Saintly Work of Volunteering: Invitation to Activism for Community Work

“To say ‘I’ is a lie” (as Simone Weil put it) and the best way to find the self is to lose it in the service of others. Spirituality is the art of dying of this self to find baqa, lasting life in God. The great secret of life is that one finds lasting joy (as distinguished from pleasure or mere happiness) only when one lives for the other. The deeper reason for this joy is  that God alone can say I, and man only, so to speak, after achieving fana which is then God’s ‘I’ asserting. Kreeft has noted that “Joy is more than happiness, just as happiness is more than pleasure. Pleasure is in the body.

Happiness is in the mind and feelings. Joy is deep in the heart, the spirit, the centre of the self. The way to pleasure is power and prudence. The way to happiness is moral goodness. The way to joy is sanctity, loving God with your whole heart and your neighbour as yourself.” If one is interested in this joy, let us be activists for some community cause.

Just give one hour in a month to such initiatives and one would see miracles. If one suffers from any ailment, spiritual and physical, serving the others may be one of the means of healing. Post-retirement one should seek not to get another job or watch TV or play with smart phone but join some local or bigger organization to find abiding joy in life.

There is enough for all of us and we waste more than the poor need and as such the trick is to distribute rationally what is available/wasted. All needy persons would get:

free medical consultation/medicine/treatment (average cost of medicine per person is less than Rs 1000 a year if we make best use of generic medicines in locally available Jan Aushudi stores and one hour free service in a month or one day a year by volunteering doctors would facilitate free consultation to the weaker sections),

clothes (one city dwelling/salaried family, especially woman, has, on average, more clothes than would suffice 50 households and if we learnt to honour the being in clothes as Companions would, for 100 households – one needs to read Heidegger to understand  why it was ennobling to wear worn out torn clothes)

free education/tuition (just ask volunteering teachers to give one hour in a month and organize lectures by them on regular basis and facilitate production of quality lectures and their e access to students as we reduce tuition cost to almost zero in long term) or sponsorship for various courses, small scholarships.

Let each mosque be a community centre and cater for 100 households as we have on average one mosque for 100 households – to adapt a suggestion from a recently uploaded video by a concerned Kashmiri. It shall register names, income and other details of every household and identify who is sick, who needs tuition, who needs food and who begs needlessly and who is without any resources and we will pay pension for all the needy and medicine for the diseased and what not by local fund raising/sadaqat/zakat collections.

Beggars will be gone. Social welfare department can enjoy lifelong holidays as it would be superfluous. Today we pay hefty salary to its employees, especially it bureaucracy, to pay paltry sum to some destitute/disabled widows or feed some children. The same applies to many other departments including education.

Great work has been done by certain individuals and organizations that needs to be replicated and adapted to our local conditions. Let us note one example.

Akhuwat Foundation in Pakistan was established in 2001 with the objective of providing interest free micro credit to the poor, started with a first loan of Rs. 10,000 which was given to a widow who purchased two sewing machines and worked hard and returned the loan in six months. It then became a movement.

Dedicated to “improving the lives of the poor; those who are financially abused, abandoned and disregarded by society,” it does not depend on international funding. Instead it uses “the spirit of volunteerism and the tradition of giving, a cardinal principle of all religions.”

Deriving inspiration from the Muslim spirit of muakhaat or Brotherhood, of which the earliest example is sharing of wealth between the immigrants of Mecca and locals of Medina, Akhuwat favours interest-free loans over charity. “From a first loan of Rs. 10,000, Akhuwat’s total disbursement has now increased to Rs. 760 million in just over nine years. Akhuwat’s greatest success is that it has been instrumental in helping more than 67,000 families move from being dependent on others to being self-sufficient.”

Zakat we owe due to our assets and scores of things we use once in a decade or so would sponsor food, education and medical care of another state, not to speak of few lac people in our own. 

Charities we give away without channelling through trusted organizations literally goes waste. We have many organizations with admirable record that public auditing can anytime testify, that need support. Let us identify at least one for a year and try to track where your contribution got spent. Become an active member or volunteer your services for a week or so or at least take interest in how money is spent and ask how professional is the delivery of services and if one could be of any use or contribute one’s share in improving the work.

I have interviewed hundreds of families who had an ancestral house to calculate how much monthly income we really need and the finding is that it is between 12,000 to 15,000 if we have some community sense and don’t figure in it wasteful expenses and could strengthen/use more public education, public medicare and public transport and reduce spending on private education, private medicare and private transport.

Average monthly food bill for an average household of five persons is Rs 5000 – this will include twice  a week permutation/combination of meat/chicken/fish/paneer besides fruit (a more judicious nutrition centric choice and opting for a share in livestock banks would reduce it to 2/3rd, even 1/2) and home/community kitchen made roti, milk bill 1200, clothes bill Rs 1000 (we need to buy new clothes once or twice a year and if one buys branded once in three-four years) and there remain options of buying much cheaper but equally graceful non-branded), electricity bill Rs 1000, medicine bill Rs 400 (generics be used), laundry/personal upkeep Rs 500, mobile bill 500, other miscellaneous costs Rs. 2000.

Let us read likes of Thoreu, Gandhi, Schumacher and Tolstoy on the virtue of simple living and needlessness of most of so called amenities of consumer culture – from coca cola to ever newer models of cars to 90% of ladies’ clothes. Every income tax paying person/every employee can adopt a family in these trying times. The rich owe more zakat than is needed to sponsor education and medicare of all the needy in our neighbourhood (40 households).

Special houses can be built in thousands in a year if community and different organizations spend charity more professionally. A better management of trees on the sides of roads and those that decay for want of lifting in thousands in forests and of land around our houses would make cost of timbre and vegetables to almost zero.

We have so many of NGOs but none focuses on such leakages in our system. We could increase production by two to three times in short span of time if we block these leakages. Only around 20% livestock farms are scientifically managed; the rest are inefficient and wasteful. Less than 10% teachers read books or relish their subjects and thus succeed in instilling quality education or love of books in students.

Dropouts, retirees, disabled get generally wasted for years as no arrangement to let them develop their special talents or live life more creatively. Madarasah education is even less efficient and successful in developing deeper understanding of either religion or life’s challenges. Transmission losses in electricity and fuel and time loss to public due to bad   roads are legion.

Every second family has festering domestic disputes; less than 10% old parents or daughters-in-law are granted due human dignity. 90% sermons in mosques are not tailored to our current understanding of ethical and spiritual needs or challenges. We have hell lot of issues at every level where all kinds of volunteers are needed.

Post-Covid 19 it is especially rewarding to consider any of tested ideas in 500 Ways to Change the World that “cost nothing to implement but can enrich and enhance lives. Most of the initiatives have been shown to be successful by organizations and governments worldwide.”

Let us note how Levinas, one of the most influential modern philosophers, illuminates the question of owing everything to the other and thus our responsibility for anyone anywhere who needs us in any way – from our attention to our money.

Those who think they have given something to the other fail to note that what is really to be given up is this notion of self who thinks he is the giver. God alone is giver; we are only the agents/instruments. God demands from us in return for gift of creation, de-creation or surrendering the will to be, will to claim agency.

For Levinas, eschatology, the science of last day/judgement is not the end of history but its openness, “at the heart of present sufferings, to what allows history to be judged today: it is the hearing of the call of the Infinite….. this call is heard in the encounter with the vulnerable face of the other.” “To my mind the Infinite comes in the signifyingness of the face.”  For him, “A person is indispensable to justice prior to being indispensable to himself.” For him, one can experience ‘the glory of the Infinite’ through the ‘height of the other.’  “The idea of infinity… is an overflowing of… new powers to the soul…- powers of welcome, of gift, of full hands, of hospitality.” “The sentence in which God comes to be involved in words is not ‘I believe in God’… It is the ‘here I am’ said to the neighbour to whom I am given over, and in which I announce peace, that is, my responsibility for the other.” “The relation with the other will always be offering and gift, never an approach with ’empty hands’.”

The only obstruction to actively working for community interests is wrong view of the self. For Weil, “one should smash one self as if using a hammer to strike a nail with all the force one can muster, a nail whose tip rests on the self.” And spending what is dear for the other is this process of smashing.

The Quran cries for sacrificing this self through the sword of la ilaha and such things as infaq, qurbani, fasting – all aspects of surrender of will. Spending something for the other is not really for the sake of the other as there is no real other – God alone is asking through the want of the other for our attention. It is for one’s own good. One is really required to be compassionate towards oneself by giving away what is not really ours.

All traditions from Far Eastern to Indian, Judeo-Christian, Islamic, African and Native American unanimously privilege the other in relation to the self. In fact all traditional philosophers – including representative figures such as Lao Tzu, Nagarjuna, Plotinus, Shankara, Ibn Arabi, Meister Eckhart from six traditions – are unanimous in putting non-self at the centre stage and take supramental supraindividualist view of the Self.

Salvation/enlightenment consists in transcendence of the illusory autonomous self. God/Godhead or equivalent term for the First Principle can be understood as the non-self or Other. The ego which divides part from the whole, man from Existence or Divine Environment must be annihilated in the process of fana.

Hell as retreat into the cocoon of individuality that accepts separation from the Real because of inability to love. Thus hell is refusal to open for dialogue – which might include total transformation of the self and taking divine robes.

Post  Script

 Having been graced by the opportunity to know a few organizations such as J & K Yateem Foundation, especially its Bandipore chapter, Initiative for Enlightenment and Development (Ganderbal), Idara Falah u Daraen (Baramulla) and a few individuals who are institutions in themselves (who worked post-earthquake and post-flood and during other exigencies like Covid 19) about which I reserve some future column, I have no doubt that we have many committed and saintly people in our midst who live and die for others and that ensures we will survive all challenges. Let us do some homework and identify at least one institution at local or state level that we find trustworthy and strengthen its hands.