lmost every religion teaches about giving alms to the poor. Islam insists on “zakat” during the period of Ramazan. In Christianity alms to the poor and service to humanity bears special significance. Jesus Christ exhorted his followers to give as much as possible to the poor. The Bible quotes Jesus Christ as saying, “You give one I will give you back three.” Giving alms during the period of “Navaratra” and in the month of Kartik (October) is always considered to be mahapunya (greatly meritorious) by Hindus. However, the mental attitude of the person giving alms and gifts is the main criteria. He should be free of ego and should not be proud. Secondly, he should not take anything in return as the alms, gifts or service automatically becomes a loan if anything is accepted in return. The task must be carried out with a sincere attitude of duty towards a fellow human being. The following episode from the Mahabharata Epic spells out the exact attitude to be adopted.
A Rajasuya Yagnya was performed by the Pandava brothers at Indraprastha during the reign of their eldest brother Yudhisthira. During the period of the Yagnya (fire ceremony) thousands of Brahmins and poor people were fed. Clothes were also distributed amongst them. The poor were given houses. Brahmins were given fertile land with tax exemptions. Even in some cases gold coins and ornaments were also given alongwith utensils and household goods. In the process millions of gold coins were spent. The Pandavas boasted that a Yagnya of such magnitude had never been held in the Indian Peninsula past or present and it was doubtful that it would ever take place in future.
One day after the completion of the Rajasuya Yagnya and its festivities, Shri Krishna and King Yudhisthira went to survey the kingdom to get an idea of public opinion regarding the “Yagnya”. During their tour they saw a peculiar sight. A mongoose was rolling over the waste leaves used as dinner and lunch plates during the Yagnya. Such leaves were lying in heaps throughout the kingdom. The mongoose moved from one heap to the other and rolled till exhausted. An astonished Shri Krishna called the mongoose and asked why he was behaving so abnormally. The mongoose came and bowed to him and replied, “O Supreme Lord! You know the reason, so why do you ask me? O Knower of my past, present and future, if you desire to listen to me then listen. As you see half of my body is golden and other half is still grey . I am rolling over so that the remaining half of my body may also become golden.” Yudhishtira was curious to hear more and asked, “Tell me how half portion of your body turned golden.” The mongoose began to tell his tale:
“I live in the kingdom of Kosala. Once there was a great famine. Thousands of people died due to the lack of affordable foodstuffs. In that kingdom lived a poor Brahmin alongwith his wife, son and daughter-in-law. This Brahmin family, even though poor, were simple, very religious and honest. Their only source of income was the alms and gifts from others. As the famine continued, people stopped giving alms and there was hardly any income for the family. After a spell of five days during which the family had to go without food, the brahmin got some rice as alms, but it was insufficient for the family. They prepared the food and were about to eat when somebody arrived at their door and cried, “Mother, I have not taken any food for 10 days, please give me something to eat.” Being religious as they were, this moved them. The brahmin got up and opened the door. He found an old man standing there leaning on a bamboo staff. The brahmin could not let a guest go without food as it was against the scriptures. He welcomed the old man inside his home and gave him his share of food. As the food was not sufficient the guest asked for more. His wife, son and daughter-in-law gave their shares to the guest. The guest was satisfied. He blessed the brahmin family and went away. That night the whole family died of starvation.”
The mongoose paused. Then he continued, “Next morning, while searching for food, I came across one of the leaves the family had used as plates and took a little bit of rice that was sticking to it. In the process a portion of my body touched the leaves and turned golden. Since then I have been roaming all over the country and rolling over all used plates to turn the other half portion of my body golden.” Shri Krishna smiled. He looked at Yudhishtira who looked ashamed. The lack of humility and outward show of ego after the festival had taken the real punya (merit) out of the “alms”