The word “charity”, by derivation and in old English means love. But in ordinary modern English it means almsgiving, and in this short essay we must confine ourselves to the later and narrower meaning of the word.
Charity in this sense is a virtue extensively practiced and highly esteemed in the East. In India, prior to Independence, it was a common practice for kings and rich men to weigh themselves against gold and silver and to distribute the proceeds among the poor.
This was done by Shivaji, and many others before and after his time. We have in most of our large cities fine monuments of munificent charity in the university buildings, colleges, hospitals, convalescent homes and water-fountains, built wholly or partially at the expense of rich citizens, who chose this practical way of showing their love for their native city.
But it must be remembered that it is net only the rich that have the power of being charitable. The Mahabharata tells us that:
Just Heaven is not so pleased with costly gifts,
Offered in hope of future recompense,
As with the merest trifle set apart,
From honest gains and sanctified by faith,
and that the man “who is not rich but yet can give, will be exalted above the heavens.” Very often the munificent gifts of rich men are made for purposes of ostentation or as a means of gaining favour with Government.
The best charity is that which is done in secret, so that, in the expressive words of the Gospel, the left hand does not know what the right hand does.
It is very necessary to exercise discrimination in the giving of alms. The great object of charity is to relieve misery, and indiscriminate charity, by encouraging the trade of begging, actually adds to the misery of the world.
If it were not for the reckless charity of well meaning men, who think it a duty to give a small alms to every beggar they come across, many who now lead a miserable existence as beggars would take to honest work, and become profitable members of society. As ‘Monier Williams’ Indian Wisdom.
Things are, they prefer to live an idle life of degradation, and some of them, by begging and imposture, make more money than an honest poor man can earn by hard labour. Such being the case, it is no wonder that so many beggars infest the streets of Bombay and other rich cities.
A rich man who is really determined to do good with his money, should either find out for himself what poor men really deserve help, or, if he has not time to do so, he should give his alms through some charitable society, that has officers appointed for the special purpose of distinguishing between the deserving poor and impudent impostors.
There are also some who require to be reminded that charity begins at home, and that they must not deprive themselves of the means of supporting their own family by profuse charity to strangers who have less claims upon them.
These, then, are the two principal limits to observe in the duty of almsgiving. We must recognize the prior obligation of providing for the necessities of our own family, and we must take care lest by ill-judged distribution of alms we encourage beggary and improvidence with its attendant miseries.
Charity would seem to be least exposed to the second danger, when a subscription is made for unfortunate persons suddenly reduced to ruin by an earthquake, or a storm, or any other calamity against which no foresight could have defended them.
For in such cases there is very great distress to be relieved in the present, and there is little fear of the help given leading in the future to ruinous improvidence or extravagance.