Was it wise of me – and, given the subject matter of these lectures, was it practical to be so generous, since we were in dire need? Some might certainly consider my behavior irresponsible; I, however, knew that I could immediately reach five thousand people who knew Ananda and knew what we were doing. So, I do not consider it an impractical act at all! Actually, I can assert that something actually worked for us; in fact, Ananda Sangha came out of that struggle stronger than ever. People appreciated the gift of that book, and as the years went by, Ananda Sangha gained a good reputation.
It is always right to be generous. However, to answer the question posed in the last paragraph, one should also be practical. One should, that is, do what works, and be generous according to one’s means. I mean that, although one may not have the means to be generous in other more material ways, it is still good to maintain a generous attitude.
I have tried steadfastly over the years to put into practice my Paramguru’s advice, “Reciprocate by serving with a grateful spirit.” Life has shown me that generosity works much better than the modern advice:
“Be competitive!” Actually, I have come to prefer another word: “comparative”. Yes, you have to be practical; when, for example, you have to decide on the price of a product to put on sale, you have to consider the market price of a similar product, the location of your store, the affluence (or otherwise) of your customers, and other practical observations. The price, in this case, must be comparative. Setting a price competitively, on the other hand, suggests an intent to beat the competition. Why do so? He who seeks to harm others never truly prospers.
I sometimes reflect on the karma that is created not only when trying to harm others, but also when trying to exploit them as much as possible without giving anything in return. As we know, there are people who beg for a living, trying to get something without giving anything. This is the hidden desire of many individuals, if not most people. Besides whether a person is literally a beggar or not, anyone who tries to get something without offering anything in return becomes, in a sense, a beggar. Trying to get something in this way creates bad karma. Of course it is unfortunate to be poor, but poverty is also a consequence of bad karma, and in turn generates further bad karma. It is important to try to reverse this downward spiral. One way to stop it is to show compassion in an active way toward those who are less fortunate.
Many people in India believe that spiritual teachings are an exception to this rule. They argue that such teachings should be offered for free. This view is due to a misunderstanding of the law of karma. Insisting that one has the right to receive anything without reciprocation impoverishes us karmically. What should be free is the willingness to help others through spiritual teachings, without desire for gain. If one receives teachings gratuitously, one should, at the very least, have an attitude of appreciation, or better yet, express that appreciation in some way.
Forty-five years ago I was in East Patelnagar, a neighborhood in New Delhi that, at least at that time, was a wealthy area, and I gave an initiation into Kriya Yoga. One of the envelopes offered as dakshina revealed, later, that its contents were a single naya paisa (less than half a rupee, edit). Besides the insult, implicit in such a derisory donation, I could not help but wonder if that person had received a divine blessing. I myself felt that I had committed a sin, having allowed someone to devalue the great blessing of that initiation. My mistake, which is good to include in the story, had been that I had not checked that person’s sincerity beforehand. Later, of course, I had no way of knowing who it was; I could only pray that God would forgive that person and still give him, or her, His blessing.
The attitude of quid pro quo, commonly attributed to merchants, degrades, in a sense, both the giver and the receiver. To assert my own integrity, I imparted teachings to people who told me they could not pay. Often, I later found out that they could easily have paid. However, I never stopped doing so, and acted as my conscience dictated. I suspect that, in such cases, I was the only one who gained anything from it.
Offering something freely means practicing nishkam karma: “an action without the desire for the fruits of that action.” This was Lord Krishna’s teaching in the Bhagavad Gita. To ask to receive spiritual teachings as if it were a right, without offering anything in return, is a karmic error. One should not accept anything without reciprocating. Nor is it wrong to charge for lectures on spiritual topics, assuming the amount charged is reasonable and is donated to a good cause.
My Guru used to charge for the lectures he gave. He would ask for an acceptable amount and use the money obtained to support his spiritual work in America. In addition, he always took into consideration each person’s financial possibilities. When someone said they could not pay, he would not charge them anything.
I, too, followed this system. However, over the years, I noticed that those who gave nothing received nothing of real value to them.
Businessmen, rightly, work to make a profit. Their attitude, as I will explain later in other lectures, should be one of service to others, as well as seeking personal gain. Economic activity itself, in addition to offering a profit, should also fulfill the purpose of showing gratitude to the universe for “the free air of the Earth,” as Sri Yukteswar put it.
I remember when I was eighteen years old, I decided to learn the art of singing. Many people had encouraged me to pursue this career. I at least tried to “test the waters”, and went to a well-known singing teacher. She was an elderly lady who, years ago, had been a renowned opera singer. I was impressed when she firmly stated from the start, “The lessons will cost five dollars each. I don’t need that money; I don’t need it at all. You are the one who needs to pay.”
Babaji Maharaj, Swami Sri Yukteswar’s paramguru, also told Lahiri Mahasaya (Sri Yukteswar’s guru) to charge five rupees for Kriya Yoga initiation. It was the students who needed to pay, it certainly was not Lahiri Mahasaya who needed the money. In fact, the money he received was used to help the poor.
In my case, although I wanted to study singing and did not have the five dollars a week to pay for lessons, I did not ask my father to pay for me. I got a job as a waiter at a local restaurant, one night a week. That way, I was able to pay for private lessons.
In the ancient Indian system called Gurukul, students paid for the teachings they received according to their financial means. The more a person gives himself generously, to God, to life, to the universe itself and not just to individuals, the more the law of karma will reciprocate by supporting him.
A few years ago, an interviewer on a television program asked me, “What have you done ‘practically’ to make Ananda a successful place?” I had spoken up to that point about our spiritual ideals.
With some conviction, born of long experience, I replied, “Faith is practical. Actually, the main purpose of yoga teachings is to make the religion itself practical. Faith is practical. We are more likely to achieve even material success when we apply spiritual principles to what we do. So to answer your question, yes, we have been practical. We have set up businesses, offered seminars, published books, traveled all over the country giving lectures. All these things have helped us materially, as a community, while allowing us to help others. In any case, to come back to tonight’s first topic, I have also learned through experience that faith, if it is used for the benefit of others and not just for oneself, is the absolute most practical thing.”