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Charity and the Three Gunas

Part 81 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

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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.

Sattwic Dana

That gift which is given with the thought: “It is to be given,” to a worthy person, one who has done no prior favor to the giver, in a proper place at a proper time: that gift is considered 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 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. It 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 so many are not willing to provide. They want it all done by agencies to which they contribute.

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 is 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!

Rajasic dana

But that gift which is given with the aim of recompense, or with regard to the giving’s fruit, or is given reluctantly, 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.

Tamasic dana

The gift which is given at the wrong place or time, to unworthy persons, without respect or with disdain, 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 or Mother. 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.

Something greater

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 is known as the triple designation of Brahman. By this were created of old the Brahmanas, Vedas, and Sacrifice (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 Consciousness 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 itself Brahman.

All this is implied by a thoughtful and intentional invocation of “Om Tat Sat.” So Krishna continues:

Therefore the acts of sacrifice, gift and tapasya prescribed by the scriptures are always begun uttering “Om” by the Brahmavadins (those who walk the path to Brahman). Uttering “Tat” without interest in fruits, acts of sacrifice, tapasya and the various acts of gift are performed by the seekers of liberation. “Sat” is used in its meaning of Reality and Goodness; so also the word “Sat” is used in the sense of an auspicious act (17:24-26).

This needs no comment.

Steadfastness in sacrifice, tapasya and gift is called “Sat.” And action in connection with these is 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.

Whatever is sacrificed, given or done, and whatever tapasya is practiced without faith, is called “Asat” [Unreal]. It is naught here or hereafter (after death) (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

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Introduction to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Preface to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:

  1. The Battlefield of the Mind
  2. On the Field of Dharma
  3. Taking Stock
  4. The Smile of Krishna
  5. Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
  6. Experiencing the Unreal
  7. The Unreal and the Real
  8. The Body and the Spirit
  9. Know the Atman!
  10. Practical Self-Knowledge
  11. Perspective on Birth and Death
  12. The Wonder of the Atman
  13. The Indestructible Self
  14. “Happy the Warrior”
  15. Buddhi Yoga
  16. Religiosity Versus Religion
  17. Perspective on Scriptures
  18. How Not To Act
  19. How To Act
  20. Right Perspective
  21. Wisdom About the Wise
  22. Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
  23. The Way of Peace
  24. Calming the Storm
  25. First Steps in Karma Yoga
  26. From the Beginning to the End
  27. The Real “Doers”
  28. Our Spiritual Marching Orders
  29. Freedom From Karma
  30. “Nature”
  31. Swadharma
  32. In the Grip of the Monster
  33. Devotee and Friend
  34. The Eternal Being
  35. The Path
  36. Caste and Karma
  37. Action–Divine and Human
  38. The Mystery of Action and Inaction
  39. The Wise in Action
  40. Sacrificial Offerings
  41. The Worship of Brahman
  42. Action–Renounced and Performed
  43. Freedom (Moksha)
  44. The Brahman-Knower
  45. The Goal of Karma Yoga
  46. Getting There
  47. The Yogi’s Retreat
  48. The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
  49. Union With Brahman
  50. The Yogi’s Future
  51. Success in Yoga
  52. The Net and Its Weaver
  53. Those Who Seek God
  54. Those Who Worship God and the Gods
  55. The Veil in the Mind
  56. The Big Picture
  57. The Sure Way To Realize God
  58. Day, Night, and the Two Paths
  59. The Supreme Knowledge
  60. Universal Being
  61. Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
  62. Worshipping the One
  63. Going To God
  64. Wisdom and Knowing
  65. Going To The Source
  66. From Hearing To Seeing
  67. The Wisdom of Devotion
  68. Right Conduct
  69. The Field and Its Knower
  70. Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
  71. Seeing the One Within the All
  72. The Three Gunas
  73. The Cosmic Tree
  74. Freedom
  75. The All-pervading Reality
  76. The Divine and the Demonic
  77. Faith and the Three Gunas
  78. Food and the Three Gunas
  79. Religion and the Three Gunas
  80. Tapasya and the Three Gunas
  81. Charity and the Three Gunas
  82. Sannyasa and Tyaga
  83. Deeper Insights On Action
  84. Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
  85. The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
  86. The Three Kinds of Happiness
  87. Freedom
  88. The Great Devotee
  89. The Final Words
  90. Glossary

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Read the Maharshi Gita, an arrangement of verses of the Bhagavad Gita made by Sri Ramana Maharshi that gives an overview of the essential message of the Gita.

Read The Bhagavad Gita (arranged in verses for singing) by Swami Nirmalananda Giri (Abbot George Burke).

Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary

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