I had the incredible opportunity last semester to hear two presentations by Erica Bornstein, noted author and anthropologist of the University of Wisconsin. This post covers the first talk– a discussion over her book Disquieting Gifts: Humanitarianism in New Delhi, which I had been reading for my honors perspectives course. Bornstein explained the inspiration for this book came from her work in Zimbabwe, where she discovered ties between economic development, religious thought, and power structures. Thus, she became fascinated with the cultural influences of giving practices. Her work in New Delhi centered on the sociocultural practice of giving called dān. The concept of dān comes from ancient Hindu scriptures. It describes the act as a process of letting go of material resources and self in order to achieve a higher spiritual plane. To be considered true dān, the gift must meet certain criteria: 1. It must be given outside of the giver’s sphere of influence (a.k.a. not to immediate friends or family members) 2. The giver cannot expect to receive any compensation or repayment from the receiver 3. The giver cannot mandate how the gift can be used. Dān can be donations of time, energy, or material resources. The ancient practice is still seen in India today, albeit in degrees of variance from the original concept.
Though the ancient practice was meant to rid a person of self, Erica Bornstein observed that the modern manifestations of it reinforced certain power hierarchies. The transfer of a gift creates an unspoken debt between the richer and poorer and can give a certain amount of social prowess. For instance, sponsoring the wedding of an orphaned girl is a popular way to express dān, but the giver earns merit within his or her community for performing the act. Contrastingly, others discreetly will hand out rice to the homeless and go to great lengths to stay anonymous.
Bornstein concluded that dān is effective for the economic growth of India when it is given in small gifts. It can have a profound impact on individual poverty, but it cannot achieve larger goals of improving infrastructure or educational systems as a whole. She believes that the collectivist and selfless mindset of giving dān can be extended to governmental development programs and the work of NGOs if those organizations would pay attention to local context. The definitions of progress and a good life are not necessarily the same for each group and imposing foreign concepts of these ideas will not likely bring development further than just avoiding crisis. My favorite point that she made was this: “Giving is uncomfortable, contradictory, and not easily summed up. It is a powerful form of social engagement that forces you to face something different than you.”