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Ratna and Suhasini Vira – Why People Give: Interpreting Altruism

P Ratna and Suhasini Vira LE Thinkers Dec 2019 copy

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Ratna Vira, the author of Daughter By Court Order and It’s Not About You is known for holding up a mirror to society in her bestselling novels. Her books have been translated into Hindi, thereby drawing a large readership in the smaller towns of India. Her first book was featured in The New York Times, and both books have been the subject of several research and PhD theses. Ratna has spoken at leading universities, international business schools, corporate occasions and been part of several panels. Why People Give is her first non-fiction book, co-written with her daughter, Suhasini.

Suhasini Vira is a Laidlaw Research Award winning student of Economics and Politics at Durham University, and she has brought a well-researched foundation to the book. She is presently researching on the precarity of informal employment for youth in India. Suhasini has been editor of The Bubble and her university economics journal.

Together, this mother-daughter team holds out a brief for altruism – and why our society needs it now more than ever before.

Published by SAGE: https://in.sagepub.com/en-in/sas/why-people-give/book270470


Why People Give: Interpreting Altruism is a deeply moving book, which charts the rise of altruism across time, belief systems, and cultures. This book is very relevant in the India of today, where empathy is evaporating from society. Why People Give will change how we look at the act of giving and, equally importantly, how we treat each other. Written in an academically serious, but entirely accessible style, the book seeks to develop a greater public understanding of altruism and the inherent motivations that drive philanthropy.

The book is written about the basis for altruism and giving in India. Suhasini brings to the book freshness of the millennial outlook whereas Ratna has looked at the whole idea of why sometimes it is easier for people to give to institutions rather than help a fellow human being in need.

It has as its major segment, a readable, academic exploration of the history, anthropology, economics, and psychology of altruism. The book is passionately argued and superbly researched. Why People Give has a generic appeal as it is written about the basis for altruism and giving in India. Suhasini and Ratna, the authors, examine the act of giving from the primeval human instincts embedded in our genetic code, to exploring the psychology and economics of giving and altruism in India. They argue that Indians dramatically undervalue the impulse that drives giving. The book explores what and how far are we as a people willing to reach out to those whom we perceive as less fortunate than us. The fundamental basis of caring, a cautionary account about the battle between greed and giving, and our own frailty in the face of life choices are discussed. It is a truism that conflicting issues are seldom about what is on the surface; conflicts are often about matters that remain unsaid, untreated, and unhealed, about emotional wounds. The authors argue that individual choice about giving and altruism are also driven by a similar impulse, and that we cannot look to understanding philanthropy without considering the motivation for giving. Giving and caring are linked to happiness and positive psychology and Why People Give shows this link through extensive research.

Everyone has a heart, a physical one, but is the modern emphasis on reason, rationality and the brain pushing aside the spiritual relationship of the hearth with the ‘soul’? Is the heart no longer the representation of feelings for our community?

Repeated instances of altruistic behaviour, of continuing charity, are evidence that people still feel their heart as a representation of their self, of the emotional self, which cannot be reduced to materialistic, biological terms.

While details of the brain were unknown in the early Vedic period, thoughts and emotions, and consciousness itself, came from the mind. But, as the soul rested in the heart, it was also the source of dreams and meditative thought. True consciousness, therefore, came from the heart and not the mind. The ultimate desire was to become one with Brahman and that could come about through connecting your heart to the heart of Brahman through duty, service, sacrifice, devotion, and charity.

Charity, generosity and specifically the giving of alms are regarded as virtuous in most Indian philosophies and religions. Daana, a Sanskrit/Pali word denoting charity and giving, came from the heart. Daana traces its roots to Vedic traditions and can take the form of helping individuals in need, or in the wider form of helping many through public works and philanthropy.

Romantic poetry, in the East and the West, continued to reinforce the link of the heart to emotions and to giving. A person could be cold-hearted, tender-hearted, or warm-hearted. For the romantics, the giving and the charity were ends in themselves, independent on the worthiness of the receiver.

In a more cynical and brutal world, newspaper headlines no longer stun us. Our apathy is so strong. A girl is abandoned, daughters killed, women raped, and families found murdered. These stories no longer move us. Ponzi schemes bankrupt families, farmers commit suicide. Millionaires are made, and some led to prison. ‘Karma,’ we mutter ‘catching up’. Ingenuous ways to multiply and quadruple wealth and dodge tax are revealed daily.

All the while, the same people are seen supporting the latest causes, visiting the temples and houses of prayer, and washing their sins through giving. Is this truly charity? Is it altruism or merely selfish behaviour?

Compassion and emotion are passé. We live in the digital age surrounded by millennials who use Emojis and Instagram to express themselves, and with them most of us are forgetting life as we once knew it. We forget the heart and meticulously count Likes on Facebook posts. We believe that Facebook and WhatsApp are free. What we are just beginning to realise is that in using them, we have begun to give up our freedom. In wanting to be connected all the time, our loneliness gets amplified.

However, money does not seem to be the glue that binds people together. In a series on the lives of the super-rich on the History Channel, it was observed that they had the same insecurities as those with very little. Their wealth became their biggest insecurity, putting their lives at risk. So, the billionaire spends his life surrounded by body guards and then hires detectives to shadow his bodyguards who know too much about him and his family. He sends his kids to college wanting them to experience life and so-called normalcy but is worried about who they interact with and has their friends and associates shadowed and the boyfriend investigated. Beyond a point, the wealth which is meant to give happiness morphs into something else instead of protecting the individual from the hardships of life, it often is the reason that the person needs protection.

It is this that has compelled this book, Why People Give, to be written. The need to believe that the heart still beats, that humanity still has a chance. Counting cars and houses, clothes and parties, rocks on fingers is all good but life is meant to be measured by something far deeper, more sustainable and although this book cannot give answers it does attempt to show you how small changes can give hope. A trickle can become a downpour covering the distance between words and the truth.

We need to see each other and relate to society. We need to see with our souls and reach out with our hearts. Look back and look ahead and carry people with you. Pause, help as you rush through your day. Count your blessings and in your prayers, include someone else’s troubles.

In the age of biopics in India, actor Dharmendra’s words rang true. He said that he did not want a book, or a movie made on his life because people forget. And the world moves on. A strong sentiment but so true.

What does remain, however, is the echo of our actions. Do good without the sword of karma hanging over you but because you have a heart that beats with compassion.

But not everyone believes that sharing what one has is good. The ability to give does not mean the same thing as the propensity to give; this is a basic human characteristic.

Why People Give explores evolution and Richard Dawkin’s theory of the Selfish Gene. It seeks an understanding for altruism from economic game theoretical models, while recognising that memes and social behaviour sometimes do not follow strict academic models. While there are several reasons identified for why people do not give to charity, the authors argue that effective altruism is more than merely giving to charity. The book identifies the seven faces of philanthropy and the psychological and emotional impact on the giver and receiver. Positive psychology and the motivators of change are identified.

The authors conclude that motivations will differ, and that altruistic behaviour is not inherently in our genes. It has to be learned. Fortunately, our physical frailties and the powers we gained through language and the Cognitive Revolution have made us capable of societal structures and of working together. Altruism may not be in our genes, but it is very much part of what makes us human beings.

To connect the reader with the real people affected by the act of giving, the book is bracketed with two chapters, an opening that relates the emotional account of two people whose lives were transformed by the assistance of others, and a closing that explores the motivations, emotional courage and feisty spirit of a couple faced with personal loss who created a movement that saves the lives of many children across India.

The authors, in their journey of research and meeting people, came across numerous stories of children who live today because of the work done by charities and their indefatigable team of volunteers, doctors, and donors. These indelible stories of real people enhance the book and the journey unfolds with each chapter ending with a story. Stories of children who live today because of the work done by charities and their indefatigable team of volunteers, doctors, and donors. The book is passionately argued, deeply researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people. It will resonate with many people, with its real-life stories, illustrations and conversations between Keira and Rita, which in a way sum up the essence of the chapter.


©Ratna and Suhasini Vira