Swami Vivekananda Ideas on Dana or CHARITY

  • By Swami Dhyanagamyananda
  • March 4, 2023
  • Know about the different types of charity, how to donate, Swamiji’s interactions with Rockfeller and application of Swamiji’s views on charity.

The Indian narratives on ethics and values presented in the form of stories of personages with regal bearing such as Karna, Harishchandra, Sibi, Pāri, and of those from among the rank and file like Siruthonda Nāyanār, the poor brahmin family of the Bharata lore-portray exemplary and self-denying acts of generosity.1 Their significance lies in upholding dharma even under extreme and life-threatening conditions. They all have a character trait in common, namely, unselfishness expressed through dāna, charity. Such lofty narratives constantly urge us to re-evaluate our petty preferences in life. They elevate our goals and ideals from being merely sense-driven, comfort-seeking, and pleasure-loving to those which manifest unselfishness, universal love, and perfection.


From these inspiring historical encounters, as we approach the present times, we find this idea of charity is disappearing in India; great men are becoming fewer and fewer.2 For instance, Swamiji, once during his wandering days, found himself unattended even after three days of counselling on the go. Not one among the so-called religious and affluent in the audience inquired of his self-upkeep, knowing well of his vows of poverty. But, an outcast among the observers mustered courage and came forward with a plea to serve him a few morsels.


Sooner we realise that ‘every act of charity, every thought of sympathy, every action of help, every good deed, is taking so much of self-importance away from our little selves’ than we start to become truly religious-‘making us think of ourselves as the lowest and the least’. Then the paths of Jnâna, Bhakti, and Karma come to one point.3


Swamiji once revealed to his brother disciple, Swami Turiyananda that religion has brought this effect on him that his heart has expanded to feel for others. Swamiji identifies himself as poor, and as one who loves the poor and from this humanistic feeling arose his plan of campaign-to raise and awaken the masses floundering through the murky existence. He chalked out the grand design of reaching out in service to the masses at four levels, namely physical, prāṇic, intellectual, and spiritual, with charity as the central theme. The institution of the holy order of renunciates in the name of Sri Ramakrishna, his Master, was a significant outcome of that plan.


Charity at Four Levels

From the highest philosophical perspective that characterises the state of perfection and encompasses the supreme spiritual truth of oneness in existence, there is nothing whatsoever that needs to be done; but if that height of spiritual experience is not possible, then one must engage in doing good to others, knowing fully well that the world has God to govern it, and He has not left it to our charity.4


Swamiji classifies charity into four levels.


The philanthropic initiatives in which the hungry are fed, the sick are treated, and the bare are robed are all different forms of charity at the physical level.


Saving a man’s life comes next. However, the gifted ones shall feel desperate once the gift wears away as the physical gifts do not sustain life for long. So empowerment is the key. Empowerment of the needy for a sustained lifestyle cannot be achieved with only charity at the physical level. Giving education, imparting knowledge, and enabling skills bring about empowerment. This is the charity at the intellectual level. It enables one to take care of the physical, intellectual, and emotional needs, to play respectable roles in social, professional, and communal interactions, and contribute to the prosperity and health of the individual as well as the collective. Knowledge is power,5 while ignorance is the mother of all evils and miseries,6 and it is education that serves as the panacea for all evils.


The needs being taken care of, why is it that the so-called educated man nevertheless continues to be miserable? His yearning after something has become habitual suffering. He is helplessly stuck in the Sisyphean hell, hoping against hope in the vain attempt to fill the seventh jar of gold. The one that plays this spoilsport in man is his mass of unfulfilled desires buried in the depths of his consciousness. If his desires can be removed forever, it is surely the greatest help that can be given to him. Spiritual knowledge is the only thing that can destroy our miseries forever; it annihilates the propensity of being waylaid by the vanishing vanities of life. No other knowledge can achieve this. The gift of spirituality and spiritual knowledge is the highest, for it saves from many and many a birth. 6, 7


But can such a gift be obtained for a mere asking? It is not through books, brainstorming discussions, or eloquent speeches that religion, which is the highest knowledge and the highest wisdom, can be obtained. The heart of the receiver being ‘ready’ and giver, the teacher—the gigantic among men—‘coming’ marks the defining moment for enkindling the process of religious inculcation.8 Because the teacher could bring about this metamorphosis in the student, it makes the teacher first among honourables, and his gift grandiose.


The Concept of Dana

The essential aspect in the physical act of charity as it is commonly practised is ‘giving freely to the needy’. This connotation has come to stay in common parlance, which is also the literal meaning of the Sanskrit word dāna, and yet dāna is not limited to it, because there is more to dāna than mere giving. ‘Charity is great, but the moment you say it is all, you run the risk of running into materialism. It is not religion. It is no better than atheism—a little less.’9


This justifies why in Indian thought the concept of dāna has evolved in the backdrop of the nation’s religious-spiritual-philosophical traditions, making dāna one of the efficacious practices for the individual’s striving towards the attainment of the highest goal in life. ‘You will be free in a moment if you starve yourself to death by giving to another. Immediately you will be perfect, you will become God.’10


Bhartrihari records in Nīti-śatakam that wealth hoarded gets destroyed. It is rather better to distribute. The unsaid message here is that charity is in fact mandated. ‘First, we have to bear in mind that we are all debtors to the world and the world does not owe us anything.’11


Dharma Shastras, the canon for ethics, remind us that man is born with five kinds of debts namely debt to the gods (devas), to the sages (ṛṣis), to the ancestors (pitṛ), to the elements (bhūtas), and to the beings (nṛ-man, animals, insects, plants). A human being’s salvation is coterminous with his or her debts getting settled. Therefore, ‘the hand was made to give always’.12


‘There is no higher virtue than charity.’13 Dāna is at the apex of the pyramid of Sanatana Dharma, Indian eternal value system. In fact, yajña-dāna-tapaḥ (sacrifice, charity, austerity) are the chief tenets of karma yoga (path to beatitude through action), which are purifiers of the human mind. They cleanse the dross of worldliness buried in the heart of the human soul, and therefore the religious person should never give up the three-fold practices, mandates the Bhagavadgita.14


Charity—An Antidote to Social Evils

Civilisation is arguably the greatest blessing and yet a natural phenomenon to have happened to humans that does distinguish them from their beastly predecessors. The goodness that civilisation promises to deliver is sharing of power, wealth, knowledge, opportunity, skill, privilege, and in short—sharing of any resource that is essential, worth garnering and coveting. The promises of making available the essential resources to one and all can all be kept only when there is a proper scheme of sharing in place. As the resources are covetable by nature, though plenty, they dwindle to a paucity when entrusted in the hands of the few influential persons holding public offices. The misuse of public office for private gain is a viral outgrowth of civilisation. This is corruption. It thwarts civilisation from delivering its promises. Even worse, it widens the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. On the very basis of those wishful promises, the human population gets stratified, and the lowest in the strata are termed weak, poor, stupid, dull, destitute, and deprived. Thus, ‘poverty there must be, so long as the disease known as civilisation existed’.15


Given the irreversible circumstances, working out a remedy to salvage from the onslaught of corruption is more pragmatic than playing the blame game. As corruption and poverty are both evils stemming from their parent called civilisation, can the lessons learnt to quell one, be applied to the other? For instance, the remedial steps taken to check corruption can be either top-down, bottom-up, or through a collective action approach. The efficacy of these approaches has been much contrasted and debated.16


Can we learn from this debate to address the germane issue of alleviating poverty? It is true that the legalised top-down approach may be justified for poverty mitigation, to make provision for better social infrastructure. But does this address all the issues? To salvage their lives from the thraldom of penury and deprivation, should the poor have to wait till a parliament bill on relief measures is introduced, legislation of the measures passed, reform plans chalked out, grants and funds allotted, schemes charted and implemented? Can the poor hang on till then? With a support system not helping them with a survival strategy, their instinct to survive will only drive them towards evil. It is also pertinent to note that many of the citizens of the highest class, the brahmins of the older times, were in abject poverty partly self-imposed by their orthodox practices. Their lives were sustained because of the generous charity of the people at large. Swamiji rightly observes while speaking of the indiscriminate charity of India as compared with the legal charity of other nations: ‘The outcome of their system of relief was that the vagabond of India was contented to receive readily what he was given readily and lived a peaceful and contented life: while the vagabond in the West, unwilling to go to the poor-house—for man loves liberty more than food—turned a robber, the enemy of society, and necessitated the organisation of a system of magistracy, police, jails, and other establishments.’17

School RKM Agartala, Tripura. 

The Right and Wrong Practice of Charity

It is often elusive to grasp the greatness in simplicity. This goes with charity also. Charity is mistaken to be easily understood, and that theorising is much ado, far more to preach and discuss over it. Further to this misunderstanding, the simplicity in the notion of charity trivialises even the practice to a mere act of giving and prosocial behaviour. Going by that standard, the person with plenty, sharing his bounty with the needy is called variously a philanthropist, a redeemer, a good Samaritan, a saviour as the occasion suits. In such an event, the giver feels big, strong, and privileged, while little do we realise that the receiver at the same time feels small, weak, and obligated. Is that what charity is all about, and more so is this how charity is to be practised? How different is it from the mighty treading over the meek—psychically and not physically?


In this connection, the famous incident that happened in the life of Swamiji is a fitting account, worth recalling. Swamiji was then staying in Chicago hosted by a business ally of JD Rockefeller, a budding and successful entrepreneur who had heard Swamiji being talked about highly by his friends. JD resisted or rather practically ignored all the invitations to meet Swamiji. But on a fateful day, propelled by instinct, JD ventured and presented himself before Swamiji who was then engrossed at his work desk. The business magnate must have been surprised at the intense preoccupation of Swamiji to the extent that the latter had even failed to notice his arrival.


After a while, Swamiji told Rockefeller much of his past that was not known to any but himself, and made him understand that the money he had already accumulated was not his, that he was only a channel and that his duty was to do good to the world-that God had given him all his wealth in order that he might have an opportunity to help and do good to people.


Rockefeller was annoyed that anyone dared to talk to him that way and tell him what to do. He left the room in irritation, not even saying goodbye. But about a week after, again without being announced, he entered Swamiji’s study and, finding him the same as before, threw on his desk a paper which told of his plans to donate an enormous sum of money towards the financing of a public institution. 


‘Well, there you are’, he said. ‘You must be satisfied now, and you can thank me for it.’ Swamiji didn’t even lift his eyes, did not move. Then taking the paper, he quietly read it, saying: ‘It is for you to thank me.’18


Practice is what we do, and method is how it ought to be done. A practice that lacks method loses sight of the purpose and objective, and more often than not wreaks undesirable evils and outcomes that are counter-objective. That’s when even the most efficacious formula of charity, increases the misery of the world, not eradicating it. One looks for name and fame, and covers his efforts to obtain them with the enamel of charity and good works. One is working for oneself under the pretext of working for others. ‘Every so-called charity is an encouragement of the very evil it claims to operate against.’19


It is often not out of a sense of duty or responsibility that the giver entertains charity, but out of either fear of public opinion, or self-guilt, or personal gain, or in rare cases sleight or as in most misadventures, the sense of ‘I’ masquerading as frothy pity. All of these demeans the receiver. ‘In reality all pity is darkness, because whom to pity? Can you pity God?’20 The giver may defend that it is all truly compassion inside. But, it is given only to Ishwara, the creator God, to be compassionate with His creation, and therefore, one should strive to serve the people in need.


To be charitable doesn’t give the more fortunate the license to rob the pride and dignity of the lesser ones. On the other hand, the poor man suffers so that we may be helped; ‘let the giver kneel down and give thanks, let the receiver stand up and permit’. The right way in performing charity is to see the Lord at the back of every being and give to Him.21


‘The poor man is there, so that by making a gift to him, you are able to help yourself. It is not the receiver that is blessed, but it is the giver. Be thankful that you are allowed to exercise your power of benevolence and mercy in the world, and thus become pure and perfect.’22

School run by RKM in Narainpur, Bastar, Chhatisgarh. Pic 2013.

Ramakrishna Mission, the Application Ground of Swamiji's Ideas on Charity

Sri Ramakrishna denouncing compassion (dayā) and instead instructing service (sevā), served as a telescopic eyepiece for Swamiji to reveal the larger picture from which crystallised the motto having universal appeal namely ‘Śiva jñāne jīva sevā’—service to God in human. Swamiji’s vivid dream of all-renouncing youths, whose aspirations forged to the ideal, zeal tempered with courage, desires burnt in the fire of dispassion, lives surrendered to the Master, who are unyielding to the death calls, who shall serve championing the cause of making this motto a reality— resulted in founding the Holy Order in the name of his Master, Sri Ramakrishna in 1897.


At the outbreak of the plague in 1898, threatening to crush humanity in its fierce grapple, Swamiji was even ready to dispense of the property acquired for monks with the resolve that it is only proper to serve the suffering while the monks can stay content even under the shade of a tree. The Plague Manifesto drafted and circulated to ward off public fear mentions: ‘If that grave disease—fearing which both the high and the low, the rich and the poor are all fleeing the city—ever really comes in our midst, then even if we perish while serving and nursing you, we will consider ourselves fortunate because you are all embodiments of God.’23 The reading asserts Swamiji to be the very embodiment of his dream.


Since then, many such debacles have been negotiated by the Ramakrishna Mission not taking credit for its efforts but unconditionally offering every ounce of it at the holy feet of Sri Ramakrishna. Every effort invested by Swamiji has become a faculty of service in the folds of the Mission: secular education at all levels, health, disaster relief, skill training, and rural and tribal upliftment to name a few. Each of these faculties conducted by its full-time members and a battalion of selfless household volunteers has thrown open the door for one and all to approach and get benefited. None of these faculties differentiates their benefactors on any basis known under the sky, bringing into force the idea of indiscriminate charity that Swamiji sided with. The Ramakrishna Mission serves as a platform to amalgamate the likes of those who are implicitly enthusiastic to realise the motto set forth by Swamiji.


Swami Dhyanagamyananda is the Head of the Department of Computer Science, at Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda Educational and Research Institute (RKMVERI, a deemed university), Belur Math.



1. The golden haired mongoose story of a starving poor family sacrificing their alms to an uninvited guest in Mahabharata.

2. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.61.

3. Ibid., 1.84.

4. Ibid., 5.243.

5. Ibid., 1.144.

6. Ibid., 1.57.

7. Ibid., 3.222.

8. Ibid., 3.22 (paraphrased).

9. Ibid., 4.239.

10. Ibid., 4.11.

11. Ibid., 1.80.

12. Ibid., 4.10.

13. Ibid.

14. Gita 18.5.

15. Complete Works, 3.305.

16. See <https://www.idea.int/gsod-2017/files/IDEA-GSOD-2017-RESOURCE-GUIDE-ANTI-CORRUPTION.pdf>.

17. Complete Works, 3.305.

18. Marie Louise Burke, Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries, 6 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1985), 1.487–88.

19. Complete Works, 6.101.

20. Ibid., 7.69.

21. Ibid., 7.68.

22. Ibid., 1.76.

23. Point 2 in the Plague Manifesto drafted by SV.

 This article was first published in the January 2023 issue of Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata. I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. Cost is Rs 200/ for one year and Rs 570/ for three years. To subscribe https://shop.advaitaashrama.org/subscribe/

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