“Athaazha Pazhnikaarundo (Is there anyone left without supper)?” This was the question that every feudal landlord in Kerala used to ask before closing their main gates every night. “Giving back is deeply ingrained in the fabric of Indian culture,” says Ananthanarayanan Achuthan, a Malayalam teacher from Thiruvananthapuram, who researches Kerala history. 

For India, philanthropy is not a new phenomenon. The culture of philanthropy is as old as India itself, which has a history spanning thousands of years. ‘One who enjoys abundance without sharing with others is indeed a thief’ says the Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse Hindu scripture that is part of the Mahabharata. Dāna / daana is a Sanskrit and Pali word that connotes the virtue of generosity, charity or giving of alms in Indian philosophies. 

In Hinduism, several forms of daan have been listed extensively, tailored to suit the needs of the donor. While daan comprises donation of material or wealth, utsarg involved community development work such as planting of trees, digging of ponds and wells, setting up of rest houses, schools etc. 

In Islam the concepts of sadaqa, zakat and khums have been prescribed by the Quran. The concept of giving back to the community is also prescribed in Sikhism in the form of langar and sewa; and daswandh (a tenth part), which is very similar to the tithe among Christians. In Buddhism, daan paramita is described as the first step to becoming a Buddha (the enlightened one). Similarly, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and Baha’i too have prescribed ways of giving back to the society. 

“It’s not just individuals, but also the business community which has been contributing to social and economic development from times dating back to the 19th century”, says Vidya Shah, chief executive officer at EdelGive Foundation, a unit of Edelweiss Group. The first known Indian endowment, the JN Tata Endowment Scheme, was founded in 1892 and remains the foundation for the Tata Group’s philanthropic activities. Jamsetji Tata was considered on a par with the UK’s Joseph Rowntree and Scottish American industrialist Andrew Carnegie in pioneering the concept of building wealth for public good. 

Giving is a superpower that we are all blessed with. The prerequisite is simple – one just needs to be a human and more importantly humane. But the important factor that must be considered is that your contribution needs to be strategic. Does it strengthen the economy? Can it play a role in eradicating poverty and creating an equitable, healthy and inclusive society for all? 

The act of kindness must check at least some of the boxes, if not all. In a book titled Daan and Other Giving Traditions – India’s Forgotten Pot of Gold, author Sanjay Agarwal, painstakingly chronicles 5,000 forms of daan recorded in the Indian subcontinent, prescribed by various religious scriptures.

The book traces giving in India back to 1 AD, when India’s share of the world GDP was a whopping 32% according to British economist Angus Maddison. The subcontinent’s wealth shone like the Kohinoor. The GDP gradually came down to 24% in 1700 AD and then kept declining rapidly. Throughout these centuries, while the rajah, maharajahs and sultans tried to outdo each other when it came to gestures of magnanimity, ordinary people too, (merchants, courtesans and ordinary populace) participated in acts of charity. 

Interestingly, it has been noticed that rural populations find more ways of helping strangers and engaging in community development work. Much of our rural community infrastructure is built on the basis of people donating their time and labour along with money. In recent times, this practice, called shramdaan, has been effectively used to address many development challenges – be it improving watersheds to protect the environment, reviving water bodies to ensure water security or even constructing approach roads, and so on. 

The recent World Giving Index, which measured giving trends across the world over the past decade, placed India at the 82nd rank out of 128 countries. The average figures for India over the past decade show that 34% of people have helped a stranger, 24% have donated money and 19% have volunteered or donated time. However, observers note that much of the informal giving that takes place in India is not necessarily captured in the survey questions. (Even after donating, under section 80 G of the Indian IT Act, people often do not claim the certificate that ensures a 50% tax benefit.) 

To understand the real scale of philanthropy in the country, these informal acts of charity must be encouraged, recognised and documented. The central and the state governments must create an enabling atmosphere, where people are encouraged to be more charitable and helpful. 

Today, according to the new Companies Law, corporations need to spend 2% of their last three years’ average profits on CSR activities. If we, as individuals and companies start to look at philanthropy the way our forefathers did, philanthropy in India has the potential to soar in the next decade according to The November 2012 India Giving Report by Charities Aid Foundation (CAF). With more than half a billion people giving for religious and charitable reasons each year, India can become a global philanthropic powerhouse.