By Suma Varughese December 2003 There is a power in giving that can transform the giver and the receiver and convert hell into heaven. Here’s how you can receive the gift of giving “I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time… as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” -Fred Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens The rosy glow surrounding Christmas captured, and to some extent created, by authors like Charles Dickens, owes much of its lustre to the spirit of giving with which it is associated. The popular image of the Christmas tree standing knee-deep in a pile of presents, Santa Claus rewarding good little children stockingfuls of goodies, greeting cards sent by the droves to friends, relations and acquaintances, families gathering from across the world to celebrate Christmas together, lavish parties, extravagant meals, bountiful charity extended to the poor and the miserable, all create an aura of open-handed generosity and bonhomie. All of which makes this season of good cheer a particularly good time to inquire into the concept of giving. To begin with, a story. Once upon a time there lived a husband and wife who loved each other dearly. Though poor in worldly goods, they luxuriated in happiness, laughter and love of life. And they could boast of two genuine treasures-his gold watch and her beautiful hair. Along came Christmas and each was filled with a passionate desire to give the other something beautiful and precious. But how? She had an idea. With a pang in her heart, she went to a shop that bought hair and cut off her beautiful tresses. And bought a lovely gold chain for the gold watch. Her husband too had an idea. Off he went to sell his watch. With the proceeds he bought beautiful combs to dress her hair in. Come Christmas Day, and there lay the gifts. Needed no longer. But what was it that so filled their hearts and eyes and caused them to fly into each other’s arms again and again? Oh, that? That was the precious gift of love, anointed by the balm of sacrifice. This summary of the American author, O. Henry’s short story, The Gift of the Magi, tells us that the best kind of giving involves sacrifice. The widow who gives her mite to a noble cause, the mother who starves so her children can eat, the beggar who shares his vada pao with another, the soldier who lays down his life for the country, the prophet who sacrifices his life for the salvation of humanity. Giving of one’s abundance is laudable, but the giving that scoops out our very innards is transformative. It transfigures the receiver and us. It is spiritual giving at its highest. And when we engage with it, it is a path that leads to liberation. For sacrificial giving involves going beyond the ego with its narrow focus on our needs, desires, comforts and feelings. Sacrificial giving involves putting the other first, ignoring the ego’s shrill demands to be number one. Sacrificial giving is rigorous, and calls for discipline and self-restraint. We can start off small. Giving up a seat in a bus for someone who needs it more (yes, even that can cause the ego to quiver), gracefully acknowledging one’s fault in an argument, allowing others to stampede to the buffet table first, giving up one’s lunch to a hungry beggar. Children are naturally giving. A friend’s proudest moment revolves around a race her nine-year-old son did not win. The youth, a gifted athlete, had won a number of events that day and was expected to win the running contest too. Suddenly, his pace slackened and a few other boys beat him to the punch. “What happened,’’ she asked him later. “I was winning so many races, I wanted the others to win this one,” the boy told her. Another friend recalls that when her two children were little tots, her daughter would always insist on giving the better of the gifts received to her older brother. Born Buddhas? Perhaps, but no reason why we cannot aspire to the post ourselves. Sacrificial giving is the golden thread that binds the universe together. Everything gives so others may live. The power of sacrificial giving comes from its motive, which is pure and selfless. The Jatakas, accounts of the many lives the Buddha is said to have led in animal and plant form, have wonderful stories of transformative giving. In one, the Buddha is a great bull elephant with two wives. Inadvertently, he mortally offends one of them who vows to avenge herself. She takes birth as the wife of a local king and asks the king to get her the tusks of the bull elephant. The king sends out his best hunters and they succeed in wounding him but try as they will, they cannot detach his mighty tusks. The elephant, understanding all, gently pulls out the tusks himself and offers them to the hunters. When the queen learns of this, bitter remorse overpowers her and she kills herself. The concept of sacrifice is endemic to most religions and is central to Hindu philosophy. The world is considered to owe its origin to the great sacrifice of purusha. The Vedic concept of vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family) emphasises both interconnection and the need to focus on the larger good. So strong is the current of altruistic thought that the Bhagavad Gita says: “He who cooks for himself alone is a thief.” The concept of prasad, sanctifying food by offering it to God first, is no doubt a vestige of this thinking, but the Vedic culture demanded more. The householder was not to eat until food had been served to the guests, hungry strangers and his family. Indeed, the Vedic concept of sacrifice was dauntingly lofty. There goes a teaching story in which a king asked a sage, which was greater: the life of a renunciate or that of a householder. The sage took him to a yogi and asked the king to tempt him by offering his daughter in marriage as well as offering great wealth. Unmoved, the yogi continued to remain in serene meditation. Then he took him to a forest where, with the help of the sage, he understood the chirping of a sparrow couple above his head. “Oh look,” said the male. “Here is the king in this lonely forest and there is no food for him.” “Let us give ourselves as food,” suggested his wife and forthwith both of them jumped into the fire. The sage told the king: “One way is not better than another. If you must be a yogi, then be like the one we saw, unmoved by the temptations of the world. If you must be a householder then be like the sparrow couple, ready to sacrifice yourself for the needs of another.” The idea of sacrifice runs through Judeo-inspired cultures such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism too. Animal sacrifice, still practised in Islam, is a metaphor for the real sacrifice-of one’s lower nature in the fire of penance and tapasya. Sacrificial giving is the golden thread that binds the universe together. Everything gives so others may live. In her book MotherMysteries, Maren Tonder Hansen rapturises over one such giving. “Our placenta served Elijah (her newly born son) and me beautifully, working hard, willing to die when its task was completed. Holding my placenta, touching it, I am moved to tears by my love and appreciation.” The power of sacrificial giving comes from its motive, which is pure and selfless. Says Mahatma Gandhi, whose concept of satyagraha was based on willingly taking on the suffering of oppression in order to transform the oppressor: “True yajna is an act directed to the welfare of others, done without desiring any returns for it whether of a temporal or spiritual nature.” The Mahatma’s endless willingness to sacrifice himself in the service of the country transformed his countrymen and won us Independence. He stands as one of the greatest examples of the power of selfless giving and an undying inspiration to it. All mothers, to a larger or lesser degree, master the art of selfless giving. It is this ability to give freely and unconditionally that equips them for the noble task of nurturing a family and raising human beings. As the eminent philosopher S. Radhakrishnan, wrote: “India in every generation has produced millions of women who have never found fame, but whose daily existence has helped to civilise the race, and whose warmth of heart, self-sacrificing zeal, unassuming loyalty and strength in suffering, when subjected to trials of extreme severity, are among the glories of this ancient race.” We can start off small. Giving up a seat in a bus for someone who needs it more, gracefully acknowledging one’s fault in an argument, allowing others to stampede to the buffet table first, giving up one’s lunch for a hungry beggar Writes Maren Hansen: “When a woman feels she is at the end of her limits, has no more love or patience or energy left to respond to one more need, suddenly, she is sourced. Where does it come from? Perhaps she takes a deep breath and draws from somewhere inside herself, a place that she never knew existed until the intensity of this demand and she finds she is able to give more… She treasures her children as much as life itself. She would do anything for them, to help them, protect them. She, again, gives herself into relationship with her children.” Most giving, however, is far from selfless. Charity at its most heinous, feeds the ego grossly by creating a sense of superiority in the donor. Such a donation not only harms the giver, it also damages the receiver. When Latur district in Maharashtra suffered a disastrous earthquake many years back
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