The Grand World of Daana and the Civilisational Value we Have Lost

An essay on the Sanatana conception of Daana or charity and the levels at which it works, and how it has shaped the Hindu civilisation and society.
The Grand World of Daana and the Civilisational Value we Have Lost

From our verifiable experience, it is clear that the moment a public good is transformed into an “industry,” social and national downfall begins. Three major spheres of life constitute public good:

1. Religion (in the sense of Dharma)

2. Healthcare

3. Education

4. Food

A fourth invisible sphere intertwined with these three is what can broadly be called charity or philanthropy, or Daana in a more profound sense. In our daily life, the words Daana and Dharma are used inseparably, and when we pause to recollect who most often uses them, we might be stunned because it is so commonplace: beggars. It also reveals the genius of the Sanatana conception of values.

While religion is the most fundamental yearning of the human spirit, education (or learning) is a basic necessity of our outward life and healthcare is a need that manifests itself as an urgency or emergency.

The Grand World of Daana and the Civilisational Value we Have Lost
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This is the reason the Sanatana conception of values enjoins the entire society to treat these spheres as public goods and to make them available to all people either free of charge or at a very nominal price. A cursory survey of Indian history shows that almost every king was glorified with titles like Daana-Shiromani, Apratima-Bhudana-Parasurama, and there are hundreds of Subashitas extolling the glory of Daana. Apart from kings, nobles, and landed gentry, any person, whatever his or her status, would instantly earn the gratitude of society for performing an act of charity.

In fact, the invaluable and encyclopaedic corpus of the cultural and social history of India nonchalantly dismissed as folk tales and legends contain copious accounts of such selfless acts done by the most nondescript people in both large cities and unknown villages. These accounts were preserved in the oral tradition, inscribed on rocks and sometimes written down, and invariably passed on generationally until “independent” India’s Britain-enslaved education system achieved a decadal success of self-alienation.

A Central Feature

This feature is central to a comprehensive understanding of our civilisational, cultural and social history, and ideally needs a dedicated team of scholars and researchers to unearth as many of these stories as can be recovered. It is a work that spans at least one entire generation but the outcome will not only be rewarding but profoundly ennobling akin to the inner light that a seeker sees after years of penance in a Himalayan cave.

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From one perspective, Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa’s magnificent Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane is a deeply philosophical novel that depicts a war between the Sanatana conception of Daana and the western notion that even charity can be commercialized. It is abhorrent to the Sanatana value system where the Daani (one who gives charity) continues to retain ownership of that which he has already given. The opulent Western philanthropists of our own time and their Indian counterparts who ape them precisely do this. This has led to predictable outcomes: how do we classify someone like George Soros, the world’s most (in)famous philanthropist? From the Sanatana perspective, Soros will be recognised as an Asura or a Rakshasa or demon.

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Thus, in a perverse inversion of this noble value system, today, education and healthcare are among the biggest money-spinners in the same land that birthed these values. The downward journey from this birth and its current perversion is the exact measure of the downfall of our spiritual civilisation.

At the level of social integration, a shared national culture, and individual elevation, Daana is the second element in the Yajna-Daana-Tapas triad. Yajna in its pristine meaning, signifies a lived culture and tradition of sharing on a massive scale where all members of the society contribute to a noble endeavor. In this endeavor, Daana is the contribution of each person towards this Yajna. And Tapas, taken both collectively and individually signifies an element of the melting of the individual towards a profound goal or realization.

From another perspective, the value of Daana can be seen in the famous story of Da occurring in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Prajapati prescribes Datta (giving or charity) to human beings who ask him for a solution to cure their unhappiness.

The Tradition of Daana

The Indian tradition of Daana has been celebrated right from its wellspring, the Vedas, up to the aforementioned folk tales and legends. It was a process of millennial acculturation until it was embedded in our DNA in stories, verses, and technical treatises on the Dharmasastra. It is the selfsame DNA that made the pushcart vegetable seller in my locality give ₹ 1000 towards the construction of the Sri Rama Mandir in Ayodhya. Nobody needed to tell him. Which court judgement can wipe out this DNA?

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History also shows that monarchs and emperors weren’t obliged to undertake welfare tasks like building hospitals, schools, and rest houses unlike modern governments. The primary function of a king was to protect his subjects from external aggression, maintain internal law and order, deliver speedy justice and ensure economic prosperity. Yet, as we’ve seen above, most kings went out of their way to carry out these welfare activities for three major reasons:

1. To earn Punya, or virtue.

2. To ensure that they were regarded by the people as Praja-Vatsala, or one who is affectionate towards his citizens.

3. To set a noble precedent.

The Immortal Verse of a Mother

We have an exemplary guide in the form of an immortal verse by Singale, the younger sister of Vidyaranya Swami. As she fed breastmilk and lulled her baby to sleep, she would sing this verse to the infant Lakshmidhara who became a formidable minister of the Vijayanagara Empire.

Kereyam kattisu baviyam savesu devagaram madi
sajjereyolu silukida anatharannu rakshisu ||

Build lakes, dig wells, construct temples and rest houses
Free the orphans who are caught in trouble, do good to friends,
Be loyal to those who trust you.

A century later, a variant of the same verse was sung by the Mother Jijabai to her infant, Shivaji.

This verse still remains popular in Karnataka although it remains to be seen how far those in power take a break from their election cycles and skullduggeries and insecurities to take it to heart. If they do take it to heart, it will instantly be a factor for their self-purification and lead to an economic development of a far elevated kind.

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We can cite just one more example of the enduring impact of this simple verse. Throughout Karnataka, there are hundreds of lakes named Soole-kere (literally, Prostitute’s Lake). The reason behind this nomenclature is rather straightforward: these lakes were funded by the village or town prostitute and named in their honour.

We can close this episode with a story I heard long ago. The details are hazy but the essence has been retained.

Story of the Stonecutter

There was once a stonecutter who entered the forest carrying a massive stone slab over a long distance. Once he was inside the forest, he walked for more than a kilometer and finally deposited the slab by the side. He did the same the next day and the next and the next. On the tenth day, a curious villager who had been observing him, followed him to the spot and asked him, “My man, don’t mistake me. I’m just curious. I’ve been observing you all these days. Every evening you carry this large stone slab and place it here. Why?”

The stonecutter wiped his sweat and said with a smile, “Oh, nothing. I’ve been working in the quarry at the mountain’s foothill for about a year. I noticed that folks from the surrounding villages go into the forest to cut wood and bring it back. Poor guys, the load on their head is really heavy and when they run out of breath, they have to keep it on the ground, take some rest, and then haul it back on their head. Sometimes, the wood falls down and they have to tie it back again, lift it up and put it on their head. Sometimes, they have help, sometimes they are alone. So, I thought I’ll build small platforms along the way using these stones. That way, when the village folk get tired, they don’t need to place the wood on the ground. They can put it on the platform and put it back on their head after resting. It’s a very small thing, really.”

|| Om Tat Sat ||

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