Ex-Leper: Jesus did, sir. I was hopping along, minding my own business, all of a sudden, up he comes, cures me! One minute I’m a leper with a trade, next minute my livelihood’s gone. Not so much as a by-your-leave! “You’re cured, mate.” Bloody do-gooder.

Life of Brian (1979)

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. You can’t (or rather shouldn’t) approach the topic of charity without reflecting on this line. The traditional mode of dropping alms into open palms is a little outdated. I never partake in this ritual anymore and I appeal to your intelligence to do the same. I say to your intelligence because I want you to think, rather than feel. Charity is an emotional thing; an act of compassion. But what good is the act of compassion if it does not really help the one you intend to help?

(Mumbai) The city is polluted with beggars. Traffic signal, train stations and places of worships are some of the important habitats for these so appearing unfortunates. They appear in rags dirty, desolate looking. They may be desolate, they may not be. I will not judge or attempt to validate their plight. If you were to drop a few coins into these palms it definitely gets them nowhere. But if everybody drops a few coins then, they may be able to live off the earnings for a few days before returning to their line of business.

The intention of charity should be true benevolence and not half measures. Your feelings of compassion should extend to see the welfare of an individual. The beggars in our environment need to disappear. They need to be integrated into our society and enjoy the life of a normal human being. That should be the end goal. When we manage to get them off the streets and get them to live a more fulfilling life, we will be helping ourselves inadvertently. As Jimmy Carter said “The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens”. By getting our weakest members to sustain themselves we improve the overall quality of life in the society we live in. This doesn’t mean you practice charity so that it benefits you. Although, that is exactly what charity does, at a societal level and also at a personal level. When we give money, we ensure that we are not under the power of money and it makes us feel better about ourselves. You see, we are helping ourselves through charity, if only our consciences. Take notice, the way in which you practice charity, shapes your society. If you continue to give alms to those who beg you will only propagate more beggars to join in, thereby bringing down the level of society.

Money isn’t only thing you can donate. Time and talents are assets in your pursuit for charitable causes. The true way to get beggars off the street is through a dedicated facility: a NGO as we may call it. A structure that will stand and continue its work even after you and I depart from the world. There are NGOs for almost every conceivable disadvantage: lepers, orphans, widows, the old, the downtrodden, the poor, the sick. Help lines for people who contemplate suicide or are lonely. I digress from the topic of beggars, but the point is you need to support these institutions. These places that can help disadvantaged people back to their feet, rather than have them live in a continuous pitiful state of beggary. The call is not to stop charity but to practice it in a relevant way.

Now some beggars prefer to be beggars and they won’t want to integrate into these institutions. And they are encouraged because of you and your noble desires to do good. They appeal to you in rags and long sorrowful faces. But you must guard yourself and think (not feel) of whether you are truly helping them overcome their disadvantages or really just sending them deeper into the pit. Giving alms to a beggar may allow you to breathe a little easier and feel a bit better about yourself, but what about the beggar; he still has to complain to the next person.


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