Philanthropy comes in two flavors. One is where you make a lot of money doing whatever it is that you do, and then spend a large part of it in directly helping other people. Bill Gates is a philanthropist of this kind. The second kind is where you collect money from a large number of people and put it to good use. Organizational charities do philanthropy of this kind. So do spiritual leaders, like the god men of India.
I found this charity initiative that I believe will make a real difference. It is called “Giving What We Can.” In fact, it is not a charity website, but a portal with a few recommended organizations listed — those that are efficient and focus on the extremely poor. Sure, it tries to lay a guilt trip on you, but it really does give you hard-to-find information.
While going through it, I suddenly realized what was bothering me about the “normal” charity activities. Most of these activities operate locally, not globally, and therefore end up helping the slightly worse-off. In a world where the richest 20% command 80% of all the income, local charity only means the top 5% giving to the next 10% — the extremely wealthy helping out the very wealthy. This kind of charity never reaches the really poor, who desperately need help.
Living in this highly skewed world, it is hard to see how rich we really are, because we always benchmark ourselves against our friends and neighbors. For instance, as a “poor” graduate student in the early nineties, I used to make about $12,000 a year. It turns out that I was still better off than 90% of the world’s population. It is not surprising — my stipend was more than the official salary of the President of India (Rs.10,000 a month) at that time!
Coming from a rather poor place in India, I know what real poverty is. It has always been too close to home. I have seen a primary school classmate of mine drop out to become a child laborer carrying mud. And heard stories of starving cousins. To me, poverty is not a hypothetical condition allegedly taking place in some dim distant land, but a grim reality that I happened to escape thanks to a few lucky breaks.
So the local charity drives bother me a bit. When I see those school children with their tin cans and round stickers, I feel uncomfortable, not because I cannot spare a dollar or two, but because I know it doesn’t really help anything — except perhaps the teacher’s KPIs. And the twenty-year-olds with their laminated name badges and certificates of authenticity also make me uncomfortable because, certifiable bean-counter that I am, I wonder how much it costs to hire and outfit them. And who benefits?
Similar bean-counting questions haunted me the last time I sponsored a table at a local charity dinner at $200 a plate — $100 to the hotel, $50 to the entertainers, and so on. Who is the real beneficiary? Some of us turn to local churches and spiritual organizations to share and help others. But I cannot but suspect that it only helps the middlemen, not the extremely poor we mean to direct our aid to.
These nagging doubts made me limit my charity activities to my own meager personal drives — two dollars to the hawker center cleaning aunties and uncles, gas pump attendants, those old folks selling three tissue packs a dollar, and the Susannah singer. And handsome tips after the rare taxi rides. And generous donations to that old gentleman who prowls CBD and strikes up a conversation with, “Excuse me sir, but do you speak English?” You know, the next time he asks me that, I’m going to say, “No, I don’t. But here’s your five bucks anyway!”
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Perhaps it has got something to do with my commie roots, but I am a skeptic, especially when it comes to the “godmen” of India. I cannot understand how they can inspire such blind belief. Where the believers see miracles, I see sleight of hand. When they hear pearls of wisdom, I can hear only gibberish. And when the new age masters claim to be in deep meditation, I cannot help but suspect that they are just dozing off.
Although my skepticism renders me susceptible to seeing the darker side of these modern day saints, I do have a counterbalancing respect for our heritage and culture, and the associated wisdom and knowledge. It is always with thrill of awe and pride that I listen to Swami Vivekananda’s century-old Chicago speeches, for instance.
The speeches of the modern yogis, on the other hand, fill me with bewilderment and amused confusion. And when I hear of their billion dollar stashes, bevies of Rolls-Royces, and claims of divinity, I balk. When I see the yogis and their entourage jet-setting in first class to exotic holiday destinations with the money extracted in the name of thinly disguised charities, I feel a bit outraged. Still, I am all for live-and-let-live. If there are willing suckers eager to part with their dough and sponsor their guru’s lifestyle, it is their lookout. After all, there are those who financed Madoffs and Stanfords of the greedy era we live in, where fraud is a sin only when discovered.
Now I wonder if it is time that the skeptics among us started speaking out. I feel that the spiritual frauds are of a particularly disturbing kind. Whether we see it that way or not, we are all trying to find a purpose and meaning to our existence on this planet through our various pursuits. We may find the elusive purpose in fame, glory, money, charity, philanthropy, knowledge, wisdom and in any of the hundreds of paths. All these pursuits have their associated perils of excess. If you get greedy, for instance, there is always a Madoff waiting in the wings to rip you off. If you become too charitable, there are other characters eager to separate you from your money, as my Singaporean readers will understand.
Of all these pursuits, spirituality is of a special kind; it is a shortcut. It gives you a direct path to a sense of belonging, and a higher purpose right away. Smelling blood in the carefully cultivated need for spirituality (whatever spirituality means), the yogis and maharishis of our time have started packaging and selling instant nirvana in neat three or five day courses that fit your schedule, while demanding vast sums of “not-for-profit” money. Even this duplicity would be fine by me. Who am I to sit in judgment of people throwing money at their inner needs, and gurus picking it up? But, of late, I am beginning to feel that I should try to spread a bit of rationality around.
I decided to come of out my passive mode for two reasons. One is that the gurus engage their victims in their subtle multi-level marketing schemes, ensnaring more victims. A pupil today is a teacher tomorrow, fueling an explosive growth of self-serving organizations. The second reason is that the gurus demand that the followers donate their time. I think the victims do not appreciate the enormity of this unfair demand. You see, you have only a limited time to live, to do whatever it is that you think will lead to fulfillment. Don’t spend it on wrong pursuits because there is always something that you are sacrificing in the process, be it your quality time with your loved ones, opportunity to learn or travel, or enjoy life or whatever. Time is a scarce resource, and you have to spend it wisely, or you will regret it more than anything else in life.
So don’t be blind. Don’t mistake group dynamics for salvation. Or charisma for integrity. Or obscurity for wisdom. If you do, the latter day gurus, masters of manipulation that they are, will take you for a ride. A long and unpleasant one.
Photo by jeffreyw