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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Another Philosophical Question

There is another aspect of how to live advaita philosophy that comes up a lot at study group. I think this is something that we all struggle with, trying to find the right balance.

The woman who writes the blog That Wife put it the best in one of her posts recently:

"How much do I have to give to others and how much can I keep for myself if I want to be a 'good person'?"

The comes up a lot because of pan-handlers. Particularly in America, where the beggars on the street are not as overwhelming as in India, are not being controlled by pimp-like characters, and many have mental illnesses. When they ask for money, should you give nothing? Give a little? Give everything in your wallet?

If you don't believe in giving to beggars, how much do you give to charity? Do you set a "safe" percentage of your income the loss of which won't detriment your family? It feels like we should be doing more, that if we love all people as our brothers and sisters, that we would give everything we have to help them.

But what about our own families? Should we not be keeping back enough to provide for them? How much do our families and ourselves need? Is it wrong to have money to spend on vacations and DVDs and such? Is it our duty to give everything excess away?

There is an Indian story about a man who would take his income and put it out on a table for everyone in his village to come and take what they needed. His wife also had to wait in line to do this. When she complains, he chastises her for it.

But can we really live that way? Should we be living that way?

This is a question that haunts me. It always has.

When I was a kid, I would give away everything I had. I gave my lunch money to other kids who had forgotten theirs, I gave away clothes that I loved because someone else might need them. I drove my parents nuts, but I felt too guilty and selfish and terrible if I didn't. It took to college for me to gain some control and to stop doing that.

I had this book when I was a kid about a little girl who is walking through the woods, I think on the way to visit someone, and she keeps coming across people who need things. There is a man with no shoes, and without hesitation she takes off her shoes and gives them to him. There is a woman freezing to death and the girl gives her sweater, etc. At the end she is completely naked and the stars come down from the sky to clothe her. Stories like this suggest that it is a good quality to be so selfless that you give away absolutely everything you own. Yet you can't really function or live in society if you do that!

Currently I try to be aware of the needs around me, and provide for them if I am able. I don't go "looking for trouble" and I don't give more than I am comfortable with. But I'm not sure which way is best for someone who wants to be a saint (for lack of a better word).


  1. Well the question of asking how much I should give itself has an element of selfishness.
    Its answer depends on ones circumstances and nature(as it is portrayed in Gita).

    I think answer to this question could be another question "Who I am,Whether I am a soul dwelling in this body or I am a body in which a soul dwells".
    If I am a soul,then then material consumption for my own body only has little meaning,but if I am a body,then spirituality has little meaning.

    "I am eagerly looking for elaborate answer of your question".

  2. I guess I can't be black and white about it. I care about both my soul and my body. I like nice things, I like buying games and good food and indulging in ice cream. Maybe that means I have a long way to go before I'm enlightened. But I also think we make a mistake by being too against our bodies. The body is the temple of the soul and it is a part of God, just as all the rest of us is. We do need to remember to treat our body with the love and respect we show to God! We also need to show that love and respect to everyone else to the same degree, and that's the trickyest part

  3. One Indian saint, Kabir, said, "God, give me enough so that I am able to feed myself, my family as well as anyone who comes to me for help". I think this saying sums up what you should do.

    You need to perform your duties. If you are living as a Grihastha (, you need to perform your duties for your family and society.

    In your post, you said:
    "How much do I have to give to others and how much can I keep for myself if I want to be a 'good person'?"

    Again, the amount and "how much" here does not matter. What matters is the feeling. A millionaire who does not care about the needy but still donates hundreds and thousands to some charity just because he wants people to respect/praise him, is probably doing no good. On the other hand, even if a poor man gives a penny to a person in need because he can feel his pain, it is as good as any other good deed.

    You said, "But can we really live that way? Should we be living that way?.......Stories like this suggest that it is a good quality to be so selfless that you give away absolutely everything you own. Yet you can't really function or live in society if you do that!"

    You can live that way if you want to. That is what the Sanyaasis (saints) do. If you dont' want to be a Saint, that is also fine. Just remember God at everytime and be a good human being. So, I think the way you are living your life at present is perfectly fine :)

  4. The Hindu or Gita concept has nothing against body,but body is merely a vehicle for enlightenment.
    One should keep his body clean ,pure and use it to serve ones Karma as we keep our vehicles oiled or other objects to fulfill our purposes

    Over indulgence in bodily pleasures will hamper this process of enlightenment and is one of the reasons of grief and sorrow.

  5. This post does assume that one is not a sanyasin!

    I do believe in balance and measure and I'm still struggling to find that line.

    When I give all that I have away, I feel unhappy and it just compounds my guilt that there isn't more, so that can't be right either!

    I'm much happier and more at peace in the world now than I was when I was giving everything away.

  6. शतहस्त समाहर सहस्रहस्त सं किर ¦¦

    Earn materials in hundred handfuls and donate equalling thousand handfuls..

    That is what the Upanishads say.. The limit equals the limit of your mind.. But whatever you give, give it with all your heart... There is a story regarding this in the Mahabharata and I will present it when I have some time to spare..

  7. Thank you, Raghavan. I think the key really is the giving with all your heart. That doesn't necessarily mean that you have to give all that you have, it just means that what you do give should be given with total joy and surrender.