Warrent Buffet is a capitalist's dream. Sitting in his patch of the world, he watches stock markets and investment conditions, learns what moves to make at what time and turns himself into a billionaire many times over.
But Buffet is also a capitalist's nightmare. He has this strange belief that billionaires must give their wealth away for the benefit of others. So he formed an alliance with another equally crazy capitalist, Bill Gates, to form history's biggest give-away empire.
In America it makes sense to give your money away. If you don't, you'll have to give it to the Government anyway. For your image, goodwill and for your soul, charity is a better choice. It was a good socially responsible idea on the part of early law makers in America to create a tax structure that encouraged philanthropy.
Buffet and Gates are promoting the idea of giving for the sake of giving, not just to save tax. They went to China, and last week they came to India, to persuade other billionaires to join them in an initiative they have named “Giving Pledge”. It seeks the seriously rich to pledge half their wealth to philanthropy in their life time.
It is an initiative we should welcome. But let it also remind us that India had a tradition of philanthropy that was as lofty as the best. What Jamshedji Tata did had a farsightedness and a structural stability that benefit large numbers of citizens and institutions to this day. Birla charities have acquired a religion-oriented image which is not really fair because their donations to educational institutions are widespread and massive if less known.
Actually the concept of charity is part of the inner core of India's philosophical inheritance. But it appears in different nuances at different times. Karna offers a disturbing example here. The ultimate personification of charity, he would never ever say no to a request. Such a noble quality should have led to good results. Instead, it led to his destruction because he allowed Indra to trick him into giving away his protective armour. He listened to the call of charity above and beyond his personal safety.
If Karna demonstrated the perils of giving, Manu the law-giver reduced it to a quid pro quo business proposition. Manusmriti lists precisely what you will get for what you give. Give water and you will get contentment; give food and you will get happiness; give silver if you want to get physical beauty; give bulls for prosperity, gold for longevity, vehicle and bed for a virtuous wife.
This business code must be the one many of our public-spirited industrialists follow. Give donations to a chief minister's charitable trusts and get a few acres of land denotified; give loans to TV channels, scholarships to nephews, foreign jobs to nieces and boxes containing cash to MPs and in return receive whatever you desire.
Which is unfortunate because the same philosophical heritage that sustains Manusmriti also holds aloft the most ennobling concept of daana known to humankind. P. Lal once said that “the word Dharma has many nuances and cannot be exactly Englished”. The word Daana is like that; it cannot be translated in its full richness. All that we can say is that it is more than charity, more than giving.
Bhagavatam scholars explain that true Daana is accompanied by Maana, reverence for the recipient of a gift. Daana is an act of worship, the giver worshipping the receiver. What a magnificent thought! Giving can never be an act of condescension. You are not doing a favour; you are receiving a favour.
The beauty of this concept can never be equalled by modern-day givers. In so far as Warrent Buffet and Bill Gates – and Azim Premji and Nandan Nilekani – are giving without expecting anything in return, they honour the spirit of the ancient preceptors. That's enough for us to rejoice. Charity that is dispensed to achieve an end is not charity; it is bribery.