Daana & the sin of giving

2015-03-14 18.49.00As we celebrate Daan Utsav in India, the act of giving is institutionalized and like many other universities and colleges, we at Manipal University also take pride in organizing giving. While some of our institutions give services – oral hygiene camps and health camps, most others give things – slippers, books, eggs, etc. As the fervor of giving takes over, with different departments in the University vying with each other to give, Parry’s work on Daana and Dakshina, come to my mind. Jonathan Parry’s work on Indian gifts, sets apart ritual presents to Brahmanas from the gifts that Marcel Mauss talks about. Mauss’ work ‘Essai sur le don’ – ‘An essay on the gift’ argues that gifts are just as much forms of exchange as other economic exchanges. A gift is never free and is is characterized by reciprocity and thus drives the receiver to return the gift. Arguing against this notion of reciprocity and exchange, Parry points out that Indian gifts to the Brahmana – Daana – differs from the Dakshina which is payment for services. Daana is given in order to wash away the sins of the giver and the gift that is given thus becomes a vehicle for carrying sin. An austere Brahmana will effectively ensure the removal of sin from the giver, and in case the Brahmana is not austere, the sin will shroud both the lives of the giver & the receiver. Thus Parry distinguished the ‘Indian gift’ from other gifts and argued for a more nuanced & contextual understanding of gifts. The Indian gift of Daana is thus not meant to be returned and cannot thus qualify as an exchange.

Parry’s argument still stands today when we speak of giving to the poor. One way of understanding this is by looking at practices such as the Daan Utsav – which is celebrated during the first week of October every year. This week is called the joy of giving week and as the official website http://joyofgivingweek.org – announces: ‘millions of people from all walks of life come together during this week to give their time, money, resources, or skills back to society..’. The article goes on to define what giving means: ‘A giving event could be as simple as a family taking out their maid’s children for an ice-cream party, or as large as a ‘Gift of Compassion’. The latter is an event that has over 10,000 schoolchildren every year across India making and exchanging gifts with their peers from different socio-economic backgrounds.’ Celebrities such as Sachin Tendulkar endorse giving and the act of giving is not only about giving but also involves witnessing. The site invites people to post their event of giving on the site and highlights why this can help: ‘You can now post your #DaanUtsav event here, and let everyone know what you are planning! Posting your event online allows others to join in, helps people know what is happening in their city and above all, inspires many others to figure out how they too can get people to celebrate India’s festival of giving!’ Being witnessed giving is thus an added motivation to the giver as he/she may not only derive actual help in the form of others joining in, but also personally derives a feeling of ‘inspiring many others’ to get into the act of giving. What can be more attractive than the thought that we can possibly inspire others around us? The act of giving is thus also an act of witnessing – and as we witness the laudable giving of these inspirational beings, we are also drawn into a web of giving. There is a considerable amount of pride in giving, but what about the act of receiving. What does this do to those who receive gifts?

In a recent tile factory project concerning a local community when we decided we had to help people obtain their own medical insurance, someone I have come to respect and admire, told me that we should not destroy the dignity of those we plan to give to. This attention to those receiving is something essential in today’s world. But lets take one step backwards. Why give? If we lived in a society in which there were no poor or underprivileged people around us, would we feel the need to give? One more step backwards! Isn’t giving one week a year nothing but a bandaid over the many acts of oppression and marginalization that we are part of? Let me explain. If we decided not to give and instead decided to pay people what they deserve instead for their work, would not that be a more effective solution to poverty and inequality? Let me take one example. Domestic maids are often underpaid and overworked. In Manipal where I am told domestic help is expensive, maids are paid INR 750 per task – for example, INR 750 for sweeping and mopping, INR 750 for doing the dishes, INR 750 for washing clothes for an entire month. As consumers of domestic work, we are part of the very circuits of power that impoverish people. Yet these acts of impoverishment are the norm and people often complain that maids in Manipal take Sundays off in addition to being highly paid. The argument is that maids can work many homes to make a lot of money, some people tell me there are even those who make a lot of money 10-15000 a month. Lowly paid domestic work, with no health or other benefits are thus justified and we even take pride in giving people ’employment’ which they would not have without us. We then offset these daily acts of impoverishment with the one week of giving. What are we doing in effect if not what Parry argues is the essence of the Daana –  washing away sin through giving?

Lets now zoom out to the international arena of giving – ‘development’ as it is called today. In an acclaimed film that critically engages with development aid in Haiti post the earthquake, Michael Matheson Miller shows us how mindless giving can destroy a country and its economy. Development aid that may be very well intentioned, may actually make people more poor. He shows us how the distribution of free eggs by a well meaning NGO actually destroyed local poultry farmers struggling to set up their enterprise. The influx of second hand clothing collected from western countries where well meaning middle class people like you and me donated clothes to the poor Haitians, in effect destroyed the local textile industry creating relations of dependency between Haitians and the west. The influx of free rice from the United States meant that local farmers were put out of business and made Haitians dependent on development aid. Tom’s shoes that wanted to put footwear on the poor Haitian children, has created a relationship of dependency in which Haitian’s have been inculcated in the art of receiving free gifts. Who would want to set up a footwear shop when people receive free shoes? The critical voices of Haitians point out that when people are given something free, the gift carries a message of dependency that is at various levels internalized by people. The free gift in this case is political as it creates a political economy of development driven by charity & dependency. But why would the west want to enter into relations of charity and aid with the third world? Here again we need to go back into history and examine the projects of colonization and slavery that were imposed upon our world. Within this historical context, development aid  performs the same bandaid function that the joy of giving week performs, it covers up the decades of oppression and marginalization by replacing these memories with those of receiving aid. Using Parry once again, development aid carries the same sin that Daana carries with it.

When we discuss the ideas of gift in our economic anthropology class and my poverty course this year, the idea of Daana has brought into the classroom avid debates and heated discussions on giving and receiving. In the process me and my students have learnt that the gift is seeped not only in sin but also in politics. The act of giving, however wonderful it may feel at the moment of giving, is embedded within larger social and institutional structures of dominance and oppression. Within these larger structures our single act of giving serves to contain resistance and thereby reinforces the very structures of oppression that giving is meant to disturb. My intent here is not to make out seemingly well intentioned acts of giving as intentionally oppressive – in fact my argument is the contrary, that however well intentioned our giving is, it has the potential to reinforce poverty. I thus invite you to think carefully about giving.

At the MCPH my students have come up with the innovative idea of giving free english tuitions to children from Kannada medium schools in Manipal. They felt that they would be giving children something that they needed, rather than things that would only add to the things they received from the many other Manipal institutions. Giving things is a single act of giving and giving time is a much more longer act of giving. They felt they would give meaning to giving by giving time. With this in mind we are working together to find a school we can work with.

I invite you all to also think about what you give, and ask the question if by giving what you plan to give, if you are not reinforcing hierarchies and inequalities. I also invite you to re-evaluate the notion of giving one week a year. Instead to think of giving not in terms of charity, but ‘giving back‘ in terms of the value you receive for the work people do for you. Without the hundreds of domestic maids who help us run our homes, the plumbers and electricians who keep our homes functioning, the newspaper boys who bring us our daily news, the milk men who supply milk at our doorsteps, the auto drivers who ferry us around, the vegetable vendors who supply us our food, the famers who grow our food,… we would not have the privileged lives we lead. As David Harvey says, if all these people got together and revolted, our lives would come to a standstill. Yet these are the people who we pay the least, the people with whom we haggle the most when we are paying, the people whose wages we constantly postpone paying. So instead of giving one week a year, can we think of ‘giving back‘ all around the year? If we do, we can step out of the notion of Daana and we will no longer be the charitable people we think we are, but much more than that, we will be responsible human beings.

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