I have always believed that disasters – whether natural or man made bring out the best and the worst in human beings. The Tsunami tragedy has been no different. It has brought out the best in your common man and woman. There are numerous examples of the members of the middle class, the lower class as well as those who defy all demographic labels dipping into their tiny, often air cooled pockets and giving whatever they can. These selfless individuals have not given from the surplus they have, rather they have cut into their meager incomes and spared for their less fortunate brethren elsewhere. These donors are faceless, nameless. Their faces will not appear on TV channels and their names will not adorn the sacred space of news magazines. They will be denied even the thirty seconds of fame.
In sharp contrast there are nations like the Big Brother and other little and not so little brothers who have engaged in a ‘healthy’ competition in the Tsunami auction. The biddings have been climbing steadily with each ‘power’ trying to ‘out-fund’ the other. The attitude is clearly one of ‘more charitable than thou’.
My dear friend Costas from Canada has done some research on the altruism unleashed by different nations and has come up with some startling findings. The top fifty odd countries of the world have contributed on an average just .0132 per cent of their GDPs for the Tsunami victims. The money pledged is approximately 4380 million (4.4 billion) dollars. Had these countries contributed even 1 per cent of their GDP the Tsunami hit countries would have been benefited by a whopping 331108 million (331 billion) dollars. Is 1 per cent contribution really too much to ask when most of these nations would be spending much more on defending themselves against imaginary attacks or launching vicious onslaughts since they suffer from an overdose of paranoia.
Then there are the business organizations, news channels and media houses milking the tragedy to its last drop. Costas has this interesting vignette to offer, “A few days ago I went to buy something from a local department store – a multinational company with stores in many parts of the world. I was told if I wish to make a donation for the Tsunami victims and the company would match dollar for dollar. I did and came home. Later the offer set me thinking. Now the local department store is a Canadian company and as such is subject to all concessions that the government is providing. If a company or an individual in a higher income group makes a donation, at the end of the year he gets approximately 50% back from the Government. So now that store will donate the dollar for the dollar given by me as well as others, it will also get back 50%. So in effect this store will be eventually listed as one of the "big" donors with zero or minimum contribution of its own.
What an ingenious way of taking credit for a good deed and not even having to pay for it.
Like the big nations and the big companies our big celebrities are not far behind in using Tsunami to their advantage. The Indian cricketers have donated the fee of one match and have pledged to play two matches in aid of Tsunami relief. How generous of them! A country which has made these underperforming, vain, selfish and incompetent fools in flannels national icons deserves nothing better.
Our film stars too have brandished their cheques and made the most of every photo-op. Our politicians have used the disaster for indulging in a sickening game of one-upmanship. Not to be caught napping the religious leaders are using this opportunity to peddle their own brand of dogma. My God is more powerful than yours is the latest slogan.
Now I would like to go back to the issue of altruism and charity. This brings to my mind a story from India’s great epic Mahabharata.
The Pandava King Yudhishtira and his brothers had performed the Ashwamedha Yagna in which they had given away a huge amount of wealth. They were feeling very contented with their act of benevolence when a mongoose came to the court and started rolling on the ground. The gathering noticed that one of its flanks was pure gold. After rolling for sometime the mongoose got up and addressed Yudhishtira. “O, King. You must be finding my behaviour strange. Let me narrate an incident that will help you understand why I have acted in this manner. Sometime back I had gone to a Brahman’s house. He was living in the most abject poverty imaginable. He and his family could manage a meal only once in three days. One day as the family had somehow scraped together a morsel each, a weary and hungry traveller came to their doorstep. Though weak with hunger the Brahman gave the guest his share. But the traveller’s hunger was not satiated so the Brahman’s wife gave her morsel. When this too did not suffice the Brahman’s son and daughter-in-law gave up their share. Later, in that house, when I rolled on the ground some of the crumbs of food turned one side of my body to gold. Since then I have visited many kings who have donated large sums in charity in the hope that I could turn my other flank to gold as well. But alas all my efforts have proved futile. Having heard of your generosity I came to you but alas here too, as you can see, I have failed.”
Sage Vyasa who penned Mahabharata says that it is not the quantity that one gives but the sincerity and the circumstances under which a charitable deed is performed that is important.
A parable about Jesus further illustrates this point. Jesus once observed two people entering a temple. The first was a wealthy merchant who made an offering of a hundred gold coins. The second was a poor, old woman who gave a fistful of grain.
“Which of the two have made the bigger offering?” Jesus asked his disciples.” “
“The Merchant,” there was a chorus of voices.
“You are wrong. It was the poor woman. For while the merchant gave out of what he had to spare, the old woman gave up something she could ill afford to sacrifice.”
This brings to my mind these immortal words of Kahlil Gibran from his seminal work The Prophet : "You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give."
The wealthy and powerful countries by flinging a fraction of their bounty are basking in the warmth of their largesse. They are giving from their surplus and that too in such a niggardly and stingy way. Can they not be more large hearted, more charitable, more humane?
Similarly the affluent and influential celebrities are doling out paltry sums from their overflowing coffers and cashing in on the goodwill. All of them are giving out from what they have to spare. How many movers and shakers have bothered to share their time with the victims? How many of them have reached out to hold their hands, whisper a few words of assurance, of empathy? How many of them have made those affected by Tsunami feel like victims not beggars, humans not statistics?
If I happen to run into the mongoose of the Mahabharata I would advise him never to visit the rich and famous, the affluent and the influential. But to go to abode of the poor and faceless for it is in their small homes and large hearts he will find crumbs to turn his other flank into gold.