Mankind is unique in many ways. Not least is the act of giving to others. In the animal kingdom, we seldom see such sharing, except among crows. But we have witnessed selfless giving on the part of many persons. Sharing must first have begun with a sharing of food, for food is the most fundamental of a man’s needs. In course of time, as man’s needs went beyond mere food and shelter, the act of giving embraced other things too. Tamil literature celebrates the act of giving, Malayaman said in a discourse. Yet we fight shy of sharing our wealth with others, forgetting that such a lack of generosity deprives us of a unique human quality: the desire to give generously.

Although providing food to the hungry is extolled as the foremost among good deeds, meeting the needs of others in other ways too has come in for praise in literature. Providing water to the thirsty, grass for a cow and oil to the poor for bathing are also considered acts worthy of emulation. There is a verse in the Tamil work Siru Panchamoolam, which metaphorises the act of giving. Sweet words are the field in which cultivation takes place, the verse says. Generosity is the seed sown. Cruel words are the weeds that have to be removed. Truthfulness is the manure that fertilises the field. Love is the water that irrigates the field. And what is the crop that comes out of this field? Dharmic deeds are the crops that are harvested in such a field. The Siru Panchamoolam further says he who has the quality of mercy alone is likely to be generous.

Thirukkural says that whenever an opportunity presents itself, we must give to others. For those who are unable to give every day or every month, the Tamil work Achara Kovai has a suggestion. It says at least on five special occasions, they must give to others — during weddings, when we worship our ancestors, when God is worshipped on festival days and when yagas are performed. Yet, despite all this advice, we may still wonder what there is in all this for us. Thiruvalluvar has an answer. He says the act of giving gives great joy to the one who gives. Naladiyar says a man’s possessions are left behind when he dies, but his good deeds accompany him beyond the grave.

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