[* This is a portion of the lecture delivered by Mr. T. S. Somasundaram Pillai on the 18th of November at the Literary Union, Chulai. The question of misguided charity is all important as the remedying of which will surely and decidedly increase the material progress and also raise the moral standard of our people. Saint Avvai's aphorism பாத்திரமறிந்து பிச்சையிடு should be borne in mind by everyone when giving alms or doing an act of charity. – Ed. S.D.]
There is one more important reform to which I would like to draw your particular and immediate attention. Of course it may seem mischievous at the first sight but you will bear with me that the evil if unchecked will drain up our resources and leave us destitute as a nation. None need be offended at my exposition of his evil for I am but saying the truth and nothing else.
Of all the virtuous deeds that a man is expected to do during his short existence in this world, charity is the greatest and the most precious. Every religion and every community admit this truth without hesitation, and mankind, as a rule, has the tendency to partake of a thing, however rare it might be, along with those of the same species. Speaking of India as a whole, no feature of Hindu social life has been dwelt on by foreign observers with greater satisfaction than an general desire on the part of people in easy circumstances of life to relieve the distress of their poor relations and friends. Even those who find little to admire in the character of the Hindu and who describe the typical Hindu as a compound of cunning, lying and cowardice pause to commend this redeeming trait; and though such charity cannot be and is not allowed to cover a multitude of sins, it still has some words of praise given to it. Among the educated class, there are men who cling tenaciously to the past and who would listen to no proposal to lay violent hands on the sacred ark of custom. It goes without saying, therefore, that true to their faith this class of people follow the footsteps of our ancestors whose lives were characterized by the noble virtue of charity. It is said, and very plausibly too, that our ancients considered it a grievous sin even to pronounce the word "No" in reply to a request made by anyone, be he a relative, a friend or a stranger. There is also another class of men at the present day who are so utterly immersed in the present that they consider their duty done if they earn money, support their family and subscribe to a few charities. Even here one finds a tendency to help others, the chief object being that the man who earns finds out of his earning some money for such a purpose. These two aforesaid classes of people can be considered to have done that part of the sacred duty which gives them the consolation that they have been helpful to others. Feeding the hungry and clothing the naked are prescribed in the Hindu Sastras as among the best means of attaining salvation, and nearly every book that is largely read by the Hindus of Southern India beginning in the case of Tamil with Attisudi and ending with Kamban's noble epic the Ramayana, abounds with moral precepts laying special stress on the duty of feeding the hungry and of being hospitable to the stranger. One such precept is found in Tiruvalluvar's Kural that he who entertains and gladdens the going guest to those in heaven. No lesson imparted to the Hindu youth sinks deeper into his mind and exerts a more powerful influence in after life than that which sets forth the duty of feeding those that ask for food even before feeding oneself. These are indeed high conceptions of that noble virtue and in their anxiety for being the first in the field in the act of charity people in general entirely lose sight of the evil which necessarily remains latent in every good action. Social reformers, earnest and sincere men working for the eradication of social evils, do condemn this broad conception of charity, but public opinion in this matter, as in every other, ought to be sufficiently educated. If a beggar comes to a house and asks for alms, the owner is loth the send the beggar away even though the beggar may be healthy and able-bodied and fit to work for his livelihood. The feeding of mendicants on Upanayanam and Srardham festivities, the reception to Dasiris and Pandarams by Vaishnavite and Saivite followers in the Tamil months of Purattasi and Karthikai respectively are even today considered ceremonies invested with a religious character and by not doing so, they think that they incur divine displeasure. There are at the same time people – regular families they form if put together – who have chosen to subsist by begging from door to door, and that as a hereditary profession and not as a necessity forced on them by adverse circumstances. This is, of course, not a thing which educated men ought to allow to go on unchecked. It sounds indeed pleasant to be told that unlike other countries where the poor-problem baffles the mind of the wisest statesman who either checks the over-growth of population or finds some inadequate means of help from government at the sacrifice of some better and noble project, we have solved this problem amongst ourselves. But the evil of helping those who will not help themselves is entirely ignored. Benevolence should be guided by judgment and governed by method. Let everyone imbibe the idea that charity is a virtue when it is administered to the really-deserving individuals that it is a curse when not so scrupulously used. Mercy is said to bless him that gives and him that takes, but reckless waste of money on the most unworthy objects is a curse to the giver and a curse to the receiver.