12 June, 2011

The culture of giving

Published in the Kathmandu Post, Jul 2011
Link to article in Kantipur: http://www.google.com/url?

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    Sushma Joshi



    In Burma, the first point of contact is the Hindu umbrella network of Gorkhalis in Burma. In Mytkyina, this is where I went.

    Always, it’s a group of men. A large percentage are Brahmin. Unlike Nepal, there’s a crucial difference. These men head organisations which function. As the circle of men sat patiently telling me about their work, from schools and scholarships for students to study Nepali during the summers to wells dug and crematoriums built, I wondered what factor enabled them to work as a group, as opposed to the leaders of Nepal.

    These are the same Brahmin men, the bad boys of Nepali politics, co-operating in Burma. What makes them co-operate? The answer is simple. In Burma, donations are raised from the community itself, not external sources. Each family makes a small or big contribution, according to income. This is known as musti daan—an old idea that putting aside a fistful of rice per meal would add up to a large contribution annually. These donations are social investments. They never run out, unlike the willful streams of European and US government funds—because they come deep from the well-spring of social life itself. This social life is not bounded by arbitrary notions of a singular nation state, or a polity of fractured ideologies, but bounded by religion.

    Through daan, or religious donations, comes merit. People’s lives are uplifted, and given moral value through time and money that they donate. They get direct benefits. Their status is raised. Whoever gives more and works hardest is seen to be the leader, in moral terms. In Burma people still show up to dig wells and build crematoriums. It’s a societal obligation—not a passing windfall, a “project” funded serendipitously by a foreign force.

    The concept of daan or dana exists in Hindu and Buddhist cultures. The problem in Nepal is the Hindu population continues its devotional work, but the active spirit of giving of even fifty years ago has stopped. Priests, who received donations, became seen as forces of corruption. No moral authority replaced them. In Nepal, you’d be hard-pressed to find an institution which still teaches Hindu scriptures—schools in Burma where Gorkhali children learn moral values and scriptural lessons were built in the last few decades, just as Nepal demolished its own. (Note to critics who are dying to jump in and inform me Nepal has more than Hindus—this article only discusses Hinduism, not the myriad, varied religions of Nepal.)

    In recent decades, politics has become the channel to donate to society. But politics too had fallen into the same abyss where moral authority is lacking. Nepal has no Gandhi or Nehru to turn to. Nobody was able to move away from the imperatives of taking care of family to taking care of society.

    In this chaos, enter foreign donors. Into this muck they threw millions of dollars.

    What man in his right mind wants to work if he can get his annual salary after writing a proposal of a few pages, with donors fighting to keep these funds free of monitoring and evaluation? Positively begging the grantees, in fact, to spend it fast and spend it quick, with no accountability? In Burma, however, each and every Gorkhali leader has a trade or profession of his own. He is always a social volunteer—not a professional activist. Foreign funding is unheard of in Burma.

    In Hinduism, the donor gets more merit than the receiver. But with the erosion of Hindu religious life and institutions like the guthis, people are no longer “making” merit for the past half century. And with that has come an erosion of society.

    Through the casual conflation of Hinduism with prevalent practices of gender and caste oppression, we have discredited all Hindu religious expression, institutions or even affiliation. In the fight for social equality, we’ve tried to bring down old practices, but haven’t replaced them with new and better ones. We have unbounded a society by giving ourselves the assurance that the political ideology of democracy will fill the social vaccum. But is this truly possible? Why do Europeans and Americans continue to have discussions about the separation of Church and State—surely if they were truly secular and free of religion, this discussion would not occur?

    If Europeans and Americans did not keep their own liturgical traditions, their own networks of religious leaders and institutions, where would their democracy be? But for us to be true democrats, we must un-Hinduise ourselves, Nepalis think. Hinduism is a vulgar embarrassment of animal sacrifices and child goddesses, and it must slowly be erased in the fight for social change. Forget the centuries of great art, architecture, music, literature and culture that came out of it. No young person in Kathmandu will say easily “I am Hindu”—it has become an embarassment for young people to state their religious affiliation. In a democracy, donations to society is an admired ideal. When legalised as taxes, it is a citizen’s responsibility. But inside religion, donation is a moral imperative.

    There’s other ways to contribute to society. Communists give donations via monthly fees, or through labor. Socialists pay heavy taxes. Capitalists start foundations (and get tax breaks). But in the absence of political agreement, religion is often a binding factor.

    Any young Jew who’s volunteered for Hillel, or any young Christian who’s baked cookies for the Church, or any Muslim who’s given Zakat knows this act of giving back to society via religion is the foundation of social life. Other major religions keep religious expression alive through social contributions. In Hinduism, the religion of the majority of people in Nepal, no young person knows how to give in an active manner to society anymore. Hinduism, re-defined as a religion of superstition, rites and rituals, has lost its spiritual and societal strength. Young people must stop thinking of themselves only in terms of opposition to Hindu practice—and start finding ways to contribute in a positive manner through their religion. Only then can we build a new Nepal.

    Joshi is writing a book about people of Nepali origins in Burma and Thailand with support from the Asian Scholarship Foundation