate others if such a thing was allowed in the country, …

Hey, I thought someone just said something about Strong Social Values(TM). That should prevent something like that from happening, right? Well, no! There will always be people who are bent on misusing the law and there simply is no way that the state, atleast for now can prevent that from happening. THAT, is in fact a good argument as opposed to SSV(TM).

Then there is an observation by Justice Markandey Katju

“We are also concerned that once this is allowed, there will be too many such requests from relatives. There is a possibility that relatives in collusion with some doctors may bump off the patient claiming he/she is in a PVS though he/she may not be really so.”

I found it difficult to find any evidence for SSV(TM) in the above remark as well.

Matthew 7:4-5, “Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

I don’t believe in God or the Bible. But, I think this verse sums up what I am feeling right now pretty well. I have frequently come across people who try to put down other people’s culture and social systems. They say that they are sexually promiscuous, immoral, unhygienic, lack love for their family, are selfish and other such things. But, we never pause to think of our own faults. Every society has a system that works for itself. It wouldn’t be nice if we were to consider one to be stronger or better than the other.

In the west independence and initiative are valued more than filial attachment and subordination. I won’t pit one against the other because there are merits to both approaches. After a lioness raises its cubs it drives them away when they reach a certain age. That doesn’t mean that the lioness doesn’t love its cubs. Just because westerners don’t allow their kids to stay with them until they finish college or expect their sons and daughters to take care of them in their old age doesn’t mean that their love is weaker or that they have weak values. I think they just have a more realistic grasp of human nature. But, again, that’s just a personal opinion.

Emotional Justice?

I don’t know a whole lot of stuff about justice. But, Amartya Sen in his book The Idea of Justice seemed to make out a strong case for justice rooted in reason. Emotions, at least in my opinion need to be allowed to impact decisions only when it doesn’t clash totally with reason.

Here, the AG says it’s cruel, inhuman and intolerable to withdraw life support to the nearly dead woman. Why? Why should a person be forced to put up with the pain of sores, brittle bones, decaying teeth, a lifeless body and a compromised mind incapable of communication for 37 years? To satisfy the emotional needs of the society? To not “undermine” the 37 yrs of blissful experience that she has already had the luck to endure? The hospital has certainly done a commendable job of taking caring of her. Maybe, they feel that they are responsible, in an indirect manner for what happened. Maybe, they are doing it out of pure love in which case it would be interesting to see why they don’t provide free care to all who need it and not just focus obsessively on this one case. But, should the consideration given to “not undermining” their efforts over the last 37 yrs be given greater priority than the everyday suffering and indignity that the woman is going through?

Should we really consider the case as a test of our SSVs or as a question posed to our collective morality and decide based on considerations like minimizing pain and indignity? I was just wondering how “emotions” and petty rhetoric can help us decide these questions…

Continue reading

The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

When I was a kid, I absolutely hated History and Geography, mainly because of the need to memorize facts and trivia. After I completed my 10th boards I immediately cleared my brain of all the “crap”, because, my childish mind could barely grasp the significance of the dates and events and worse still, the texts didn’t even try to explain it.

The same goes for biology and chemistry. Whichever text you pick up, you always notice that it is loaded with information. I had recently put down my thoughts about the importance of information vis-a-vis wisdom or knowledge. The texts go about explaining how reproduction happens or the principle of photosynthesis as if they were merely mechanism to be studied, without explaining the awesome origins of such systems and their necessity to life on earth.

Textbooks always were atleast to me, something to be memorized. Recently, I read Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru and The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen. The meaning and the breadth of perspective conveyed by these books is simply too awesome for words. When you consider that the Discovery of India is a book written by a single person while in jail, and the fact that it tries to convey an idea of India that took 5000 years to evolve, you feel  a sense of profound wonder and admiration. The vision and power of Nehru was rooted in his incredible understanding of India.

The Argumentative Indian

The Argumentative Indian is a masterpiece of an awesome intellect and demonstrates how reason combined with history can help one make informed choices. The book tries to expound India’s traditions in the field of debate and experimentation. The incredible breadth and depth of Indian thought as illustrated will easily amaze and render shallow and petty the ideas of even the most hardcore nationalist bigot.

The book deals with some of the biggest questions that face India, like Secularism, Globalisation, Nuclear Weapon Testing, Hindu Nationalism, the perception of India in the West etc. and tries to provide a balanced view on these matters. Efforts by people to define India and it’s thoughts and traditions in narrow and simple  terms appear silly to the point of almost being funny after reading the book. Some things like the fact that no other classical literature deals with atheism, agnosticism and free thought like Indian literature does with the same depth, beauty and power was a true eye opener. The Lokayata and the Carvaka schools of thought mentioned in the book and Madhavacharya’s Sarvadarshasangraha caught my attention and I did some more reading on Wikipedia on these topics.

The bits about the the rise and fall of Buddhism, an agnostic religion and it’s roots in Hindu literature are very enlightening. The myth about India having developed it’s culture in isolation is thoroughly destroyed by masterfully crafted arguments.T he designs of the Sangh Parivar for radicalizing sections of the Indian population with hideously distorted versions of history and the political motives for that are elucidated in some detail.

The most important thing that the book demonstrates is that things rarely have simple answers. Impulsive and “intuitive” decisions do more damage than good, and things that “sound” right more often than not turn out to be based on fallacies of the highest magnitude.

After reading this book, Discovery of India and a few anecdotes about Indira Gandhi’s prodigious reading skill by Natwar Singh I realized the true significance of the words

Men of power have no time to read, yet the men who do not read are unfit for power”

Michael Foot

Each one of us has power to influence the future of our nation and our people in ways that we might not yet realize. Wielding this power responsibly requires us to honor our duty to be informed about the decisions we make. Sadly, the Indian primary education system has failed most tragically in this highest duty. India’s problems will take longer to solve without this being remedied first.

Another thing, I noticed is that a lot of people are extremely proud of everything Indian and use their prejudiced assumptions to make easy decisions when faced with choices. Do you support the Indo-US nuclear deal? Well, the US is bad, so no! Do you think that the greatest contribution of India to the world is spirituality? How do you explain away the morbid caste system? Should India let her culture be “destroyed” by ideas from outside?

India was great in several ways and like anything else, had her failings. It is important we understand that and learn to be proud of the truly noble things and try to learn from our past mistakes. Efforts by people to impress others with stuff about Vedas being the ultimate source of all knowledge are an insult to the authors’ spirit of inquiry and do gross injustice to the true nature of the works. Indian classical literature is admired for it literary excellence and the unique perspective it offers of Indian classical thought.

Similarly, the modern day obsession with glorifying the past and trying to prevent changes to our society find a mention in the book.

While we cannot live without history, we need not live within it either.”

Amartya Sen

A thought…

When I look back at the years I spent trying to learn Indian history in school and the amount of lasting knowledge I gained compared to the ideas that I gleaned over a week’s time from reading a single book, I feel that maybe, something, can be done differently in our school system. If schools encouraged students to read these books instead of depending on textbooks and then prepared question papers that encouraged them to share their ideas, I think, a lot might change.