The Christian tradition in the West knows the difference between charity and philanthropy, and thinkers in the East would benefit from using this distinction, too.
The Hindu thinker Abbakka Prerana set out to criticize Western charity over at Intellectual Kshatriya, a Hindu apologetics site. Prerana laments various trends, from corporations using children to sell their products under the guise of charity to the vanity of using donations for fame, recognition, and self-aggrandizement. Prerana criticizes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its wicked manipulation of the poor, and goes after those who turn giving into a form of entertainment. The piece concludes, “Daan is definitely NOT CHARITY. We need to stay as far away from Charity as possible, if we have to have any hope of reviving Sanatana Dharma.” In other words, charity—a “western” trend—is antithetical to any effort to revive the practice of those moral and religious duties incumbent upon all Hindus.
The author’s intention, presumably, is to draw a contrast between Daana—the Sanskrit concept of charitable giving—and much of what passes for charity in popular culture. Unfortunately, in doing so, Prerana demonstrates the peril of looking at a tradition from the outside, without any knowledge and without any sympathy. Many of the tendencies that Prerana criticizes have nothing at all to do with charity, but with philanthropy, the progressive era’s transformation of a Christian virtue into a form of social engineering. Christian charity aims to love a person in need, leaving the outcomes and results in God’s hands. Philanthropy sets its sight on reform rather than persons, and so exhibits exactly the characteristics lamented by Prerana: manipulation, coercion, self-adulation, and mass mobilization for the sake of achieving dubious ends.
The website Intellectual Kshatriya was brought into being by Rajiv Malhotra, a Princeton resident who has made a name for himself on the internet as a champion of diaspora Hindu nationalists. Throughout his books and in his digital content, he looks at the West as a monolithic continuum of evil and error, even as he criticizes the “synthetic” and compound nature of Western culture.
It is therefore no surprise to see among his pupils the mistake of criticizing philanthropy under the name of charity. The author ignores the difference between the West understood as Athens and Jerusalem, and the West understood as Brussels and Silicon Valley. This error is illustrated well in the photos featured in the article. Though Prerana never engages once with Christian sources on charity, the page features a photo of Thomas Storck’s book on Catholic Social Teaching, An Economics of Justice & Charity. What exactly this book has to do with the “charity” criticized by Prerana is unclear.
A BETTER CONTRAST
This is too bad. The forces tearing traditional Indian culture apart today cannot be understood if we apply an East versus West lens. We ought instead to apply a lens of culture versus anti-culture. India today is torn between liberal, communist, and nationalist camps. In other words, its major political forces are all children of the European Enlightenment, a tradition of thought that set itself against traditional thought. What began historically as a campaign against the influence of Christianity upon society, has transformed today into a global campaign against traditional culture more broadly. India’s prospects for spiritual renewal are doubtful, then, as long as the main visions for its national life remain heirs of that anti-culture birthed against tradition. As has become increasingly evident, even when firmly in political power, Hindu nationalists cannot achieve Indian swaraj, or self-rule, that advances national identity. On the contrary, following liberal models, initiatives like Make In India serve foreign interests and weaken traditional social structures.
Over the centuries the Church has learned a thing or two about keeping alive ancient wisdom in the midst of disintegrating modern forces. It is well attuned to the folly of Enlightenment ideologies as ersatz cultures. India, then, would benefit from the Church’s insights on navigating the tension between culture and anti-culture, or learning from its experience of preserving spiritual values in the face of Enlightenment trends.
To Prerana’s point, then, must Hindus really “stay as far away from Charity as possible” for the sake of reviving Sanatana Dharma? Hindu nationalists loathe conversion to Christianity, and so it is in a sense convenient for them to lump the Christian tradition together with the secular West of recent centuries.
But a more charitable understanding of the West, and of Christian charity, is necessary if Hindu nationalists wish to see clearly the source of India’s challenges. The problem is not a monolithic West, but an Enlightenment ideology which came into being in the West against Christian tradition. Today, that ideology is a global phenomenon faced as much by the Church as by Hindus as by traditional Confucians. A wholesale rejection of the West will only continue to cloud the true nature of the problem, which is the Hindu nationalist embrace of that very same anti-cultural ideology.