Charity Beyond Mere Economics
“A charity is due for every joint in each person on every day the sun comes up: to act justly between two people is a charity; to help a man with his mount, lifting him onto it or hoisting up his belongings onto it, is a charity; a good word is a charity; and removing a harmful thing from the road is a charity.” (Hadith in Bukhari, Muslim)
Something quite fascinating that you might yourself have experienced is how our understanding of some of our basic concepts can drastically change as we go through more of life. For instance, it is possible that the way we now understand things like Love, Happiness, Education, Progress, Development, the Purpose of Life or Religion—issues that we might regard as really fundamental to our existence—are quite different from how we used to understand them when we were younger.
One concept on which my thinking has changed considerably over the years is Charity.
Many years ago, I used to think of myself as very charitable because I used to generously give away to people who I thought were poor things that I had but did not want or like: a pair of trousers that no longer fitted me, perhaps a shirt someone had gifted me that I would never wear, kitchen things that I would never use—stuff like that.
It didn’t strike me then, but much of my ‘charity’ at that time was self-serving: besides making me feel good about myself for being ‘kind’, giving away things that I didn’t like or need was like clearing away unwanted trash and making my cupboard easier to manage.
In this phase of my life, when charity for me was mainly giving away unwanted things to people I thought were economically needy, I don’t remember once thinking of spending money to buy something new and nice for a poor person as a gift. Had that thought occurred to me, I might have quickly dismissed it as a waste of money.
Expanding Understanding of Charity
As the years passed, my understanding of charity gradually expanded to giving money to people in need and financially supporting various good causes. But still, even at this stage, charity for me was something that was basically economic—it was mainly about giving away things to people or giving out money. A major reason for this was that I saw the world and its manifold problems and even human life and its purpose in largely economic terms. To put it in another way, maybe it was because I was materialistically-minded that I thought that the best way one could be charitable towards others was materially—by helping them in cash or kind.
The years rolled on and I saw and experienced more of life. I met some inspiring people and read many inspiring books. Along with this, my understanding of charity underwent a further transformation. I grew in my understanding that charity wasn’t just about helping people with money and material things. Nor was this necessarily the best form of help. There were many, many other ways of being charitable. I also came to realise also that charity isn’t something that one can do for only people who are economically poor. One can be charitable to every person—rich or poor (in economic terms). In fact, one can be charitable to non-human creatures, and even to supposedly inanimate things.
Non-Economic Forms of Charity
Over time, one non-economic form of charity that I learnt about was what was reflected in the lives of people who offered themselves (and not just their money or material possessions) in charity you could say, for the sake of suffering sentient beings (humans and others). These included the great spiritual Masters—men and women of God—whose ‘charity’ was to convey spiritual truths to people so that they could lead a truly meaningful life, in this world and the hereafter. Their example illustrated how sharing spiritual wisdom with others (while also living it out in one’s own life) is a great form of charity.
Gradually, I also began to learn that giving one’s time to others who need it can also be a form of charity. Donating things one doesn’t want or signing a cheque for a cause may not always be easy, but sharing even just a bit of one’s time with someone in need is often a much more difficult and demanding type of charity. Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting several people who are extremely charitable in this sense: among them, an elderly man who helps children in a slum with their studies, a volunteer at a home for the mentally-challenged and a visually-challenged man who worked for free at a counselling centre. And then there is this friend of mine who generously gives her time to me when I need her help.
As I’ve grown out of my very restricted understanding of charity, which was defined solely by economics and focussed only on people who I thought were economically needy, I’m beginning to understand that charity is a much wider thing than I had once imagined. Human beings have various types or levels of needs other than just economic or physical—such as spiritual, intellectual, emotional and psychological needs. And any service freely rendered to people with the right intention on one or more of these levels can be a form of charity. Any good deed that helps another person—even smiling at someone or greeting a stranger—can be charity.
Charity Towards Non-Human Creatures, Too
And charity doesn’t have to stop at human beings. We can be charitable to other forms or species of life too. Giving a biscuit to a hungry dog, watering a thirsty plant or picking up an insect on a path so that no one stamps it are some ways for us to be charitable. Deciding to eat a little less for one day a week or consciously reducing our electricity consumption can be an act of charity towards the Earth by consuming less of its bounties.
Seen in this way, our every day can be filled with many charitable deeds, because each day we are faced with numerous situations where we can be charitable in different ways!