The Bhagavad Gita is a digest and clarification of the upanishads, and is essentially inseparable from them. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad it says that once the Creator, Prajapati, spoke a single syllable, “Da,” to his human disciples. “Then he said: ‘Have you understood?’ They answered, ‘Yes, we have understood. You said to us, ““Datta—Be charitable.”” ‘Yes,’ agreed Prajapati, ‘you have understood.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 5:2:2) So Dana, which means: giving, gift, charity, almsgiving, self-sacrifice, donation, and generosity, is both an action and an attitude. Krishna considers this an important factor in spiritual life, one which we will profit from understanding. Once more he analyzes a subject from the aspect of its guna-quality.
“The gift which is given only with the thought ‘it is to be given,’ to a worthy person who has done no prior favor, at the proper place and time: that gift is held to be sattwic” (17:20).
This is extremely relevant to us, since at the present time “good works” and social action are becoming the refuge of the morally and spiritually bankrupt as a cover for their inner deficiency. As is to be expected, ignorant people who think that outer action equals inner quality, are enthusiastically embracing and applauding this fraud. Yogis, too, from both their good will and the sincerity–often simplicity–of their hearts may unsuspectingly run in this track as well. For discrimination (viveka) is often mistaken for cynicism, and is sure to be denounced by the deceivers and the deceived. Delusion is always favored by the deluded. Krishna’s outline of sattwic dana will not at all be compatible with their fantasies–and that will be a pretty good indication that it is true and worthy of our attention.
Given only with the thought “it is to be given.” This implies that it is not only right to give in a moral sense, but that it is a requisite for acting in harmony with cosmic law. It is not an option, but a necessity–at least for those seeking to climb up the evolutionary ladder through cooperation with universal law. This has many aspects, not the least being that charity is a powerful antidote to negative karmas accrued through past greed, selfishness and hard-hearted refusal to help others. It also heals the mind scarred by callous and cruel indifference to the needs of others.
Given to a worthy person. Patre means someone who is worthy or competent, a person who is deserving and capable of benefiting from the gift or assistance. Sattwic charity itself must be worthy and competent. That is, it must be intelligent and effective, helping people not just for the moment, but for the future. Sattwic charity is not just “need driven” on the surface, but must take into account the entire situation and be very focused on the quality of the recipients and the ultimate results. For example, it is silly to provide roller skates for poor children when they do not have any shoes. Just recently I heard a brag ad on radio about many teenagers working hard to provide cosmetic surgery for poor people. While people are starving and wandering the streets homeless, this is absurd–not innately, but from the present conditions. This is like dropping candy bars to people in the desert that are dying of thirst. Get them out and give them water. This is the sattwic way. Of course, sattwic charity requires personal contact and care, something that many are not willing to provide.
At a proper place. The environment of the recipient must be taken into careful consideration. It would be silly to give aid to someone living on an island where atomic testing is scheduled, and not help them to relocate. Sattwic charity gives much more than the equivalent of impulse buying that is the vogue right now.
In all religious traditions, dana is considered a powerful spiritual, mental, and even physical therapy. A perfect example of this is in the life of Saint John Regis. He transformed the lives of countless thousands through the spiritual counseling he gave in the confessional. Once he had been invited to an out-of-the-way place, and even though deep snow had fallen he insisted on traveling on foot to keep his promise to the people there. On the way he fell and broke his leg. Finding a stick to help him move, and holding to the shoulder of a fellow-traveller, he actually went on and kept his appointment. Upon arrival he immediately went to the church and into the confessional, despite the protests from those around him. Many hours later, after having uninterruptedly heard confessions, he agreed to be examined by a doctor…who found that the leg was perfectly healed.
“That gift which is given grudgingly [or unwillingly], with the aim of recompense [reward] or gain, with regard to the fruit, is considered rajasic” (17:21).
One of the major determinants in religion is disposition of heart. God told the prophet Samuel: “The Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (I Samuel 17:21). Therefore Krishna points out in this and the next verse that the inner attitude of the giver reveals the predominant quality (guna) of the act. To give grudgingly or unwillingly is a rajasic attitude. A great deal of religion is not done willingly, but out of fear, greed, or other egoic motives. Since rajas is the guna of action for gain of some kind, he then says that any gift that is made with the purpose of getting some personal benefit, looking for the final result, is of rajas.
As a consequence it would not be amiss to wonder if the giving described in the previous verse as sattwic is not really rajasic? For “doing the right” also produces a benefit which is surely desired by the sattwic individual. The answer is both yes and no. Certainly the sattwic person wants to attain and maintain the “to be done” attitude which tends toward his personal liberation, but the focus of such a desire is the transcendent Self, whereas the focus and motivator of the rajasic desire is the transient ego. So they are of vastly differing quality. Further, the sattwic person is thinking of the persons to be helped, but the rajasic is thinking of himself. The sattwic man is unselfish, the rajasic man is selfish. They are poles apart.
Another form of rajasic dana is that which is done to control the recipients. Religions often engage in this to buy converts. Missionaries, Christian and Moslem, do this in all third world countries quite shamelessly, even proudly.
“That gift which is given at the wrong place and time to the unworthy, without paying respect, or with contempt, is declared to be tamasic” (17:22).
An unworthy person is someone who will not benefit from the gift or assistance, either because of innate incapacity or perverse attitude, or who will deny being benefitted, or who demands something different or more. We all have seen this to some extent. An unworthy person is also one who does not even need the gift, but pretends to. So is one who is quite capable of helping himself, but sees no need to if someone will do it for him.
It is virtually impossible to expand on what is meant by “the wrong place” and “the wrong time,” since each individual situation determines–and often reveals–that.
“Without paying respect, or with contempt” can be either hidden or obvious. I have personally known people involved in welfare programs that thoroughly despised the people they were distributing bounty to–and as a result being adored by them as their personal “great white father.” How ironic. I have heard people make utterly contemptuous remarks about the people they were going to go out and “make nice” to, even getting tearful with fake “caring” for those they denigrated. On the other hand, many tamasic people are overtly disdainful of those they are helping. This is particularly true of religious charities, especially the Protestant ones. I do not say this out of prejudice, but from a lifetime of observation. Those involved in Catholic charities are consistently kind and truly interested in those they help. Protestants, being the proud originators of “the work ethic” are usually just foremen, herding “the rabble” and obviously just “cleaning up the mess.” Again, I have seen this myself, especially in “rescue mission” endeavors. Just as jailers consider all inmates guilty and deserving of little but a hard time, so these people consider their charges nothing but lazy nuisances who really deserve being booted out onto the street and allowed to suffer or else rounded up as vagrants and put in jail.
God and our Self are beyond the three gunas, and so are those who even while living in this world have ascended enough in consciousness to have attained or be very near liberation from the compulsion of birth and death (on the earth, at least). So Krishna is describing their action, a fourth degree beyond even sattwa. First he introduces a mantra that should accompany all good action.
“Om Tat Sat: this has been taught as the threefold designation of Brahman. By this the brahmins, the Vedas, and the sacrifices were created in ancient times” (17:23). “Created” is a rather weak translation of vihitas, which means “constituted” in the sense of ordained, apportioned, arranged, or determined. This is an important distinction, because according to the upanishads and Gita nothing is created in the way Western religions mean by the word. Rather, everything is manifested from the ever-existent Being of Brahman.
Om, Tat, and Sat have various levels of meaning. Paramhansa Yogananda explained that they indicate the real meaning of the Christian Trinity: Sat, “the Real, the True,” is the transcendental Absolute, the “Father;” Tat, “That” is the immanent Conscious in all things, the “Son,” that possesses attributes and can therefore be spoken about and indicated (as “That”); Om is the Cosmic Vibration, the “Holy Spirit,” which is all things within which the Son dwells as the Knower and Controller.
Om is the object; Tat is the subject; and Sat is the substratum of existence and consciousness by and in which the first two exist or consist.
Om is the substance and action of sacrifice; Tat is intelligence and knowledge (Veda); and Sat is the illumined consciousness of the knowers of Brahman–for It IS Brahman.
All this is invoked by a thoughtful and intentional invocation of Om Tat Sat. So Krishna continues: “Therefore, sacrifice, charity, righteous deeds and tapasya are begun uttering the syllable ‘Om’ by the seekers of Brahman [Brahmavadinam], as prescribed by the [spiritual or scriptural] precepts. Uttering ‘Tat’ and without aiming at fruits, acts of sacrifice and tapasya and acts of charity of various sorts are performed by those who desire liberation. ‘Sat’ is used in its meaning of Reality and in its meaning of Goodness [or: Rightness]. Also the word Sat is used for an auspicious [or: praiseworthy] act” (17:24-26). This needs no comment.
“Steadfastness in sacrifice, tapasya, and charity is also called Sat. And action relating to these is likewise designated as Sat” (17:27). The highest form of action not only leads to Brahman, it is Brahman in an incomprehensible manner. So those that continually engage in such action are living in Brahman as manifestations of Brahman. This is the supreme level of Karma Yoga.
“An oblation offered or tapasya practiced without faith is called Asat, and is nothing in the hereafter or here in the world” (17:28). Such an act is not condemned or fulminated against with declarations that God despises or even hates it. Not at all: it simply does not exist in the world of the Real. And whatever our apparent status, that is the world (loka) in which the real part of us, the Self, ever exists.
Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Sannyasa and Tyaga
Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:
- The Battlefield of the Mind
- On the Field of Dharma
- Taking Stock
- The Smile of Krishna
- Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
- Experiencing the Unreal
- The Unreal and the Real
- The Body and the Spirit
- Know the Atman!
- Practical Self-Knowledge
- Perspective on Birth and Death
- The Wonder of the Atman
- The Indestructible Self
- “Happy the Warrior”
- Buddhi Yoga
- Religiosity Versus Religion
- Perspective on Scriptures
- How Not To Act
- How To Act
- Right Perspective
- Wisdom About the Wise
- Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
- The Way of Peace
- Calming the Storm
- First Steps in Karma Yoga
- From the Beginning to the End
- The Real “Doers”
- Our Spiritual Marching Orders
- Freedom From Karma
- In the Grip of the Monster
- Devotee and Friend
- The Eternal Being
- The Path
- Caste and Karma
- Action–Divine and Human
- The Mystery of Action and Inaction
- The Wise in Action
- Sacrificial Offerings
- The Worship of Brahman
- Action–Renounced and Performed
- Freedom (Moksha)
- The Brahman-Knower
- The Goal of Karma Yoga
- Getting There
- The Yogi’s Retreat
- The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
- Union With Brahman
- The Yogi’s Future
- Success in Yoga
- The Net and Its Weaver
- Those Who Seek God
- Those Who Worship God and the Gods
- The Veil in the Mind
- The Big Picture
- The Sure Way To Realize God
- Day, Night, and the Two Paths
- The Supreme Knowledge
- Universal Being
- Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
- Worshipping the One
- Going To God
- Wisdom and Knowing
- Going To The Source
- From Hearing To Seeing
- The Wisdom of Devotion
- Right Conduct
- The Field and Its Knower
- Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
- Seeing the One Within the All
- The Three Gunas
- The Cosmic Tree
- The All-pervading Reality
- The Divine and the Demonic
- Faith and the Three Gunas
- Food and the Three Gunas
- Religion and the Three Gunas
- Tapasya and the Three Gunas
- Charity and the Three Gunas
- Sannyasa and Tyaga
- Deeper Insights On Action
- Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
- The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
- The Three Kinds of Happiness
- The Great Devotee
- The Final Words
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