Professor of Economics, Fordham University, Bronx, New York
Director: Institute of Ethics and Economic Policy
Web page: www.fordham.edu/economics/vinod
July 7, 2003
Abstract Vijay Tendulkar (VT) gave a thought provoking talk on Upkaar, Audaarya and Tyaag, at the Madison Square Garden, at the BMM Convention on July 5, 2003. His basic message was to learn to be truly noble and give totally selfelessly or perhaps not at all. The aim of this note is to provide counter arguments in favor of the status quo. I criticize the talk for instances of unnecessary self importance (putting himself on the daanshoor pedestal), some uncharitable comments (against Amte) and the unintended consequence of his talk in giving comfort to the selfish rich persons who refuse to share their wealth.
1. A Brief Review of Tendulkar Remarks
Vijay Tendulkar (VT) is a well known playwright and literary figure in Marathi, the language of 100 million people in Western and Central India. It was a pleasure to listen to his extremely well delivered and thought provoking talk in exquisite Marathi as the chief guest speaker of the big convention of Marathi speaking people in New York.
He discussed human exchanges involving Upkaar (favors), Audaarya (Charity) and Tyaag (Self Sacrifice). The big favor-giver sometimes expects gratitude for life. Since it is not human nature to accept anyone’s gratitude for long, the receiver of favors quickly reject the giver’s obligation. It becomes a silly burden in giver’s mind, and VT thinks that such burden is not worth carrying.
VT argues that there is a self interest among almost all donors of favors or charity. VT made fun of the Indian billionaire Mr. Ambani, the great industrialist, for giving large donations to many political parties. In VT’s opinion, one should not give for such political purposes. He also objects to donating in the hope of receiving tax deductions. VT complained that the word daataa (charitable individual) has come to signify only the donors of large moneys. He took issue with calling the likes of Ambani as daanshoor (power donors). VT wants the society to recognize writers of good literature, art, etc. as power donors to society (such as himself, even if his writing is not anonymous).
As a celebrity himself, VT made fun of ordinary unknown folks trying to get what little illusion of fame they can get by making donations in their own names. He questioned the utility of paatyaa (boards) listing names of donors outside temples, hospitals, schools, etc. His unsaid message was that you ordinary folks would never be really famous (like me) anyway, so why do you bother? Who reads these boards? He gave the example of an important person after whom the British rulers named Sandhurst Road. He said that common people referred to it as Sandaas (or W.C. in Marathi language) Road. He argued that giving names to anything is ephemeral and hence silly. Maharashtra Foundation, a well-known charity of Marathi persons in USA, has given the literature award to VT. In that context, VT was not convinced that the award to him was given sufficiently selflessly or had any long-term benefit to Marathi literature, since he was already well known when the award was given. Of course, VT did not return the award money.
There are many forms of giving besides money according to VT. A school peon who gives affection to little kids deserves to be honored as well as a big money donor.
Sacrifice: The last topic of the talk was Sacrifice or Tyaag. VT referred to the sacrifice made by prison-going patriots during the British Raj in India. After independence, the prison became a ticket to receive cash and other favors. According to VT, this is not true sacrifice.
VT’s talk was preceded by a presentation of some details about the great sacrifice by Dr. Prakash Amte of normal comforts of life by physically living with tribals or aadivaasis for 30 years. Dr. Amte was honored by a postage stamp by Monaco, a small country in Europe. VT pointed out that Dr. Amte also was not completely unselfish, since Amte likes his work, had a calling, and VT thought Amte had no other options.
VT hinted that “An individual is not necessarily better off by doing charitable work, unless he can give and forget about it forever.” His implicit advice was: Do NOT give unless you want to give truly selflessly and you derive personal pleasure in the very act of giving, since it is wrong to expect something in return for giving.
2. Underlying Ancient Indian Philosophy In Indian philosophy charitable donations (daan) or sharing is discussed at length even in chapters 17 and 18 of Geeta, which asks us to look for the right time, place and cause (deshe cha, kale cha, paatre cha). Tendulkar’s talk did not give the impression that he is fully aware of its wonderful depth. For example, the great sage Yaadnyawalkya said: “Atmanastu Kamaay Sarvam Priyam Bhavati.” (Everything is cherished only as far as it satisfies one’s own desires). It can be seen that VT’s talk is summarized by these five Sanskrit words. However, the sage also adds much more which says that doing good acts for others, while honestly thinking of such selfless acts as if they were selfish goals, is one of the tools for God realization or self-liberation.
When Dr. Amte himself admitted that he enjoyed helping the tribals, he was a living example of what the sage is suggesting. Thus, VT was dead wrong to focus on the mildly selfish portion of Dr. Amte’s work and failed to see the amazing sacrifice. VT’s comment was unnecessary and misplaced jibe. The audience clearly did not agree with VT, since large and small donations exceeding $30,000 (and still rising) to Amte's cause were collected during and in the immediate aftermath of BMM convention.
The term daan alone is for the benefit of others. The Hindu ideal is Saatwik (pure and noble) daan, where one shares one’s possessions without expecting anything in return in a humble way by saying “Idam Na Mama,” or these possessions were never really belonging to me anyway. I was surprised when VT referred to the Marathi Saint Tukaaraam’s “Uralo upakaaraapurataa” (I am living my remaining life only for doing favors) disrespectfully. As a literary person, VT should have known that in the particular context the saint was really referring to the saatwik daan.
Regarding sacrifice or tyaag, Ch. 18 of Geeta again shows deep thinking, asking us not to give up all things. For example, it asks us to continue to do tapaha or concentrated search of the almighty. Geeta gives a definition of sanyaas as a form of great sacrifice of desirable (kaamyaanaam) things.
3. A Rebuttal Abuses in India and Should Charity Workers Have No Fun?: I am aware of some alleged abuses of the donation process by some NGOs and the Ambanis and VT has a right to criticize such abuses in India. One alleged abuse is to appoint close relatives on charities. In United States, it is appropriate when the Ford or Gates Foundations pay Ford or Gates family members for services to their Foundations. Another alleged abuse in India is that those who run charities hold their meetings in luxury hotels. Again in the US there is no expectation that the charity workers live in poverty and spend as much as possible on the cause. Why should these otherwise dedicated unpaid or minimum-wage workers not have a good meal in the Taj Hotel in Mumbai once in a while? The key number to check is what percent of funds the charity spends on itself.
As a past president, I know that Maharashtra Foundation spends less than 2% of collected funds on administration (mostly postage) and fully expects its volunteers to expect nothing, even for some legitimate expenses. I am not sure we must hold all Indian NGOs and charities to such high standard, since they do not have other sources of income. If a US charity spends up to 40% on themselves, that is not considered an abuse here. This is a cultural difference. I suggest a limit of 20% for charitable NGOs in India.
Popular authors are great donors?: I take issue with VT’s idea that the society should also recognize other donors of good literature (such as VT himself), artists, etc. as daataas or charitable persons. After all, VT did not write anonymously, and did seek name and fame. I think it will dilute the Marathi word daataa and make it less useful. Charitable individuals deserve to have a word of their own. I feel that great artists and authors already receive other honors anyway, and need not be also called daataas also. Moreover, the artist does not create his entertainment as a strictly charitable activity, although he does give pleasure to millions.
Small Donations Matter: Another objectionable part of VT’s talk was when he said something to the effect “Do not think that if you do not give the beggar anything the beggar will die, or do not think that you are making a difference.” VT told the audience that you are insignificant as an individual donor and nothing will happen even if you do not give, the world will go on. I shudder at what would happen if everyone took VT’s advice literally. It can be proved with concrete examples and data that a large number of small donations can make a big difference. Consider the Paisa Fund (or one penny fund by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi), which helped win Indian independence. Maharashtra Foundation has a web site containing a wonderful story animated by a young volunteer named Amol Waishampayan. See the URL http://maharashtrafoundation.org/donatevideo.swf . The story extols a little girl for helping to free one butterfly at a time, without worrying about the thousands of stranded butterflies she could not possibly help.
Risk in Charity and Ben Franklin Quote: We do not need an impossible utopian standard on the average donors of charity, although VT correctly warns us that if we expect something in return and not receive it, it can cause unnecessary unhappiness. On this issue, I prefer Benjamin Franklin’s warning to those doing ‘great’ favors to anyone. Franklin said: “Most people return small favors, acknowledge medium ones and repay greater ones with ingratitude.” Modern psychotherapy emphasizes that a person doing a big favor is taking risk that it may not be repaid. Economists regard any risk-taking as worthy of compensation. Thus there are psychological and economic reasons for the ingratitude observed by Mr. Franklin.
One of my stingy friends in the audience, who has consistently refused to give any donation to any cause despite being wealthy, took great comfort in VT’s talk. I was sorry to see that he came away with the impression that VT advised against any selfish donations. Since this friend is honestly incapable of giving unselfish donations, he got the impression that VT said that he is right in continuing to refuse to give.
A Fallacy: In my opinion, my stingy friend’s reading of VT’s talk, if not VT’s talk itself, suffers from the “fallacy of composition”. [The fallacy says “What is true for an individual is not necessarily true for the society.” An informal proof of why the fallacy is true is as follows. Consider the example of a performing art show before a live audience. Any one person can see that show better by standing up. But if everyone stands up, no one will see the show any better. QED.] Although an individual is not necessarily better off by doing charitable work, one ignores that the society is vastly better off by the presence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and charitable activities.
I believe that since it is not in the nature of everyone to want to do charitable acts, society should actively encourage and facilitate charitable giving. This is the status quo anyway. Any number of “push” activities to give incentives to mostly selfish folks to do some unselfish actions comes to mind. From the society’s viewpoint it is very important to give people the impression that they will get something big in return for their unselfish acts.
Encourage the Legacy Motive for Charity: Giving names (legacy motive) is a wonderful thing that costs little to the society as a whole. Government should pass laws that punish arbitrary change of donor names by unscrupulous NGOs. In other words, society should not disturb the illusion that if one gives donations in exchange for assigning a particular name to a public entity, the donor can buy immortality to that name. The society should promise to protect such names given in exchange for donations to encourage such charity.
Accept Human Nature and Use it for Public Good: In my opinion, it is not worth trying to change human nature, although artists like VT are right to point to higher standards. Common people will always remain selfish, since selfishness follows from the basic human instinct of self-preservation. The genius of the great 18-th century economist Adam Smith was to understand the positive potential of the selfish profit motive of humans and how it promotes capitalism in a free market system. Smith argued that free markets rewarding big profits provide the right incentive structure for creating prosperity. Profits are the reward for producing something that people want, and encourage both production at the lowest possible cost and create wealth. There is nothing wrong if larger profits attract more selfish people to invest in profitable activities. Larger investment ultimately creates more of what people want without needing a central planner to decide what people should have. Recent history shows that Smith was right and the wealth created by free markets has immensely benefited all.
There are many limitations to free markets. We need and have laws against bad products and cheating and laws that help the ‘unlucky but prudent’ in the form of insurance in return for the premium paid by the prudent. A safety net is also needed to help the unfortunate. There are thousands of worthy activities, which only saints and highly charitable individuals like Dr. Prakash Amte do. These selfless hard-working individuals do not automatically receive enough support in a free market system.
Winner Take All: Another failure of free markets is that some successful individuals amass too much money and power in a market system. The markets in the entertainment field often follow “winner-take-all” and reward fabulous amounts to the most talented star and pittance to the slightly less talented. The society needs large financial resources to support many charity-worthy causes including: education, care for the sick, spiritual health, sports, good environment, higher forms of entertainment, good books, prevention of mistreatment of animals, etc. How to overcome this limitation of free market system? VT’s solution is to encourage everyone to become selfless and still keep giving, or not give at all. A better idea (the status quo in most countries) is to give tax breaks, and other incentives including “matching grants” for most worthy causes. In practice, the super rich do end up sharing their wealth in exchange for greater status (legacy) in society.
I think we should simply accept the basic premise that humans want something in return for the act of giving. There is nothing wrong if my stingy friend who honestly expects something in return for his charity. Of course, there are people who simply do not want to share and are looking for excuses. The society should encourage all charitable human tendencies, even if they are selfishly motivated in some abstract philosophical sense. We should focus more on goodness of resulting actions and less on purity of motivations.
Unintended Consequences of Socialism and Charity: The socialists prefer to tax the rich and the successful persons “to the hilt” and spend the revenues on worthy causes. Recent history has proved that socialism does not work. Unfortunately the taxing strategy changes the incentives and can waste resources. Free handouts can create laziness and discourage risk taking and wealth creation. However, tax incentives without actually spending tax revenues are a good way to promote worthy activities. Tax incentives let the people choose among competing charitable activities. Maharashtra Foundation correctly views charity as investment in the future of those who have no future and tries hard to give choice to the donors. Another free market solution is to use matching grants. How to avoid unintended consequences? For example, ‘save the children’ or healthcare charities can worsen the overpopulation problem and increase the misery. We need greater analysis and awareness of potential unintended consequences.
In conclusion, let us not permit anyone to use Vijay Tendulkar’s talk as an excuse to refuse to make donations. After all, he is a visionary artist making us aware of the existence of high standards of completely selfless giving. He was right to point out the abuses of charities in India and perhaps an upper limit of 20% of funds spent on expenses of the charity seems reasonable for India. I would have preferred if VT had focused on innovative tools that could satisfy the egos of the rich which could encourage them to share their wealth and promote worthy charitable causes. For example, VT could offer to present some name in best possible light in his next play if anyone donates large sums to some worthy causes dear to VT. This might be a good idea for Bollywood to try also.
I am grateful to Kaustubh Lele and Udayan Vinod for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay and Madhu Godsay for helpful discussions.