On India, poverty and religion

On my second day in India, I almost teared up in the back of a tuk-tuk that was driving me past households of cardboard and rags. I was slightly surprised by and appreciative of my own sensitivity: it was not the first time I was confronted with poverty, so I was no stranger to the view of dirty faces over asking hand palms, nor was I unpracticed in looking away.

Often clumsily paralyzed in the face of so much misery, it eases the conscience to justify your passivity by reminding yourself that for every coin or candy one person will multiply by ten and form an instant fanbase that will follow every step you take. Stories of bad guys forcing children to beg and confiscating what they collect are always received with appropriate disgust, but also thankfully welcomed, because it excuses one from difficult ethical questions that seem to well up from full stomachs and wallets.

Beggars scratch the shiny layer of our self-image as a good person. They give you a flimsy hint of what it is like to have sorrows as they force you to choose between helping or feeling bad about yourself, because you do realize that it is disgustingly selfish indeed not to spare a minuscule piece of your comparatively vast wealth. Hands are raised a little higher for white faces. Which stereotype do you not want to confirm, the one of the affluent, the egocentric or the condescending white?

The feeling of guilt is something most European and American travelers in India know all too well: Christian sin and colonial history made it the West’s default setting, catalyzed by Edward Said’s Orientalism. The self-proclaimed Antichrist, Friedrich Nietzsche, calls Christianity the religion of pity (Mitleiden); according to him one of the most destructive human emotions: a glorification of weakness and thereby hostile to life. Jesus, himself a poor man, said that God has a special love and regard for those living in poverty1 – diverging from the idea (embraced in the Jewish tradition2) that it is the wealthy who are blessed by God.

The Church has in European societies long stood at the forefront of taking care of the poor, accompanied by public and private institutions, however to a greater extent in the north than in the more family-oriented Mediterranean. Beggars, who depend on almsgivers in the street, are today, in my experience, relatively well off even farther south. Islam is traditionally less institutionalized than Christianity and individual charity is thus more important: Muslims have the religious obligation to give a percentage of their income to the poor, called the zakat.3 Rather than by institutions, Islam regulates emotions of love and compassion through law.4 In Islam, prayers are made with unfolded hands; as a symbol, the open hand palm stands throughout the Middle East for protection; as a gesture in the street, it receives that.5

Hinduism, the religious orientation (in one way or another) of about 80% of India’s population, is a different case still. It is closely associated with the caste system, which holds that one’s social position in society is a consequence of acts in previous lives – karma – and is thus justly merited instead of based on arbitrary luck. This involves the idea that improvement of status can only happen through upgrade in a next incarnation, which can be achieved by living virtuously according to the duties associated with one’s caste, occupation, age and gender (sva-dharma). Caste is not primarily a monetary indicator: it does not necessarily overlap with economic class. Yet, this religious framework shapes the twofold attitude towards poverty: Hindus may believe that the unfortunate are themselves responsible for being in that situation, but charity-giving (dana) is very important as it builds up one’s own good karma.

The fact that the caste system is based on a meritocratic principle with criteria that are meaningless to a non-Hindu (i.e. deeds in a past life), leads to an interesting observation. It shows the negative side of the positively-connoted word ‘meritocracy’ as we know it from other contexts (such as the American Dream): as everyone gets what they deserve, not only the winners but also the losers are perceived to have rightly earned their current situation. But if we don’t believe in previous lives, it is impossible to deny that it is mere chance that determines your starting position in society, which of course greatly influences your opportunities for success.

In Islam and Christianity, the ‘why’ of poverty is not as clear as in Hinduism. Why do some have to undergo the test of poverty and some don’t? No one is predestined to be poor, but everything is in the power of God after all. It is a problem many a theodicy has sought to find an answer to: why does God permit so much suffering? Regardless of these questions, we do see that these three religions aim to alleviate poverty and do so by formulating giving to the poor as a win-win situation: sharing your wealth also has promised benefits for yourself. Giving brings you closer to a spiritual goal.

Young Western travelers on what typically should be their coming of age trip through India have often no such a religion to turn to for moral explanation in a postmodern world. (Except of course for the enviable kind of India-traveler who is upon arrival endowed with spiritual truth through yoga and colorful baggy clothes.) All we are left with are ideals of equality and human dignity and a pair of idealist glasses which the experience of life has not yet stripped of its rosy color. To such virgin hearts, India poses harsh questions of global injustice.

Studying in New Delhi robbed the concept of a ‘poor student’ of the meaning it had to me. When I leave the university campus, I see people without shoes laboring for meager amounts of money to get through another day. When I leave the campus on another side, it is for the air-conditioning and wifi of a shopping mall more fancy than the ones I know from Europe. I can allow myself this luxury, although on The Other Side I could eat multiple days for the price of one Starbucks visit. The next day, I find myself bargaining with a tuk-tuk driver again to save the equivalent of €0,14.

The different realities one can enter in New Delhi make it a city of many cities. As any guide book will tell you, this also applies historically. New Delhi is known as the eighth city: at the same place, seven have been built and destroyed before the British constructed the ‘New’ one. Again and again the city reincarnated from its ashes, like the Hindu cycle of death and rebirth. Given the scope of poverty in India, which makes it a problem unlikely to be eradicated soon, this is the main hope of many of the city’s unfortunate: a next life.

The question arises: does the idea that it won’t make a difference exempt you from considering the possibility you have to do at least something? My personal policy has been to give away food if I can. I take my leftover curry (too spicy) in a doggy bag and buy some more apples than I’ll eat. The act of giving does come with a manual, entitled The Anonymous Philanthropist: one best directly walks away because further requests will inevitably follow the one banana, while others in equal need appear from unexpected corners. It might make you feel like the king who doesn’t want to be recognized during his periodical benevolent mingling with his subjects, still every time bewildered by and insufficiently prepared for what is usually invisible.

Christianity, Islam and Hinduism all teach that it is a virtue to renounce material riches. But if life is a test in which you have to demonstrate to be a morally good person, as these religions hold, wealth is probably a greater challenge than poverty. Not only is it difficult to give away what you have, it also puts you in a position of power in which ethical questions become a lot more difficult. As a visitor of India, one is inevitably faced with such challenges. And however we decide to act upon them, more than changing anyone’s life, it changes our own. Reflecting on my almost-tears, I know that they sprang only partly from sadness: it was also happiness that I was not in their situation. The confrontation with poverty should, of course, be at least this: a lesson in gratefulness.


From January until May 2017 I studied at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Click here to read an interesting background article about Christian asceticism.
  2. For more about Jewish views on wealth and poverty, please refer to this Wikipedia entry.
  3. Zakat was originally also collected and distributed by the state, but today it is largely an act of individual piety. Additional voluntary charity is known as sadaqa.
  4. This illustrates that in Islam the political and the spiritual are more integrated than in Christianity; the concept of the separation between state and Church is problematic in the former. For more on love and compassion in the Abrahamic religions, I recommend the article by Oliver Leaman in this journal (pdf).
  5. A similar difference in institutionalization has been observed in the Indian context. Christian missionaries have been systematically engaged in helping and educating the lower segments of society, including those who had not (yet) converted to Christianity. Muslims, who form some 14% of India’s population and have the highest poverty rate across all religions, have been criticized for not having “a social service tradition with a sense of social interaction before someone embraces Islam.” This quote is from Indian political scientist Kancha Ilaiah, who formulates this as a failure to ally with other minorities, who generally have closer ties with Christians.


2 thoughts on “On India, poverty and religion”

  • Lovely article :)

    And I believe thats the right thing to do, instead of money giving food to beggars is, in my humble opinion, the best kind of charity, it does not allow one to be superior in modern terms but at the same time ties the human bond together.

    I myself only give food to the beggars on the street as I feel this is of more value to them than the money, which the pessimist in me has come to find to be a commodity that enables indulgence of an ugly nature. If I see a family or a mother and child I ensure that I buy enough food for all of them.

    This reminds of two incidents: One involving a student at my university and the other involving me.

    1. There was some construction work under process at my university and a few daily wage labourers had come for the work. Some of them were parents. There were these 2 children, a brother and sister perhaps 7 years old who were staring at all the people at the cafeteria and they were looking longingly inside. A student of the university saw this, he picked them up in his arms and then took them inside. He made them sit on the counter (way too high for them to reach by themselves) inside and asked what they’d like to eat, they were perhaps hungry for samosas which is what I saw him buying for them along with some juice and glasses of milk. Now the sweetest thing happened after, the little boy saw that his sister perhaps dropped some of her food or was probably feeling hungrier than he was so the boy broke half of his samosa and put it in her plate. Which she happily accepted and they both ate happily.
    This just makes you wonder the true generosity of people, its not the rich that are generous but the poor. Perhaps its because they know the pain of being in such a situation much better than a person who has never had to face it themselves. The generosity of rich people is more surface oriented, it makes them feel better so they do it. But a poor individual who is generous is so because they really cant see someone suffer as they did.

    2. My story took place in Nehru Place market. As I was walking along the busy pathway to a shop I saw a mother feeding her child some Kachori (Deep Fried Stuffed Wheat Patty) and a curry made of potatoes. She herself, however, chose to go hungry as her childs well being was more important for her. This really hurt me, I bought her a plate of the same and got them enough to last them the day and the next.
    So it is a very sad affair to see such a bipolar society, where computer parts worth lakhs are being sold mere meters away from a starving family.

    However I would like to address the issue of the beggars as the case, while seeming black and white, is not so black and white at all. There are many beggars who have taking to begging despite there being an abundance of jobs created by the govt for them. I have asked many beggars why they beg when they seem perfectly healthy to take up said jobs, many say that they do not want to work for anyone while others say they earn more through begging than through those jobs. The situation of the Child Beggar mafia is also an issue that needs to be dealt with, many children are kidnapped by these gangs and forced into begging, and existing corruption just adds fuel to the fire.
    The problem now arises that due these unscrupulous activities the lines between beggars who are actually begging as they are forced by fate into it and those who do it out of sheer choice begins to blur. The result of which is that those who truly are suffering end up suffering even more. Eg. There are beggars outside hospitals who dont have money for medicines, but then there are beggars who fake their situation of health to extract money (simple way of differentiating the two, offer to buy the medicines for them, the ones who are faking will refuse your help), another example is that there are beggars if you hand them some money they will refuse and ask you to give more.
    A strong system of checking the reasons for beggars needs to be put into place, and the villages from where these beggars originate need to be developed so that these people don’t have to wander off to cities far away looking for jobs.

    But no matter how much the country screams and shouts it always manages to fall on deaf ears.

    Its a sad situation which is easily reversible/preventable if only the country and its people had the full unwaivering backing of its government.

    • Thank you for your elaborate reaction! Your wondering about ‘true’ generosity made me wonder whether we can ‘classify’ it. Giving of course always entails making yourself feel better; helping others does that to humans, and additionally our religions are telling us that we will also be rewarded for it in one way or another (based on the knowledge that pure altruism rarely exists). Looking at the nature of the act of giving, I’m considering that the case of ‘rich’ people is that they themselves are not dependent on the people around them and therefore less inclined to help others, whereas poverty necessarily makes you more social. From that perspective, interestingly, the generosity of the rich man is actually more genuine, because he is not expecting anything back. To talk about ‘true generosity’ in terms of how much rather than why: that the rich share (proportionally) less than the poor could be because, as you suggested, they (we!) don’t know the pain of being such a situation – and this of course is one of the reasons that many religions prescribe fasting periods.
      And yes, it’s a sad reality indeed that there are people who beg but actually have the possibility to earn money themselves; at the same time, we can only imagine how bad the alternative must be if people prefer begging – thinking of working conditions and low salaries. Giving food, not money, is also in this situation probably the best thing to do, as you don’t want to stimulate begging becoming a preferable option – and I agree that will only work if it coincides with government efforts.

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