THE IMPULSE OF PHILANTHROPY:

ERICA BORNSTEIN

ABSTRACT

In practices of philanthropy and charity, the impulse to give to immediate others in distress is often tempered by its regulation. Although much of what is written on charity and philanthropy focuses on the effects of the gift, I suggest more attention be paid to the impulse of philanthropy. To coerce the impulse to give into rational accountability is to obliterate its freedom; to render giving into pure impulse is to reinforce social inequality. The only solution is to allow both to exist, and to create structures to encourage them. This essay examines the power of the spontaneous and fleeting impulse to give and its regulation through an analysis of contemporary practices of philanthropy and their relation to sacred conceptions of dan (donation) in New Delhi. When scriptural ideas of disinterested giving intersect with contemporary notions of social responsibility, new philanthropic practices are formed. On the basis of ethnographic research with philanthropists who built temples, started NGOs, and managed social welfare programs, as well as families who gave dan daily out of their homes, this essay documents how both NGO and government efforts to regulate one of the most meritorious forms of dan, gupt dan (or, anonymous dan) expresses critical issues in philanthropy between the urge to give in response to immediate suffering and the social obligation to find a worthy recipient for the gift.

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