By Life Positive
A gift economy is an economic system in which goods and services are given freely, rather than trade. join up and transform the way we do business
by Chintan Girish Modi with Megha Bajaj
With my strong right-brain inclinations, I should be the last person to talk about economics, my friends and acquaintances would testify. But the gift economy is right-brain friendly – it harnesses spiritual and creative forces like kindness, compassion, and surrender.
As Nipun Mehta, founder of an organisation called Charity Focus, describes it, “A gift economy is an economic system in which goods and services are given freely, rather than traded. In a market economy, one’s wealth is increased by “saving”; in contrast, in a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is the circulation of the gifts within the community that leads to increase – increase in connections, increase in relationship strength.”
The principle draws energy and inspiration from the good old concept of nishkama karma – acting without expecting a reward. Of course, the reward is there; just that you can’t measure it in terms of cash receipts.
Nipun’s Charity Focus is a non-profit organisation in Santa Clara, USA, that he started with friends, to offer voluntary services to other NGOs. Communication for outreach and fundraising is very important for NGOs, but their budgets often don’t allow them enough to spend on websites. Charity Focus volunteers, having the ideal of service etched in their philosophy, develop websites for them. These volunteers believe that it’s impossible to create a better world without inner change resulting from selfless service. So Charity Focus itself has a variety of associated websites to generate inspiration and inspire action. There’s http://www.karmatube.org/, which offers a collection of short videos that urge you to undertake small be-the-change actions that add to the joy in the world. In addition, you have http://www.ijourney.org/ that brings together “compelling individual stories”. Visitors to the website are encouraged to freely share and distribute these stories.
Wikipedia, www.wikipedia.org, is another great example of the way sharing works in today’s world. It is a dynamic web encyclopedia contributed to by users themselves. Type any search on google, chances are one of the top 20 pages will be from Wikipedia, started only six years ago. What’s even more amazing is that Wikipedia has 6.8 million registered users, 1.8 million articles, and is available in 250 languages.
Meals of love
Closer home, in India, we have the Ahmedabad-based Seva Café, a unique experiment in giving. Patrons of this eatery are not thrust with a menu card laying a price tag on each delicacy they want to relish. They can have their fill, unmindful of what they’ll have to shell out, simply because their meal has been gifted to them by someone who ate there before them, and was touched by the beauty of the philosophy that Seva Café espouses.
They get lots of enquiries from people who’ve heard about them – some moved, some baffled that something like this can work today – and want to have a slice of the joy that’s spilling out of every corner. You can come here too, and volunteer to chop vegetables, cook food, serve the guests, or help with the cleaning.
“Seva Cafe works on a contribute-as you-wish model. This means that you and only you determines the cost of a meal there.”
Seva Café works on a contribute-as-you-wish model. This means that you, and only you determine how much you will contribute to Seva Café at the end of your experience here. It could be Rs. 10 or Rs. 1,000, no questions will be asked, no snide remarks made. The food received is truly intended as a gift – without demand for exchange. “We do not want ‘contribute’ to simply be taken as a clever substitute for ‘pay,’ says their powerfully positive website. “‘Contribute’ to us implies participation, involvement, and support. You contribute to our mission just by sitting at our tables, showing your support for locally produced, wholesomely prepared food, and allowing us the opportunity to serve you. Your financial contribution at the meal’s end signifies your willingness to be a part of this community, to participate in this experiment.”
Seva Café is full of heartwarming stories – of people who sauntered in for something nice to eat, but left with that and something more precious. Not too long ago a family of 15 people visited the Seva Café to have dinner. That night, four kids aging from 8-12 belonging to the family, got up after dinner and offered to help wash dishes in the kitchen, while their mother finished enjoying her meal. To make their job more fun, one of the kids decided to create a little dance while washing the dishes. After one hour of laughing, conversing, and cleaning, the kids finished the work, but said they wanted to do more. Says their website, “We asked them to bring old pencils, erasers and clothes for poor kids, and they actually did that, proving to us that you don’t need to be of a certain age to help better the world.”
Karma Kitchen in Berkeley, California, works on a similar concept. It was started by Viral and Pavi Mehta. They say, “Karma Kitchen is an experiment in bringing that spirit of service further into the mainstream community, and in inviting everyone to join together in a circle of giving. Most of the workers at Karma Kitchen are freely giving their time to serve you. In the process, they are intentionally cultivating their personal ideals of selflessness, grace, and generosity.”
Isn’t it fascinating to note that so much good cheer is spreading in the world, all over food? But the most astonishing instance we’ve come across is that of 26-year-old Krishnan, a man in Madurai who spends several hours a day cooking for the homeless, and distributing meals to them. A few years ago, Krishnan, a gold medalist in catering technology, was at a well paying job in a leading luxury hotel in Bangalore. On a vacation, he had come home and was cycling around the Madurai roads when he saw a man, sitting under a bridge, shamefully eating his own waste. The stark desperation of the sight shook him profoundly, and drastically altered the course of his life. He resigned from his job, and came back to an anxious family to declare, “I intend to feed people who cannot feed themselves.”
He began buying packets of food from the money he had saved and started feeding all the people he came across, including the man under the bridge. Krishnan opted to remain unemployed, but continued feeding a steadily increasing number of people on the streets. With diminishing savings, he stopped buying food packets and began cooking each meal himself. This was a familiar territory due to his short stint with the hotel.
year into this unique service, a family friend donated a Maruti van for transport and distribution. The next year a young man, Mani, left his job in a local hotel to join the cause. Financial support started trickling gradually from people who began hearing about Krishnan’s service. With donations pouring in, Krishnan realised the need for a proper system that ensured accountability.
In June 2003, he founded a non-profit trust called ‘Akshaya’, after that wondrously inexhaustible vessel in Hindu mythology. His parents built a separate kitchen for him in their home. Preparing the food himself gives Krishnan the added advantage of being able to maintain quality standards. “Just because they are on the streets is not an excuse to give them poor quality food,” he says firmly. “I serve what I myself eat.” Today, over a hundred people are being fed three meals daily.
Akshaya has a firm policy of not feeding able-bodied people who beg for a living. It focuses on people who are mentally unwell, have other forms of disability, or have been abused and abandoned. Maaji, Bhaiya – he addresses even the nameless with respect, often slipping out of his sandals before serving them food. Because of their condition, many are incapable even of demonstrating gratitude. But Krishnan is not looking for any of this. “Serving them is a privilege. These are not ordinary people but special souls,” he believes.
Read and release
Book Crossing is another interesting concept that links up with the gift economy. The basic idea is this: you love reading a book, and want to share it with someone else, so you leave the book in a public place for anyone to pick it up, enjoy it, and then ‘release it into the wild’ again. An entire website has been dedicated to it: http://www.bookcrossing.com/.
“I guess you could say it’s the karma of literature,” explains BookCrossing.com’s co-founder, Ron Hornbaker. “Releasing your books ‘into the wild’ and tracking their progress and the lives they touch is just more fascinating, and more fulfilling, than hoarding them on a shelf somewhere.”
We teach Book Crossers, our members, the ‘3 R’s’ of BookCrossing: to Read, Register, and Release their books for others to enjoy,” says Ron, “Sharing books with your friends and neighbours is a natural instinct… what we’ve done is creating a tracking database so that you can see where your books are, and read the journal entries along the way.”
Adventurous BookCrossers release their books “into the wild” on park benches, in coffee shops, in phone booths… wherever the interplay of distance and chance can make things interesting. They’re fascinated with the fate, karma, or whatever you want to call the chain of events that can occur between two or more lives and one piece of literature.
“Just think!” exclaims Hornbaker. “Books are forever… people don’t throw them away. A hundred years from now, your great-great-grandchild might open a book, find a website address with a Book Crossing ID number, and go read a journal entry that YOU wrote. How cool is that?”
Even if one does not register with Book Crossing, giving away books is a simple and kind act that we can all do. Just write a little note saying that you loved the book and would love to have someone partake of the same joy, and leave it wherever you go.
A spiritual gift
Jayantiben, an elderly widow whose children are in America, tells me, as she sits on a park bench, “I don’t know what I would have done without Sivanand Ashram, Rishikesh. I had discovered it years ago, on a holiday with my husband, and today it has become my life force. For three whole months, I go and live there in the spiritually charged environment, do yoga, eat healthy food, and then I am able to manage the next nine months all alone in my 4BHK house in Mumbai. The loneliness gets filled by the vibrations of the ashram.”
There are many more people like her who seek refuge in this ashram. The Sivananda Ashram, headquarters of the Divine Life Society, is situated in scenic Himalayan surroundings, with the holy Ganga by its side. Added to this is the healing balm of the generous reception accorded by the ashram to the visitors from all parts of the world.
No money is charged for the stay, but donation is accepted both for sustenance, and spreading the good word around. Even though the Ashram welcomes anyone at any time, the logistics of stay compel its management to request visitors for a letter beforehand so that they can ensure accommodation.
Vipassana has been the defining point in several people’s life. This ten-day residential course, brought back to India by S.N. Goenka, teaches a form of meditation that is traced back to the Buddha. The Buddha never taught a sectarian religion; he taught Dhamma – the universal way to liberation. There are no charges for the courses – not even to cover the cost of food and accommodation. All expenses are met by donations from people, who, having completed a course and experienced the benefits of Vipassana, wish to give others the opportunity to also benefit. Mr Akshay (name changed) shares, “When my wife died I had gone for the course. I went to get away from sympathetic relatives, and in a way from myself, as I felt that I had not given enough time to my wife while she was alive.” Magic took place in just a few days. There were days when Akshay could not even remember his name or his gender. He says, “It was the most profound experience. It felt as if I was sleeping with my head in existence’s lap and everything was whole, perfect. I donated a lakh of rupees so more children of life, lost and in despair, can come, lie in their mother’s lap, and find meaning.”
As I sign off, my heart is filled with a desire to reach out. Just to do something small, simple: pay for the person behind me in the movie line, teach a child on the road, buy biscuits for the dogs, leave my favourite book on the park bench, something. This is what the gift economy is about – sharing with others just because it feels good, because it gives you that special warm feeling in the heart, because it is going to create so much happiness, and because we are all part of the human family.
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