- adrohah sarva-bhuteshu karmana manasa gira
anugrahas cha danam cha satam dharmah sanatanah
Never displaying malice towards any living being through actions, thoughts or words, acts of kindness, and giving in charity; this is the Sanatana Dharma adhered to by righteous persons. (Mahabharata, 3.281.34)
Following on from the absence of malice towards anyone and performing acts of kindness, the third element Savitri offers to Yama in her threefold definition of Sanatana Dharma is danam. This noun is derived from the verb da, meaning to give or bestow, and hence danam will usually be translated as charity or the act of giving something away. So let us accept here that Savitri’s third component of Sanatana Dharma is that one must be generous and bestow gifts on those who are in need of them.
If we reflect on it, we can come to see that there are a number of different dimensions linked to acts of charity and a number of different reasons why it might be given. The Bhagavad–gita considers this same point and is very aware of the motivations that underlie actions of any type. I do not wish to consider the relevant verses from the Gita (17.20-22) in any great detail, but it is, I think, significant to note that the teaching that the proper way in which charity should be given is to a suitable person and with no expectation of reward on the part of the giver. Sometimes charity may be presented with ulterior motives such as to win fame and renown as generous person, or it may be given with feelings of contempt for those in need, but ideally all gifts should be made as an expression of love and compassion for those with whom we share the world. This is the Sanatana Dharma.
Why then might we be moved to take pity on others and to give up our time, property or wealth to assist them in life? The first and most obvious reason would be that we have somehow developed and expanded our consciousness so that we instinctively feel compassion and a desire to help whenever we encounter another person or living being in distress. One might say that this is just being a ‘nice person’, but the reason why danam is included by Savitri in her definition of Sanatana Dharma is that this instinctive awakening of compassion for others is a deeply spiritual quality and is indicative of the development of a state of spiritual awakening.
At times, however, we might not feel this instinctive sense of compassion for all; after all, most of us are not yet fully enlightened. Both directly and through the media we see so many cases of suffering and so many appeals for help that we may feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the enormity of it all, and recognise that our sense of compassion is being eroded. It is at this point that we employ our rational faculties and our understanding of the lessons to be learned from external sources of wisdom: gurus, sadhus, and scriptures. From these and other sources and from our own intellectual reasoning, we come to know that the giving of charity in any form possible is the right thing to do, it is the way of dharma, and so we give in charity even at times when our reservoir of compassion appears exhausted.
It is true that some may be impelled to give through baser motives, perhaps a desire to impress others and gain reputation, but even then the act is righteous and the recipient is relieved of suffering. So motive is not everything and the act of giving is always righteous—that is why Savitri makes it a central pillar of the form of religion, the way of life, that she insists upon.