“Not Bill Gates, It’s Jamsetji Tata Who Is Philanthropist of The Century,” read the headline of a news report that was carried by several Indian publications last month as the Hurun Research and EdelGive Foundation declared its list of the world’s 50 most generous individuals. For most millennials unfamiliar with Jamsetji’s legacy, this came as a surprise, especially because his contributions to philanthropy were ranked higher than Bill Gates’. The other Indian who featured in this prestigious list was Azim Premji, who had also earned the title of being “the most generous Indian” and topped the list of philanthropists in India for most of the past few years.
What separates these two industrial doyens from other Indian philanthropists is not just the quantum of wealth that they have donated, but also their contribution towards making the act of ‘giving’ an empowering and progressive idea. While Indian philanthropy seems to have come of age, a concomitant trend to undermine more impulsive acts of charity has emerged over the last decade or so.
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In common parlance, we often use the terms ‘charity’ and ‘philanthropy’ interchangeably; in reality, charity has always occupied a relatively inferior status than philanthropy in the imagination of historians, scholars and development practitioners. Since ancient times, India has witnessed various forms of giving that are individual, family-centric, formal, informal, religious and secular in nature. With growing secularisation of society and the firming up of a liberal modernist imagination that favours a rights-based approach to development, more sacred and spontaneous forms of giving have been marginalised in the popular discourse on philanthropy and charity. More importantly, the dominance of a ‘CSR mindset’, which prioritises ‘tangible outcomes’ of giving, has further stigmatised charitable giving as ‘irrational’ and ‘thoughtless’.
In an evolutionary sense, philanthropy is clearly seen as a progressive advancement from more personal forms of giving. One of the enduring features of colonial rule in India, for instance, was a consistent criticism of what they defined as ‘Hindoo charity’. The term ‘Hindoo’ was a metaphor for all indigenous forms of giving that had existed since pre-modern times in the Indian subcontinent and which, in the British perception, was ‘irrational’ and steeped in superstition. Numerous reports and memoirs published by Britishers who lived in India during the 19th century reflect this dominant sentiment. Driven by the principles of utilitarianism, the British had little regard for those forms of giving that did not conform to institutional charity.
Depriving it of any indigenous agency, the birth of Indian philanthropy is often seen as a reactionary initiative to either emulate Christian missionary service activities or as an effort by local notables to build better relationships with the imperial authorities in order to enhance their own reputation.
J.N. Farquhar, a Scottish missionary deputed to India, for instance, suggested “that the Indian philanthropic movement was primarily triggered by the service activities of Christian missionaries.” In an interesting study on gift giving and philanthropy during the colonial period in Surat, author Douglas Haynes (1987) shows how Hindu and Jain merchants, more used to religious charity until then, started diversifying their charitable activities to a number of public welfare activities such as donation for schools, hospitals and libraries in order to ‘accommodate’ Victorian values of social welfare and ‘progress’ to build good relationships with the British. Other historians like Christopher Bayly and Carey Watt, however, have shown how the social service and associational initiatives of Indian groups in the early 20th century drew on deep rooted Hindu ‘living traditions’ such as dana (offering), karma yoga (duty without attachment), sannyasa (asceticism) and brahmacharya (celibacy) as well as more general Indian notions and practices connected to physical culture, health and manliness.
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There’s value in both
While it is true that the influence of British colonisation had a profound impact on the ways in which public philanthropy was imagined, one finds clear religious and intellectual antecedents to contemporary philanthropy in pre-modern India. The Hindu idea of dana extended to both individual gifting as well as more secular forms of giving such as community welfare. The Anushasana Parva of the Mahabharata mentions two different kinds of dana; while ista is what’s offered to gods, purta denotes work for public welfare like digging wells, tanks, building temples, distribution of food, etc. Similarly, the Islamic notion of wakf is a clear antecedent to the modern idea of an endowment. The institutions of Zakat in Islam and Dasvandh in Sikhism, which require Muslims and Sikhs, to donate a fixed part of their income for charity, are other examples of institutionalised giving that forms the essence of modern philanthropy. When contemporary philanthropists like Premji invoke M.K. Gandhi in suggesting that he is “merely a trustee of his wealth,” the continuities between the sacred and the secular become even more apparent.
The institutions of charity and philanthropy seemed to have peacefully co-existed in India since time immemorial. On the one hand, public personalities like Jamsetji Tata and Azim Premji have made way for a philanthropy that is organised, planned and aimed at altering inequities in society by focusing on fundamental amenities such as education and health. On the other hand, there is also space for more impulsive forms of giving that one witnesses in everyday life — giving alms to beggars, donating money to a temple hundi or giving sadaqah during Ramzan, distributing food and money during festivals or even volunteering time in an old-age home.
Interestingly, individual charity continues to rise in India as indicated by the 2014 World Giving Index, and the India Philanthropy Report 2021, which said that private-sector funding rose by 23 per cent in 2020 compared to the previous year.
What binds these two apparently different forms is the sentiment of altruism and compassion that is at the foundation of giving. As most recently demonstrated during the Covid-19 pandemic, there is value in both. Encouraging a kaleidoscopic social movement where charity and philanthropy get fused and blended is the need of the hour. For as Aesop reminds us, “no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”
The author is an assistant professor at Azim Premji University and a Fellow at the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy at Ashoka University. She tweets @MaliniBhattach6. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)